How high-society tale of lust and hedonism was unearthed

Einstein, DH Lawrence, an eccentric colonel and a Satanic orgy in the woods: How BBC’s Wedding Detectives unearthed a high-society tale of lust, hedonism and violent death from a lost age… thanks to photo of a teen bride

She was gorgeous. The young bride in the photograph caught my eye, but who was she? What was her story? The picture of the wedding of Sonya Paynter and Tim Bryant in 1959 that started the hunt

She was gorgeous. The young bride in the photograph caught my eye, but who was she? What was her story? 

I picked up the print on a whim, from a pile of lost black-and-white wedding portraits we had found and bought online. 

They were all of total strangers and this one had probably become detached from the family when somebody died and their house was cleared.

I had no idea it would lead to an astonishing tale of high-society scandal, wild parties, free love, fortune-hunters, crime and even a killing. 

Einstein, Marconi and Lawrence of Arabia all feature in the story – as does Mary Wesley and her racy novel The Camomile Lawn, which we would learn was inspired by the world into which the bride in the photo was born.

This all started because my friend Charlotte Sibtain collects vintage wedding pictures from junk shops and online auctions and posts them on her Instagram account – part of the growing trend for younger people to be fascinated by the images and styles of the past.

As a journalist, she asked me to help her identify the people in the photos, uncover their stories and find out more about those featured in lost albums and pictures and – where possible – reunite these precious images with somebody who will love them.

Together, we are the Wedding Detectives and have a new Radio 4 series of the same name.

Our first case turned out to be far more startling than we could have hoped when we spread the pile of albums and photos on Charlotte’s carpet and chose one at random. The bride looked like a Hollywood starlet in her sleek 1950s dress with a waspish waist. The groom was a handsome older man in morning dress with his hair slicked back.

The only clues to their identity were a few words written by hand on the back of the print: ‘Sonya and Tim Bryant, St Peter’s Eaton Square.’

There was another photograph of the bride, too, with a much older man who appeared to be giving her away. His name was written as Paull, with two Ls – an unusual spelling we thought might be a clue.

Secret affair? Sonya’s mother Betty with inventor Marconi at Boskenna in 1925

First, I searched the marriage records for the posh part of London where the wedding was held and found an entry for Timothy Bryant and Sonya Diana Fleur Paynter in December 1959. 

Was this our couple? The marriage certificate showed that Tim was a 29-year-old company director, the son of a barrister, while Sonya was only 19.

Confirmation came when a long search online revealed a passing reference to Sonya who was the daughter of the gloriously named Elisabeth Narcissa Marie Paynter, known as Betty. Suddenly, things began to match. Betty’s second husband was Paull Hill, with that unusual spelling. Apparently, it’s Cornish. 

This was the right family. The writing on the back of the photos seemed to be by the bride’s mother Betty, who, we would discover, had an extraordinary life.

Betty grew up in the far west of Cornwall, in a big house called Boskenna run by her father, the eccentric Colonel Paynter. Their family had been there for hundreds of years and owned most of the land in that finger of England west of Penzance, which is Poldark country.

The house still stands and the current owners kindly let us visit. They told us that when a relative bought the house in the 1950s, he tried to flatten the lawn for a tennis court but found it bumpy with hidden champagne bottles, which had been thrown out and left for the grass to grow over.

That was a clue to the epic parties held from the 1920s to the 1940s, when Colonel Paynter invited artists to live on his land and all manner of famous and infamous people came down.

We discovered an out-of-print book called Boskenna And The Paynters, in which Betty remembered seeing the occultist Aleister Crowley holding a Satanic orgy in the woods. 

She was also quoted, saying: ‘Lawrence of Arabia would roar up and down the drive on his motorcycle and he was quite mad about my mother. Einstein would come over when I was a small child and explain his complicated theories to me. D. H. Lawrence [author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover] would come here.’

What were they all doing there? Well, Boskenna was a long way from the gossips of London. The Colonel was a discreet and generous host. But this was also a place where thrilling things happened.

The scientist Marconi had built huge wireless transmitters nearby and sent the first signals to America and Australia. The Italian had other things on his mind, too, we discovered. Newspaper archives revealed he caused a sensation in 1925 by getting engaged to Betty, who was 17. Marconi was in his early 50s.

We found a picture of them together, with her in a flapper outfit and him dressed in the naval cap and double-breasted blazer he wore aboard his fancy yacht. They had been on a three-month cruise of the Mediterranean together and been seen dining at the Savoy.

Soon the local lanes were busy with paparazzi but an angry Colonel drove them away with a horse whip and telegrammed every newsroom to say the engagement was not happening.

Betty remembered years later: ‘There was no sex between us and though Marconi was very sweet and generous, the age was too great.’ However, we came across an expert who thinks something else scandalous was going on.

David Barlow, of the Marconi Centre at Poldhu, Cornwall, pointed out that Betty’s mother Ethel went on the long cruise with them – allegedly as chaperone – and was an attractive woman of the same age as Marconi.

‘My view is the affair was not with Betty but with her mother,’ he said. So the engagement was a cover? ‘I have been told that one of the gardeners saw Marconi and Ethel in the garden kissing.’

And the final bit of evidence? ‘The first woman to speak by wireless from here in Poldhu to Australia was Ethel…’

The family had a young friend called Mary who would grow up to write The Camomile Lawn, set at a house like Boskenna, describing the kind of life they led there together in the years before the Second World War. The heroine, played by Jennifer Ehle in a 1990s TV adaptation, is young, beautiful and determined to bag a rich man.

And that’s what Betty seemed to do in 1937 when she married an apparent shipping magnate called Olaf Poulsen de Baerdemaecker. They wed in grand style, with flowers by the Queen’s florist flown from London by a famous aviator. Wedding presents included a fox fur coat, a leopard-skin cigarette case and a car.

The future Mary Wesley, who had just married a baron, was not impressed. ‘Olaf thought he had netted an heiress, and she thought she had scooped up the heir to a Ghent shipping dynasty. Unfortunately, both their fathers were broke.’

Olaf died in mysterious circumstances abroad in 1942, by which time Betty was raising her two-year-old daughter, Sonya, by another man. Sonya never knew who her father was. Betty was rather vague on the matter.

Mary Wesley worked for MI5 during the early years of the war, like her character in The Camomile Lawn, but returned to Cornwall and a rip-roaring life with Betty. We spoke to the writer Patrick Marnham, author of her biography Wild Mary, who said a pilot stationed nearby during the war had told him about the parties at Boskenna and how the best friends set about seducing men.

‘They were deadly, they hunted in pairs,’ he said. Mary once said she’d wake up in the morning, reach across the pillow and think: ‘Let’s see. Who is it this time?’

But after the war she fell deeply in love, settled down and worried so much for Betty’s daughter Sonya – the bride in our picture – that she all but adopted the little girl.

The trouble was that Betty had not grown out of her wild life, despite marrying a solicitor called Stephen Paull Hill.

He had run a lucrative trade in blackmarket daffodils during the war, paying American GIs to smuggle the blooms up to market in London in Army trucks. After her father’s death in 1949, Betty got the house and the estate – only to discover it was going bust. She sold it eight years later.

Colonel Camborne Haweis Paynter, right, with son-in-law Paull Hill at the mansion in Cornwall

However much money they made from the sale after taxes and death duty, Betty and Paull seem to have blown most of it in the years that followed. They moved to Penzance, took adjoining terrace houses but continued to enjoy many lovers. 

We went to their street, spoke to locals and discovered that when Betty was 72, life took a terrifying turn. She had a lover 36 years her junior but when things turned sour, he phoned to say he was coming round to ‘get’ Betty and her husband.

Paull was ready with a shotgun and he fired at close range. The lover died the following day. Paull said he had expected violence and was acting in self-defence. After a four-day trial in 1979, a jury found him not guilty of murder.

The local newspaper reported that, as he walked free, Betty rushed up to embrace him saying: ‘Darling, thank God!’

Betty died of natural causes the following year. Paull was found in Penzance Harbour in 1985. Suicide was suspected.

So what of Betty’s daughter Sonya? When her wedding photos were taken, she was 19 and had recently lost her family home and the status that went with it.

She and her husband, Tim, had two sons, the first born a year after the wedding. But their relationship must have broken down quickly, because Tim remarried seven years later. He died in America in 1997, aged 67.

Sonya was sick with cancer at that time and deeply touched by the financial help offered by her mother’s old friend Mary Wesley. Sonya wrote in a thank-you note: ‘You have made me feel much less frightened of many things.’

She died in 1998, aged just 58.

We reached out to her sons and one said he was interested in whatever we found but did not want to appear in our radio programme.

Sonya had once said the only time to appear in the press was in a births, deaths or marriages column. That’s understandable, perhaps, given how much attention the Paynters had attracted.

Still, the two prints offer a direct emotional connection to Sonya looking gorgeous on her wedding day, so we intend so send them to her son to see and hold.

The Wedding Detectives is on BBC Radio 4 from October 20.

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