Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
A tiny cottage, close to the Dorset HQ of the Royal Tank Regiment at Bovington Camp, was once owned by one of Britain’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures, T E Lawrence – also known as Lawrence of Arabia. The cottage is called Clouds Hill and it was built in 1808 as a forester’s or labourer’s cottage. Lawrence came upon it in 1923, whilst stationed at Bovington under the pseudonym of Private T E Shaw…
Thomas Edward Lawrence, CB DSO, was an extraordinary man: highly educated, an archaeologist, intelligence officer, warrior, military strategist, philosopher, lover of fast motorbikes – and more, including, possibly, an idealist. His parents, Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, never married. Chapman left his wife and four daughters in Ireland to live with Junner, his children’s governess, after their affair – which had already produced a son – was discovered. The couple went on to raise five sons together as Mr and Mrs Lawrence – the name probably being that of Sarah’s father, she herself being illegitimate. Thomas, known as Ned, was their second and was born in 1888 in Tremadog, Wales. Presumably because of their circumstances, which can’t have been easy for anyone, the family moved several times over the next few years – Kirkudbright, Dinard, St Helier, the New Forest – before settling in Oxford in 1896, where Ned attended the City of Oxford High School and went on to read history at Jesus College. As a schoolboy, Lawrence’s interest in antiquity took him on bicycle tours of Oxfordshire, the neighbouring counties of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, as well as France, visiting churches and castles; as an undergraduate, he toured crusader castles in Syria. After graduating with first class honours, he was able to secure financial support from Magdalen College to work on archaeological excavations for the British Museum in Syria – where he also learned Arabic. In early 1914, Lawrence and a fellow archaeologist joined a British military team in the Sinai Peninsula to provide cover for a survey of the strategically important Negev desert.
When war came in 1914, Lawrence initially worked on maps of the Middle East, but was soon commissioned into the army and posted to Cairo. Here, he worked as an intelligence officer, collating information from various sources, including prisoner interrogation, assessing it and helping shape policy and strategy against the Turks. In 1915, two of Lawrence’s brothers were killed in the war. From 1916, Lawrence became much more involved in operational intelligence and the Arab Revolt, beginning with a secret mission to the besieged city of Kut. Lawrence subsequently became liaison officer with the forces of Faisal, one of the sons of the Arab leader Sharif Hussein and later King of Iraq, advising on strategy, journeying back and forth between the Arab rebels and Cairo and persuading disparate Arab tribes to join together against the Ottoman Turks. His missions were often dangerous, but Lawrence’s character, and profound sympathies for the Arabs, and the cause of Arab independence, led to direct participation in military engagements, not least the capture of Aqaba in 1917, culminating in the fall of Damascus in 1918. At one point he was captured, tortured, probably abused – and the Turks ended up placing a substantial price on his head; it says something for the regard in which he was held that he was never betrayed. Interestingly, Lawrence had no military training whatsoever except, possibly, as a schoolboy.
Support for the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks obviously suited Britain and her allies, France and Russia. However, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, secretly concluded between the United Kingdom and France in 1916, carved up post-war spheres of influence in the Middle East, with little regard for Arab interests or independence. When the terms were revealed to the world by the Bolsheviks, there was deep embarrassment in London and Paris. But, after the war, the French took control of Syria and Lebanon anyway and the British ran Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq). The journalist Robert Fisk quotes Lawrence as writing,
“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects, but to win a show of their own.”
By the end of the war, Lawrence had been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel – some sources say he asked for, and was awarded, full colonelcy so that he could travel first-class – and had been decorated for his achievements. Disillusioned by Sykes-Picot, in a private meeting with King George V, Lawrence wanted to refuse all honours and, according to one account, even declined a knighthood. He briefly worked at the Foreign Office and attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where he unsuccessfully argued for Arab interests. Whilst there, he began writing Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the story of the Arab Revolt and his part in it. Later that year, the American journalist and adventurer, Lowell Thomas (1892-1981), who had met Lawrence in the desert, began a series of extravagant lectures in Britain and Lawrence of Arabia was born; suddenly, Lawrence was a household name. In 1921, he was appointed to the Colonial Office under Winston Churchill as Arab adviser for a year, during which time he successfully helped create some sort of settlement in the Middle East.
Fame embarrassed Lawrence: it was not something he sought, though it would dog him for the remainder of his days. He valued privacy and, with support from high-placed friends, he enlisted in the RAF as ‘John Hume Ross’. However, the press discovered the subterfuge and the RAF, deciding it could do without the distraction of the publicity, dismissed ‘Aircraftsman Ross’ from the service. He then enlisted in the Tank Corps as ‘Private T E Shaw’ (possibly after George Bernard) and it was during this time that he stumbled across Clouds Hill. The property was in a very run-down state, but Lawrence decided it could provide a refuge where he could carry on with his writing, read, listen to music and entertain friends.
He was unhappy in the army, though, inclined to depression – there are rumours of an attempted suicide – and managed to cajole influential friends into canvassing for a return to the RAF, which was granted in 1925. For the next decade, Lawrence served more or less happily in a variety of posts – in India, Devon, Hampshire and Yorkshire – during which time he particularly enjoyed time with the RAF’s Marine Craft Section, where he championed the introduction of high-speed air-sea rescue launches. He wrote in his spare time – he was a prolific letter-writer – and, as well as Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published translations of Homer’s Odyssey and a French novel, The Forest Giant. A memoir of his experiences in the RAF, The Mint, was published posthumously by his brother, Professor Arnold Lawrence – though, to the irritation of his superiors, sections were stolen and published while Aircraftsman Shaw was still serving.
In February 1935, Lawrence left the RAF. On 13th May, he took his motorbike to Bovington post office to send a parcel of books to a friend. Lawrence was a keen motorcyclist, owning several Brough Superiors – the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles. On the way back to Clouds Hill, a dip in the road obscured his view of two boy cyclists; swerving to avoid them, he lost control and was catapulted over the handlebars, sustaining fatal head injuries. After six days in a coma at Bovington Camp, he died aged 46 on 19th May and was buried on 21st in the cemetery at St Nicholas’ Church, Moreton. Among the celebrities attending the funeral of this complex man was Winston Churchill.
It had been Lawrence’s intention to retire to Clouds Hill; it was his haven and he loved the place. Initially, he rented, gradually undertaking repairs, often with the help of a Sergeant Knowles, who lived opposite with his family and who had held the original lease. The repairs were undertaken piecemeal, because Lawrence was often short of money, until the profits from his writing enabled him to buy the cottage outright. A succession of different people lived in and looked after the place awhile he was away in the RAF, including his mother, and it also became something of a magnet for visitors, which included the writers EM Forster (1879-1970), Robert Graves (1895-1985), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) and the painter Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979) – whose painting of the view from Clouds Hill was installed in the cottage. Lawrence was particularly close to George Bernard Shaw and his wife Charlotte, and Thomas Hardy and his wife Florence – who lived not far away at Max Gate.
The work on Clouds Hill continued right up until just before Lawrence died. He wrote that, “I have never had any sort of house of my own before.” You somehow feel that Lawrence was biding his time until he could afford to settle down. “My cottage is finished, inside and out, so far as alien hands can finish it – and I feel rooted now, whenever I pass its door. Such a lovely little place, and so plain. It is ingenious, comfortable, bare and restful: and cheap to maintain.” But he did not live to enjoy it.
Arnold Lawrence gave Clouds Hill to the National Trust in 1936 and it is pretty much as his brother left it when he set off to the post office that spring day. It’s in a slight hollow, close to what is now a fairly busy road, but which would have been a quiet country lane 80 years ago. Simply painted and rustic, over the plain door is inscribed οὐ φροντὶς, which means ‘why worry’ – I like that. Inside are just four rooms – two up and two down; but it is predictably a little unconventional.
The book room, once a kitchen (there are no cooking facilities at Clouds Hill), is designed for relaxation, with a large, leather-covered, bed (which the National Trust says was for reading rather than sleeping), walls lined with Lawrence’s books and mementoes and, by the fireplace, an arm chair that he had specially made for someone of his slight build – he was just five foot four inches tall (Peter O’Toole, who played the title role in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, was six foot two). The chair had flat arms, where he could keep a cup of tea and a candle, and a special bookstand – rather like the recipe-book stands you see in cookshops – that rested between the arms.
There was no toilet at the cottage (“You walk 60 yards with a bucket.”), but Lawrence enjoyed the luxury of a hot bath and fitted out a room with cork-lined walls and a bath fed by pump, with a boiler to heat the water.
Upstairs is a music room and a bunk room. The music room was for writing – and entertaining, where Lawrence and his guests would chat, listen to music played through an enormous horn on his gramophone and eat supper out of tins. As you can see, there was a National Trust guide in the room who was desperate to be photographed; or, at least, she resolutely decided to stay put whilst the camera did its bit. Perhaps she was stuffed. In any event, I can’t say that her presence did much for the atmosphere. The sleeping arrangements at Clouds Hill are limited – initially, Lawrence would sleep at the barracks at Bovington, but what happened after that is anyone’s guess. In the bunk room is a ships’ cabin bed, which Lawrence made himself and, on top of it, his sleeping bag labelled meum (mine). Guests had their own sleeping bag – labelled tuum (yours). The walls are lined with metal foil for coolness and there’s a ship’s porthole, salvaged from HMS Tiger in 1935. Simple food was also kept in this room – cheese, nuts and the like – in glass bell jars. “A slip of a roomlet upstairs in my cottage – too small for any manufactured bed: so I built into it a bunk, of ship-cabin type, with drawers beneath for my clothes. A rough job I made of it but it works.”
Outside, Lawrence had a shed built for his precious Brough Superiors. It now houses a basic display about his life.
Lawrence spent time thinking about the rhododendrons and magnolias he wanted to plant around the cottage, and loved climbing the hill just by the door – Clouds Hill – to spend a little quiet thinking time. The garden was undergoing a drastic make-over when we visited – so it wasn’t worth photographing; it’s probably better now.
It’s a thought-provoking spot, is Clouds Hill. Unlike a grand stately home, it is an intensely personal space, where you get a sense – or think you do – of the individual that fashioned it. Here there is no great creation, designed to overwhelm and impress, but a secure, precious, burrow, safe from betrayal and the schemes of the world; there is something of the womb about Clouds Hill. Its old owner cannot be defined by the brief episode when he was Lawrence of Arabia – that period is itself the stuff of legend – and you can understand why anyone, let alone a sensitive being like Lawrence, might have railed against being pigeon-holed in that, or in any other, way. There was obviously so much more to the man. His life, like those of his brothers and millions more, was interrupted; I’m just not sure whether that happened in 1917 or 1935. He could certainly write. This is from the dedication to the unidentified ‘SA’ in Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
“I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To earn you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When we came.”
A few yards down the road to Bovington is a memorial close to the spot of the accident in 1935. It’s in a small car park, where you can also watch tanks going through their paces.
Thomas Edward Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia is buried in a cemetery near the extraordinary church of St Nicholas, Moreton. It’s a short drive, or walk, from Clouds Hill. The inscription on his grave says:
TO THE DEAR MEMORY OF
T E LAWRENCE
FELLOW OF ALL SOULS COLLEGE
BORN 16 AUGUST 1888
DIED 19 MAY 1935
THE HOUR IS COMING & NOW IS
WHEN THE DEAD SHALL HEAR
THE VOICE OF THE
SON OF GOD
AND THEY THAT HEAR
The lines are from John 5:25. Beneath that is the motto of the University of Oxford, Dominus illuminato mea – the Lord is my light.
Oxford was Lawrence’s home too, of course. In the Ashmolean Museum there is an outfit probably worn by Lawrence while he was with the Arab army – Lawrence adopted Arab dress at the suggestion of Emir Faisal. It is richly embroidered silk, with gold and silver thread.
You’ll also find a variety of memorials to Lawrence around the country. The small, Saxon, church of St. Martin’s in Wareham contains a recumbent effigy of Lawrence in Arab dress, sculpted posthumously as a memorial by his friend Eric Kennington. There is also a cast of Eric Kennington’s 1926 bronze bust of Lawrence in the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, unveiled by Lord Halifax, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, on 29th January 1936.
While you’re considering the life of Lawrence and your visit to Clouds Hill, I’ll leave you with the haunting theme, written by the incomparable Maurice Jarre, for the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, starring Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Omar Sharif – and Peter O’Toole.
“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”