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, the second of five sons. As a boy in Oxford he was a keen collector of pottery (as a young man he became an archaeologist) and brass rubbings - catching the words and images of brass memorial plates and stone graves with tracing paper - to hang on his bedroom wall. In our age of electronic games, this seems an odd pursuit for a teenage boy, but it was a popular activity at the time.

He was an individualist from early on and had a complicated relationship with authority as a boy and later with the establishment. At school he disliked team sports, but had a strong interest in exercise and endurance. Spurred by his developing sense of adventure, he would set off alone or with a friend on his bicycle to ride out in the country around Oxford. Despite his individuality, he was nonetheless drawn to the establishment. As a boy he ran away from home to join the army: his father bought him out after three months and he went back to school. Later, after his military exploits in the Arab Uprising, he served in the RAF for many years.

Through his boyhood cycle visits to churches, the young Lawrence 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 to study History at Jesus College at Oxford. Eventually he was awarded a First Class degree, 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 a youth and a young man. He loved to push himself on 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 intentionally going without food and sleep. One friend remembered him with a manic glint in his eye firing a blank pistol out of the window of his college rooms 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 physical achievement. Again he was contrary and individualistic. 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 he and Sarah Junner moved away. They 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 been known, they would have been socially outcast. So the family 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. The family were provided with a small living by Thomas Chapman’s estate in Northern Ireland.

TE Lawrence’s mother was an extremely strong influence in his early life, one he found over-bearing, even though it is obvious that he cared about her. She was religious (in the 1930s she accompanied 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 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 pased on several interests that the young TE Lawrence adopted – 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; 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 them to rebel against the Ottoman Empire.