Five Thousand Kilometres Through France

In the trail of the Young Lawrence of Arabia


More about the Young TE Lawrence

Known to his family as Ned, Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888 as the second of five sons. As a boy in Oxford he was a keen collector of pottery (later he would become an archaeologist), which he gave to the Ashmolean Museum, and brass rubbings (tracing the etchings on stone and brass plates in churches). In an age of electronic games, this might seem an odd pursuit for a teenage boy, but it was a popular activity at the time.

He was an individualist from early on, with a dislike team sports and a developing sense of adventure and an interest in exercise and adventure.  He had a complicated relationship with authority. Despite his individuality, he was also drawn to the establishment. At one point he ran away from home to join the Royal Artillery. His father bought him out after three months and he went back to school. He would set off alone or with a friend on his bicycle to explore churches and castles around Oxford. Through these visits he built up a huge knowledge and an expert eye for ecclesiastical and military architecture.  Eventually he settled on History as his subject - he was in thrall to the classical and the crusader age - and he went on to study this at university. In 1907 he was awarded a scholarship by Jesus College at Oxford. Eventually he was awarded a First Class degree in History, after which he was offered a position by Magdalen College, which enabled him to start a career in archaeology.

TE Lawrence was a small man at 5’ 5”, but he had freakish physical endurance, which he developed as he became a young man. He loved to push himself, and increased the distance in his cycle journeys, talking of feeling good after riding hard on very little food. As a university student he enjoyed testing himself in other ways and there are stories of him going without food and sleep. One friend remembered him with a manic glint in his eye firing a blank pistol out of the window after staying awake for more than 40 hours. Lawrence’s 2500-mile cycle journey around France in 1908 was exceptional, and his trip through the Middle East, 1000 miles in 40 degree heat on extremely rough roads in Syria, was an extraordinary achievement. Again he was contrary and individualist. Where most students spend most of their time in the library, these journeys were in pursuit of research for his undergraduate thesis into medieval castles.

A vital feature in the young Lawrence’s upbringing is the fact his parents never married. His father, Thomas Chapman, an aristocrat from Northern Ireland, was already married with a family when he fell in love with Lawrence’s mother, the family governess Sarah Junner (who interestingly herself had been born illegitimate - the name Lawrence apparently derives from her likely father). Chapman’s wife refused to divorce him or to move from the family home, and so the couple moved away and were never able to marry.

It is hard to appreciate nowadays how much difference this illegitimacy made to the Lawrence family as their five sons grew up. Had the truth become known, they would have been socially outcast. So the couple kept a low profile and kept moving: to Wales (where TE Lawrence was born), to Scotland, to Dinard in France and to the New Forest. Eventually, when it became necessary to educate their five sons, they moved to Oxford. They were provided with a small living by his father’s estate in Northern Ireland.

TE Lawrence’s mother was an extremely strong influence in his early life, one he clearly found over-bearing, even though it is obvious that he cared about her. She was religious (in the 1930s would accompany one of her other sons as a missionary to China), but her desire for control affected Ned particularly – in response to her inquisitiveness he developed a habit of dissimulation that continued throughout his life. He was never keen on the idea that anyone should know his inner thoughts. At the start of his David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia, a character says “…though I never really knew him…” 

Lawrence’s father was a remoter figure and yet he gave the young Ned several habits he kept well on into life – cycling and photography being the most relevant to this project. The knowledge of his father’s drunkenness also led Lawrence to being a teetotaller.

In short, TE Lawrence was an extremely clever young man. He enjoyed a bit of gossip and liked to be provocative, but he could be empathetic when it suited him as well as charismatic and inspirational, as he later showed in the Arab Revolt (where, while part of the military, he was largely outside the immediate control of the British establishment). And of course the exceptional physical endurance he built up as a young man enabled him to earn the respect of the Arabs he called to rebellion against the Ottoman Empire.