Rex Needle: When Lawrence of Arabia visited Bourne

T E Lawrence on his Brough motorcycle. Column by Rex Needle
T E Lawrence on his Brough motorcycle. Column by Rex Needle

It is little known fact that Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, has an unlikely connection with Bourne. Rex Needle explores the story of Lawrence and his friend, the author Frederic Manning.

One of the most charismatic personalities of the last century was Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, whose exploits in the Middle East during the First World War of 1914-18 have become legendary and earned him a place in history.

Any connection with Bourne may seem unlikely yet the evidence indicates that he made several visits to a paying guest at the Bull Hotel in the market place [now the Burghley Arms] who he had befriended several years before.

The young army officer who distinguished himself leading the Arab Revolt left the service after the war disillusioned with the British Government’s policy over Arab independence and sought anonymity in several ways, notably by joining the Royal Air Force in 1925 as Aircraftsman Shaw, one of the pseudonyms he adopted, and was based for a time at Cranwell, near Sleaford.

After basic training, he was sent to the Officer Cadet College there and in his book The Mint, published in 1936, he writes about his beloved motor cycle on which he felt free and released. The Brough Superior was one of seven he owned, the fastest available in England, and he describes an exhilarating race with a low flying light aircraft which he encountered during a journey through the South Lincolnshire countryside.

He was on one of England’s straightest and fastest roads, unidentified in the text but most probably the old Roman road known as Ermine Street that runs from Colsterworth through Ancaster to Lincoln (now the B6403), when a Bristol Fighter from a neighbouring aerodrome roared overhead, banking sharply round and Lawrence waved a greeting. The pilot pointed down the road towards Lincoln and the motor bike followed through the stubble fields at more than 100 mph, the plane zooming low among trees and telegraph poles until it finally turned and headed for home, the pilot waving back as long as he went.

Lawrence is thought to have visited Bourne on his motor cycle several times but his last intended trip failed to materialise. He had become friendly with the Australian writer Frederic Manning, author of the novel Her Privates We, one of the most highly regarded books to emanate from the Great War, written mainly at the Bull Hotel in Bourne where he stayed for long periods, even calling his hero Private Bourne.

Manning (1882-1935) had originally come to England from Australia with his tutor, the Rev Alan Galton, who had been appointed Vicar of Edenham in 1904, and liked the area so much that he often returned after Galton died in 1910, lodging with friends or as a long stay guest at the Bull Hotel. His book was published anonymously in 1929 although the identity of the author was an open secret among literary figures of the day.

Lawrence recognised from his earlier works that it had been written by Manning, admiring it perhaps because he saw in him a kindred spirit, a theme springing from a deep sense of isolation and suffering, and he telephoned the publisher Peter Davies at his office in London to congratulate him on “this masterpiece”. Davies eventually introduced them and their friendship began, mostly by letter, although there were also several meetings.

But Manning was unwell and had been consulting Dr John Galletly who ran his surgery from his home in North Road. The doctor became increasingly concerned about his patient’s health and arranged for him to move to a nursing home at Hampstead in London, driving him there in his own motor car, but he died there on February 22, 1935, aged 52, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Lawrence, by then stationed at the Royal Air Force base at Bridlington in Yorkshire, had intended to visit him on his motor cycle around this time but on February 28, he wrote to Peter Davies: “On Tuesday, I took my discharge from the RAF and started southward by road, meaning to call at Bourne and see Manning. But today I turned eastward instead, hearing that he was dead. How I wish, for my own sake, that he hadn’t slipped away in this fashion but how like him. He was too shy to let anyone tell him how good he was.”

Sadly, Lawrence himself was to die in a motor cycle accident near his home in Dorset just over two months later. His search for seclusion in the ranks had involved a previous spell with the RAF in 1922 under the name of John Hume Ross but his true identity leaked out and he was forced to leave, subsequently enlisting in the Tank Corps in March 1923 as Private Thomas Edward Shaw. But he was unhappy there and persuaded the War Office to enable him return to the RAF in August 1925, again under the name of Shaw.

In 1949, while serving as a regular soldier with the Royal Tank Regiment, the new name for the Tank Corps, I was posted to Bovington Camp in Dorset and found myself in the barrack hut that had been occupied by Lawrence. Curiosity about the man resulted in many visits to Cloud’s Hill, the isolated cottage two miles away that became his home in his final years, and to the spot on the road where he lost his life on May 13, 1935, after returning from a visit on his Brough Superior to the post office at Wool village to send a telegram. He encountered two errand boys on bicycles and swerved to avoid them but was thrown off, suffering serious injuries from which he died in the camp hospital five days later. He is buried in the nearby quiet churchyard at Moreton where a simple headstone marks his grave that has become a place of pilgrimage for many.

Lawrence was an enigmatic and lonely individual of high principles whose life became an inspiration to many young men in future generations and continues to fascinate to this day while his friend Frederic Manning is remembered in Bourne by a blue plaque erected by the town council on the front of the Burghley Arms in June 2009.