During Lawrence’s lifetime and after his death, his reputation was peppered with controversy of all sorts – perhaps most fundamentally a growing political suspicion of his role and motivations in the Arab Revolt, the wider colonial project and its effects on the modern Middle East.
However, more weight was often given to revelations by former colleagues and friends about his personal life, doubts about the veracity of his exploits and experiences, speculations about his mental state, the question of his sexuality, the identity of the dedicatee of his poem “To S.A.”, the representation of his character in various fictional forms, and the scandal of his own unconventional origins.
Jeremy Wilson was involved in the fallout of many of these scandals and collected material on others, so his archive follows the tides and cross-currents of Lawrence’s changing reputation over the last 100 years. Wilson’s overall project was perhaps to establish the objective truth about Lawrence from the official record so much of the archive’s content is concerned with correcting such stories and biographical interpretations, but despite all this Lawrence remains an elusive figure whose deepest motivations were obscure, perhaps even to himself.
Whilst the Lawrence family appeared to be perfectly conventional, the truth was that they were hiding a secret. T.E.’s father Thomas Robert Lawrence was actually an Anglo-Irish landowner, Sir Thomas Chapman, who had run away with his daughters’ governess, Sarah Junner/Lawrence. Together Thomas and Sarah had five sons and settled in Oxford under the name of Lawrence.
T.E. claimed to have known or been suspicious of this fact from a young age, although his father did not officially tell his sons before his death in 1919. Illegitimacy would have been seen as a terrible mark to bear in Edwardian Oxford, and even when this fact was publicised in the 1950s due to the release of Richard Aldington’s book Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, it was still seen as somewhat shocking especially as Lawrence’s mother was still alive.
Photograph of Killua Castle, County Westmeath, the ancestral home of the Chapman family.
Wilson Papers, P450/R/IAV/1/2/4/1
T.E. Lawrence as a baby
Photograph of T.E. Lawrence with his nurse, Margo Jones. Lawrence was born in Tremadog, Caernarfonshire where his parents were living temporarily after leaving Ireland.
Wilson Papers, P450/R/FAC/1/1/1
Note- Transcription of a note left by Thomas Robert Lawrence “to my sons” explaining that he and Sarah were unmarried.
Copy from unknown source. Wilson Papers, P450/R/FAC/2.
Will– Copy of the will of Caroline M. Chapman of Killua Castle, sister of Thomas Robert Lawrence, leaving him £20,000.
Wilson Papers, P450/R/PUB/22/1
Legacy to a long-lost brother
Caroline Chapman here leaves the sum of £20,000 to Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, the real name of T.E. Lawrence's father. This sum is referred to in Thomas Lawrence's document "To My Sons" (above). However, since Thomas Lawrence predeceased his sister by one year (he died in 1919 and she in 1920), then the £20,000 instead passed to his daughters leaving the Lawrence brothers without any further legacy.
Caroline Chapman left all her "jewellery, lace and furs and personal Ornaments" along with shares and land, to T.E. Lawrence's four half-sisters Eva, Rose, Florence and Mabel Chapman. T.E.'s mother Sarah Lawrence had been the girls' governess when she fell in love with their father, Thomas Chapman. The sisters never met their famous brother, although documents in the archive attest they knew of his existence and even owned a copy of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Killua Castle was the main property of the Chapman family, located in County Westmeath, Ireland. After the Chapmans' time it became a ruin, before being restored in 2006.
Concealing the truth
Letter from Margaret Bristow to W.H. Buckler revealing Lawrence’s parentage, sent to D.G. Hogarth and marked “destroy”.
Hogarth Papers, P452/REL/2/1
This letter from Lawrence to Hogarth of 1927 begins with musings on whether Hogarth should accept the post of President of Magdalen College, which Lawrence is dubious about because of the requirement to attend Chapel services.
It goes on to reveal in a postscript that Lawrence had confided in his trusted mentor about his family origins and had told his younger brother Arnold, but stipulates that his older brother Bob not be told.
Wilson Papers, P450/R/COR/1/17
The Question of Lawrence’s Sexuality
This was one of the most controversial aspects of Lawrence’s reputation in the 1950s and 1960s when it seemed to weigh as much as, or even more than, the question of his role in the Arab Revolt. The debate was reignited by Aldington’s biography and further fuelled by revelations in the Sunday Times in 1968-1969. Some Lawrence researchers have been keen to establish his heterosexuality whilst others include him as a gay or asexual figure.
Photograph of Janet Laurie, a family friend of the Lawrences, who claimed T.E. Lawrence proposed to her in 1910. She said she laughed and turned him down.
Hogarth Papers, P450/FAC/1/1/24
Dahoum (a nickname meaning “dark”) was a young Arab worker whom Lawrence befriended at the Carchemish dig from 1911 to 1914, teaching him photography and archaeological work. He is often said to be the inspiration for Lawrence’s poem “To S.A.” and the “particular Arab” who was the personal motivation for Lawrence’s involvement in the Arab Revolt.
In this photograph taken from a larger group image, he holds a sword which may have been one of the finds at Carchemish.
© The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.
Ever since the publication of Richard Aldington’s biography Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry in 1955, Lawrence’s romantic life has been the subject of media debate, including opinions from friends such as Robert Graves and Celandine Kennington, which also reflect some of the perspectives of their time.
Wilson Papers, P450/ORR/6/2
Sunday Times Articles
In 1968, John Bruce, a former R.A.F. aircraftman who had served with Lawrence, sold a story to the Sunday Times reporters Colin Simpson and Phillip Knightley regarding beatings that he had been paid to carry out on Lawrence on a number of occasions. It transpired that Lawrence had devised a subterfuge in which he pretended, in letters to Bruce, to be an “old man” or uncle who had ordered beatings on a younger relative: Lawrence himself.
Newspapers: Wilson Papers, P450/R/ORR/6/2
The story was met by scrupulous investigation by a young Jeremy Wilson in conjunction with A.W. Lawrence. Below is a page from Wilson’s paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of the Sunday Times articles, with A.W’s notes on the left side.
Document: Wilson Papers, P450/R/PUB/22/2/1