“MADAM, his majesty wants to see you on the polo field.”
These were the words that catapulted Norma Walmsley, a former Holywell schoolteacher, into the palace life of the Brunei royal family.
Liverpool born, Norma tours Flintshire and Cheshire giving talks on her experiences, including one she named The King and I after the famous musical telling the story of a governess and her time with the king of Siam.
The King and I is based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who taught at the court in the 1860s.
Despite being 150 years apart, Norma’s time in the staggeringly rich household does have parallels with Anna’s famous tale, with its themes of cultural exchange and polygamy – although there was far less drama.
Norma, now 73 and living in Pantasaph, said: “My husband was with British Aerospace, so he was posted all over the world and I followed him.
“We settled in Brunei in 1989, and I got a job as the head at the International School.
“I set up a special needs school, as that was one of my real interests. In Brunei, youngsters with difficulties stayed at home.”
The second wife of the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Hajah Mariam, brought her children to the school to be tutored, and were so impressed by Norma’s work that they tried to headhunt her as a private tutor.
She said: “At first I tried to do both jobs, but I had 400 pupils at school to look after, so I told them I’d find a different tutor.
“Then one day I got a phonecall, and I met him out on the polo field. He was playing with Prince Charles. I had a cup of tea with the Sultan and he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
The Sultan, whose full name is Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, was once ranked as the richest man in the world, thanks to Brunei’s rich oil deposits.
The children’s home classroom was in their mother’s palace which, despite not being the family’s main abode, had 1,700 rooms, was still maintained by 300 servants.
Norma said: “I used to drive up to the front entrance of the palace and these huge gates would open to reveal a very imposing building.
“I used to go down the drive every day and park under an awning where a servant would take my bag and another would take the car to have it cleaned, and I’d think: ‘I can’t believe a girl from Liverpool managed to get here’.
“Every room had a purpose. There were wedding rooms, festival rooms, rooms for dancing in. There was gold or gold leaf everywhere.”
The opulent palace was so large that each child had individual living quarters, not just a bedroom but kitchens, leisure spaces, nurseries and sitting rooms.
Norma said: “If they wanted to play, they would ring each other up and then meet if the nannies let them.”
The Sultan is coming up to 50 years of rule.
Norma said: “Because of the oil, his coffers were swelling by 19 million a day when I was working there. But he’s extremely generous to people.”
His workers, said Norma, could retire aged 35 on three quarters of their salary, while subjects across the county benefited from free healthcare, university access and no one has to pay income or capital gains tax.
“They don’t struggle,” she said. “In fact, he built a hill to stop Malaysian and Indonesian men coming into the country to carry off Brunei girls, because they knew if they could marry into a country they would be made.
“Having said that, the country is very traditionalist and Muslim. It’s not touristy, it’s a place to work, not to play around (it is actually a dry country – alcohol is not sold).
“Cruises come into Bandar Seri Begawan, but you could ‘do’ it in an afternoon. Life is quiet there, but people are very protected.”
Norma tutored the youngsters, including Prince Azim, Princess Fadzillah, Princess Azema and the youngest, Prince Mateen, for almost 10 years.
She said: “I told the palace people that I couldn’t teach the children in their bedrooms, and they said: ‘There are plenty of rooms in the palace, choose one’.
“So I created a classroom, put up posters and ordered in a lot of books and teaching materials.”
Many youngsters dread school, but for the Sultan’s offspring, it was a chance to be normal for a while.
Norma said: “There was a lovely playground outside that had never been used. I asked their nannies why, and they said that if one of the children fell, they’d have been packed up on the next plane home.
“So I told them to leave and that if anything happened, it would be me on the next plane. The nannies were forever fussing over the children, doing their hair, checking their clothes. So when the kids came in, they’d say: ‘Shut the door!’ and I did – to keep the nannies out. Then they could be children for a time.”
The Sultan, who collects expensive cars like other people collect postage stamps, had equally luxurious taste when it came to property.
Norma said: “On one of my first visits, I came to the main staircase that split and came together again on the other floor.
“It was all Italian marble and rich Persian carpets, and there was this metal handrail running up the side. I turned to the butler and said: ‘It must take ages to polish all that brass’.
“He turned to me and said: ‘Madam, you do not need to polish gold’. I was amazed.”
Eventually, Norma’s pupils matured and she decided it was time to part company and let them go on to finishing school.
“They all had Liverpool accents from me,” she laughed. “They needed to talk to people from a wider social circle.
“It was like becoming part of the family. They named one of the younger sons after my son, Martin. They named him ‘Mateen’, and when I commented on the similarity, one of the girls said: ‘Yes, Daddy liked that name’.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate to tell them that Martin was the name of a Christian saint.”
Her adventures did not end with her retirement from teaching in Brunei.
The Sultan’s parting gift to the Walmsleys was a touring camper, which they used to drive around the US and Canada for four years, providing even more material for Norma’s talks.
l One of Norma’s most recent presentations was at the Denbighshire Farm Woman’s Club, which holds regular meetings in Ruthin. Call Gwyneth Jones on 01824 703912 for details.