Mabel’s family, the Hall-Dares of Newtownbarry, were in the first wave of Co. Wexford gentry to adopt the horseless carriage – although in all probability not a Merc, the first of which rolled off the production lines as late as 1926 apparently.
This vehicle, illustrated above, is now resignedly, like an old grey, seeing out its retirement in a public carpark in Plakias, south-western Crete, a hundred metres or so from the shores of the Libyan Sea. As a marque of respect, the researchers of the Bent Archive, recently in the area (May 2022), resorted to Mabel Bent’s Chronicle of April 1885 to confirm that the nearest the Bents got to Plakias (a huddle of fishermen’s huts at the time) was from some way out to sea, heading west for Kythera on the steamer Roumelifrom Karpathos.
In fact, in their twenty years of inseparable travelling, Theodore and Mabel only landed once on Crete, then in the hands of the Turks, storm-sheltering at Kaloi Limenes/Kali Limenes, further to the east of Plakias, after their protracted investigations in the Dodecanese (early months, 1885). The haven, of course, has always aided those in peril on the sea, as it did Saint Paul, as the legend has it. Once the weather cleared, the Roumeli steamed on west, rounding Crete and Antikythera, before reaching Kythera town.
It is unclear why Crete, this major island, never attracted Theodore’s spade, but it probably had something to do with his notoriety; the era of freelancing excavators was coming to an end in Greece and Turkey, and Bent was soon to make an enemy of the implacable Turkish administrator of antiquities, Osman Hamdi Bey. The site of Knossos had been discovered in 1878 (the year after the Bents’ wedding) by Minos Kalokairinos, although it was not until 1900 that Arthur Evans began to extensively clear it. (For a glimpse of Cretan archaeological machinations in 1885, see, e.g., Frothingham 1888. Theodore did very well to steer clear, and, from 1886 eastwards to the Turkish coast. Within a few years, even here became too difficult for the Bents to explore at will, and they were soon off to Africa and Arabia, where they could more freely investigate.)
But, for the moment, back to Crete. Here, then, are the relevant extracts from Mabel’s notebook of their stay of a few hours on the island, at Kaloi Limenes, some fifty years before the great John Pendlebury ran across the hills above the site, as oblivious of his fate as Theodore was of his:
“Tuesday April 22nd [actually 21st, 1885]. After this we turned S.W. and sailed under Crete. We had a fearful night of storm, pitching, rolling, catching ‘B flats’ [fleas/bedbugs] and fears of falling on the floor. Added to which I am so spoiled by my hammock that I found the bed dreadfully hard. Much splashing took place and water flew over the ship, so about 10 o’clock, when we got close to ‘a certain island called Clauda’ [Acts 27:16. The Saint shelters here while travelling, as a prisoner, by ship to Rome. The ancient town of Lasea was nearby], we had to turn S. then E. again and take refuge here – a very sheltered place. We went ashore with the water barrels. There is a beach and some bushes and a pretty stream in which many clothes were washed by those who subsequently landed, and all the hands and faces washed, so no doubt we came back a cleaner party than we went…
“The annoyance at being turned back was quite overborne by the interest of coming to Kalé Liminas, and it was a great satisfaction to think that St. Paul must have drunk and washed in that very stream, and being stormstayed too was rather nice. The city of Lasea, which was nigh unto the Fair Havens, has disappeared but the place is the same…
“Wednesday, April [22nd, 1885]. We started at 8 in the evening and after a good deal of tossing got into calmer regions, but still were ‘under Crete’ in the morning [passing the huts of Plakias to starboard]. We had a lovely day. About 10 we passed Cerigotto, or as they call it Ante Kythera, and about 12 reached Kythera, or Cerigo, and found ourselves in a very pretty little double bay with a rocky promontory in the middle and a sandy shore.”
The work that helped launch Theodore’s reputation, and see him starting to think of himself as an ‘archaeologist’, was, of course, his The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks, completed in November 1884 – Bent was an incredibly quick writer – and first published in London in 1885, subsequently running to several editions. It is the first such travel account in English and still today features in any credible bibliography on this much-loved region – some might add, come high summer, too much-loved.
Mabel’s first ‘Chronicle’ covers the Bents’ tour of the Cyclades over the winter of 1883/4 and there is a litany of evidence of her diary entries appearing almost verbatim in Theodore’s text.
It should just be added that the couple had made an earlier trip to some of the Cycladic islands in the spring of 1883, and Theodore would have used his own (now lost) notebooks to add certain passages to his book, e.g. his chapter on Amorgos, an island not visited by the pair together in 1884, when Theodore made a second visit sans spouse. It will immediately be seen that Theodore has not assembled The Cyclades chronologically, for that you will need to follow Mabel’s diary. The couple hopped around rather, depending on the weather, steamer sailings, and other factors, which explains why some islands get more than one mention in her notes.
Because of the popularity and importance of it, for example the couple’s excavations on Antiparos helped define what is identified today as the prehistoric ‘Cycladic Culture’, Mabel’s diary covering these islands (that encircle Delos, and hence the name), in its freely available, digital format, will from now on be referenced and footnoted copiously. The Hellenic Society’s version is in pdf format and provided below is an index to the main islands and a concordance with the chapters in the first edition of Bent’s The Cyclades, as appearing in the online version of that godsend, the Internet Archive. The relevant page numbers are shown, i.e. for the Bents’ account of Anafi, see page 49ff in the Hellenic Society’s scan of Mabel’s notebook, and page 86ff in Theodore’s The Cyclades.
Please note: the Hellenic Society pdf is large and may well take several minutes to load, once open you can enter the page number to take you to the island you want. In Theodore’s column, clicking on the page number will take you to the island in his book! Happy travels! Καλό ταξίδι!
In the late 1920s, Mabel Bent’s niece, Violet Ethel ffolliott (1882-1932) transferred the care of her elderly aunt’s travel diaries, as well as some notebooks of her husband’s, Theodore Bent (1852-1897), archaeologist-explorer, to the Hellenic Society in London.
Both Theodore and Mabel had been associated with the Hellenic Society since the 1880s, but this institution, having to do, broadly, with things Greek, might at first glance appear an odd choice as a long-term home for these memoirs of travel and exploration associated with remote corners far away from the Eastern Mediterranean; only about half the couple’s twenty years of adventures were primarily dedicated to Greece and Turkey, the other portion, more often than not, found them dusty and deep in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
And after all, Theodore was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, whose orbit was the whole world, and the latter often funded and supported Bent’s expeditions; in return, he wrote and lectured for them constantly until his early death. So why not leave the Bent notebook collection to the RGS Mabel? A possible answer might be linked to the infamous scandal involving women RGS Fellows in the early 1890s. Mabel was on the list for the second allocation of Fellowships to noteworthy women travellers just at the time the RGS Committee voted against the idea, and women were not readmitted until some twenty years later. Proud Mrs Theodore Bent might well have remembered this obvious slight and opted to lodge her travelogues in the archives of the sociable and patrician Hellenic Society instead.
Whatever the reason, the Bent Collection has remained in three stout boxes in a secure library room in Senate House, London, ever since, available for private research on request (although Mabel’s ‘Chronicles’, as she called them, have since been transcribed and published by Archaeopress, Oxford, in three volumes).
However, advances in scanning techniques, and associated software, not to mention generous support, very appropriately, from the AG Leventis Foundation in this case, now mean that the Bent notebooks can be reproduced digitally, facsimile, ink blots, doodles and all, without risk to the original delicate material.
To quote the specialist involved: “For the vast majority of the time I am using a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner… When digitising a volume each page is saved and formatted as a single 600DPI TIFF file, all these files are then collated and converted into a single, readable book format PDF.”
And, most importantly of all, they are available, open-access free, to anyone, anywhere in the world, with an interest in 19th-century travel into those regions that attracted Theodore and Mabel Bent – from Aksum to Zimbabwe.
Accordingly, these notebooks have now been scanned and a digital catalogue produced. All Theodore’s notebooks in the archive have been finished, and all Mabel’s too – n.b. her 1896/7 volume covering Sokotra and Aden, the setting for the couple’s final journey together, was scanned last and is available here. (It should be noted here too that the diaries covering the Bents’ expedition to Ethiopia in 1893 were apparently never given to the Hellenic Society for some reason, and, for now, assumed lost – always the hardest word for a traveller to utter.)
So, what follows will take you to some very faraway places indeed – you only have to click to be transported (our pages and maps on the Bents’ explorations provide useful background information):
[Mabel used the term ‘Sporades’ for this diary, but the archipelago the couple travelled through in early 1885 is better known today as the Dodecanese. Their great acquisition on this trip was the unique and controversial ‘Karpathos Lady‘, held in the British Museum. The Bents never explored in any depth the group the guidebooks call the Sporades now.]
Mabel Bent died at her London townhouse, 13 Great Cumberland Place, on 5 July 1929 at the age of 82. Her Times obituary (6 July 1929) includes that, “as an experienced photographer and accurate observer, she was of enormous assistance to her husband and famous for the explorations in distant lands which she undertook with [him]. This was at a time when it was much more rare than it is now for a woman to venture forth on such journeys […] During her long widowhood [Theodore died a few weeks after scribbling in his final notebook above, in May 1897] of more than 30 years, Mrs. Bent was well known in literary and scientific London. She was a good talker, with an occasional sharpness of phrase which was much relished by her many friends.”
And would there be any ‘sharpness of phrase’ about seeing her ‘Chronicles’ now scanned and widely available? Did Mabel intend them for publication? Apart from the fact that Theodore relied on his wife’s notebooks for the provision of background details in his monographs, articles and lectures, the chronicler has left one or two clues within her pages.
From ‘Room 2’ of the Hôtel de Byzance, Constantinople, in February 1886, Mabel confides, in one of her happiest diaries it seems: “I must begin my Chronicle somewhere if I am to write one at all and as in this matter I am selfish enough to consider myself of the first consideration because I write to remind myself in my old age of pleasant things (or the contrary) I will begin now.” Thus we know, at least, that they were for her to read later in life, and that she intended her aunts, sisters, and nieces to share her adventures. (There are several asides such as, “We have constant patients coming to us and I am sure you would all laugh to hear T’s medical lectures.” And “You must excuse these smudges as I am sitting cross-legged on T’s bed.”).
There is also certainly nothing in her millions of words that could be considered as indiscreet, let alone anything close to libel – or nuptial intimacy for that matter – although there is a little false modesty and coquetry here and there. (Only two or three pages have been removed from the entire series of notebooks.) What is omitted, invisible, becomes visible and striking, however. In all her diaries there is not one reference to the losses of her childhood – her poor mother, her difficult father, and her two dead brothers.
But the most obvious hint that Mabel, at the very least, might be aware of a potential wider interest in her ‘Chronicles’ is the letter still preserved (in the 1885 volume) from her friend, Harry Graham, who shared in some of their travel that year, complimenting her thus: “I carried off your Chronicle… and… I never enjoyed these hours more than when reading it in the train coming down here yesterday – as soon as I have finished it I will send it you back – but why oh why don’t you publish it? It simply bristles with epigrams and I am certain would be a great success! You ought to blend the 2 Chronicles into one and I am sure everyone would buy it.”
Well. Perhaps not everyone. Mabel’s Chronicles are not great travel literature. They are her on-the-spot recollections of long days spent trekking, exploring, digging, dealing with villagers, arguing with minor officials; they are snatches of gossip, snobbishness, likes and dislikes, barking dogs, vicissitudes, poverty and pain; they are delightful souvenirs of music, dancing, colourful costumes and wonderful meals.
And how few are the references to limb and life. Just hours from complete malarial collapse, east of Aden, in the alarmingly named heights of ‘Goddam’, Theodore scribbles, in his final notebook, only weeks from his death at 45, “… but feverstricken we were delighted to get away. Apparently this corner of Yemen is particularly feverish. All those who go in from Aden appear to be ill. Perhaps it is [the] water…”
There are certainly passages that reflect her times, too, and which are inappropriate today. Great travel literature? Clearly not. But great travel writing – accounts of wonderful endurance and reflections of courage, attitude, apogee of empire, and spirit – most certainly.
It’s also nice to know the couple apparently liked their fruit syrup from J. Sainsbury!
There is no denying that Theodore Bent worked incredibly hard: if not travelling he would be planning the next expedition, fund-raising, researching, writing up, or lecturing. For the approximately twenty years of his travels (coming to style himself more and more as an ‘archaeologist’) he would return to London in the spring of each year (with the odd exception) and immediately begin to think of publishing and publicising his finds – he had always depended much on self-promotion and PR for the funding and support of his subsequent researches; he had good contacts with the press and would submit progress updates to them assiduously from far-flung outposts, via Reuters and other agencies.
An unscientific trawl through the press cuttings of the time shows how Theodore reached the peak of his ‘fame’ in 1893-4, after a trio of consecutive hits – Great Zimbabwe, Aksum, and Wadi Hadramaut. He and his wife were soon London celebrities and news and details of their adventures was syndicated widely at home and abroad.
Mabel was tasked with sorting out her photographs and ensuring that they were ready for transferal to lantern-slide or printer’s plate. There was also the constant process of unpacking and caring for case after case of acquisitions: archaeological, ethnographical, botanical, and zoological. The couple would quickly make decisions on what they wanted to keep for themselves, and exhibit in their London townhouse, and what they would offer to museums (for a remuneration if possible).
What is particularly striking is how quickly Theodore would settle to study and write up his monographs (frequently asking other specialists for contributions). His hard-pressed publishers (mostly Kegan Paul and Longmans) usually had them announced and on bookshop shelves within six to nine months of Bent’s return from the field.
And within short weeks of reaching home again – from the Levant, Africa, or Arabia – Theodore was ready to give talks and lectures, all over the UK, to the relevant grand institutions of the day, and before the great and the good (in the spring of 1892 even William Gladstone came along to hear). Mabel’s job was to have the lantern-slides ready, and any artifacts neatly labelled for display.
Other display aids might be needed – perhaps a 3D model (e.g. of his famous ‘Elliptical Temple’ at Great Zimbabwe), and then there was the commissioning of maps from the famous London cartographers Edward Stanford to be seen to.
What follows here, taken from newspapers and journals, is a chronological list (with no claims to completeness) of Theodore’s talks and presentations, giving a very good sense of the explorer’s Yorkshire-bred proclivity for hard graft. An interesting additional discovery seems to suggest that there was even an attendance charge for his talks in the provinces! The Newcastle Daily Chronicle for 2 March 1892 records that to hear Theodore lecture in Tyneside would cost you the equivalent of c. £3 today for a seat in the main hall, or c. £1.50 in galleries – money well spent! At another event we hear that Theodore’s ‘remarks throughout were admirably illustrated with a large series of photographic and other views of the places which were visited on the tour. The photographs were the production of Mrs. Bent, and incidentally Mr. Bent mentioned, in apology for some of the views which were somewhat wanting in sharpness, that the technical difficulties of photography, on account of the intense heat and other causes in Arabia, were almost inconceivable.’ (Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 19 October 1894). Complete sets of Mabel’s lantern-slides survived until the early 1950s, when they were discarded by the Royal Geographical Society, deemed too faded and damaged to merit keeping. A huge loss.
It takes very little imagination today to see Theodore in front of the camera presenting a sequence of his own mini-series – The Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, The Persian Gulf, Africa North & South, and Southern Arabia. Let’s hope one day they will appear – on National Geographic perhaps!
Theodore Bent’s Talks, Presentations, and Lectures (some dates are approx) note 1
8th May: ‘A general meeting of the Hellenic Society will be held at 22, Albermarle Street on Thursday next [8 May], at 5 p.m., when Mr. Theodore Bent will read a paper on a recent journey among the Cyclades.’ [The Athenaeum, No. 2949, May 3, 1884, p. 569]
14th September: ‘At the meeting of the British Association in Aberdeen… in the Anthropological Section, Mr J. Theodore Bent read a paper to show that the study of tombs in the Greek Islands was conducive to a knowledge of ancient and forgotten lines of commerce.’ [South Wales Daily Telegram, Friday, 18 September 1885]
11th September: ‘At the meeting of the British Association at Bath… in the Anthropology Section, Mr. J. Theodore Bent contributed a paper on sun-myths in modern Hellas.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 12 September 1888]
17th September: At the meeting of the British Association at Newcastle, ‘in the Geography Section Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on the Bahrien Islands, in the Persian Gulf, in which he dealt with the position and general features the two islands, character of the seas, and the pearl fisheries and other features.’ [Dundee Advertiser, 20 September 1889]
2nd December: ‘The meeting of the Geographical Society on Monday at Burlington House [London] was one of exceptional brilliancy, and was fully attended. Mr J. Theodore Bent… read an interesting and exhaustive paper on the Bahrein Islands in the Persian Gulf. This was rendered the more interesting by some realistic photographs, thrown on a white screen as dissolving views, and taken by Mrs Bent on the spot.’ [The Queen, 7 December 1889]
30th June: ‘Royal Geographical Society. Mr. J. Theodore Bent read a paper at the fortnightly meeting of of this society, held last night in the theatre of the London University, on explorations he had made in Cilicia Trachea.’ [Daily News (London), 1 July 1890]
22nd July: Theodore Bent reads his paper ‘Notes on the Armenians in Asia Minor’ to the Manchester Geographical Society [MGS, Vol. 6, 220-222]
5th September: At the meeting of the British Association at Leeds, in the Anthropology Section, Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on the Yourouks of Asia Minor, who, he said, were the least religious people he had ever heard of; but the religion honesty was deeply implanted their breasts. No more polygamous people existed anywhere, a Yourouk regarding himself as a disgrace unless he had six or seven wives. As a consequence womanhood bad sunk very low among them.’ [Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 6 September 1890]
1891 [The Bents are away all year exploring the remains at Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes]
February (uncertain date): Theodore Bent lectures on the Castle Line Garth Castle on his way to Cape Town. [As recorded in Mabel Bent’s diary, 10 March 1891. Mabel does not give the title of the lecture]
22nd February: ‘At a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, held in the theatre of the University of London last night, Mr. J. Theodore Bent read a paper entitled “Journeys in Mashonaland, and Explorations among the Zimbabwe and other ruins”’. [London Evening Standard, 23 February 1892]
2nd March: ‘Although Lord Randolph Churchill declined the [Tyneside Geographical] society’s invitation to lecture on Mashonaland, Mr. Smithson was fortunate enough to secure the services of Mr. J. Theodore Bent, one of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society and of the British Association. Mr. Bent and his wife embarked on an adventurous journey into Mashonaland, and conducted excavations and explorations among the Zimbaybe [sic] ruins —the supposed “Land of Ophir”. Mr. Bent will deliver his lecture on the subject next week – on Wednesday, March 2nd.’ [Lovaine Hall; admission charged is to be 1 shilling (c. £3) in main hall, and sixpence (c. £1.50) in the galleries!] [Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 26 February 1892]
23rd March 1892: ‘At the meeting of the Anthropological Institute to be held to-morrow evening, Mr. Theodore Bent will read a paper on the archaeology of the Zimbabwe Ruins, illustrated by the optical lantern [i.e. Mabel’s photographs]. I hear that Mr. Gladstone has expressed his intention to be present, and that Mr. Bent will on this occasion make special reference to the manners and customs of the early inhabitants of these remote regions of South Africa.’ [Birmingham Daily Post, 22 March 1892]
Before 13 April: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent’s party was successful and interesting [at their London home]. Her sister, Mrs. Hobson, and few intimate friends assisted Mr. Bent and his fellow-traveller, Mr. Swan, in explaining the relics [of Great Zimbabwe] to the learned and unlearned, to the latter of whom the trophies… might otherwise have seemed just so many rudely carved old stones, instead of being silent witnesses of the ancient civilisation and worship traced out by Mr. Bent in the wonderful walled fortresses of Central Africa.’ [Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 13 April 1892]
5th August: At the meeting of the British Association at Edinburgh, in the Anthropology Section, Mr Theodore Bent read a paper on ‘The Present Inhabitants of Mashonaland and Their Origin’. [St. James’s Gazette, 6 August 1892]
7th September: At the 9th International Congress of Orientalists (opened in the theatre of the London University, Burlington-gardens), ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent [in the Council Room of the Royal Geographical Society] gave an account of the more recent discoveries among the ruins of Zimbabwe and its neighbourhood.’ [London and China Express, 9 September 1892]
19th October: At a gathering of the Manchester Geographical Society in the Cheetham Town Hall, Mr. J Theodore Bent gave a talk on the Zimbabwe Ruins in Mashonaland. [Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 20 October 1892]
13th November: ‘Mr. Theodore Bent will deliver a lecture on “Mashonaland and the Ruins of Zimbabwe”, at the South Place Institute [Finsbury, London].’ [Colonies and India, 12 November 1892]
1st December: Mr. Bent lectured in Gloucester Guildhall, for the Literary and Scientific Association, on Mashonaland. [Gloucester Citizen, 7 December 1892]
7th December: ‘… at the Royal Spa Rooms, Harrogate. Mr. Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., lectured on “The ruined cities of Mashonaland”, his interesting remarks being illustrated with excellent limelight views.” [Knaresborough Post, 10 December 1892]
19th June: At the annual meeting of the Hellenic Society, ‘Mr. Theodore Bent spoke of his researches in Abyssinia.’ [The Globe, 20 June 1893]
18th September: At the British Association meeting in Nottingham, Mr. J. Theodore Bent reported ‘to the Committee on the Exploration of Ancient Remains at Aksum.’ [Nottingham Journal, 19 September 1893]
20th October: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent, the African traveller, delivered an address before the members of the Balloon Society, at St. James’s Hall [London].’ [London Standard, 21 October 1893]
1894 [The Bents make their first foray into the Yemeni interior, being home in the spring. They return to the region (via Oman) at the year end]
21st May: ‘There was an overflowing meeting last night… at the Royal Geographical Society [London] to welcome back Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent from their journeys in Southern Arabia.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 22 May 1894]
10th July: ‘At the London Chamber of Commerce, in the Council-room, Botolph-house, Eastcheap… Mr. J. Theodore Bent delivered an address on the expedition which he and his wife made last winter to the Hadramut Valley, South Arabia.’ [Home News for India, China and the Colonies, 13 July 1894]
14th August: At the meeting of the British Association in Oxford, ‘Mr. Theodore Bent read a paper on the natives of the Hadramaut in South Arabia.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 15 August 1894]
2nd October: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent lectured at a meeting of the Balloon Society on the subject of the explorations which he and Mrs. Bent made a few months ago in South Arabia, and the occasion was taken advantage of to present Mr. Bent with the Society’s gold medal.’ [Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore), 25 October 1894]
11th October: ‘Mr. Theodore Bent, F.R.G.S., who formerly resided at The Rookery, Low Baildon (now the residence of Alderman Smith Feather), delivered a lecture… at the Bradford Mechanics’ Institute, before the members of the Bradford Philosophical Society, upon his recent travels in Arabia.’ [Wharfedale & Airedale Observer, 19 October 1894]
25th October: ‘There was a numerous attendance at a meeting [of the Liverpool Geographical Society] held in connection with this society, at the Royal Institution, in Colquitt-street, last evening, when Mr. J. Theodore Bent, F.S.A., F.R.G.S., gave an interesting lecture on “The Hadramaut: a journey in Southern Arabia,” which was illustrated by a series of photographic slides.’ [Liverpool Mercury, 26 October 1894]
6th June: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent read last night a paper on “Journeys in Southern Arabia” in the Lecture Hall the University of London.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 7 June 1895]
12th June: ‘Lord and Lady Kelvin received a brilliant and distinguished company last night in the rooms of the Royal Society in Burlington House’, when the Bents presented photographs and finds from Southern Arabia. [St James’s Gazette, 13 June 1895]
1st July: ‘Mr. J. Theodore Bent delivered a lecture at the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, at Hanover-square… The lecturer dealt with the Hadramaut, and Dhofar, the frankincense and myrrh countries.’ [Globe, 2 July 1895]
18th September: ‘At the close of the British Association meeting at Ipswich, Mr. Theodore Bent gave a paper on “The Peoples of Southern Arabia”.’ [St. James’s Gazette, 19 September 1895]
7th November: The Royal Scottish Geographical Society – Glasgow Branch. The Anniversary Address will be delivered in the Hall, 207 Bath St… at 8 o’clock , ‘by Mr. J. Theodore Bent, on “Southern Arabia”. Sir Renny Watson Chairman of the Branch will preside. Admission only by Ticket, two of which have been forwarded to each Member of the Branch.’ [Glasgow Herald, 6 November 1895]
8th November: ‘In connection with the Royal Geographical Society, a lecture was delivered… by Mr. Theodore Bent, in the National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street [Edinburgh]. The subject of the lecture was Arabia, and it was illustrated by lime-light views. There was a good attendance.’ [Edinburgh Evening News, 9 November 1895]
1896 [The Bents return from the Sudan in the spring and leave for their last trip together, to Sokotra and Aden, at the year end]
1st June: Mr. Bent read a paper on the Sudan to the Royal Geographical Society, London.
13th October: Mr. Bent lectures on Arabia at the Royal Victoria Hall, London. [South London Press, 17 October 1896]
The above, it seems, was Theodore Bent’s final lecture. The lantern flame flickers and disappears.
“Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk…”
To mark Mabel Bent’s birthday (28 January 1847) this year (2022), let’s read more from a rare article on her from an arcane newspaper – The Newry Telegraph, 3rd January 1895, published by an unknown publisher in Newry, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. It seems that it is an original editorial by an unknown author and not a piece syndicated from any other contemporary English source. There is every chance that it was written, or co-written, by Mabel’s sister Frances Maria Hobson, wife of the Rector of Portadown (a corner of that devout triangle, Newry, Portadown, Armagh. The wagging finger to the intemperate above is a clue perhaps, ironic rather as Theodore’s fortunes derived in part from brewing!).
The featured photo, probably from Cape Town in 1891, shows Mabel in her prime and on her way to explore the ruins of Great Zimbabwe for Cecil Rhodes. Mabel’s confident air presages the Bents’ imminent fame as they join the cadre of the nation’s most popular and best-known adventurers. Their work in the Eastern Mediterranean is behind them, their celebrated Arabian expeditions ahead. Thus this article in TheNewry Telegraph that follows reflects this prestige awaiting Mabel in 1895 perfectly, as well, of course, as the attitudes and jingoism of the day. And no excuse is ever needed for an oblique reference to another extraordinary traveller, Raymonde Bonnetain.
So, without further exposition, we join parlour-readers, heads and arms on their antimacassars, of The Newry Telegraph for Thursday, 3rd January 1895:
“Mrs Theodore Bent – The Queen of Explorers: Curious as it may seem, foreign exploration is one of the paths where the most feminine women have followed the example set them by their husbands and brothers. Of course, this has been especially the case in every kind of missionary enterprise, and one has only to recall the achievements of Lady Baker, Lady Burdon, Mme Dieu la Loy [sic], Mrs Peary, and more recently Mme Bonnetain note 1 , to prove that even great explorers have not hesitated to take with them on their perilous journeys those whom they had chosen for their life companions.
The subject of our sketch, Mrs. Theodore Bent, is a striking example of all a woman can do in the way of cheerful endurance and intelligent observation. Her name is less well-known than that of her husband, one of the most distinguished Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society, for, as she sometimes observes, ‘There is not ink enough in a family for two’, but the valuable additions to exploration literature published by Mr Bent owe not a little of their interest to his wife, for she keeps careful notes of everything that occurs during their journeys note 2 , and, when any excavations are to be done, generally takes charge of one party whilst her husband looks after another.
Mrs Bent, who is a light, graceful-looking woman, well-known in the cultured portion of London Society, belongs to an Irish family, famous in the annals of County Wexford, the Hall-Dares of Newton-Barry; she rode almost before she could walk, and early displayed remarkable pedestrian powers.
During the last ten years Mr and Mrs Bent have together achieved twelve exploration expeditions in some of the roughest and least known corners of Southern Asia, that vast and mysterious domain of which the world even now knows little. They began their travels by an expedition to the less well-known islands of Greece, and while there made some interesting archaeological discoveries; this first attempt taught them a great deal, and now Mr H M Stanley himself could not rival Mrs Bent as organiser and manger of an exploration party, for long experience has shown her what to avoid, and narrowed down her list of absolutely indispensable necessaries to a small compass.
It is interesting to note that Mr Bent’s book on Mashonaland was one of the first works published on that now much-debated portion of our Colonial Empire.
Of late years Arabia has become to both husband and wife the most interesting portion of the universe. There is probably no place in the world of which so little is known, and which is more full of practical dangers to exploring Europeans, for the native population, though civilised after a fashion, are extremely cunning and dishonest, and have a great hatred and contempt for anything they don’t understand.
Nowadays so much is talked about rational dress, cycling costumes, and the relative value of a divided skirt and knickerbockers, that it is interesting to know that Mrs Bent’s ideas on the subject are simple and the result of long experience. Her costume never varies, for she has found the same kind of dress equally useful in South Africa, Arabia, and the Isles of Greece. Her outfit, which is very pretty and even conventional, consists of a tweed coat and skirt coming down below the knees, breeches, gaiters, and stout shoes. The skirt is full, being pleated; and by a clever arrangement invented by the wearer herself it can be altered accordingly as to whether it is wanted for riding or walking. With this costume is worn a pith hat and gause veil.
Mrs Bent, whenever it is possible, rides on horseback, and she cannot speak too highly of the intelligence and faithfulness of the horse as compared to that of a camel or mule.
Every detail concerning the outfit and internal economy of their expeditions is left by Mr Theodore Bent to his wife, and so on her hangs the heavy responsibility of keeping in health and making comfortable a larger or smaller party, which often includes guides and servants belonging to the country which is to be explored.
Like most travellers, this lady has found that the less she and her nomad husband see of spirits and wine the better, and so with the exception of a little brandy for medicinal purposes, the whole party travel on tea, beef essence, and condensed milk, while quinine is the most important item of the medicine chest.
It should not, however, be thought that Mr and Mrs Bent spend their whole life in travelling through wild and inaccessible regions; they generally pass the season in their delightful London home, which is a veritable museum, full of curious and beautiful things gathered together during the course of their owners’ many expeditions. Mr Theodore Bent has generously presented many of his most precious archaeological finds to the British Museum, but his own store is extremely valuable and curious. Mrs Bent makes a point of collecting anything specially feminine in the way of ornaments or habilaments, and some of the shawls and face veils presented to her by Arabian magnates throw a strange light on the manners and customs of the East.
The subject of our sketch was at one time proposed for election to the Royal Geographical Society, but she little values official recognition of dignities, and the matter has remained in abeyance note 3 .”
“Christmas Day [Naxos in the Cyclades, 1893] was a downpour and as our rooms are not watertight [it] came in through doors and windows. The wind howled and our prospects of food were faint. A wild duck, that was found just before luncheon, cheered us however so much that we ate it all but a wing, which I prudently cut off to keep…”
Well, here indeed is a unique and long-awaited Christmas present for those who like to try and keep up with the breathless Bents over their twenty years (roughly 1880-1900) of exploring and excavating around the Levantine littoral (Greece and Turkey), Africa (North and South), Southern Arabia, and other lands.
As part of the new digitisation programme of the Roman and Hellenic Societies’ (London University) manuscript collection, Mabel Bent’s travel ‘Chronicles’ (as she calls them), and some of her husband’s (Theodore Bent) notebooks, are due to appear online in early 2022 (mostly using ‘a Bookeye 4 Kiosk book scanner to capture the image data and BCS-2 imaging software to process and format the images once they have been transferred from the scanner’).
This means you will soon be able to delve into all of Mabel Bent’s manuscript ‘Chronicles’ (except for the missing Ethiopian tour volumes of 1893 – anyone know where they are?), and one or two of Theodore’s notebooks as well (significantly some of his Hadramaut jottings).
Researchers who now cite Bent’s monographs and published papers on Great Zimbabwe, Aksum, Yemen, Greece and Turkey, etc., will soon also be able to refer to his wife’s on-the-spot accounts, adding new details, dimensions, dangers, and the odd fresh dinner duck as well!
Following their work at Great Zimbabwe in 1891, the Bents were minor celebrities both in the UK and overseas; 1892 saw the first edition of Theodore’s Ruined Cities of Mashonaland. Barely taking a breath, the couple prepared for a trek to Aksum (Ethiopia) in the early months of 1893, and a monograph soon followed – The Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1893). Bent’s interest in early civilizations to the west of the Red Sea now enticed the two travellers to its east, and into the mysterious and dangerous Wadi Hadramaut (modern Yemen), marking the start of Theodore’s final field of study. In effect, it would kill him.
Brand Bent now went into overdrive in the summer of 1893 – meetings, finance and support were sought, inter alia, from the Royal Geographical Society, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the British Museum, the India/Foreign Office…
The couple had just a few months to put everything in place, including a full programme of self-promotion. Theodore lectured and sent out press releases, Mabel gave a series of interviews to newspapers and periodicals, two appear below, with transcriptions, and they are typical of many!
Interview with Mabel Bent for The Lady of the House* (later the Irish Sketch/Irish Tatler), 15 September 1893
“In the present day travelling has been made so easy that under the auspices of Messrs. Cook & Son it is possible to make oneself acquainted with all parts of the civilised world at a cost which is – comparatively speaking – trifling, and one can go to India, for instance, in a shorter time than it took our ancestors at the beginning of this century to make ‘the grand tour of Europe’, without which no young man of position was supposed to be educated! But all travellers now-a-days are not content with the stereotyped tours ‘personally conducted’ (excellent and convenient as these undoubtedly are), and of late years we have heard of journeys which involved considerable risk and privation, and resulted in most important antiquarian discoveries.
“That an Irish lady should be the most distinguished member of her sex in this respect is distinctly gratifying to our patriotic feelings, and her countrymen and women may be justly proud of Mrs. Theodore Bent, who has shared with her husband all the dangers of exploring remote districts, and in assisting in his geographical research. Mrs. Bent is a daughter of the late Mr. Hall-Dare, of Newtownbarry, Co. Wexford, and her mother was Miss Lambart of Beau Parc, Meath.
“Although Mrs. Bent’s travels usually occupy a considerable portion of each year, and her home is now in England, she always manages time for an annual visit to Ireland; and the lace industry established by her family at Newtownbarry for the benefit of the tenantry and cottages in the vicinity has still a staunch supporter in the subject of this sketch. As to the journeys accomplished by Mr. and Mrs. Bent, it is, unfortunately, only possible to give a brief outline, but doubtless most readers are aware that the recent discussion at the Royal Geographical Society arose by reason of the wish of several members to confer on Mrs. Bent the distinction of being a ‘Fellow’ of that body of notable travellers. Those who were against the admission of ladies have temporarily, at least, gained the day, but Mrs. Bent has not experienced the slightest disappointment about the matter, as she never sought a ‘Fellowship’, and is quite content with the privileges she already enjoys.
It is about nine years since Mr. and Mrs. Bent started for Athens, and made themselves acquainted with the most interesting portions of Greece, returning next year to the Cyclades Isles, and bringing back to the British Museum many valuable relics dug out of the ruins at Antiparos. In Egypt, too, some successful digging was accomplished, and also at an Egyptian town near Thrace**, while at Cilicia this adventurous couple discovered Olba and the famous ‘Korycian Cave’. A long tour through Persia and over the Caucasus preceded their celebrated expedition to Mashonaland, and last winter they went to Abyssinia, where they made several valuable discoveries and returned with a collection of curiosities for the British Museum.” (The Lady of the House (later the Irish Sketch/Irish Tatler), 15 September 1893, p.19)
* “The ‘Lady of the House’, in addition to a variety of literary contributions of merit, has a specially attractive feature in its publication this week… Mrs Theodore Bent is the subject of the ‘Society Portraits’. Mrs Bent is a daughter of the late Mr Hall-Dare of Newtownbarry, Co. Wexford, who was married to Miss Lambart of Beau Park, Co Meath.’ (Dublin Daily Express, Friday 15 September 1893)
(The very popular ladies’ periodical The Lady of the House was published in Ireland, appearing 1880-1924, when it joined with The Irish Tatler and Sketch. It was favoured for its content and production standards, photographs, etc. Although it mainly covered items to do with appearance and being ‘at home’, the newspaper also looked at matters political, economic, and societal. It was the brainchild of the Dublin advertising company Wilson Hartnell, being planned initially as a monthly or bimonthly format for advertising, in particular a marketing forum for Messrs Findlater & Co., a wine merchant and grocer whose clientele were primarily the upper middle class ladies of Dublin. “Although [showcasing] philanthropic, titled ladies in its early years, the readership, as is clear from reader engagement and advertising, were middle- to lower-middle-class women throughout the country who held some purchasing power but who did most or all of their own housework”.)
** Rather an odd reference. The Bents never dug in Egypt (apart from burying the remains of a picnic below the Sphinx in 1885!). Perhaps Mabel is thinking of their work on Thracian Thasos in the late 1880s).
Interview with Mabel Bent, 2 November 1893, in the Irish weekly The Hearth and Home
“Undaunted by the experiences of her late tour through Abyssinia, Mrs. Bent, whose portrait appears on this page, is busily engaged preparing for one of her most important journeys yet undertaken by her, for Mr. Bent has chosen South Arabia as the scene of his next explorations, and, as usual, his wife will accompany him. Mrs. Bent has just returned to London from a round of country visits, and having only a few weeks to make all the necessary preparations finds her time fully occupied. However, she kindly gives some interesting particulars of the prospective tour. Leaving London in November, Mr. and Mrs. Bent hope, if all goes well, to remain in Arabia until March or April, 1894, when they will return direct to England, as the intense heat which sets in about that time makes it necessary for the inhabitants of northern latitudes to leave so enervating a climate. Mrs. Bent invariably undertakes all arrangements connected with the baggage, chooses camp furniture and provisions, but limits all supplies to the minimum, as a large amount of the baggage would only increase the difficulties of travelling in places where the explorers are often partly dependent on the natives when they strike their temporary camps, and require the ‘impedimenta’ of the journey to be taken to the next halting-place. Mr. and Mrs. Bent’s ‘travelling residence’ will consist of two beds or three tents, sufficient furniture and hammock beds (all of which can be quickly put up and taken down), while canned meats, essence of beef, and tea, are the principal provisions to augment local supplies, and a medicine chest is also taken by Mrs. Bent.’ Whose travelling costumes are chosen with a view to roughing it, and consist of serviceable dark serge gowns, plainly made.
“Mrs. Bent has already visited every quarter of the globe, with the exception of Australia and she is thoroughly familiar with native life in Persia, Africa, Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. In all these long and laborious journeys she was the only woman of the party , and frequently was obliged to cook and look after the domestic arrangements generally. She has often been admitted to the closely-guarded Eastern harems, and her northern tours extend as far as Norway,* but, as one can readily understand, she hardly considers European countries worth including when talking of the places she has travelled through. Gifted with great artistic taste, Mrs. Bent’s personal collection of curiosities include many beautiful things brought from abroad, and, as our readers are doubtless aware, ‘The Bent Collection’ in the British Museum is one of the most interesting in that venerable building.” (Interview with Mabel, 2 November 1893, in the Irish weekly The Hearth and Home)
*Mabel writes elsewhere that she met Theodore Bent in Norway.
A recent photo sent in by Alan King as he steamed by Syrna (Σύρνα, anciently Syrnos) in the Dodecanese – minuscule and inaccessible, thus happily tucked away from Cycladic summer silliness just to the west – steered us to the Bents’ writings on an islet they were determined to see in early Spring 1888.
Theodore, after a cursory inspection of the terrain around the landing place on April 9th, wrote a note for The Classical Review (1888, Vol. II (10), p.329). If he did remove some of the obsidian blades he refers to, then they are not it seems recorded elsewhere:
“The small island rock, anciently known as Sirina, now as Agios Joannis, occupies a somewhat important position in the Aegean Sea, as one of the stepping-stones by which the earlier inhabitants of Karia must have travelled westwards; it has two good harbours, one to the north, and one to the south, and is placed midway in a long stretch of sea between Karpathos and Astypalaea, in both of which islands traces of this prehistoric race have been found. Having carefully examined Anaphi, an island lying to the west of this line of route, and having found there no traces whatsoever of this early population, and knowing that Astypalaea, Amorgos, Naxos and Paros are full of their tombs, I was considerably interested in discovering in the ruins of a square fortress on Sirina quantities of obsidian knives, which at once identified this rock with the race in question, and proved to us that they made use of it as a halting-place on their way to and from the marble quarries of Paros; in fact Parian marble, objects of which are so frequently found in their tombs, would seem to have been their chief quest in these westward migrations.”
Theodore makes no mention of the hassle getting to this tricky rock. They had hired a fine schooner from Syros a month or so before in early 1888 to cruise up and down the Turkish coast opposite Rhodes, and the skipper, Captain Nikolas, had no intention of breaking her up for insignificant Sirina. But the Bents, as often as not, get their way. Mabel tells the tale in her diary – first a skirmish from her and then a broadside from her husband:
“Sunday [April 8th, 1888]. Well, this morning we set sail, but not before dawn, for Sirina, as we thought, and with the scirocco we should have sailed south of Tilos, which lay directly in our way. We were busy in the cabin, but I peeped up and saw we were steering straight for Nisiros, north of Tilos. So I told Theodore and he proposed to go up and row with the captain, but I said I would make less formal enquiries. I said to [first mate] Grigoris, ‘We are going north of Tilos it seems?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But very far north! We are going to Nisiros.’ ‘Well! I suppose we shall tack soon, for we shall no doubt pass Tilos as close as we did Rhodes.’ The wind was quite fair for Tilos. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say he could not help it, and I said, ‘How soon shall we tack for the south?’ ‘We are going inside Nisiros.’ ‘But why?’ ‘To go to Kos!’
“So Theodore went up and there was a frightful, awful row. Now Grigoris said he did not wish to go to Sirina at all, and would not go there, and there was no water or harbours and many rocks and no lighthouse and he was always considered a most noble man, and honourable, and so on. ‘Very well’, said Theodore, ‘Go straight to Syra and we will go to the judge and the consul,’ etc.
“Later, with [our dragoman Manthaios] as a go-between we said if we could not go south, we did not mind going to a small island called Levitha on the way to Syra. This was agreed upon and we did not care a bit. It rained. I looked out again and saw that now we were going south of Nisiros and close to Tilos, past Kavos Kryos and Kos, where we had agreed to anchor for the night far to the dim north. ‘Where are we going now, Andreas?’ ‘To that place,’ [the crewman replied] very sulkily. ‘What place?’ ‘To Sirina!’ Of course we have lost hours by going so far north and are now fearing a calm.
“Next morning [9th April ] about 10 we reached Sirina and landed after luncheon. We walked across the island to the sea at the other side, where there is a deep bay. Here was a sort of farm, a very irregular enclosure of loose piled stones and very thick walls. The only thing with mortar was the oven. An old woman came out of the dark hut where she was shut in and brought us out little square blocks of wood to sit on, and she directed Theodore to where there were some old stones and so I returned to the ship with one man and the rest went off, but finding the earth all gone and only foundations on rocks they returned, and we set off again in the afternoon.” (Travel Chronicles of Mrs J Theodore Bent, Vol.1, Oxford, 2006, p.252-3).
All rather a storm in a seacup, and the frivolous couple’s scamper contrasts unbelievably with the reality of an incident on the island many years later, 7 December 1946, when a medical team,* including Lawrence Durrell as it happens, was sent from Rhodes on a Greek warship to assist the sick and wounded of the vessel Athina Rafiah (originally the SS Athena), carrying Jewish immigrants to Israel, which was wrecked there, with around 800 survivors coming ashore. Sadly eight of the refugees, among them children, perished in the aftermath of the wreck and are buried on the island. There is a lonely monument there to them all.
* ‘With Durrell on Rhodes, 1945-47’, by Raymond Mills, in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Lawrence Durrell Issue, Part 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 312-316.
Our last post was a tennis party but now it’s the Olympics – not the tearful affair that is Tokyo today (July 2021), but a much happier time, 6th – 15th April 1896, in Athens, Greece, and the first Games staged in the modern era – for there were to be no tiddlywinks, table-football, cat’s cradle, or wife carrying, no scooter racing, just classic events – athletics, cycling (the Bents were very keen), fencing, swimming, no-nonsense, that sort of wholesome thing. (Incidentally, tennis, a sport much enjoyed on the front lawns of Mabel Bent’s Wexford family home, was also included, the Olympics’ singles being won, fittingly enough for us, by Dublin-born John Boland.)
And, needless to say, Theodore and Mabel can cry out – “We too! We were there!”
But let’s travel back a few weeks and months first. On 2nd December 1895, the Bents had set off to explore along the Sudanese coast, reaching as far as Suakin, and en route finding traces of old gold mines. By the end of March 1896 the couple are more than ready to return, leaving Alexandria to spend a few days in Athens – a city much loved by the pair since the early 1880s – before their journey back to their London townhouse near Marble Arch. In the Greek capital, by the way, Theodore is serendipitously recruited by the British School to supervise archaeological excavations at the ancient gymnasium (Kynosarges), before he and Mabel joined the crowds to go watch some events on the opening day of the above-mentioned first modern Olympics, 6th April 1896.
Here is Mabel’s diary for the end of March 1896, abridged somewhat:-
“We remained in Cairo till Friday 26th [March]… and embarked on the Khedival steamer for the Pireas… The steamer was most crowded. Theodore had a cabin with 5 Greeks and I was one of 5, for 2 nights. We arrived at the Grand Hotel, Athens, Sunday 28th March. Iannis, the proprietor, Spiro, and the other waiters were warm in their welcome. The town was gayer than I have ever seen a town in Holy Week, as it was being all beflagged and illuminated for the Olympic Games, which were to take place on Easter Monday… We left on April 7th, via Corfu, having seen the first day of the Olympic Games.” (The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, p. 325, 2006, Archaeopress, Oxford)
The Wikipedia entry for the 1896 Games in Athens has an informative calendar/table detailing all the events over the ten days they were staged. The chart shows us that Day 1 (April 6th) witnessed an exciting, if short, programme of athletics. There seems to have been a brief opening ceremony before George I, the Greek king, at 3 in the afternoon. Two first-place medals were awarded that Monday – the 1500 metres, won by Australian Edwin Flack, and the discus, an American winning, Robert Garrett. (They both received silver medals, the iconic gold not appearing until later Games apparently.)
Mabel, sadly, gives very little away in her account, she can’t have been much impressed and obviously knew no one there – not even the debonair Dubliner John Boland. Perhaps in the crowds she could see little: as well as the discus and the 1500 metres, there were also the heats of the 100, 400, and 800 metres to be savoured.
It seems most unlikely, therefore, that Mabel would have bothered much when the Games ultimately reached London for the first time in April 1908, Theodore having died in May 1897, a year after the events in Athens referred to above – Citius, Altius, Fortius… indeed.
The Irish are grand on court, always have been, ever since lawn tennis took off within the Emerald Isle in the late 19th century (think John McEnroe, eligible to have played Davis Cup for Ireland, were he that way inclined, with grandparents from Co Westmeath and Co Cavan – a decent forehand away only from Co Meath and Mabel Bent’s place of birth in 1847).
Limerick Lawn Tennis Club (“There was a young man called Dennis / who took on Hall-Dare at tennis / who can forget / his dash to the net / and subsequent trip to the dentist.”), proudly staged the first Open championships in Ireland in August 1877, coincidentally, or not, the same year as the first Wimbledon. Simon Eaves and Robert Lake (2020) paint a rosy picture of the sport’s acme (and a decline a little later): “For a time in the 1880s and early 1890s, lawn tennis in Ireland was at its peak, and a leading nation in the sport, globally. Its players were among the world’s best, the only rival to its national championships in terms of prestige and quality of entries was Wimbledon, and its coaching professionals ranked among the world’s most sought after.”
Tennis was also one of the limited number of sporting events selected for the first modern Olympics held in Athens, Greece, from 6th – 15th April, 1896, and, as chance, or not, would have it, the men’s singles was won by Dublin-born John Boland. Of course, the Bents were in Athens at the time; they attended the first day of the Games only – the tennis started a few days later.
The game was an immediate hit with Mabel’s family, the Hall-Dares, who installed grass courts on the lawns of their estate near Bunclody, Co Wexford. Among the several sports and pastimes mentioned in Mabel’s travel diaries, colonial tennis (biking was another interest) never failed to excite her, and one reference may stand for them all:
“We did not do much that day, but about 4 sat out in wintry wind to watch the tennis [Theodore and Mabel are in Bushire in the Persian Gulf]. There are 2 courts in earth [at] the Residency and a club, and they have a cricket club. With consuls, telegraph people, etc., there are about 20 Europeans. I asked one of the young ladies if she knew any Persian ladies. ‘No. I’ve never seen any. I never do like Natives.’ Once you get to Egypt anyone… is a Native – no one cares to discriminate of what country.” (1 February 1889, The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 3, Oxford, 2010)
Mabel and Theodore were again travelling a few years before, in August 1882, when Mabel’s sister-in-law Caroline Hall-Dare organised a spectacular tennis tournament within the grounds of the family home, Newtonbarry House, sleepy on the banks of the brown Slaney River. We have a reporter from the The Gorey Correspondent and Arklow Standard (Saturday, August 26, 1882) to thank for a white-flannel and parasol account of it all:
“On Wednesday, 16th inst., a Lawn Tennis Tournament was given by Mrs Hall-Dare, at Newtonbarry House, to the ardent players of the County Wexford, who all arrived on the ground at twelve o’clock, when the drawing for partners took place. This was admirably conducted by the Rev. Canon Blacker and Mr. P.C. Newton. The games began immediately after on eight of the courts which are situated so beautifully upon the even sward which faces the mansion. After the first rounds had been played the company assembled for luncheon. In the afternoon the numbers were swelled to nearly two hundred, who witnessed, with much interest, the final rounds of this exiting Tournament.”
There is nothing like keeping it in the family, and ultimately the mixed doubles winners were ‘Miss Hall Dare’ (possibly the eighteen-year-old Elizabeth Frances Hall-Dare, Caroline’s daughter, and thus one of Mabel’s nieces, but there are other candidates) and Mr R. Donovan, who beat Miss Boyd and Mr C. Donovan. There was a ‘Consolation Prize’ for those knocked out in round one, and the winners of this were Miss E. Newton and Major Knox Browne (later a distinguished soldier), who beat Caroline Hall-Dare and Mr E. Donovan (the Donovan family, perhaps of Ballymore Townland, Co Wexford, not far east of Newtonbarry, obviously also took their tennis very seriously. There is note of a Mr Richard Donovan apparently meeting his future wife at a Kilkenny tennis party).
Like us, you might think it rather a shame that the event’s organizer, host, and provider of courts, won nothing. Perhaps Caroline had yet to adjust to the 1880 changes to the tennis rules, when “the hand-stitched ball was replaced by the Ayres ball, the net was lowered to 4ft at the post. The service line was brought in a distance of 21 feet from the net. A service ball touching the net was deemed to be a let and a player was forbidden to volley until it had crossed the net.” No problem at all for John McEnroe of course.
Those interested in the history of Irish tennis will enjoy the three-volume study by Tom Higgins of Sligo Tennis Club. (This is mentioned really as a nod to Mabel Bent’s childhood home, Temple House, Sligo, although it is unlikely the house then had courts, in the 1850s.)