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.)
Yesterday (30 March 2021) a distant view of the Giza Pyramids by Edward Lear sold at Sotheby’s (Lot 25) for £801,500, the second-highest price, we think, ever reached for a painting by this quite extraordinary man and artist.
It’s a wonderful painting – your eye focusing on the dot of light at the end of the road, before glancing right, to the Pyramids themselves. Thoughts of the Bents in Cairo come to mind, notably in early 1885 when Mabel climbed Khufu, the Great, on her birthday (Wednesday 28 January): “… After dinner we went out in the bright moonlight and Theodore… went to visit the Sphinx but I preferred to go up the Pyramid, as I had not done it on Monday… I scrambled up all alone… I wondered if ‘Fair Rhodope who as the story tells’ sat on the top of the Pyramid, delighting all beholders, was a poor creature whose clothes had got torn off in the ascent and who could not get down. I thought of the dangers and difficulties in ‘Murray’ and ‘Baedeker’ and determined to read about them and tremble tomorrow, and I banished scornfully a very passing thought of the silk elbows of the only smart frock I have with me, and joyfully and proudly reached the summit, a strangely dressed figure – Hat, silk and velvet brocade body, white lace fichu over it and a blue cloth petticoat with a wide scarlet band, which I quite vainly tried to conceal by tying a black lace scarf round it; the skirt had been discarded before starting… It was splendid being up there and I think it very very unlikely that any other person has been up by moonlight on his birthday before…
(It was on this same trip, we can reveal, that Theodore and Mabel actually excavated at Saqqara (near Ti’s tomb) – not a widely reported fact and their activities went unpublished, but for Mabel’s diary entry of a picnic there on 30th January 1885: “We improved our knowledge of the letters and were so delighted with the outer part that the old man rattled his keys much and often to try and attract us inside. When we did get inside we felt we should be there a long time so sent for our luncheon which we ate in the outer part, digging a hole for orange peels etc., that they might not offend the sight of future comers.“)
If you are curious, a search for the highest price paid for a Lear finds a sum of £938,400 in June 2007, at Christie’s, for another Egyptian view: Kasr-es-Saiyyad (Kasr es Saiad, El Qasr el Saiyad).
Astronomical prices indeed for an artist who had to work tirelessly in his lifetime to make ends meet and who eventually settled modestly in San Remo, Italy, where, in a manner of speaking, he met Bent: “Tozer of Oxford sends me a charming book… by Theodore Bent… all about the Cyclades. (Dearly beloved child let me announce to you that this word is pronounced ‘Sick Ladies,’ – howsomdever certain Britishers call it ‘Sigh-claides.’)…” (Lear to Chichester Fortescue, Lord Carlingford [30 April 1885, San Remo]).
Mabel Bent’s diaries are available from Archaeopress, Oxford.
“We cannot too much admire the persistence, courage, and cheerful endurance of hardships displayed by Mr. Bent and his plucky wife.” – The Manchester Guardian
“Mrs. Bent has compiled a work rich in information. Much is included of extreme utility. The volume with its good maps and illustrations and instructive appendices, will deservedly take its place in the category of recognized and authoritative books of travel.” – The World
“May we hope for more.” – The Outlook
In anyone’s list of the best twenty books in the English language on explorations in the Middle East you are likely to find Mabel and Theodore Bent’s Southern Arabia, published in London on 26 January 1900.
This ambitious work, compiled by Mabel from her ‘Chronicles‘ and the notebooks and articles published by Theodore before his untimely death in May 1897, a few days after returning from Aden, now commands high prices for its first edition, handsome as it is with its red cloth binding, sketches by Theodore, Mabel’s photographs, and numerous maps.
The book would have cost you 18 shillings, quite a sum in those days, over £40 now. However, you will need to find over £500, or as much as £1500, for a good original copy today (March 2021). On-demand editions, thankfully, are easy to find and there are also excellent, highly-recommended (and free) online versions (e.g. archive.org), and the Table of Contents is reproduced here from one.
The region absorbed Theodore Bent for the last few years of his short life and it is thus unsurprising that Mabel spent the next ten years or so, the first decade of the twentieth century, returning for lengthy stays in Palestine, making Jerusalem her base. It has to be said that these sojourns were challenging for Mrs Bent – she had no partner, she became involved in intrigue and controversy, she tried her hand at bookselling, at caring for Gordon’s spurious Garden Tomb (editing a guidebook to it in the 1920s); and there was the episode of her ride alone in the wilderness and her fall and broken leg, and then there is the mystery of the so-called Bethel Seal. And much must be seen within the context of her formative years – a difficult father, the painful death of her mother, the assumed suicide of her younger brother, the early death from typhoid of her elder brother… the need to be somewhere else can be well understood.
Strangest of all, was Mabel’s obsession – for such it seems – with the controversial movement, British Israelism, and she used her months in Jerusalem to research and write that tract of nonsense she published in 1908 under the title Anglo-Saxons from Palestine. However the book serves two good purposes, one is to illustrate just how absurd the concept was, and is, and the other is to provide, of all things, fourteen pages of reviews of her 1900 publication – Southern Arabia.
Next time you publish, try asking your editor if you can include fourteen pages of reviews of your last book, and a book on someone else’s list to boot! See what answer you get! But you are not Mabel Bent of course – she was something of an unmovable force, much respected for her courage and ‘pluck’, in mountains and deserts, and on horse, donkey, and camel.
Much of this is evident in what amounts to Mabel’s scrapbook of press cuttings on Southern Arabia, which we present for you via the link below. It is unlikely that they will have been read much since their publication. They are Mabel’s own selection, and she has judiciously edited them for negative remarks – a stinker (‘Man’, Vol. 1, 1901, 29-30) presumably by Arabist D. G. Hogarth, understandably, is not included, but he may well have had a pen in a couple of the others!
Reading them, with their focus on Aden, Bahrain, Yemen, Dhofar, Oman, Muscat, Sokotra, the Red Sea, etc., you could just as well switch the geography to the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Africa, Iran, the western seaboard of India, or Iran – those other theatres of exploration engaging the Bents for twenty years. And not lost on you, with the sense that Mabel is underscoring each, will be all the old adjectives of Empire – the review from the Illustrated London News is, well, illustrative: “That lady’s high spirit and courage, the tact and cleverness with which she managed to bear her position, as the only female traveller must have been a great help to her conjugal partner. This book is her memorial of him and will be acceptable to many readers.”
But no excuses are needed for drawing these lost glimpses of the Bents to your attention (the bibliographical references are incomplete, let us know if you want any specifically and we will try and help) – the notices will have reminded Mabel, of course, of her dead husband, and their fulfilled twenty years of adventures together, and, like all travel-addicts, her need to be somewhere else…
“The vivacity of her feminine humour, the keen observation of amusing little details, the lively recollection of droll anecdotes, and the brave wife’s spirit of comradeship in their frequent adventurous travels, grace with a peculiar charm the instructive revelation of much rare fresh learning which concerns the lore of historic antiquity, as well as the present condition of territories yet imperfectly known… That lady’s courage and high spirit, the tact and cleverness with which she managed to bear her position as the only female traveller, must have been a great help to her conjugal partner. This book is her memorial of him, acceptable to many readers who condole with her irreparable bereavement.” (The Illustrated London News, April 21, 1900, p. 556)
“[One] of the most notable and charming women of the day…” and her “museum” – 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, W1
Both Theodore and Mabel Bent liked to style themselves ‘archaeologists’, and at times a case can be made that they were… and at others that they were anything but. But there can be no doubting they were truly exceptional travellers and explorers, regularly facing uncertainty and considerable hardships over a period of almost twenty years – ‘excavating’ where they could, usually in line with whatever Theodore’s current hobby-horse happened to be – early life in the Cyclades, the Phoenicians, the Queen of Sheba…
The Bents are an amazingly addictive couple and ‘the archaeology of the Bents’ is very much part of what the Bent Archive is all about. And now and then, once in twenty years of research, something truly remarkable, unique even, comes to light. The late summer of 2020 produced just such a discovery, beginning with an insignificant alert from the British Newspaper Archive saying that a quality women’s magazine, The Gentlewoman, had been added to its list of digital holdings, most of which originate from the British Library. Straightaway the search term ‘Theodore Bent’ (which will turn up either Mr or Mrs J. Theodore Bent) went in, and, just like an excavator in an opening trench, you wait to see if anything comes up. Bingo! There it was – The Gentlewoman – The Illustrated Weekly Journal for Gentlewomen, Vol. VII, Saturday, November 11, 1893, pages 621-622, Article title: Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, No. CLXXV, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’.
An astonishing discovery, and for us as intriguing as anything the Bents brought home to London from the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, or Arabia. And what makes the article so appealing is that it is the only piece unearthed so far that goes into any detail about the Bents’ archaeological and ethnographic finds that they had out on show in their London townhouse (an invitation and victim to the Blitz), 13 Great Cumberland Place, just a few hundred metres from Marble Arch. A further discovery is that the article also contains a very rare portrait of Mabel (which our research shows is by Henry Van der Weyde); there are also three unique photographs, sadly very dark, of the interior of their house.
This revelatory article from The Gentlewoman is now transcribed below and we make no apologies for its length – you can return to it as often as you like, and it is probably the first time for a hundred years it will have been re-read. Its context (and once more we have archaeology), reinforces the aura of celebrity the Bents had acquired following their 1891 trip to ‘Great Zimbabwe’, with Cecil Rhodes scheming behind him – and in a sense the great ‘Colossus’ made a minor one of Theodore, and Mabel too.
The last few paragraphs of the piece make reference to the 1893 scandal involving the controversy of whether women should continue being elected Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society – Mabel was in the proposed second cohort (22 or so had been elected thus far), but the RGS hierarchy managed to ban them from applying. It was a sorry story, not put right until 1913.
It is also worth noting that some of the dates mentioned in the article are inaccurate for some reason – perhaps Mabel’s memory let her down during the interview with the editor.
Nor does the article always make for happy reading – there are inclusions and stray finds that are unwelcome today, but which were the matrix of the day – the discovery that two ikons from the Patmos’ ‘Cave of the Apocalypse’ were removed is a shock (although Mabel in her diary records that at least one was ‘purchased’). Mabel died in 1929 and a few years previously she donated some of the artefacts she held most dear, those that reminded her most of happier times before Theodore’s early death in 1897, to the British Museum. All her remaining assets were bequeathed to her nieces, and her collections divided up, dispersed, sold off, reverting to anonymous items, and now in the main contextless, provenances lost. And the Patmos ikons? Where they are today, we don’t know. Let’s hope some future archaeologist turns them up and sees these little treasures returned to the Dodecanese…
… but let’s make a start on the transcription, and hand you over to Theodore and Mabel, in one of their cluttered drawing rooms, carriages rattling along in the street below, being interviewed by the editor of TheGentlewoman, Joseph Snell Wood. It is Autumn in London in 1893, an empire’s heyday, and the leaves in Hyde Park are changing colour…
Gentlewomen ‘At Home’, ‘Mrs. Theodore Bent… at 13, Great Cumberland Place’
A throwaway line in Mabel Bent’s ‘Chronicle’ of Monday, January 25th, 1897, written off the beaten track in Socotra, arouses curiosity and links us tangentially to her husband’s friend, Nigel Gresley: “All the booted portion of the party are now in anxiety about their foot gear, as to how it will hold out till Tamarida. We apply the gums of various trees to retard consumption. At last, instead of going over a precipice we (turned to the left) reached a river and on the other side of that we encamped… I was not tired. I am sure our legs will be in good training for our bicycles [our italics].” (Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Volume 3, p. 300)
Bicycles? Yes indeed… The Bents were bikers by the 1890s, if not before.
Around the early 1880s, soon after the Bents’ wedding in fact, bike designers were looking for ways of getting their riders nearer the ground (think ‘Penny-farthing’ here), i.e. safer. It was a British engineer, it seems, who cracked the problem – John Kemp Starley (1855-1901), with his 1885 ‘safety’ bicycle (coincidentally the year Theodore was also making a name for himself with his famous guidebook on the Cyclades). A revolutionary feature of this new invention was that now both wheels (with pneumatic tyres ) could be the same size, thanks to its chain drive mechanism.
The Starley ‘Rover’ (the polymath designer was involved with the founding of this famous brand) and other models soon started a craze for biking, and thousands of clubs sprang up all over Europe. Also revolutionary was the speedy acceptance of biking by women (suitably attired), and these bike clubs can be said to have played a proud and early role in gender equality! The only reference we have so far by Theodore himself to the sport comes in a letter of 13 September 1896 to the renowned cartographer H.R. Mill, from the house of Bent’s Irish in-laws in Co. Carlow: “We are having it miserably wet over here and biking is at a discount” (Mill Correspondence, RGS RGS/CB7/Bent, T&M).
But a few weeks later, in England once more, the clouds had mostly blown away and Bent was back in the saddle – this time not with Mabel (and we don’t have her opinion on this separation), but with his very old friend the Rev. Nigel Walsingham Gresley of Dursley, Gloucestershire (UK). Cairo to Cape Town (Bent knew them both)? No. Aden to Shibam (ditto)? No. What we have is an energetic week in gentrified East Anglia, eastern England – eating, drinking, fishing, sketching, brass-rubbing, and church-going.
Clearly Bent’s trip with his old school and college friend was well prepared in advance, as there were prearranged stops to visit some of Theodore’s acquaintances, including the great novelist Rider Haggard (fellow enthusiast for Great Zimbabwe) and Sir Elwin and Lady Palmer, the former at the time was Financial Secretary to the Khedive in Egypt. In the record of the tour, we read that the friends ‘dined’ with the Palmers, raising the question of clothes! Gresley packed his fishing rod it appears, and what else did they pack for a week and how was it all carried? There are old photographs of fardels strapped to the fronts and backs of bikes, and others of knapsacks.
The map below itemizes where they lay their weary selves after each day’s ride and the major sights they took in along the way. East Anglia comprises the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, the name deriving “from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the East Angles, a tribe whose name originated in Anglia, in what is now northern Germany”, as Wikipedia informs us. In Bent’s day, as now, the region was a most pleasant recreational area – the location of the brisk Norfolk Broads, the birthplace of the great Nelson, and the site of a royal residence at Sandringham, among many other attractions.
We don’t have the actual dates of this biking ‘week in East Anglia’, but it must have been the autumn of 1896. Gresley’s (privately) published account is dated October 28, 1896, and it informs that the pair “starting from Dursley one Monday morning” reached Norwich that night by train; the following Tuesday they caught the midday train from King’s Lynn back to London. Sadly we don’t know what bikes they had, but, interestingly, Dursley later had its own bicycle factory! As they made several boat journeys during the week (in this watery landscape of lakes and twisty rivers – the Waveney, Bure, and Ant), it is not easy to estimate the miles they covered, and of course we have no way of knowing which roads they took then, but it must have been over the 200 miles Gresley claims (and where he makes specific references, or the routes seem relatively clear, a distance in miles has been inserted into his text.)
As for the cost of a bike in those days (1890), we are talking £12 – £20; this seems most reasonable, but remember a pound then would cost you £50 now – so for your new bike: £600-£1000 – rather like today.
And a glance at any map of Suffolk and Norfolk will tell you how labyrinthine the area can be. What maps did our tourists take one wonders? We know Bent had his expedition maps prepared for him by the famous Edward Stanford of Charing Cross. Perhaps from them they ordered a set of the beautiful Ordnance Survey One-Inch maps of England and Wales (the Revised New Series of 1892-1908), a crucial feature of which is the word INN, found in most villages! As for how many times we would have seen the tourists’ bikes propped up against a thatched pub we are not apprised, but opening hours would have been observed no doubt: “… an uncommonly good luncheon of sausages, fried potatoes, and excellent cheese and butter (it is astonishing how hungry bicycling and sight-seeing make one!)”, writes Gresley.
During Gresley’s tale, one can imagine Theodore Bent chatting away, as the bike wheels click, of the lands and landscapes he had passed through over the last twenty years – Africa, Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia, the Sudan – and what a contrast to the benign byways of Norfolk and Suffolk. Of Bent’s cycling chum, the Rev. Nigel Walsingham Gresley, we know not much, other than what a few online references can provide (and should you have a photograph of him please let us know). He was born in 1850, probably in Ashby de la Zouche, and attended Repton School, beginning his friendship with Theodore Bent there. His father was a keen amateur archaeologist. He took an MA from Exeter College, Oxford (Bent was at Wadham). Having several ecclesiastical roles, he was rural dean of Dursley, Glos., at the time of this bike tour of East Anglia with Bent. He married Jane Drummond in 1878 (the year after the Bents’ nuptials). He died in 1909. There is no doubting he was a close and trusted friend of Theodore’s, being left £1000 in the latter’s will in 1897, tragically just a few months following the carefree tour of England’s eastern counties, which we are to let you read any minute now.
Jerome K. Jerome published Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) in 1889, and N. Walsingham Gresley peddled after the former, alas without the critical acclaim (and justly so), with his A Week on Wheels in East Anglia: Dedicated to the Cyclists of Dursley, a mere seven years later – you can spot the similarities, only for three men, change to two, and boat becomes bike… there is no dog, of course…never was.
“A Week on Wheels in East Anglia: Dedicated to the Cyclists of Dursley”
In and out (just about) of the Wadi Hadramawt – Mabel of Arabia
A recent Aljazeera feature on the mud-castle skyscrapers of the Hadramawt diverts and transports instantaneously. These castles strung along Yemen’s Wadi Hadramawt, bewildering CGI confections all, still miraculously exist – at risk equally from age-old threats of internecine wars, and new ones, such as mud-dissolving floods, initiated by climate change.
But if we want, we can fade to sepia and go back and look at these castles through the eyes of cavalier Victorian travellers of the 1890s:
“… the only possible way of making explorations in Arabia is to take it piecemeal… by degrees to make a complete map by patching together the results of a number of isolated expeditions. Indeed, this is the only satisfactory way of seeing any country.” (writes Mabel Bent in 1900)
Hands up then if you’ve heard of Theodore and Mabel Bent (1852-1897 and 1847-1929 respectively)? Ok – a couple of you. Chances are you met them in the Greek Cyclades, right? – over a copy of Bent’s great 1885 guide to the islands (by the way, still the best English introduction to them).
But these Victorians travelled further, much further. For instance? – well, e.g., they were paid by Cecil Rhodes in 1891 to explore the remains of Great Zimbabwe; they also rode, south–north, the length of Iran in 1889; and trekked the Ethiopian highlands in 1893; etc., etc…
Perhaps, though, their greatest folie à deux comprised the three attempts they made on the Wadi Hadramawt, in the Yemen, ‘Arabia Felix’, between 1894 and 1897. Where? Picture Aden on a map, wiggle your finger east along the coast for a few centimetres, move the same finger inland, northish, for a couple more, and you about have it – in all, 200 km or so of the most spectacular valley-landscape you will ever see.
But of course you would be mad to try (check out the UK Foreign Office’s latest advice). Yemen is dangerous – in 1894 as now. In all probability, Mabel Bent, red-haired and no-nonsense, was the first western woman, voluntarily at least, ever to ride from the port of Mokulla up and into the Wadi Hadramawt, with its oases and fabulous cities of mud towers. An extraordinary adventure for an aristocratic Irishwoman, of the trout-brown Slaney River, Co. Wexford. (Theodore’s objectives for the expedition are beyond the scope of these short paragraphs, but they had something to do with the Queen of Sheba. Suffice it to say… his last trip killed him – Mabel got him home alive, somehow, in May 1897, to their house near London’s Marble Arch, where he shivered to death a few days later of malarial complications. He was 45, his wife was 50.)
Mabel’s diaries (she called them her ‘Chronicles’) have all been published (except for a missing volume – her trip to Ethiopia in early 1893). Here she is on her way east, to ‘the castle of the Sultan of Shibahm at Al Koton’ (al-Qatn); she took the photo you see here too.
Friday, 12th January 1894: “[Theodore and I] still proceed among limestone cliffs along the wadis … Our journey was seven hours, always along the valley, more like a plain it was so wide. We intended to go on to Al Khatan, where the Sultan of Shibahm lives, but a messenger came saying he expected to see us tomorrow and we were to encamp at Al Furuth. So when we reached that place, where there is a very beautiful well, shaded by palms and with four oxen, two at each side, drawing up water, we set up our five tents in the smoothest part of a ploughed field. Towards evening came two viziers, gaily dressed on fine horses, to welcome us: Salem bin Ali and Salem bin Abdullah, cousins.
“[The viziers came to greet us] about 7.30 next morning. We had all stayed in bed till it was quite light and they brought two extra horses… While the camels were loaded a lot of women came to see me and I sat in a chair and took off my gloves at their request and let them hand my hands round. They asked to see my head, so then they got my hair down, dived their fingers down my collar, tried to open the front of my dress and take my boots off and turned up my gaiters…
“We principal personages set out, leaving camels, etc., to follow… in ½ hour we arrived and were delighted with the appearance of this town of towers in the morning light, and the tallest, whitest and most decorated, shining against the precipitous mountains, was pointed out as our future home, and we all wondered what should next befall us and whether this was the farthest point of our journey or if we could get onward…” [The Travel Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol 3, Arabia, p.165 ff]
A few years later, after Theodore’s death, Mabel writes up the same event in her tribute book to her husband – Southern Arabia: “Like a fairy palace of the Arabian Nights, white as a wedding cake, and with as many battlements and pinnacles, with its windows painted red, the colour being made from red sandstone, and its balustrades decorated with the inevitable chevron pattern, the castle of Al Koton rears its battlemented towers above the neighbouring brown houses and expanse of palm groves; behind it rise the steep red rocks of the encircling mountains, the whole forming a scene of Oriental beauty difficult to describe in words. This lovely building, shining in the morning light against the dark precipitous mountains, was pointed out to us as our future abode.” (Southern Arabia, 1900, p. 111)
There we have it then, not Ludwig of Bavaria, but Mabel of Arabia, and the fantasy castles she wondered at some 130 years ago, and still, miraculously, standing.
Coda: “This war has to end” said President Biden the other day (Feb 2021), and “we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen”. What will this mean and how can it end? Theodore and Mabel Bent were travelling in this extraordinary region in the 1890s, as a recent post in writer Jen Barclay’s blog outlines…
“And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing!” (from Mabel Bent’s Chronicle of 1889)
We begin our essay on Theodore and Mabel Bent and India not at the Taj Mahal, nor the Ellora Caves, but in leafy Brookwood Cemetery (Surrey, UK), an hour from London, on May 24, 1904:
“And why, it may be asked, were so many Indian and English friends gathered… in such a place on a dismal day in a downpour of rain? The day was dismal, and rightly so, for the obsequies were being performed of Mr. Jamsetdjee Nusserwanjee Tata, the foremost citizen, taken all round, that India has produced during the long period of British rule over the most cultured and civilised people east of Suez…”
For it seems, indeed, that Mabel Bent, and perhaps Theodore too, although dead and buried himself these seven years, was a friend, or at least an acquaintance, of the extraordinary Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (1839-1904), the pioneer Indian industrialist who founded the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate company (as at 2021).
And in the same periodical that reports the industrialist’s funeral – the Voice of India, Saturday, 18 June 1904 (p. 583) – we have an image of Mabel, bearing flowers, her long red hair tucked under a black hat:
“From Mr. N.J. Moola I have received the following list of inscriptions attached to the wonderfully beautiful and choice flowers that were an eloquent expression of the affection in which Mr. Tata was held…”
And included in this list we find: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent.’
To be able to associate Mabel, the archetypal Victorian, with the legendary ‘Father of Indian Industry’ seems somehow an unusual but fanfaring introduction to the Bents and India, with all the dynamics and symbolism in play between the nations at the end of the 19th century. India meant something, and meant adventures in and around the region for the Bents.
In all, our couple made three trips to India – not the London, ten-hour flight to Mumbai of today, but then, of course, traversing several seas (the Suez Canal was opened to navigation on 17 November, 1869). Let it be known, Theodore never expressed any sustained interest in exploring or excavating regionally in India, nor to travel and write about its culture; it seems the idea of the land was just too big for him to provide any focus or purchase, and there was something, too, in his psychology, that did not fit. And yet, such was the meaning of India, it would have been extraordinary indeed were he never to have set foot on the Asian continent. Thus, concisely, we can condense their trips to India into: one business meeting (1895), two transit stops (1889 and 1894), and one brief tourist excursion (1895).
But it was India nevertheless.
Theodore wrote no articles directly relating to these visits, the name ‘India’ appearing in just one title. For Mabel, her diary entries are strangely muted (as we shall read in a moment): there is no colour, no sensory Indian overload, as if British control of the ports they landed at and left from, without much exploration, had thrown an odd English and subfusc wash over everything.
Their first Asian visit was in December 1889 – in a dramatic volte face and characteristic burst of energy and enthusiasm from Theodore that was to launch the couple out of their Eastern-Mediterranean orbit – having been denied further rights to ‘explore’ in either Greece or Turkey – and project them thousands of kilometres eastwards, for Bahrain, then under British and India Office protection, and with Theodore at relative liberty therefore to shovel-and-pick his way there through the ‘Mounds of Ali’. His fuel for this foray was an interest he had by the end of the 1890s in various long-standing theories and Classical references that seemed to link Bahrain with the Phoenicians, and in turn to the movement of early peoples around the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond – perhaps the theme that could be said to be the pivot of his short life’s work; his means of taking himself and his wife to Bahrain was via a slow boat from Karachi, then in India and under the British Raj. But their first port of call was to be Bombay.
The summer of 1888 was taken up, as usual, with Theodore conducting a busy schedule of talks and lectures in England and Scotland, as well as a non-stop programme of article-writing and publishing. Late summer was the time for extended holidays in Ireland and northern England, seeing family and friends, and so it was not until after Christmas 1888 that Theodore and Mabel had everything in place to leave London. Through Suez, and changing at Aden, they reached Mumbai (then Bombay) after three weeks, and immediately left for Karachi and a cruise up the eastern side of the Persian Gulf; making a brief halt at Muscat, before crossing to Bushire, arriving there on 1 February 1889. From there they crossed the Gulf once more to reach Bahrain. (Their finds there, now in the British Museum, were modest and the couple spent only two weeks on the island.) By the end of February 1889 the couple are leaving again for Bushire, Mabel adding in her diary: ‘having passed 40 days and 40 nights of our precious time on the sea, we then and there made up our minds to return over land…’ And with this throwaway remark, Mabel announces the couple’s epic ride of some 2000 km through Persia, the first leg of their journey home to Marble Arch.
But let us now peer over Mabel’s shoulder and read her ‘Chronicle’ while she writes on the “British India S.S. Pemba, January 21st 1889, Monday. Passing Gujarat, India”
“I now for the first time [Monday, 21st January 1889] feel tempted to bring forth this book, as I am so soon to get off the beaten track. Theodore and I left London on December 28th (Friday) in the P.&O.S.S. Rosetta, not a very comfortable or clean ship and landed at Naples (Saturday) on the way and changed at Aden (Monday), with no time to land, to the P.&O. Assam, which, though smaller, is wider and has much better passenger accommodation and was very clean.
“We reached Bombay on Sunday 20th [January 1889] after a roughish time in the Indian Ocean, passing on Saturday the American racing yacht Coronet going round the world. There were few passengers on the ‘Assam’. And now I think we are among the most remarkable people in this world. Fancy going all the way to Bombay and departing thence without ever landing! We found the tender of the British India waiting hungrily for us and were carried off with the mails at once. This [i.e. the ‘Pemba’] is a very small ship and only one passenger for Kurrachi 1st class, but quantities of odd deck passengers dressed and the reverse. We have a cabin next to the little ladies’ cabin and their bath and all in communication, so Theodore has a dressing room and we are most comfortable. We are to call at several places on our way to Bushire. The sea is very calm and it is nice and cool and we are passing a coast like Holland with palms, or rather coconut trees.
“We reached Kurrachi on Wednesday 23rd [January 1889] about 2 o’clock, and being tempted by the thought of 2 nights ashore, landed. We were surprised at the immense fleet of huge sailing boats which surrounded the ship instead of the usual little ones, but we were a good way out. They are building a new lighthouse further back and on lower ground but higher in itself, as the present one is being shaken by the guns on Manora Point.
“On landing on the bunder, or quay, we took a carriage for Reynold’s Hotel. After leaving the bunder, where various shipping buildings are, we drove for a mile or more along the bund, or embankment, across water and in about 6 miles we reached our destination. All around is arid and sandy but they are making a fierce fight to rear up some dusty plantains, palms, pepper trees, etc. The hotel was a great disappointment as the establishment is just a one-storeyed bungalow with a veranda all round and everyone’s door opening on to it and most with no kind of blind to prevent the inmates being beheld by outsiders. We found ourselves, when night came, in this case and so without ceremony flitted to a suite next door with imitation coloured glass. There was a dressing room behind and a built bath cemented in a bathroom beyond. All was very untidy and wretched and when night came we wished ourselves on board the ‘Pemba’.
“The cantonment road was near, also many others intersecting the sandy plain all 40 feet wide and one with footpaths fully 20. This led past the bungalows of officers, each in a compound, which made the road very long and dull, and it was very hot too. On Thursday [24th January 1889] we drove to the city about 4 miles off and nearer the sea and discovered the native town and wandered up and down narrow streets full of people intermixed with cows and passed several baths where people were washing themselves outside the buildings.
“We departed at dawn on Friday [25th January 1889] and drove down to the bunder and were off after breakfast, now the only 1st class. Friday night we stopped 3 miles out from Gwadar in Beloochistan, so of course saw nothing, and on Sunday morning, 27th [January 1889] early, found ourselves at Muscat in Arabia.”
Five years on – Karachi revisited: Bound for India a second time
For 1895, the Bents have decided to make a second attempt to penetrate regions of Yemeni Hadramaut, this time approaching from the south-east, via Muscat again and the coast of modern Oman. Their first trek into the Wadi Hadramaut, in 1894, was only partially successful, and on their return they soon made plans to try again. Mabel’s previous Chronicle had ended in an upbeat tone with ‘and if we possibly can we’ll go back’. In any event they only had a few months (and, as said before, they normally took a break in mid-summer to visit family and friends in England and Ireland) to seek backing and make all the necessary preparations, including informing the ‘media’. Ultimately Theodore was ready to issue a ‘press release’ to The Times (31 October 1894): “Mr. Theodore Bent informs Reuter’s Agency that he and Mrs. Bent are about to start another scientific expedition to Southern Arabia. Leaving Marseilles by Messageries steamer on November 12, they will proceed to Kurrachee, whence they will tranship to Muscat.”
For a first-hand account, we have an extract from Mabel’s classic book on their Arabian adventures – Southern Arabia (1900) – in which she explains (p. 228 ff):
“My husband again, to our great satisfaction, had Imam Sharif, Khan Bahadur [expedition cartographer of note on their last trip], placed at his disposal; and, as the longest way round was the quickest and best, we determined to make our final preparations in India, and meet him and his men at Karachi.”
But let’s at this point switch back to Mabel’s diaries, and her entry for: “Saturday 15th December, 1894. The Residency, Muscat. As it is now nearly a fortnight since I have seen a white woman, I think it time to start my writing. We left England [Friday] Nov. 9th  and after 2 nights at Boulogne embarked at Marseilles on [Monday] the 12th [November 1894] on board the M.M.S.S. ‘Ava’. We had a good passage and warm, seeing Etna smoking on the way, and about 2 days after had a great white squall; I daresay in connection with the earthquakes. We transshipped at Aden to ‘La Seyne’, Theodore going ashore to see about the camp furniture left there 7 months ago.
“We reached Kurrachee on the morning of [Thursday] the 29th [November 1894] and a letter came on board from Mr. James, the Commissioner, asking us to stay at Government House, saying he was going to the Durbar at Lahore, but his sister, Mrs. Pottinger, would entertain us – and so she did, most kindly. She is so pretty and charming, I do not know which of us was most in love with her…
“We remained at Kurrachee till Monday night after dinner. We drove out every evening and one morning went to the bazaars. I bought a lot of toe rings of various shapes, silver with blue and green enamel. They were weighed against rupees and 2 annas added to each rupee. One day we went to call on 2 brides and bridegrooms, Mr. and Mrs. McIver Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. Thornton. The ladies, Miss Grimes and Miss Moody, had come out to our steamer, been married that day, and were passing their honeymoon together at Reynold’s Hotel, amid the pity of all beholders. We embarked [Monday 3rd/Tuesday 4th December 1894] on the B.I.S.N.S.S. Chanda with a little plum pudding Mrs. Pottinger had had made and mixed and stirred by herself and us, and Mr. Ireland, a young invalid officer who was being taken care of at Government House, and her young nephew, Mr. A. James. We were 3 days on the Chanda, a clean little ship with a very clever nice Captain Whitehead, and on Thursday morning [6th December 1894] we reached Muscat…”
A third and final return to India
Alas, this expedition along the Oman coast also turns out to be less than successful – although the couple made some remarkable discoveries. The fastness that was the ‘Wadi Hadhramout’ again resisted the Bents’ advances and the party found itself stranded at Sheher, on Yemen’s south coast, in late January 1895, in vain hoping to strike northwards into the Wadi area, or, failing that, to return to Muscat to explore further there.
Mabel’s expedition Chronicle of around this date is haphazard and, understandably, rather depressed. Something happens, and, as in nowhere else in her twenty years of diary-keeping, the detailed notes of the couple’s travels disappear. We get a few lines from the Yemeni south coast before moving with her on board the Imperator for Mumbai:
“[About Wednesday, 30th January 1895, Sheher] … The next 2 days there were great negotiations and plannings as to our future course. One plan was to go hence to Inat in the Wadi Hadhramout, down to Kabre Hud and Bir Borhut and thence to the Mosila Wadi; eastward and back by the coast to this place and then try to go westward. But the other is to us preferable; to go along the coast, first up Mosila and into the Hadhramout and then try to go west, without coming here again. Of course there are so many delays of all sorts that we shall be here some days yet. The one pleasure we can enjoy is a quiet walk along the shore covered with pretty shells and birds…
“A good long time has elapsed since I wrote and I resume my Chronicle. Sunday, February 17th . And hardly can I write for the shaking of the very empty Austrian Lloyd S.S. ‘Imperator’ bound for Bombay. After a good deal of illusory delay, the Sultan Hussein declared he could not answer in any way for our safety if we went anywhere and so we at first thought of going to Muscat in a dhow and going to the Jebel Akhdar, as we had intended if it had not been for Imam Sheriff’s illness, but with the wind blowing N.E. it would have taken fully a month. We then must have gone round by India to get home and all our steamer clothes were at Aden. So as soon as we could we hired a dhow and embarked thereupon at about 1 o’clock for Aden…”
Back on dry land, we know the Bents were in Aden again by Wednesday, 13 February 1895. On that date Theodore wrote a ‘press release’ via the Royal Geographical Society, which was published in The Times of 1 March, announcing that ‘The party… went on to Sheher… Last year the people were very friendly to Mr. Bent’s party and promised to take them on a tour into the interior, but the season was too far advanced. To Mr. Bent’s surprise, however they received him and his party very coldly, absolutely refused to let them go outside the town, and told them that for the future no European would be allowed to enter the Hadramaut… Although it is evident Mr. Bent has not been able to carry out what would have been an expedition of the first magnitude, still it would seem that his journey will not be without interesting and novel results. His latest letter is dated from Aden, February 13, and he expects to be home about the middle of April.’
And they will come home via India; and Mabel’s few lines above are all we have of the Bents’ last trip there. Why did Mabel not keep up her diary? They would have reached Bombay on the Imperator (a lovely ship of 4140 tons, launched in September 1886 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Austrian Lloyd Shipping Company) by the end of February 1895, and we know the two of them were back in London by the end of April.
The Manchester Guardian of 25 April 1895 carried another report: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent have returned to London after spending the winter in exploring some of the little known or entirely unknown valleys of Southeastern Arabia. The flying trip which Mr. Bent made to India to see Colonel Holdich, the head of the Indian Survey, as to some unexpected difficulties, presumably of official origin, thrown in the way of the realisation of his plans for visiting the Eastern Hadramaut Valley, was unfortunately unsuccessful, as Colonel Holdich was absent on frontier business…’
Allowing for a two- or three-week journey back to England, Theodore and Mabel would have remained three or four weeks in India. As we have read above, one mission Theodore had in the country was to try and find his friend the great ‘Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in British India’, Colonel Sir Thomas H. Holdich, intending to elicit his support for one further expedition to the Hadramaut.
But Mabel’s above note, about needing Aden again to collect their personal effects, including ‘steamer clothes’ prior to making for Bombay, leads indirectly to one last bit of classic tourism and sightseeing – the fabled Ellora Caves. It looks, however, as if Mabel never went along; indeed, the only reference we have to the trip comes after Mabel’s death in 1929; prompted by her obituary in the Times, a letter appears in the same newspaper a few days later. This letter, of 6 July 1929, is from Mrs Julia Marie Tate, of 76 Queensborough Terrace, Hyde Park, London, widow of William Jacob Tate, in which she wistfully recalls:
“… a vivid picture of a moonlit night as clear as day off Aden, watching Arabian ‘sampans’ unloading tents and quantities of camp ‘saman’ [personal effects]. Presently their owners climbed up, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bent. A few months before [i.e. the winter of 1894/5] we had called at their [London] house in Great Cumberland-place to learn their whereabouts, but the butler knew nothing, only that they were ‘somewhere in the Indian Ocean.’ This improvised meeting brought about the fulfilment of a cherished desire of theirs when my husband took his old schoolfellow to see the wonder caves of Ellora. This was their last reunion on earth.”
It is remarkably odd that Mabel makes no mention of this trip to the ‘wonder caves’ – was she ill? Or prevented somehow from going? Did it cause such resentment that she refused to chronicle the stay in Mumbai, and the long journey home by sea? Her regret at missing out on this excursion – then as now one of India’s greatest tourist attractions – can be imagined, for she was not easily denied. Also unusual is the fact that Theodore also wrote nothing about the visit to the caves (a trip that would have necessitated several nights away from his wife) – he did have much else on his mind, but perhaps also he had no desire to bring up the matter again and avoid any breakfast-table ill will!
And his companion? William Jacob Tate (1853-1899) was at Repton School with Theodore in the late 1860s. He joined the Indian Civil Service but had to retire early on account of his health and died just two years after Theodore in December 1899, at the age of 46. Mabel and Mrs Tate perhaps remained in town while Theodore and his old school friend visited the Ellora cave complex of monasteries and temples carved in the basalt cliffs north of Aurangabad (Maharashtra State), some 300 km north-east of Mumbai – “Reached from Nandgaon (G.I.P. Railway) by tonga, holding three passengers… Visitors are advised to take a sufficient supply of provisions and liquors for the trip.’ (Thomas Cook: India Burma and Ceylon : information for travellers and residents (1898, p. 79)
As for Mrs Tate, she can be forgiven her unseen tears in her letter to the Times. A stone in the Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery Heuvelland, Belgium, is inscribed: ‘Tate, Lieutenant, William Louis, 3rd Bn., Royal Fusiliers. Killed in action 13 March 1915. Age 24. Eldest son of the late William Jacob Tate, I.C.S., and of Mrs. Julia Marie Tate.’ And the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial has this: ‘Tate, Captain, Frederick Herman, Mentioned in Despatches, 10th Bn., King’s Royal Rifle Corps. 11 August 1917. Age 22. Son of Mrs. Tate… the late W.J. Tate.’
The old steamer on her westward bearing leaves Bombay in her wake. No amount of meditation in the Ellora Caves, or anywhere else, will ease such wounds, be it for Tate or Tata: ‘With deep sympathy, from Mrs. Theodore Bent.’
Perhaps to most readers, the Bents are associated mostly with Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, especially the Cyclades (based on their bestseller on the region published in 1885).
But Theodore and Mabel are remembered too, by those with time to explore the explorers, for their expeditions to Southern Arabia and Persia (including their astonishing ride, south-north, the length of Iran in 1889), and Africa (a dangerous trek down the west coast of the Red Sea in 1896; and extraordinary work for Cecil Rhodes at ‘Great Zimbabwe’ in 1891).
And in 1893, Abyssinia’s Aksum enticed them too, not to mention the mythical ‘Lioness of Gobedra’.
It’s no secret that the BBC’s World Service is full of secrets – waiting for adventurers to discover: adventurers like Theodore Bent. Currently (December 2020) in its treasure of a series, ‘The Forum’, there is an episode on the enigmatic stelae of Aksum – erstwhile capital of an Abyssinian region dated to some 2000 years ago, and frantically explored by Bent and his wife in 1893. The fact that the Bents are not referenced, however, is a serious academic omission (modern archaeologists are still condescending towards them), especially since the nearby and important site of Yeha was first identified by Bent.
The episode does refer to Aksum’s ‘stele 2’, removed by Mussolini for Rome in the manner of former despots and now happily returned, but not that it was actually photographed some 50 years earlier in situ by Mabel Bent and reproduced in their most readable adventure – ‘The Sacred City of the Ethiopians’. Despite this, the programme (with contributions by Niall Finneran, Solomon Woldekiros and Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga) is a must, as is the Bents’ account, easily findable for free on-line.
Our recent post (13 Oct 2020) on the hundreds of items in the British Museum collected by Theodore and Mabel Bent, was ultimately about things – their contexts, consequences, associations, the meanings of value…
It will probably come as no surprise that Mabel Bent’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Hall Dare (née Grafton, 1793-1858), also had a great many things (the wider family units being landowners in Essex and with interests in the sugar plantations of British Guyana)… including, it seems, a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a thermometer, and, oh yes, a quantity of butter, two and half pounds in weight in actual fact.
Oddly, let’s move at this point to that lowering fortress of justice, the Old Bailey in London in 1840, as recorded in The Weekly Dispatch (page 507) of Sunday, 25 October, with reference to a petty case that was tried on the 19th of that month and year.
We read in the said tabloid, obiter dicta: “Christopher Johann Frederick Auguste Struve, described as a dealer, was… indicted for burglariously entering the dwelling house of Mrs. Elizabeth Hall Dare, and stealing therefrom a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a quantity of butter, and various other articles. Mary Humby, servant to the prosecutrix, a widow lady, residing on Streatham-common, stated that on the night of the 11th of September  she fastened the doors and windows previous to retiring to bed. She left the larder-window open, but secured before it an iron grating, which, on the following morning, between five and six o’clock, she found broken down, and a number of articles, named in the indictment, were taken away; there was also a thermometer taken from the side of the window.”
We need more evidence, clearly, and the verdict – although it rather seems an open-and-shut case, doesn’t it? The Weekly Dispatch obliges: “Inspector Campbell stated that on the 15th of September he went to the prisoner’s lodgings, and on searching his room discovered various property, and amongst it all the articles stolen from Mrs. Dare’s. Eleanor Evans said the prisoner had occupied a room in her house for about a month previous to his being taken into custody. He always locked his door when he went out, so that nobody had access to it. When called upon for his defence the prisoner said he purchased all the articles sworn to by the witnesses of a person in the street. The Recorder having summed up the evidence, the Jury returned a verdict of Guilty. The Recorder told the prisoner that he appeared to be an experienced and systematic robber. He had been convicted of two burglaries committed within three or four days of each other. It was quite impossible that he could be allowed to remain in the country. The sentence of the Court, therefore, was that he be transported beyond the seas for the space of ten years.”
For the location of the house concerned, we refer you at this point to our second source for this abominable crime perpetrated on Elizabeth Hall Dare, Mabel Bent’s grandmother, i.e. the Central Criminal Court, Minutes of Evidence(1840, Vol 12, p. 1059), which informs us that the property was in South London’s fashionable Streatham parish, an enclave of well-heeled souls in Victorian times.
The facts and characters of the case are a cross between Tom Jones and Much Ado About Nothing. It is worth extensively quoting, if for nothing more than a reprise of ‘burglarously’ – a word it’s doubtful you will encounter three times in your life, and for the true value of things:
“Christopher Johann Frederick Auguste Struve was again indicted for burglarously breaking and entering the dwelling house of Elizabeth Grafton Hall Dare, at Streatham, about twelve o’clock in the night of the 11th September, with intent to steal, and stealing therein, 1 towel, value 1s.; 2½ lbs. weight of butter, value 2s.; 1 bell, value 5s.; 1 butter-mould, value 6d.; 1 plate, value 1d.; and 1 cup, value 6d.; her property.
“Mary Hamby: I am single, and am cook to Mrs. Elizabeth Grafton Hall Dare, widow, of Streatham Common, in the parish of Streatham. On the night of the 11th of September the larder window was open, but there was a wire-guard inside before it, which must be broken to get at anything. I saw it safe a little after ten o’clock – it opens into the garden – the grating was secured by four large nails – the next morning I went down into the larder before six o’clock, and found the wire pushed quite round behind a milk pan, to prevent it going back to its place. I missed the articles stated. A person could get through the wire place – he had then opened a door out of the larder, and taken a white jug, bell, and drinking-horn – I lost a thermometer from outside the window.
“Prisoner: I bought these things of a man in the street.
“Eleanor Evans: I am the wife of John Evans and live in Church-street Minories. The prisoner lived with us four weeks and three days until he was apprehended – the policeman came to me, and I showed him his room – they found this jug, the bell and other articles there – nobody but him could have put them there, as the door was locked – I did not see the articles there till they were found – I had missed him two or three days before that, but did not know he was in custody.
“Samson Darkin Campbell: I am a police-inspector, of the V division. On the 15th of September I went with Pitcher to No. 51, Church-street. Evans showed me a room, and I found this towel, with the name of Hall Dare on it, a thermometer, a butter-strainer, two files, a pair of pliers, and some skeleton-keys, some of them unfinished.
“Thomas Pitcher (police-constable P 167.) I accompanied Campbell, and found these articles in the room – the prisoner was in custody at the time. (Property produced and sworn to.)
“GUILTY. Aged 41. Transported for Ten Years.” (‘Central Criminal Court, Minutes of Evidence’, Vol. 12, 1840, p. 1059)
Researches are continuing into the life of Christopher Struve -could he have been a black sheep in the noble Struve family we can read about online? His convict records inform us simply that he was 41, married to Maria, had two girls, and was a Lutheran. We are still researching, too, exactly where in London’s fashionable Streatham it was that Christopher Struve decided to enter and remove therefrom a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a thermometer; and a quantity of butter – the most expensive thing in his swag, worth over £10 in today’s money. Wherever it was, it was a long way from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), something Christopher Struve wasn’t when he arrived in Hobart on 4 October 1841, transported in the yare David Clarke with 308 or so other men, one of whom (John Timbers, 19) died on the journey.
Probably in some form of restraint, it is unlikely that Struve met with the captain, William B. Mills, or saw that much of the Sound when they sailed from Plymouth on 7 June 1841 on that four-month voyage to Tasmania’s prison colony. Unloading her human cargo, the David Clarke sailed away again “for Bombay in ballast on 17 October 1841”; Christopher Struve remained, and we can imagine him coming ashore, almost exactly a year after his trial, contemplating the true value of a towel, a drinking-horn, a bell, a thermometer; all in all, it was a long, long way to come for a plate of butter.
We don’t know where these things are now, but they are not in the British Museum with the collections of Theodore and Mabel Bent.