This month saw the 125th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Edward Lawrence. At the outbreak of the first World War, Lawrence was living a life of quiet scholarship and seemed destined to pursue a career as an historian and archaeologist.
Like millions of young men of his generation, the war propelled him in other, more dangerous, directions. He initially held a minor staff position in Cairo but, by 1918, he had led Arab tribesmen in a successful campaign in the Middle East and was lauded as a hero. Public interest grew in the immediate post-war years and the myth of “Lawrence of Arabia” was born. His life still fascinates people across the world but some aspects of it remain steeped in mystery. This is perhaps fitting, as Lawrence himself was unaware of the exact details of his own family background for much of his life.
Lawrence was born in Tremadoc in Wales on August 16th, 1888. Throughout his early life he sensed that there was something odd about his parents’ relationship. Yet, even as an imaginative young boy, he could never have guessed the true circumstances of their life together. His father was Sir Thomas Chapman of South Hill, Delvin, Co Westmeath. The eldest son of the Chapman family of Killua Castle, Thomas was married with four daughters when, in 1879, Sarah (Junner) Lawrence, came to work at South Hill as governess. Some time thereafter, Thomas and Sarah began an affair. By 1885, they were living a secret life as the “Chapmans” in Dublin when their first son was born. When news of their affair became known, the “Lawrences”, as they then referred to themselves, fled to Wales and shortly afterwards Thomas Edward was born. The family would continue to live a migratory existence until they came to settle in Oxford in 1896. Thomas and Sarah would eventually have five sons together.
Thomas Chapman remains a mysterious figure in the Lawrence story. He was never divorced from his wife and it is known that he maintained contact with his family in Ireland, securing an annuity based on the income of his former estate. It is not known if he tried to keep in contact with his daughters. He was a keen amateur photographer yet there is no known photograph of him and his own collection of papers and photographs seems to have disappeared. In later life, Lawrence would comment on the oddness of his childhood in Oxford; a childhood in which both parents seemingly had no relations, and few friends. On his father’s death in 1919, Lawrence discovered the full story and this seems to have contributed to a crisis of identity. He remarked to friends how his early family life had been a fiction and, in 1922, he changed his name to John Hume Ross. He also sought obscurity serving as an enlisted man in the army and the RAF.
Lawrence later became somewhat fascinated with Ireland. His surviving letters contain references expressing a desire to visit his father’s homeland. In one letter Lawrence even remarked that he would like to buy a few acres in Westmeath. His letters are also full of references to the writings of Sean O’Casey, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, he would later seek out Shaw and his wife, Charlotte, who would become close confidants. In 1925, Lawrence changed his name for the second time and was known thereafter as TE Shaw.
It is certain that Lawrence had some sense of the scandal that surrounded his parents’ relationship. In a letter of 1928 he remarked to a friend “We actually come from Killua in Meath [sic] but that side of the world is barred now”. It would seem that he never tried to contact his half-sisters. In 1954, his two surviving half-sisters were living at 39 Northumberland Road in Dublin, when they were visited by former friends of Lawrence. They told their visitors that they had followed their half-brother’s career during the war and were aware of his fame, but had never made an attempt to contact him.
Lawrence died following a motorbike accident in 1935 and was buried with some ceremony and much attention from the international press. His father’s grave in Oxford is unmarked and untended. His mother died in China in 1959 while working as a missionary, taking her part of this sad family story with her.