Britain’s Queen of the Desert

When thinking about the Middle East, the first British name to come to mind is often Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence), who was involved with the Arab Revolt (1916–1918) and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (1915–1918). Yet, Lawrence was not the only British person to support the Middle East. Gertrude Bell, an author and archaeologist, became highly influential to British officials and helped establish modern states, such as Iraq. Trusted by both the British and the Arabs, Bell is often described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on 14th July 1868 in an English town called Washington in County Durham. Her father, Sir Thomas Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet of Rounton Range and Washington Hall (1844-1931), was a wealthy landowner, and her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, 1st Baronet (1816-1904), was an ironmonger “as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel“. Gertrude’s mother, Mary, passed away when she was only three years old after giving birth to her younger brother, Maurice (1871-1944).

Without a mother, Bell grew close to her father, who inspired her thirst for adventure. Her father also taught her about British policy-making and capitalism. He always made sure his workers were well paid and cared for, an attitude which he passed down to his daughter.

When Bell was seven, her father married the playwright Florence Olliffe (1851-1930). As well as providing the family with three more children, Hugh (1878-1926), Florence (1880-1971) and Mary (1882-1966), Florence taught Bell about duty and decorum but also encouraged her growing intellect. Florence regularly assisted the wives of local ironworkers, helping them become self-sufficient and access education.

At 11, Bell started attending Queen’s College in London before moving to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, at 17. At the time, degree topics were limited for women, with history being one of the few they could study. Bell specialised in modern history and became the first woman to graduate in the subject at Oxford with a first-class honours degree. Unfortunately, her success was not classed as an academic degree because she was a woman.

After graduating from university, Bell travelled to Persia in 1892 to visit her step-uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles (1841-1920), who served as the British minister in Tehran. Bell described her journey in a book, Persian Pictures, which she published in 1894. The adventure inspired her to continue travelling, and she developed a passion for archaeology and languages. During her travels, Bell learned to speak Arabic, Persian, French, German and Italian.

In 1899, Bell explored Palestine and Syria, then travelled from Jerusalem to Damascus the following year. In 1903, Bell visited Singapore with her brother, where she befriended British colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham (1850-1946). Bell and Swettenham kept up a correspondence for several years, and they may have had a brief affair in 1904.

Between 1899 and 1904, Bell enjoyed mountaineering. While hiking in the Bernese Alps in western Switzerland, she recorded ten new pathways and reached one of the highest peaks in 1901. Since named after her, Gertrudspitze rises 2,632 m (8,635 ft) above sea level and remains a popular destination for experienced climbers.

In 1907, Bell published another book, Syria: The Desert and the Sown, which described her voyage to Syria. At the time, Syria belonged to the Ottoman Empire and encompassed the cities of Damascus, Jerusalem (now Israel/Palestine), Beirut (Lebanon), the ruins of Antioch (Turkey), and Alexandretta (Turkey). Her descriptions of the country and cities gave readers in the Western World their first glimpse of the Arabian Desert.

In March 1907, Bell returned to the Ottoman Empire, where she joined the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939) on an excavation of Binbirkilise. Meaning “One Thousand and One Churches”, Binbirkilise is a ruined city once inhabited by Byzantine Christians between the 3rd and 8th century AD. Bell published her initial findings in the Revue Archéologique and helped Ramsay write the book, The Thousand and One Churches. Together, they started excavating several buildings, but when Bell returned two years later, stone robbers had demolished their findings.

Bell returned to England in 1908, where she became a founder member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Despite her misgivings about women’s inequality at university, Bell opposed women being granted the vote in parliamentary elections. Bell’s opinions stemmed from her social and political background, where the men were in charge but allowed her to participate in intellectual discussions. Today, it may seem strange that Bell, one of the most educated women of her time, opposed the suffrage campaign, but her main argument was that the uneducated should not be involved in politics, regardless of their sex. If women did not have the right to equal education with men, Bell questioned how they would cope with parliamentary matters.

Bell did not remain in England for long before travelling to Mesopotamia in January 1909. Today, the majority of historical Mesopotamia is located in Iraq. While there, she visited the ancient city of Carchemish, where she met T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), who was working for Reginald Campbell Thompson (1876-1914), the man responsible for the excavation of the city.

While in Mesopotamia, Bell also photographed the Assyrian relief carvings in the Halamata Cave near the city of Duhok (Iraq). Bell was the first person to document a procession of nine carved figures that date back to approximately 704-681 BC on camera. Further study of the carvings has led archaeologists to believe the figures represent ” the Assyrian king worshipping the main divinities in the Mesopotamian pantheon.”

In the same year, Bell helped excavate the Al-Ukhaidir Fortress and wrote the first report on the remains. Whilst the building was large, Bell noted the living quarters were cramped. The fortress was on several important trade routes, so the size was likely to demonstrate the “despotic and the pleasure-loving character of the dynasty” rather than provide comfort for its inhabitants.

In 1913, Bell made another trip to Mesopotamia, where she became the second foreign woman to visit Haʼil, a city now in Saudi Arabia. Haʼil is the homeland of the Rashid royal family, who are historical rivals to the Saudi royal family. When Bell arrived, the city was in political turmoil. She was held in the city for eleven days before being able to continue her journey across the Arabian peninsula to Baghdad and back to Damascus. The only woman to visit Haʼil before Bell was Anne Blunt, 15th Baroness Wentworth (1837-1917), the daughter of the famous mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52).

At the outbreak of the First World War, Bell requested to be posted to the Middle East. Initially, her request was declined, so she spent a year in France working for the Red Cross. In November 1915, British Intelligence changed its mind and sent Bell to General Gilbert Clayton (1875-1929) at the Arab Bureau in Cairo, Egypt. Both Bell and T. E. Lawrence, who had also been sent to Cairo, were recommended by Commander David Hogarth (1862-1927), an archaeologist who became the acting director of the Arab Bureau the following year.

Using her knowledge of the Arabic language, Bell’s first task was to interpret data about Arab tribes collected by Captain William Shakespear (1878-1915), who had been shot and killed at the Battle of Jarrab. With Bell as the translator, Lawrence and other British Intelligence agents aimed to encourage the Arabs to form an alliance with Britain and stand against the Ottoman Empire.

In March 1916, Captain Clayton sent Bell to Basra, a former city belonging to the Ottoman Empire (now Iraq) that British forces had captured. Bell visited the city during her earlier travels and knew the area better than any Brit. Dividing her time between the Military GHQ Basra and the office of Chief Political Officer Percy Cox (1864-1937), Bell devised maps to help British troops travel safely from Basra to Baghdad.

Bell was given the title “Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo” and assigned to Colonial Office intelligence officer Harry St John Philby (1885-1960), an Arabist born to British parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As his field controller, Bell taught him about political manoeuvering and espionage. Bell remained in Basra until British troops successfully took Baghdad in March 1917.

When it was safe, Percy Cox summoned Bell to Baghdad and gave her the title “Oriental Secretary”. She remained in the city until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in January 1919, after which Cox sent her to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia. With her knowledge of Arab tribes, Bell wrote a report called Self Determination in Mesopotamia, in which she listed the tribes she thought best suited to take on the leadership of a newly formed country. Unfortunately, the British Commissioner in Mesopotamia, Arnold Wilson (1884-1940), insisted the Mesopotamian population was not ready to rule alone, so proposed an Arab government under the influence of British officials.

Throughout 1920, Bell acted as a mediator between the Arab government and British officials. Not only did she have to convey messages between the two nations, but she also needed to mediate between the various Mesopotamian tribes. The Shias in the south, the Kurds in the north and the Sunnis in the centre all wanted to self-govern their land, but for the country to function, Bell needed to persuade them to unite. British Officials were also mindful of tribal feuds that could be costly and make the country vulnerable to other nations, such as Turkey, Persia and Syria, who had their eye on Mesopotamia’s oil resources.

Uniting the tribes was easier in theory than in practice. The Kurds not only inhabited parts of Mesopotamia but also Syria and Turkey. Whilst the Shias and Sunnis could merge their lands, only a portion of the Kurds lived in the new country, Iraq. Whilst Bell endorsed the division of the northern tribe, the Kurds were not happy about being denied a homeland, which led to uprisings in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

Bell expressed the difficulties British officials faced in a letter to her father, saying, “Mesopotamia is not a civilised state.” By the end of 1920, the British had prevented the Kurdish revolt from escalating. Bell was invited to attend a series of meetings between 12th and 30th March to discuss the geographic and political future of the country. Officially known as the Middle East Conference held in Cairo and Jerusalem, the meetings were attended by many British officials, including the newly appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and T. E. Lawrence, the Special Advisor to Colonial Office. The minutes of the meetings record Bell as the Oriental Secretary for High Commissioner of Iraq, with Sir Percy Cox as High Commissioner of Iraq.

During the Cairo Conference, Bell provided significant input in the discussions about Iraq’s creation and recommended Faisal bin Hussein (1885-1933), a former commander of the Arab forces, as the first King of Iraq. Lawrence backed up the suggestion, and Faisal officially became King on 23rd August 1921. Due to his Hashemite lineage, the country was initially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

Not everyone welcomed Faisal as the king because they did not want to be governed by someone from a different tribe. Bell tried to ease Faisal into the role, teaching him about tribal geography and local business and supervising the election of government officials. The Arabs called Bell “al-Khatun”, which means a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State, and she served as Faisal’s confidante.

Supervising Faisal was not always an easy task, especially when he attempted to rid himself of the control of the British advisors. Writing about the ordeal, Bell confessed, “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.” Eventually, Faisal settled into the role and assisted Bell to establish the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, later renamed the Iraqi Museum. Bell donated many of her archaeological finds to the museum, believing the relics of Mesopotamian civilization ought to remain in their country of origin. Bell also founded the British School of Archaeology in Iraq to encourage the Arab population to develop an interest in their history and help preserve ancient artefacts.

Before the creation of Iraq, each Arab tribe had a flag or badge. To prevent riots and protests, the British proposed a new flag for Iraq, which incorporated aspects of each tribe. The design featured a black stripe to represent the Abbasid caliphate, a white stripe for the Umayyad caliphate, and a green stripe for Fatimid Dynasty. Joining the three lines together, a red triangle represented the country’s main religion, Islam. Bell also suggested adding a star to the flag to make it stand out from similar flags of other Middle Eastern countries.

The flag of Iraq has changed many times since its creation. Today’s flag looks remarkably different from the version Bell worked on in 1921. In 1959, a revolution led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963) abolished the Hashemite monarchy. For a brief time, the new republic adopted a black, white and green vertical tricolour, with a red eight-pointed star in the centre. When Qasim was overthrown in 1963, the country adopted the same colours and style as Egypt and Syria’s flags, a horizontal tricolour of red, white, and black bands. Initially, three green stars sat in the centre to symbolise Iraq’s aspiration to unite with Egypt and Syria. The union never happened, and the central symbol changed several times until 2008 when the Council of Representatives of Iraq settled on the phrase Allāhu ʾakbar in Kufic script, which means “Allah is the greatest”.

Bell’s lengthy stay in the Middle East began to take a toll on her health during the 1920s. Her work, which included writing correspondence and intelligence reports, was stressful, not helped by her repeated bronchitis attacks due to the smoke-filled offices she shared with her heavy smoking colleagues. She also suffered bouts of malaria and struggled to cope with the heat in the summer. By the time Bell returned to England for a brief visit in 1925, she was frail and emaciated.

After a short stay with her family, Bell returned to Baghdad, where she developed pleurisy, leaving her unable to work for several weeks. When she recovered, she received the sad news that her brother Hugh had succumbed to typhoid. On 11th July 1926, Bell instructed her maid to wake her up in the morning and went off to bed. That night, Bell died from a supposed overdose of sleeping pills. Whilst some assumed Bell committed suicide, others believe her death was an accident since she had asked her maid to wake her.

Bell’s funeral took place on 12th July 1926, merely hours after her death. The funeral was a major event attended by British officials and Arabs living in the area. King Faisal watched the procession from his balcony as Bell’s coffin was carried to the British cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji district.

Commander David Hogarth wrote Bell’s obituary, emphasising the respect British officials had for her. “No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”

Bell’s stepmother also honoured her by publishing two volumes of letters Bell sent to her and the family about her adventures in the Middle East before the outbreak of World War One. Some of these letters formed part of the documentary Letters from Baghdad, featuring Tilda Swinton (b. 1960) as the voice of Bell. Gertrude Bell’s life was also the basis of the 2015 film Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman (b. 1967).

For her work, Bell was posthumously made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and honoured with a stained glass window at St Lawrence’s Church, East Rounton, North Yorkshire. The window, designed by Douglas Strachan (1875-1950), features Magdalen College, Oxford, where Bell attended university, and Khadimain, Baghdad, where she spent the last year of her life.

As one of the few British people remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection, Bell remained a respected name in Iraq for some time. Unfortunately, as time went on, she disappeared from general public knowledge, with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) taking precedence. With the help of recent films, Gertrude Bell is gradually getting the respect she deserves. Whilst the situation in Iraq and its neighbouring countries still face political struggles and tribal feuds, Bell simultaneously helped the country reform after the fall of the Ottoman Empire whilst preserving the remains of the ancient land. Not only are these enormous feats, but Bell’s achievements also occurred at a time when women were excluded from political work. Despite her views on women’s suffrage, Bell paved the way for women to aspire to careers in archaeology, and for that reason, she deserves the epithet “Queen of the Desert”.


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The Most Beautiful Girl in the Midwest

Hazel, Lady Lavery

“The most beautiful girl in the Midwest” is how the Irish historian Dr Sinéad McCoole (b.1968) describes Lady Lavery, an American woman who became the face of Ireland in the 20th century. Married to a painter, Lady Lavery sat for over 400 paintings, including one reproduced on banknotes for more than 50 years. How did an American woman become the most recognisable face in Ireland?

Lady Lavery was born Hazel Martyn in Chicago on 14th March 1880. Her father, Edward Jenner Martyn, was a descendent of a Galway tribe that dominated the Irish county between the 13th and 16th century. Hazel and her sister Dorothea Hope (1887-1911) grew up in relative comfort due to their father’s success as a businessman. Sadly, Edward passed away when his eldest daughter was only 17 years old, but his wealth allowed Hazel to attend finishing school in the city. She earned a reputation in Chicago high society circles for her beauty, which attracted many suitors, including Edward “Ned” Livingston Trudeau Jr, the son of the doctor who made progress with tuberculosis treatment.

Hazel and her sister enjoyed the arts and, whilst Dorothy aspired to be a playwright, Hazel set her sights on becoming a painter. She regularly visited Europe in pursuit of her dreams, while her fiancé Trudeau waited for her return. On one trip, Hazel attended an artists’ retreat in Brittany, France. Here, she met the Irish painter John Lavery (1856-1941), famed for his portraits and landscapes. Writing home to her mother, Hazel described Lavery with great fondness. Her mother disapproved of the relationship because of their 24 year age difference and urged Hazel to return home to her fiancé.

In 1903, Hazel and Trudeau married in New York. Sadly, five months later, Trudeau tragically died, leaving behind his widow and unborn child. On 10th October 1904, Hazel gave birth to Alice, but it was not an easy pregnancy, and she took several months to recover. In June 1905, Hazel and her mother travelled to the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, England, to aid her recovery. While there, she received several visits from Lavery, with whom she had regularly corresponded since her husband’s death.

On one visit, Lavery painted his first portrait of Hazel and made his affections clear. Hazel’s mother continued to oppose the match and rarely let the couple spend time alone. On a trip to Italy in 1906, Hazel accepted a marriage proposal from Leonard Thomas, a wealthy diplomat, but the relationship did not last. Meanwhile, Hazel remained in contact with Lavery and, after her mother passed away in 1909, they married and moved to London. For a brief time, Hazel divided her time between England and America. After her sister died in 1911 from anorexia nervosa, Hazel cut ties with her birth country.

John Lavery

Whilst born in Belfast, John Lavery grew up in Scotland where he associated with the Glasgow School of art. Lavery launched his career as a society painter after receiving the commission to paint Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition. After moving to London in 1889, Lavery befriended artists such as James Abbott Whistler (1834-1903) who greatly influenced his work.

In London, Lavery married Kathleen MacDermott with whom he had a daughter, Eileen (1890-1930). Sadly, Kathleen passed away from tuberculosis shortly after the birth of her daughter. By the time Lavery met and married Hazel Martyn, he was a well-established artist in the capital city.

Mrs Lavery sketching, 1910

During their early years of marriage, Hazel acted as a London society hostess, welcoming prestigious guests to dinners and soirees or her husband’s studio for a portrait sitting. Whilst Hazel sat for the majority of Lavery’s portraits he also took on commissions. Flirtatious in nature, Hazel enjoyed being the centre of attention, particularly around male guests. Lavery tolerated this vice, but others gossiped about rumoured affairs.

There is no evidence that Hazel did conduct an affair, although she did correspond with many men. Amongst those to whom she regularly wrote are the authors Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). She also knew many politicians due to her husband’s position as an official artist for the British government during the First World War. Future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) famously asked Hazel to teach him to paint during his portrait sittings.

The Artist’s Studio: Lady Lavery with her Daughter Alice and Step-Daughter Eileen

In 1918, John Lavery received a knighthood, making him and his wife Sir and Lady Lavery. The same year, Hazel and John took an active interest in their Irish roots, particularly after the Sinn Féin election victory. Churchill mentioned in his letters to Hazel about his concerns over the growing tensions between Britain and Ireland. The Lavery’s had many social and political contacts in both countries and wished to help bring peace between the nations.

The Laverys lent their house at 5 Cromwell Place in South Kensington as a neutral location for negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863-1945) led the British side with Churchill as Colonial Secretary. Michael Collins (1890-1922), an Irish politician, headed the Irish delegation. Both Churchill and Collins were regular visitors to the Lavery’s house and were grateful to Lady Lavery for her hospitality.

Collins grew fond of Hazel and rumours flew about a potential affair. Some biographers claim Hazel loved Collins, whereas others say there is no proof of a romantic relationship. Nonetheless, members of the delegation questioned their closeness, fearing Hazel to be a spy. She appeased them by calling herself a “simple Irish girl” and converting to Catholicism.

Due to their connections with both British and Irish politicians, the Lavery’s home became a safe place for discussions away from the hostile environment of the courts. Hazel’s presence often diffused bitterness, allowing peaceful talks to take place. Many letters written by Hazel reveal her organisation skills and a gift of persuasion, which helped the negotiations run smoothly. Although Hazel came from America and lived in England, her Irish roots bridged the gap between the warring nations.

Michael Collins: Love of Ireland by John Lavery

The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed on 6th December 1921, thus ending the three-year Irish War of Independence. Ireland gained its freedom, although arguments regarding the status of Northern Ireland continued. Civil War broke out in Ireland and, despite attempts to talk peacefully, Michael Collins was assassinated on 22nd August 1922. Rumours of an affair between Collins and Lady Lavery flew once more when a letter addressed to “Dearest Hazel” was found on his body. Yet, the gossipers were silenced at his funeral when Collins’ fiancé Kitty Kiernan embraced Hazel as though a close friend. As the Irish biographer Anita Leslie (1914-85) put it, Hazel and Collins were “soul mates rather than bed mates”.

Until 1922, Ireland used the British pound; after gaining independence, they wished to create a new currency. Many discussions took place within the Irish government until September 1927, when they publicly introduced their idea of a “Saorstàt Pound”. (Saorstàt is the Irish word for “free state”.) The government planned to issue new coins and banknotes but needed to think carefully about their design. Joseph Brennan (1887-1976), the Chairman of the Currency Commission, set up an advisory committee to discuss design proposals.

Lavery’s portrait of Hazel for the Irish banknotes

The committee approached several artists and printers before commissioning John Lavery to paint an “emblematic female figure” to appear on the new notes. They chose Lavery due to his ongoing support during the war and peace talks as well as his artistic ability. Whereas British notes featured the reigning monarch, the Irish government wanted “an archetypical Irish Cailín or Colleen, symbolic of Irish womanhood.” (Cailín is the Irish word for “girl”.) As the committee expected, Lavery asked his wife to sit for the portrait.

“I really feel that you are too kind and generous when you suggest that my humble head should figure on the note, and you know I said from the first that I thought it wildly improbable, unlikely, impractical, unpopular, impossible that any committee would fall in with such a suggestion. Indeed apart from anything else I think a classic head, some Queen of Ireland, Maeve perhaps, would be best, someone robust and noble and fitted for coinage reproduction …”

Lady Lavery in a letter to Thomas Bodkin on the advisory committee

Having her portrait painted by her husband was not a new thing for Hazel, but knowing she would soon be on every banknote in Ireland was a little unnerving. Nonetheless, Lavery produced a faithful likeness of his wife with her arm resting upon an Irish harp. In the background, he included an Irish landscape. The shawl Hazel wore was also typical of the country. The government paid Lavery 250 guineas for the painting, and the first notes featuring Hazel’s face arrived in September 1928.

The public automatically assumed the portrait on the new notes was Hazel Lavery. Not only had John Lavery painted it, but the likeness was evident. The government attempted to protect Hazel’s identity by openly denying that she was the sitter. They worried people would not accept the notes because of Hazel’s reputation as a flirt and the rumours surrounding her relationship with the late Michael Collins. Fortunately, the public readily accepted the new notes, and the identity of the sitter remained anonymous.

Following the success of the new banknotes, John Lavery received the Freedom of Dublin. Despite this, the Laverys decided to remain living in London, although they frequently visited Ireland. Initially, Hazel remained involved with Irish politics, but changes within the political parties distanced her from those in charge. Lavery continued to paint portraits of his wife and produced other artworks for exhibitions. During this time, Hazel’s health, which had never been good, began to deteriorate.

After a routine operation to remove a wisdom tooth, Hazel passed away on 1st January 1935, aged 54. Her funeral took place at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Knightsbridge area of London, followed by a simple burial in Putney Vale Cemetery. In Ireland, her death received more attention, and the government arranged a memorial service.

Lady Lavery by John Lavery

Although many portraits survive of Lady Hazel Lavery, the paintings she produced during her lifetime are missing. As Churchill’s cousin Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971), said, “Had it not been for Hazel’s portrait as the colleen of Irish banknotes, her features and even her name would now be forgotten in a land which has never accounted gratitude amongst its theological virtues”. Without the banknotes, which Ireland used until the introduction of the Euro in 2002, Hazel’s involvement with the Anglo-Irish Treaty would remain unknown.

In many cases, women are written out of history, not out of malicious intent, but because society did not consider them important at the time. It is with thanks to historians who wondered about the identity of the Irish Cailín on Ireland’s old banknotes that we know anything at all about Lady Lavery. As a result, we have an intriguing story about an American woman who became the face of Ireland. It is a great shame Hazel’s paintings are lost, and that we know little else about her personal life. Hazel’s story contains many unanswered questions but also opens our eyes to the possibilities of many more hidden histories.


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Churchill War Rooms

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Winston Churchill making a radio address from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. © IWM (H 20446)

Everyone has heard stories about the Second World War, Britain’s involvement and the famous speeches of wartime-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. With the conflict still fresh in the older generation’s minds, the media is forever portraying the battles, the bombed-out cities and living conditions of the public on our wide-screened TVs. It is a topic that is unlikely to ever be left alone.

Although documentaries and films tend to focus on the violence and dangers of war, a lot of it was fought in secret, unbeknownst to the general British public. In more recent years, these classified undertakings have gradually been revealed, bringing to light many unsung heroes.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the prime minister during the war, is obviously not overlooked in British history, however, at the time, it was not clear exactly what he was doing. Nevertheless, the hidden location beneath the streets of London, where Britain’s leaders made decisions to lead the country to victory, has been revealed to the public in London’s Westminster. The Cabinet War Rooms were situated underground in the basements of the New Public Offices and since 1984 have been widely available to tourists. The Imperial War Museum has restored many of the rooms to their original appearances to give an authentic insight into the daily life of the War Cabinet. Adding a Churchill Museum in 2005, the site was renamed Churchill War Rooms and celebrates the life of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.

“This is the room from which I will direct the war.” – Winston Churchill, May 1940

After descending the stairs underground, paying a fee of £19, and receiving an audioguide, visitors find themselves in the masses of corridors hidden beneath the Treasury Building (the former New Public Offices) opposite St James’s Park. At some times narrow and claustrophobia-inducing, these corridors connect a series of rooms where vital meetings and work took place during the Second World War. Even the main corridor, now mostly empty, would have been full of typists crammed together at small desks, toiling away at the never-ending piles of written correspondence.

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Cabinet Room at Churchill War Rooms. Source: Imperial War Museum

The audio tour begins with a glance into the Cabinet Room where the Prime Minister would chair meetings with his advisers and Chief of Staff (heads of the army, navy and airforce). The room is displayed exactly as it would have looked like before a meeting commenced, with paper and pencil in front of every seat, and ashtrays ready to receive the ashes from Churchill’s legendary cigar.

Churchill’s position at the table is clearly marked by a posher, more comfortable chair, whereas everyone else had to make do with the uniform basic versions. For the interest of visitors, a diagram is provided detailing the seating plan, explaining the importance of each meeting attendee.

The audioguide directs each visitor around the war rooms, explaining the uses of rooms and adding in interesting bits of information. Although some information boards are positioned around the corridors and rooms, the audioguide is much more beneficial, providing details about and describing the atmosphere during the war years.

There are still secrets to be revealed about the war rooms, mostly because a lot of the rooms were stripped bare at the end of the war with many items being thrown away. Fortunately, the most important rooms were left as they were, and in some cases, photographs have assisted museum workers to reconstruct the various chambers.

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Transatlantic Telephone Room

Some of the secrets the Imperial War Museum has unearthed were not even known to the majority of people who worked there. One of these was the Transatlantic Telephone located off the centre of the main corridor. Originally a storeroom, a lavatory-style lock was added to a door in 1943, giving rise to the rumour that Churchill had been given his own private toilet (there were no flushing toilets available to anyone underground). However, this cupboard-sized room had actually been adapted to accommodate a secure radio-telephone link between the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States of America.

Although not allowed to enter these small rooms, doors are left open so that visitors can peer in at the 1940s decor and furnishings (although rather sparse) and imagine what working underground must have felt like. Also on show are the private rooms such as bedrooms, kitchen and dining areas, built with the intention of being used during bombing raids.

Included in the tour is Churchill’s bedroom, although it is reported he only stayed the night there three times. However, he did make good use of the room, retiring there for a nap during the afternoon. Often, Churchill would dictate his speeches to his Private Secretary whilst lying on his bed, which would then be given to a typist to type out ready for use later in the day. In fact, Churchill made four radio speeches directly from his bedroom using microphones installed for this very purpose. The wall behind the bed is covered with a large map of Europe, implying that the Prime Minister would plot out potential landing sites for invasion.

The most important room of the entire Cabinet War Rooms was the Map Room. Here, officers from the army, navy, airforce and Ministry of Home Security would sit awaiting phonecalls to tell them of the latest news in Europe. This information would then be passed on to “plotters” who would attach pins, ribbons and so forth to wall-sized maps, displaying the latest situation and location of enemies and allies. From these maps, potential courses of military action could be assessed and planned –  a vital contribution to the eventual victory.

To try to prevent confusion, the Map Room contained phones of varying colours, each connecting to different correspondents. White phones were connected to the armed services, black to the outside world, and green to intelligence services. Rather than ringing, which would have caused an incessant racket, the phones would light up to indicate an incoming call.

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The private rooms contain items that had to be sourced elsewhere by researchers because nothing remained of the original furniture and so forth. The Map Rooms, however, were left exactly as they were when the lights were turned off after six years of war. Other items have been fortunate to survive and are also on display around the corridors and rooms to create an authentic appearance. This includes a door complete with key rack where many of the original keys to the rooms still hang, as well as a gun rack mounted on the wall of the corridor (thankfully, the guns are nailed down).

“The greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.” – Clement Attlee, Churchill’s wartime deputy, speaking in the House of Lords the day after Sir Winston’s death

The Cabinet War Rooms were already in use during the year before Churchill became Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain held the first war cabinet meeting on 21st October 1939, however, it is Churchill who the war rooms have now been named after. In some ways, it is thanks to Churchill that the war rooms were built. In a meeting in July 1936, Churchill asked the present Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “Has anything been done to provide one or two alternative centre of command, with adequate deep-laid telephone connections and wireless, from which the necessary orders can be given by some coherent thinking mechanism?”

Despite so many people being involved, Churchill was certainly the leading man in the underground rooms and deserves the recognition he has received. In celebration of his life, a third of the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms takes place in a museum dedicated to the Prime Minister. The Churchill Museum tells the story of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary life from birth until his death at the age of 90.

The museum is split into five sections that can be viewed in any order, although the audioguide suggests sticking to a clockwise path around the exhibits. The most pertinent of the five sections is set between 1940-45, which outlines Churchill’s time as War Leader. The other sections cover his childhood (1874-1900), his entry into politics (1900-29), his political exile (1929-39), and his life after the war (1945-65).

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on 30th November 1874 in Blenheim Palace. His aristocratic parents, Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, sent him to boarding school at the age of eight and had very little to do with his early years. Rather than immediately following his father’s footsteps into politics, Winston opted for a military career, eventually becoming a Boer War journalist for the Morning Post. However, Churchill could not avoid the pull of politics for long, and as of 1900, started a new career as the Conservative candidate for Oldham.

To begin with, Churchill was not the popular man he was destined to become and clashed with many other politicians. With so much antagonism against him, Churchill returned to military service in 1915 until 1924 when he rejoined the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, he fell out of favour with the subsequent Prime Ministers, eventually becoming exiled from politics in 1929. However, with the beginning of the war in 1939, Churchill was given the responsibility of the role of First Lord of the Admiralty and eventually began to earn respect. As a result, at the age of 65, Churchill was chosen as the new Prime Minister after Chamberlain’s resignation.

From 10th May 1940, Churchill supported Britain through the war, working extensively in the Cabinet War Rooms. Evidence of his hard work can be seen in the museum through visual, audio and interactive displays.

02_churchillIn the centre of the museum stands a 15-metre-long, digital, interactive table that provides a timeline of Churchill’s life. By using a touchstrip at the edge of the table, visitors can select and explore dates and events during Churchill’s life, viewing over 2000 documents, images and videos. This lifeline is continuously updated as more is discovered about the prodigious War Hero.

Unlike the War Rooms, preserved in their original appearances, The Churchill Museum is a contemporary feature. With so much to watch, read, hear and touch, the large room becomes crowded and overstimulating as everyone tries to explore the life of the famous figure. But with so much to learn, it is inevitable that the room becomes cramped and filled to capacity. Fortunately, the Imperial War Museum provides an in-depth guidebook which can be purchased at the entrance, or later in the gift shop. However, seeing personal items belonging to Britain’s most famous Prime Minister is much better in person, than within the limited pages of a book.

Following the audioguide and taking time to look at everything in the museum may take a couple of hours. A café is located two-thirds of the way through the tour, providing refreshments and a selection of lunches to replenish people’s energy for the final section, which includes the Map Rooms.

The Churchill War Rooms is a vital place to visit to get a true sense of the wartime efforts of the British government. If you are willing to pay the price (£19 adults, £9.50 children), it is certainly worth a visit. School history lessons barely cover the Second World War in comparison to the information provided in this secret bunker. You are guaranteed to learn something new.

The Churchill War Rooms is only a 20-minute bus ride from IWM London or HMS Belfast. It is also close to a wide range of famous tourist attractions including Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. St James’s Park is also on the doorstep.