Local Lives - T.E. Lawrence
How growing up in Oxford shaped the renowned soldier and legend.
T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) 1888 - 1935
Thomas Edward Lawrence, John Hume Ross, T. E. Shaw: all these names were used by the man so much better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”. He was a soldier, writer, archaeologist and scholar, he led a complicated and often unhappy life ending in a motorcycle crash at the age of 47, and as far as the public was concerned, his fame sprang from the part he played in the Arab Revolt against the Turks over a short period during the First World War. But what fame! His exploits were romanticised in a theatrical production which had a long and successful run in London and abroad; he was plagued by constant attention from the press; he was called “The Uncrowned King of Arabia”; books were written about him; and the David Lean film of 1962 brought him to the attention of yet another generation.
Ned, as his family called him, was born in Wales in 1888. He was the second of five sons, and he was illegitimate. His father, Thomas Chapman, was an Anglo-Irish baronet and landowner who left his wife and four daughters in Ireland and ran away with the governess, eventually settling in Oxford, where they lived quietly as Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence, giving no cause for suspicion as to their unmarried status, at No.2 Polstead Road, a Victorian semi in the then new suburb of North Oxford.
The boys’ strictly religious mother insisted on regular attendance at church, so the family regularly trooped down to St.Aldates Church - three times on Sundays – and although he later lost his faith in conventional Christianity, it may have been the Bible stories he heard there which awoke his interest in Palestine, Egypt and the Arab world.
The following year he went up to Jesus College Oxford to read history. Although he lived briefly in the front quadrangle of the college, he spent most of the time at home, studying in a bungalow put up for him by his father in the garden of the house in Polstead Road. He was a loner, rarely attending meals in Hall, not smoking or drinking, missing tutorials and claiming that he never went to any lectures. Never a large man – he was only 5ft 6ins tall – he toughened himself up by going for long periods without food, drink or sleep, and testing the limits of his endurance by setting himself challenges such as the navigation of the underground Trill Mill Stream from Hythe Bridge Street to Christ Church Memorial Gardens. In his last summer vacation, Lawrence sailed to the Middle East, and walked eleven hundred miles visiting and studying crusader castles in Syria, living rough, and accustoming himself to the customs and lifestyle of rural Arabs. The thesis he wrote for his finals was based on his knowledge of French and Syrian castles, and helped to win him his first class degree. A portrait of him in Arab clothes now hangs in the Hall at Jesus, while his bust may be seen in the chapel.
Instead of staying on at Oxford to do a postgraduate degree, Lawrence joined an archaeological expedition to the ancient city of Carchemish, near what is now the border between Iraq and Turkey. He quickly mastered Arabic and made Arab friends, two of whom he brought back in 1913 to Oxford, where they fascinated the populace by cycling around the city on ladies’ bikes in their desert robes.
After the outbreak of the First World War, he was posted to Cairo for intelligence work, and for a year he was deskbound, brooding on how the Ottoman Empire might be brought low and the Arab nations freed from its yoke. It was expected that the Turks would ally themselves with Germany, so chipping away at their empire from the south would help the causes of both Britain and Arabia. In 1916, he transferred to the Arab Bureau, but took a break beforehand to sail south and meet Emir Feisal of Arabia. In him Lawrence saw the leader of the Arab Revolt, and for the next two years lived and fought alongside him and other tribal leaders. A perilous crossing of enemy territory, dynamiting enemy railways on the way, culminated in the taking of the port of Akaba on the Red Sea from the Turks. Other successes followed, but Lawrence was by now growing anxious that the British were playing a double game with the Arabs – using them – and that Feisal would be let down by the Allies after the war.
Other successes followed: the capture of Jerusalem (by General Allenby) and later the liberation of Damascus. Lawrence had been determined to establish Arab independence, but political wrangling immediately after the war left most of the Arab dreams in tatters. It was only later, while he was working under Churchill for the Colonial Office, that Lawrence’s persuasive championing of the Arab cause led to a settlement which he considered ‘…[gave] the Arabs…all that in my opinion they had been promised by Great Britain, in any sphere in which we were free to act…’
In 1920 Lawrence was elected a Fellow of All Souls College in Oxford for two years, and on relinquishing his fellowship joined the RAF – a move which baffled friends and colleagues, but one which he had been planning for some time. He did it with the ostensible intention of writing a book about the service, but really because it was the only way he saw of withdrawing from the intense public interest that bothered him so much, and because he felt ‘squeezed right out… by over-experience’. Back in 1919 he had already asked not to be addressed as Colonel, but in order to ‘forget and be forgotten’ as he put it, he needed to change his name, so he enlisted as John Hume Ross. The press found out, pursued him again, and within a few months of joining the RAF, he was discharged.
Shortly afterwards, under another name, T.E. Shaw, (George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, and his wife were close friends) Lawrence joined the Tank Corps of the army as a private, based at Bovington Camp in Dorset. He was very unhappy at first, and only speeding through the country roads on his Brough motorcycle relieved his melancholy. Later he bought Clouds Hill, a cottage where he felt able to relax, and to continue working on his masterpiece The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a literary account of the desert campaigns and his life in Arabia. Nevertheless, he pined for the RAF, to which, thanks to numerous string pullers, including the Prime Minister, he returned in 1925. He was soon posted as an RAF mechanic to India, from where he became known as an inveterate letterwriter, but after the publication of Revolt in the Desert (a much abridged version of Seven Pillars), and the appearance of some fanciful stories in the British press implicating him in spying missions to Afghanistan, he was recalled to England in 1929 – the publicity surrounding his presence in India was just too disturbing.
Early in 1935 he retired from the Air Force after what he described as ‘the only really contented years of my life’. Over the next few months he made several visits to Oxford, he stayed with John Buchan at Elsfield, he visited the Ashmolean and the city of which he once said ‘ Oxford was a beautiful place to me, and a home’. On May 13th he set out on his Brough motorcycle from Clouds Hill to the camp at Bovington, but as he returned home he swerved to avoid two boys cycling along the road, and was thrown over the handlebars, fracturing his skull. He never regained consciousness, and died six days later. His funeral in Dorset was attended by many eminent mourners, Sir Winston Churchill among them, and his headstone simply records that he was a Fellow of All Souls College Oxford.
last updated: 17/04/2009 at 10:35
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