The Enigmatic Journey of Khalid Sheldrake: From Pickle Manufacturer to Would-Be King31 May 2023
An intriguing tale of transformation and ambition emerges from the forgotten pages of history as we delve into the life of Khalid Sheldrake, an East Dulwich man who captivated the imagination of his time. Winner of the Individual category in the 20sStreets competition, this remarkable story unveils a journey filled with religious fervor, controversy, and a brush with royalty that ultimately left its mark on British Islam.
Born in 1888 into a South London family renowned for their pickle business, Bertie William Sheldrake’s path took an unexpected turn when he converted to Islam and adopted the name Khalid. His spiritual awakening, sparked by the writings of free-thinkers, led him to immerse himself in the Islamic faith. A fervent Muslim networker, Khalid founded the Young England Islamic Society at the tender age of 18, signaling his dedication to promoting his newfound beliefs.
As Khalid’s devotion to Islam grew, so did his impact on society. Stepping away from the family pickle business, he ventured into journalism, where his provocative writings on Islam ignited controversy. From suggesting that Napoleon had considered converting to Islam to his involvement in launching influential journals such as ‘Britain and India’ and the ‘Muslim News Journal,’ Khalid used his family fortune to propagate his faith.
However, Khalid’s journey was not without its challenges. During World War I, his conversion prevented him from being sent overseas, as converts were viewed with suspicion. Undeterred, Khalid married Victoria Gilbert, who also embraced Islam and became Ghazia. The couple settled in East Dulwich, where they raised their family, leaving a lasting impression on the community. Muslim clerics visiting the Sheldrake household to bless their newborn son Rashid piqued the neighborhood’s curiosity, adding an air of intrigue to their story.
Embracing his role as a leading English Muslim, Khalid found himself embroiled in religious arguments and schisms. While supporting the Woking Muslim Mission initially, he eventually broke away to establish the Western Islamic Association. Notably, he even converted part of his residence in Fenwick Road into a mosque, which he named Masjid-el-Dulwich. Khalid’s prominence in the Muslim community reached new heights when he conducted the funeral service of Sayaid Ali, a London Zoo elephant keeper tragically murdered in his bed by a fellow keeper.
Khalid’s rising fame in the 1920s and 1930s fueled the creation of enduring myths and inaccuracies surrounding his life. Media speculation painted him as an Irish-French nobleman and dubbed him the ‘Sheik of British Muslims,’ despite these titles having no basis in reality. The popular belief that Khalid had multiple wives also proved false, as Ghazia remained his sole partner. Nonetheless, his fame attracted high-profile conversions, including that of Gladys Palmer, daughter of the prominent Palmer family and wife of Bertram Brooke.
While Khalid’s influence in British Islam continued to grow, an unexpected twist awaited him on the geopolitical stage. The Uygur people of Xinjiang sought independence, leading to the proclamation of the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan (ETR) in 1933. It was then that representatives from Kashgar, the capital of ETR, approached Khalid in Forest Hill, London, with an audacious proposition: to become the king of their Islamic kingdom, with Ghazia as queen. Accepting the offer, Khalid embarked on a journey to his would-be kingdom, captivating public imagination. However, their dreams of ruling a sovereign Islamic nation were short-lived. The Russian and Chinese authorities swiftly suppressed the fledgling republic, leaving Khalid and Ghazia in a state of uncertainty.
Returning to England, the Sheldrakes settled back into their Forest Hill residence before eventually relocating to Harrow. The whirlwind adventure of kingship had come to an abrupt end, with no obituaries or press reports to mark their passing. For decades, the name Khalid Sheldrake remained forgotten, lost to the annals of time. Yet, recent scholarly efforts have revived his memory, recognizing his significant role in the history of British Islam.
The story of Khalid Sheldrake not only sheds light on the complexities of religious transformation but also offers a glimpse into the evolving landscape of 20th century British society. It serves as a testament to the power of personal conviction and the enduring legacy of those who dare to challenge societal norms.
Find My Past records, including census returns, electoral rolls, newspaper archives, birth, death, and marriage certificates, church records, military files, education records, 1939 register, as well as the 1921 Census.
London Metropolitan Archives and The National Archives.
Google Scholar, jstor, abebooks, London Muslim archives, Booth’s poverty maps, Ordnance Survey maps, and other relevant sources.