Friday, 28 August 2009

of the desert, shipbuilding and Cheshire

Many years ago, when I felt I had to try and read every book ever written (remember the feeling?), I battled my way through Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence. He remains one of the most engaging and enigmatic figures associated with the 20th century.

This prompted Henry, my paternal grandfather to tell me a story which fascinated me then and along with others, has done ever since.
After 12 years service in HM Royal Marines, including WW1, my grandfather took up a position with
W.J.Yarwood & Sons, shipbuilders of Northwich, Cheshire. It was here that my grandfather met Lawrence and played a very minor part in maritime history.

Lawrence on the left at the shipyard, probably with one of the Yarwood brothers

Lawrence, a quiet man, introspective and shy, and having been hounded by the press was anxious to keep his identity secret, though of course he was instantly recognised by the landlord of the Crown and Anchor pub where he lodged and one or two employees at Yarwood’s as well.

My grandfather was one of those men and he told me how he would sometimes walk with Lawrence afterwork to the town bridge, where they parted company until the next day. I longed to know of the conversation they exchanged but all my grandfather said was that it amounted to nothing more than observations about the weather and the progress at work. One thing he did say with a twinkle in his eye was that Lawrence knew that my grandfather knew who he was and the fact remained unspoken.....such is life!

Fortunately no-one gave him away and journalists did not discover his visit until after he had left Cheshire.

So how was it that 'Lawrence of Arabia', under the psuedonym, Aircraftsman T.E.Shaw, came to work in Cheshire for a brief period in 1934 ?

The answer is, no-one knows for certain, even now over seventy years later.

Because of Lawrence’s involvement in the ship being built at Yarwood's, many theories have been put forward, and embroidered, about the Aquarius, the most popular that it was trialling top-secret radar tests. However, in 1934 this would have been highly improbable.

Another was that the Aquarius was conducting highly secret research in ASDIC, named after the 1917 Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee.

The most likely reason was as a result of an incident whilst he was stationed at a flying boat base in Plymouth Sound. A flying boat crashed into the water and the Admirality tenders were so heavy and slow that by the time they got to the wreckage, nine of the twelve crew had drowned.

Lawrence remained in Northwich for about three weeks and then stayed on board the Aquarius during the acceptance trials on the Mersey, after which she sailed to Plymouth. After taking on board stores and 'special equipment', Aquarius then made her 9,000-mile maiden voyage to Singapore, to serve as a depot ship for flying boats.

All we do know without doubt is where Lawrence of Arabia was for 3 weeks in 1934 - the rest I think, will forever remain a mystery.

Have a grand Friday all.......


  1. Hello Michael,

    Interesting bit of history. I had this book once upon a time, never read! The film is marvellous, of course. Lawrence must have been unfathomable I think.

  2. I've always been fascinated by the enigmatic Lawrence. Fun that your grandfather actually met him. Interesting post, Mick.

    Love your new blue digs over here!

  3. My father had a copy of this 1926 version of which only 100 copies of the 200 printed, were for public sale. It was lost. I later found that this version can fetch up to USD100,000 at auction!!! I think my mother in one of her 'less is more' moments disposed of the book!!!!

    Fascinating history here and don't you just love history? You grandfather played a role, minor or not and wasn't it the gentlemanly thing to do, to not 'prod' the man into revealing himself. How very telling of the times, unlike today.

    I have always been fascinated by Lawrence. I would never doubt his actions but am almost sure the film romanticized him. I also think that he was a hero in the Middle East and had great difficulty later functioning in a British society.

  4. Yes, he was indeed a fascinating character and I agree, oft times history lends a romantic slant to such people. I think he was shunned by the British ruling classes later in his life. He certainly was an off beat character through all of life, from his university days onwards - a complete enigma.

  5. It is these off beat characters that make life interesting Michael, isn't it? My first husband (who died in 1991) met Lawrence at Cranwell in Lincolnshire. When we were children everyone had heard of him. I thought the film was tremendous - wonder what he would have thought of it all.