Getrude Bell, Queen of the Desert

SHE was the ironmaster's daughter who helped create the state of Iraq. Her adventurous, political, love-lorn life was so extraordinary she has been depicted onscreen by Hollywood legend Nicole Kidman. And yet Gertrude Bell is largely forgotten in our green, wet region, the place that she called home all her life for all her exotic meetings with TE Lawrence and Winston Churchill in wild, dry deserts of the Middle East. 

It's hoped a new exhibition about this archaeologist, writer and "Queen of the Desert", at The Great North Museum in Newcastle and a book about her life, In Search of Kings and Conquerors by Lisa Cooper, will help change that. Bell was born in 1868 at Washington New Hall, County Durham, in 1868, into a family of foundry owners, she grew up in Redcar and near Northallerton. 

Her grandfather, Newcastle man Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, described by a biographer as being "as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel" was an ironmaster in Newcastle and Washington and was highly innovative, inventive multi-award winning metallurgist. He was also an important national, politician serving as MP for North Durham - where he was deselected after his agents were found to have intimated witnesses in 1874 - and The Hartlepools. 

Sir Isaac moved the family from Washington to Rounton Grange, near Northallerton, after an illegally young chimney sweep died in his house in 1872, aged just seven. Gertrude Bell's own father, Sir Hugh Bell, was almost equally as impressive. Director of Bell's foundry in Middlesbrough he became the town's mayor three times as well as the High Sheriff of Durham 1895 and Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding of Yorkshire. 

Like his father he was a director of the North Eastern Railway, and had a private platform on the line between Middlesbrough and Redcar at the bottom of his garden at his and Gertrude's house, Redbarns, Redcar, But Gertrude outshone them both. In fact she could, for good or ill, fairly be described as one of the creators of the modern world for her work in the Middle East, particularly in helping to found modern Iraq. 

And her wider achievements are astonishing. At a time when women were really second hand citizens, she was allowed to study at Oxford and became that university's first woman ever to be awarded a 'first' for her degree, in modern history. A leading archaeologist of the age, founding the internationally important Iraqi Archaeological Museum, she was a famous travel writer, spoke seven languages including Persian and Arabic and was an important spy, providing first-hand witness accounts of the genocide in Armenia. 

But her most important role was as a sort-of diplomat and politician in her beloved Middle East. Trusted by key tribal leaders she worked with TE Lawrence, 'of Arabia,' who she described as a man who could "ignite fires in cold rooms." She helped create a king and and advised a queen on fashion. But it was her work drawing up the borders of Iraq that are her most important and controversial contribution to world history. 

Her suggestion nearly 100 years ago for the borders of modern Iraq was ultimately sanctioned on Winston Churchill, who had a keen key on Britain's oil interests in the region, and there has been trouble between Kurds, Shi'as and Sunnis in the country and beyond ever since. Her defenders point out she had a clear understanding of the region's problems and that they supremely difficult to solve. 

Predictably, despite all these achievements and many more, it is her love life which has attracted much attention from the film-makers, especially her long-term romance with a married army officer, Charles Doughty-Wylie. He was a man who loved the Turkish people so much he wouldn't bear a weapon even as he led an assault during the battle of Gallipoli where he was killed, posthumously being awarded the Victoria Cross. 

Understandable attempts to laud Gertrude Bell, who never married and never had children, as a feminist icon founder on the fact that she was, inexplicably, a member of the Anti-Suffrage League, arguing against votes for women. Perhaps she changed her mind by the time of her death at a time the Bell family fortunes were declining. She died in in Baghdad in 1926, a result of an overdose of sleeping pills. No-one knows if it was suicide. 

There is a stained glass window depicting her at St Lawrence's Church in her beloved East Rounton. It is a simple, beautiful and more lasting tribute to this great figure of North-East history than the terrible, slushy Nicole Kidman movie about her love life. She should not be forgotten again. The exhibition at the Great North Museum in Newcastle will run until Tuesday, May 3. 

by Chris Webber


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