I married an alien

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

London, September 1913. A young society lady from a stately country mansion falls in love with a handsome diplomat from the Turkish embassy. It sounds like a plot line from the hit British drama Downton Abbey … but it’s the real-life story of Victorian socialite Florence Winter-Irving. 

Records in the National Archives’ collection document Florence’s story, including the consequences her marriage to an ‘alien’ (non-British subject) had on her own nationality.

A whirlwind romance 

Florence came from one of Victoria’s wealthiest squatter families. Their country seat, Noorilim, near Murchison, is regarded as one of the finest mansions ever built in Victoria. 

In 1913, while in London, Florence met and married Turkish aristocrat and diplomat Chefik Bey Muftyzade. This created a sensation in the Australian press, which even speculated that Florence was about to enter a ‘harem’.

Florence becomes an alien

Florence was now glamorously known as ‘Madame Chefik Bey’. However, the citizenship laws of the day stipulated that a married woman’s nationality was that of her husband. 

Since Chefik was Turkish, this meant Florence was also deemed to be Turkish and automatically lost her own nationality. Legally, she too was now regarded as an alien.

We don’t know how Florence felt about this, or whether she was even aware of it. However, Florence was in love and, given her family’s wealth and Chefik’s promising diplomatic career, the future must have seemed bright, assured, even gilded. 

Behind enemy lines

In late 1914, Britain and Turkey went to war, suddenly turning Florence into an ‘enemy alien’. Soon, she was literally behind enemy lines in Berlin, where Chefik was now posted. There, in 1916, Florence gave birth to her only child, Reshid.

As an enemy alien, Florence could no longer access money from her family back in Australia. Some funds were eventually released to her after the Armistice when she was living in Switzerland. Other money, though, was withheld pending ratification of a peace treaty with Turkey. This prompted Florence’s solicitors to petition the Australian prime minister, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, seeking his intervention.

Returning to London via the Orient Express

After the war, Florence returned to London when Chefik was posted again to the Turkish embassy there. The visa stamps on the family’s diplomatic passport trace their journey from Constantinople via Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Italy and France – the route of the famous Simplon-Orient-Express. 

Later, Chefik fell out with Turkey’s new leaders and left the diplomatic service. The family lived in Paris for several years in straitened circumstances before eventually returning to London.  

Lightning strikes twice  

In January 1939, Florence returned to Australia with her son Reshid, who was about to become engaged to Judy Chirnside. Like Florence, Judy was a member of a wealthy Victorian squatting dynasty and the engagement attracted considerable press interest.

Like all aliens, Florence had to make a ‘personal statement’ upon arrival. Interestingly, Florence declared she was Albanian rather than Turkish. Apparently, Chefik was of Albanian ethnic origin and had obtained Albanian passports for his family as he did not want to swear allegiance to Turkey’s new regime.

Florence reclaims her citizenship rights

By now, the law had been changed to enable women like Florence to effectively regain their lost citizenship rights while they were living in Australia. 

Learning of this, Florence applied to make the required declaration. In her support, it was noted that Florence was ‘a member of the family closely identified with Australian pastoral and commercial interests and … British in her outlook and sympathies’. Florence’s declaration was officially registered in November 1939.

Sadly, Florence did not enjoy her newly reclaimed citizenship rights in Australia for long. She died of cancer just a month later.

 

 

We thank Florence's great-granddaughter, Janan Greer, for her generous assistance with this story.

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