GERTRUDE AND FLORENCE
It is 22 March 1921, the last day of the Cairo Conference and the final opportunity for the British to determine the postwar future of the Middle East. Like any tourists, the delegation make the routine tour of the pyramids and have themselves photographed on camels in front of the Sphinx. Standing beneath its half-effaced head, two of the most famous Englishmen of the twentieth century confront the camera in some disarray: Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who has just, to the amusement of all, fallen off his camel, and T. E. Lawrence, tightly constrained in the pin-striped suit and trilby of a senior civil servant. Between them, at her ease, rides Gertrude Bell, the sole delegate possessing knowledge indispensable to the Conference. Her face, in so far as it can be seen beneath the brim of her rose-decorated straw hat, is transfigured with happiness. Her dream of an independent Arab nation is about to come true, her choice of a king endorsed: her Iraq is about to become a country. Just before leaving the Semiramis Hotel that morning, Churchill has cabled to London the vital message "Sharif's son Faisal offers hope of best and cheapest solution."
By what evolution did a female descendant of Cumbrian sheep farmers become, in her time, the most influential figure in the Middle East? She was as English as English can be, which is to say that she was bred in the wuthering heights of Yorkshire. These northern farmers have acquired a very particular character ever since the eleventh century, when, alone among the English, they refused to submit to William the Conqueror. Physically and mentally tough, they are given to few words, unvarnished and bluntly delivered.
Gertrude Bell's great-great-grandfather was a Carlisle blacksmith, and her great-grandfather began the first alkali factory and iron foundry at Jarrow. Her famous and powerful grandfather Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, born in 1816, was a metallurgical chemist and perhaps the country's foremost industrialist. Manufacturing steel on a huge scale, he produced one-third of the metal used in Britain and much of that used for railtrack and bridge construction in the rapidly developing Empire. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, Britain's most distinguished scientific institution. Educated first as an engineer, he studied at Edinburgh University and at the Sorbonne in Paris, then in Denmark and the south of France. Author of The Chemical Phenomena of Iron Smelting, he was looked upon as the "high priest of British Metallurgy" and he was the first to identify the value of phosphorus fertiliser as a by-product of steel-making. Referred to as "Sir Isaac" or more familiarly as "Lowthian," in 1854
he was elected Lord Mayor of Newcastle upon Tyne, then later be-
came Liberal Member of Parliament for Hartlepool and High Sheriff
of County Durham. He was a contemporary and friend of Charles
Darwin, Thomas Huxley, William Morris, and John Ruskin, men to whom can be attributed seminal advances in evolution and science, art, architecture, and social reform. Lowthian was president or vice-president of eight national engineering and chemical institutions, several of
which he had founded. He was also the director of the North Eastern Railway.
With Lowthian's two brothers John and Tom, Bell Brothers owned collieries, quarries, and iron ore mines; factories and foundries whose furnaces, burning twenty-four hours a day, regularly reddened the night skies. His company and its associates employed more than forty-seven thousand men, and the family boast was that they would make anything "from a needle to a ship." Besides the first iron and steel works in Newcastle, and the second at Port Clarence in Middlesbrough, he set up a chemical plant for the country's first manufacture of aluminium—until then, a metal as valuable as gold. On the factory's opening day, he was driven in his carriage through the streets of Newcastle in an aluminium top hat, which he doffed to the crowd. He was the first British ironmaster to own a machine for making steel rope.
Lowthian wrote several scientific books, but his most remarkable was a comprehensive and logical assessment of Britain's prospects for competing with the world in steel production. He invested heavily in research into the process of steel-making, and was determined to push Britain into developing new technological industries. In the hope that all of British industry would follow his example, he advocated government support for scientific research and technical development. But in this,
after a lifetime's work, he failed. As he had forecast, other countries—and particularly Germany with its Krupps armaments and Thyssen steel—grew in technical competence and productivity, outstripping Britain and building the wealth and power they were to wield in the
First World War.
A formidable giant of a man, a paterfamilias who would have almost sixty grandchildren—the number is disputed—Lowthian and his wife, Margaret Pattinson, set a pattern for the Bells of comfortable rather than lavish lifestyle. Considering the huge scale of his enterprises, and his position as the Bill Gates of his day, he did not live extravagantly. This may have had something to do with Margaret's influence: she came from a family of shopkeepers and scientists. His first house, Washington New Hall—four miles south of Newcastle upon Tyne, a stone's throw from the home of the ancestors of George Washington—was not quite a mansion, and the house he built at the zenith of his power, Rounton Grange, was not quite a stately home. He toyed with Gothic, but settled for William Morris's humbler Arts and Crafts style, with its emphasis on traditional artisan skills as a panacea for the ravages wreaked by the Industrial Revolution. This would remain the characteristic style of the Bells' private houses and public buildings. Unlike many heirs to great fortunes, Lowthian's elder son Hugh, Gertrude's father, also lived modestly for a captain of industry. His own first house, Red Barns, at the fishing village of Redcar on the Yorkshire coast, a short train journey from Clarence, reflected this. After Lowthian's death, the house he owned in London was sold, the money presumably divided between Hugh and his siblings—Charles, Ada, Maisie, and Florence.
Lowthian was admired rather than loved, and appears to have been dictatorial and harsh towards his family. Gertrude and her sisters and brothers addressed him as "Pater." An illustrated family alphabet they drew up for Christmas at Rounton in 1877, when Gertrude was nine, reflects the feelings of the children towards their abrasive grandfather.
A for us All come to spend Christmas week
B for our Breathless endeavours to speak
C is the Crushing Contemptuous Pater . . .
Elsa, Gertrude's younger half-sister, has added: "Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell" in pencil, lest it be thought that this description referred to the gentler and kindlier Hugh.
A family story suggests the awe with which "Pater" was regarded by the Bells. Lowthian forbade anyone to use his horses. When one of his granddaughters fainted one evening at dinner from a riding injury (a broken collarbone), everyone conspired to hide the truth: she had borrowed one of his horses and gone hunting with the gentry. The children's grandmother Margaret could be as scathing as Lowthian. A teatime visitor once said to her hostess: "Your scones are lovely." "So I see," retorted the old lady. "Your hand has not been out of the dish since you arrived."
Some previously unknown stories about Lowthian emerged recently from papers found in one of the Bell houses, Mount Grace Priory, the ruined medieval abbey where Gertrude's father and stepmother ended their days. English Heritage was renovating the house before opening it to the public when they found the papers hidden under the floorboards. Among them is a reference to a tragic event at Washington New Hall, where "in 1872 a seven-year-old sweep was suffocated in the Hall chimney." If the little boy met his end in Lowthian's chimney in 1872, the ironmaster had comprehensively broken the law. Parliament had forbidden the use of children as chimney-sweeps a full twenty-six years earlier. Sir Isaac may have known nothing about the presence of the chimney-sweep until it was too late; however, whether because he was deeply upset or because he wanted to escape a damaging association, he moved into the newly built Rounton Grange as soon as possible, and let Washington New Hall stand empty and unsold. Nineteen years later, he gave it away as a home for waifs and strays, on condition it was renamed "Dame Margaret's Hall"; today, it is divided into pleasant apartments. Not perhaps unconnected with this story is the fact that many years later Hugh Bell successfully lobbied for a parliamentary bill to protect children from dangerous work. (In the 1860s, the Earl of Shaftesbury
reported that children of four and five were still working in certain factories from six in the morning until ten at night.)
The papers found under the boards also contained the sentence, "On one winter's night [Sir Isaac] came out of the Hall to find his coachman frozen stiff on the box-seat of his carriage." The facts remain mysterious. The unfortunate coachman may have had a heart attack rather than dying of exposure, and yet it emerges clearly that consideration for others was not, perhaps, Lowthian's principal quality.
The author of these papers, which contain many confirmable facts about Lowthian's life and work, may have been Miss K. E. M. Cooper Abbs, a Bell relation who was the last tenant to live at Mount Grace. If she was moved to record Lowthian's life, it may be because she was incensed that, whether by accident or intent, so many family papers and archives were burnt by members of the family after his death. There is to this day no biography of the man who was as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
A more lovable, more charming man, Gertrude's father, Sir Hugh, led the Bell industries and inherited a vast fortune. Like his father, he was educated in Edinburgh, at the Sorbonne, and in Germany, where he studied mathematics and organic chemistry. He began work at eighteen at the Bell Brothers Ironworks in Newcastle, became director of the growing Port Clarence steelworks that dominated the grimy roofscape of Middlesbrough, and eventually ran the entire business and all its ramifications. He dug the ironstone from the Cleveland hills, worked the coal from Durham, brought the limestone from the backbone of England, lived on the Tees, and was a director of the North Eastern Railway, which brought the raw material to the steel foundry. His public works were second to none, especially after his second marriage to Florence Olliffe. He built schools and founded libraries, constructed meeting houses and workers' terraces, made a community centre for staff and labourers at Rounton and paid for a holiday home for worthy families needing a country break from life at the works. He also constructed the famous Transporter Bridge, which is still used to ferry workers and tourists quickly and cheaply over the River Tees. In 1906 he became Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding, welcoming royalty and other VIPs whenever they ventured into the windswept Yorkshire landscape, and was three times elected Mayor of Middlesbrough.
In supplying the Empire, the Bells brought a global view to British industry. Sir Hugh was an accomplished public speaker, delivering persuasive messages on such subjects as free trade, which he passionately endorsed, and home rule for the Irish, which he passionately opposed. You can hear in his published speeches the vigour and humour with which he captivated audiences of all types and classes. In his words:
Free Trade is like the quality of mercy: it is twice blessed, for it blesses him that gives and him that takes, and I for one will do nothing to place any restriction upon it. The Free market is the greatest safeguard we have against the tyranny of wealth. I look forward with dread to the accumulation of great fortunes in single hands . . . There are millions of persons in this country depending upon weekly wages, upon work which may be discontinued at the end of any week. It is with them I am concerned, and about them that I am perturbed, and not about the class to which I belong.
He welcomed the rise of the new trade unions, while warning that the writings of Karl Marx could lead socialists into revolutionary movements that would destroy British industry and employment in the competitive world that he endorsed.
When Gertrude was born, Queen Victoria had been on the throne for thirty years. She was driven by Prince Albert's relentless determination to replace the louche self-indulgence of Georgian Britain with Victorian industry and propriety. Britain, and particularly England, led the world in technical superiority—as evinced in that paeon to the Empire, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. The British army, able to call on troops from around the world, represented what was probably the greatest military power of all time; the British navy held control of the oceans and the trade across them, and kept the peace. If those other empires, the Russian and the Ottoman, were still in a state of feudal serfdom and of institutionalized corruption at every level, the British example, inspired by Victoria and Albert, brought at least a concern for moderation, philanthropy, and honest dealing. By the mid-nineteenth century, the concept of Empire was evolving from one of commercial exploitation to one capable of taking a pride in honest and benevolent government. Commercially aggressive but socially responsible, the Bells personified the new mood, and they enjoyed all the confidence of the right people in the right place at the right time.
Hugh married Mary Shield when he was twenty-three, choosing a local girl who was the daughter of a prominent merchant of Newcastle upon Tyne. They were married on the Scottish island of Bute on the Clyde, where the Shields kept a holiday home. Their first child, Gertrude, was born in 1868 at Washington New Hall, the home of Hugh's father. Family life centred on this larger-than-life industrialist who had made the Bells the sixth-richest family in England. He could not have been easy to live with, nor the house peaceful, and there are many intimations of his bombastic temperament and caustic wit. Although Hugh, his elder son, had an inclination for the political life, he had had it made brutally clear to him that his future lay in Middlesbrough, with the fastest-growing part of the iron business. Lowthian, based at the original works in Newcastle, would descend on the new Port Clarence steelworks at irregular intervals, to scrutinize and doubtless criticize every aspect of Hugh's work.
It would have been with great relief that Hugh and Mary moved with their two-year-old daughter out of Washington New Hall for a quieter domestic life of their own. It was not to last long. Beautiful but delicate, Mary survived only three weeks after the birth of their second child, Maurice, in 1871.
Hugh became for a time a poignant figure. When he had built Red Barns at Redcar, he had imagined a healthy and happy seaside life there for his family. Now, his sister Ada moved in to run the house and look after the children. Hugh was working six days a week at Clarence, and now had to share his Sundays with his sister, a wet-nurse, and some half-dozen servants. His moments of freedom were spent on the beach or in the countryside hand-in-hand with his lively little daughter—Maurice being as yet too young for walks—talking to her and searching her candid face for a likeness to her mother. From these early days the closest of loving father-daughter relationships developed between them, one that would last all her life.
Hugh's situation was appealing. A charming young widower whose wife's death had left him with two motherless children, he would have been a catch even without being heir to a large fortune. His warm sense of humour and his mischievous yet kindly smile were particularly engaging. Nevertheless, daughters of the aristocracy would have regarded marriage to a Bell as a step down; and Hugh, in any case, was no snob. Maisie had overcome the resistance of Lady Stanley of Alderley in marrying her witty son Lyulph, later Lord Sheffield. This formidable woman was known for her habit of turning away from a conversation on one side to loudly remark to her neighbour on the other that "Fools are so
fatiguin." She was the grandmother of Bertrand Russell, and had
been one of the founders of Girton College, Cambridge. For allowing the marriage of her son to Maisie, Lady Stanley considered herself
very broadminded: the Bells, after all, were "trade." "As Sir Hugh was a multi-millionaire, I was not very impressed," Bertrand Russell was to
Ada, a pretty and gregarious young woman, missed London and doubtless resented being forced into the unappetizing role of spinster aunt, so well known to unmarried Victorian women. It was not long before she and her sister Maisie had someone in mind for Hugh, and they hatched a plot to bring the two together.
They had met Florence Eveleen Eleanore Olliffe, twenty-two years old, through their shared interest in music. She was studying at the Royal College and sang in the Bach Choir. She had moved to London in 1870 from Paris, where her father, the distinguished and agreeable Sir Joseph Olliffe, had been physician to the British Embassy. Her Easter holidays had been spent at the Surrey house of her grandfather Sir William Cubitt, MP, sometime Lord Mayor of London. At other times she would stay with her great-uncle Thomas,* at his Hampshire estate, Penton Lodge. Summer holidays had been spent at Trouville or Deauville, fashionable seaside resorts for wealthy Parisian families. When, at the onset of the Franco-Prussian War, her father had suddenly died, the family had had to leave France fast. Florence was nineteen when she said goodbye to Paris and went to live far less glamorously at 95 Sloane Street in London, in a narrow, dingy house, all dusty red velvet and heavy furniture, with a lingering smell of tomcat. English society of the time, once described as "a series of shut doors," must have seemed a painful contrast with the brilliant cosmopolitan world she had just left.
Florence was tall and slim with blue, rather hooded eyes, and dark hair. She was very sociable, and spoke English with a slight and charming French accent. Maisie saw to it that when Hugh went up to London, Florence was included in family parties, while Ada invited her once or twice to visit her at Red Barns. After these visits the six-year-old Gertrude found herself under pressure from her aunt to write fond letters to Flor-ence, signing herself "Your affectionate little friend."
Ada and Maisie's plan almost misfired. They tried too hard to throw the two together, and it did not take Florence long to guess what they were up to. She would never marry an Englishman, she declared, and she said it with increasing force over the two years during which Hugh failed to propose. Hugh's reaction to his sisters' pressure to remarry was to tell Ada that he would never do so, and to dig himself deeper and deeper into his work. Yet Florence's description of her first sight of Hugh, framed in a tunnel of roses in Maisie's garden, suggests her heart was immediately engaged. She saw him "looking beautiful, but very sad
. . . with thick curly hair and a beard of a bright auburn colour."
Part of Hugh's difficulty, as he grew more interested in Florence, was in imagining that a woman brought up in the most sophisticated milieu of the most beautiful city in the world could settle down near Middlesbrough. One biographer of Gertrude described her own impressions of the city at the same period, when for the first time she visited an aunt who lived there: "The district round Middlesbrough and Tees side to the sea was caked with grime . . . For twenty miles the air smelt of chemicals and ash and soot, as the crowded houses smelt of cabbage, cheese and cat. Basements . . . were covered with black, gluey mud whenever it rained." The term "day-darkness" was coined to describe the smog of industry; and in particular, Middlesbrough and Cleveland were said by a contemporary to "succeed in almost excluding daylight from the district."
Redcar, a cobbled village raked by the storm-force sea winds of North Yorkshire and soon to develop into a small town, was the dormitory where many wealthy Middlesbrough industrialists were building their new family homes. (The big house next door to the Bells, for instance, belonged to an eminent metallurgist.) Here they raised their children away from the soot and polluted atmosphere, forming an elite milieu still lagging some way behind the society to which Florence had been used.
Life here was likely to be a daunting prospect for a young woman used to an hôtel particulier in the rue Florentin, its elegant courtyard secreted away behind decorative eighteenth-century gates. Born in 1851, the tumultuous first year of the Second Empire under Napoleon III,
Florence had taken her daily walk with her nurse in the Jardin des Tui-
leries, where she could ride in decorated carriages, bowl her hoop, or buy barley-sugar twists and honey gingerbread from the stalls with their striped and scalloped awnings. Just around the corner from their house was the Place de la Concorde with its "jewelled cascades springing and spurting hilariously." Much later, she was to write: "What a privilege to be born in Paris. To know Paris first, to know it all the time, to grow up in one of the most beautiful parts of it, to take it all for granted, to belong to it, and have it belong to me. Isn't that enough?" Despite civic upheavals, she had had a very happy childhood, settling contentedly at a little tutorial cours that provided an education somewhere between that of a personal governess and a small private school, without learning much more than good manners and music.
The woman that Ada and Maisie had picked for Hugh was, in fact, an extraordinarily appropriate choice. The daughter of a physician, Flor-ence was neither "trade" nor aristocracy, and she harboured a couple of passions that outweighed all the disadvantages of Middlesbrough: she adored children and domestic life. There was a dispossessed aspect to this recent immigrant, adrift in London and still homesick for Paris. She longed for the security of her own household, and had already formed dozens of opinions on the education of children and the right and wrong ways of running a home. Life could hold no greater excitement than the gift of her own domain, wherever that might be.
Hugh finally succumbed to his sisters' scheme, and to Florence, on the night of the private staging of an opera that she had written. Bluebeard was performed by friends and relations on 4 June 1876, at Lady Stanley's house in Harley Street. Ada and Maisie were to sing, and the pianist Anton Rubinstein was to play. Hugh afterwards asked if he might take Florence home. Descending from the coach at the front door of 95 Sloane Street, he escorted Florence into the drawing-room. "Lady Olliffe," he told her mother, "I have brought your daughter home—and I have come to ask if I may take her away again." In answer to this graceful speech, Lady Olliffe burst into tears.
On 10 August, after their quiet wedding in the small church in Sloane Street, they spent an urbane honeymoon in Washington, DC, as guests of Florence's much-loved sister Mary and her husband, Frank La-scelles, then a secretary at the British Embassy. Returning to London, they took the train north. At this first homecoming Florence was trembling with emotion at what was to her, and perhaps would be to any new bride and stepmother, a truly momentous occasion. As the heirs of the director of the North Eastern Railway, the Hugh Bells were transport royalty. At Middlesbrough the stationmaster doffed his hat and ushered them onto the train to Redcar. Many years later, Florence's daughter Lady Richmond was to remember an occasion when she was seeing her father off from King's Cross, and he had remained on the platform so that they could talk until the train left. The packed train failed to leave on time. Remarking on its lateness, they continued to talk until they were approached by a guard. "If you would like to finish your conversation, Sir Hugh," he suggested, doffing his hat, "we will then be ready to depart." The train to and from Redcar had a personal Bell stopping place on a tiny platform inside the Red Barns garden. Hugh, returning from the works, could simply step out of the train and cross the rose garden by the fountain to reach his own back door. Gertrude, who was always waiting there, would greet him joyfully. When she was small, he carried her to the house on his shoulders, then when she was a little older she would seize his case of papers and run alongside him, talking at the top of her voice.
On the couple's return from their honeymoon, both children would have been washed and brushed and be waiting on the Bell platform to greet them. The staff would have been lined up behind them, ready to curtsy or bow. Florence, hoping to make a firm bond with them from the start, had intended, as soon as she arrived, to ask Gertrude and Maurice to show her into every corner of the house, from cellar to attic. However, to her dismay they had been joined at Middlesbrough by Hugh's brother, Charles, who, with the kindest of intentions but no sensitivity at all, accompanied them to Red Barns. Hugh, equally unromantic, went straight to his office on the ground floor and started to go through his papers. Abandoned with Charles in the drawing-room, and passionately want-
ing him to go, Florence made distracted conversation while her
new brother-in-law sat solidly in an armchair, also stuck for something
A contented Ada departed for London, and a new life began for eight-year-old Gertrude and five-year-old Maurice. Since children of that age do not naturally assume that their parents have a life independent of their own, they must have been shocked to hear that their father had married Florence. Talking about their new stepmother later, it was Maurice's guess that she was eighty, but his sister thought that she might be quite a bit younger. Perhaps, she suggested, Florence was sixty. Poor Flor-ence was actually twenty-four, eight years younger than Hugh.
And so came into Gertrude's life the good-hearted woman who would influence and form her more than any other, sometimes in opposition but chiefly in fundamental and positive ways. Florence had many talents. She had a keen appreciation of music and literature; she wrote books, essays, and plays; she was able to get on with all kinds of people; and she was deeply interested in sociology and the education of children. Everything she did remained within the limits of the roles she considered the most important for a woman, those of wife and mother. She gave herself unstintingly to her family while achieving a body of work in the community that would earn her public recognition, and eventually make her a Dame of the British Empire. The drawing-room dramas and comedies she liked to write were initially for the children to perform at Christmas and other family gatherings. In time, through the intervention of theatrical friends, she would have three plays put on in the West End. Characteristically, she chose to remain anonymous.
Florence was nonplussed at first by northern manners. As soon as she met her neighbours, she began to institute an "at home" on Tuesdays, when she hoped couples would drop in for light refreshments (nonalcoholic). She was mystified to discover that Yorkshiremen did not accompany their wives on this sort of occasion. Her biographer Kirsten Wang writes that when one lady turned up at the Bells' with her husband she disconcerted Florence by whispering: "I managed to bring Mr. T with me. I had such a work to make him come!" Apparently believing there was safety in numbers, the women would arrive together, then seat themselves as far apart as possible, after which a silence would fall. A desperate Florence, offering them chairs closer to the fire, would meet with the response: "Thank you, I am very well where I am." In one of her books Florence writes of her heroine, a teacher who had newly come north: "The girl was ill at ease with the downright Yorkshire women who surrounded her . . . In that class of life when people have nothing to say they say nothing; their rough blunt manner, when they did speak, alarmed her still more. Nevertheless, the women after their fashion, were not unkind to her." The new Mrs. Bell persevered, and before long her "entertainments" were obligatory events in the life of the town.
But Florence was far more interested in cementing her relationship with Hugh's children. The eight-year-old observed her in speculative fashion. This stranger who had burst into their family life had something about her that the child would not have recognized: a Parisian polish in both her manner and her dress. Although Florence was essentially serious and inclined to the moralistic, she never criticized an individual's interest in her appearance or derided a love of clothes as frivolous. Her carefully considered opinions on this and other subjects were often expressed obliquely. She was an intensely private person and preferred to give her views in the form of stories or essays. In one, she wrote of the heroine:
Ursula had what the French call "genre" . . . The nearest English equivalent to the expression is "style," but that . . . suggests being dashing and assertive; "genre" is a grace inherent in the wearer, and does not depend upon clothes, but upon the way they are put on. And the reason there is no word for it in English, is that the thing is so rarely found that it is unnecessary to have a term on purpose.
Excerpted from Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell. Copyright © 2006 by Manoir La Roche Ltd.. Published in Aril 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.