‘Queenie’ Wellcome, pictured with her
It was in Khartoum in 1901 that Henry Wellcome met the
beautiful, if somewhat impulsive, Gwendoline Maud Syrie
and almost immediately fell in love with her. She was
travelling with her father, Dr Thomas Barnardo (see MQ, issue
20), the famous founder of homes for orphan children and an
old friend of Henry’s. Queenie, as she later became popularly
known, was 21 and 27 years Henry’s junior. They married
very soon thereafter and had one child, Henry Mounteney.
Initially all was well but their interests, emphasised by the
difference in age, were at opposite ends of the social spectrum.
Henry was energetic and enjoyed sport and travel, whilst
Syrie preferred sedentary socialising in London’s sophisticated
parlours and drawing-rooms. Their son, who lived into his
eighties, was born with mild brain-damage and had a learning
disability that kept him apart from his family from the age of
three for most of his childhood.
Unable to identify with her husband’s work and activities
and unhappy travelling with him, Syrie was soon having
affairs, which included, though with scant evidence, the
American-born magnate of the department store fame, Harry
G Selfridge. In 1909, following a major quarrel, Henry and
Syrie decided to separate. Syrie left for New York and they
never saw each other again.
In an attempt to keep scandal out of the press, Henry
agreed to a generous financial settlement. He was, however,
outraged by Syrie’s relationship with the homosexual writer
William Somerset Maugham. Syrie bore Maugham’s child in
Rome, named Mary Elizabeth and nicknamed Liza, after Liza
of Lambeth, the heroine of Maugham’s first book, written
before she was born, giving her Wellcome’s surname.
Henry commenced proceedings, culminating in a divorce
in February 1916, citing Maugham as co-respondent. The
case was uncontested and Syrie gained custody of the child.
Within three months she was secretly married to Somerset
Maugham in New Jersey on 16 May 1916. They divorced
A great deal of publicity brought intimate details into
public attention. Syrie had claimed that Henry treated her
with brutality, neglecting her with his endless travelling
and his excessive Masonic activities. It was not surprisng
that he left her nothing in his estate, although he gave £500
to Dr. Barnardo’s homes for children.