Biography of Theodore and Mabel

James Theodore Bent
James Theodore Bent from the frontispiece of the Bents’ book “Southern Arabia” (1900). “Theodore Bent was one of a comparatively small band of travellers prepared to face countless discomforts and to undergo serious perils in the wildest, the unhealthiest, and the most inhospitable regions if only they can add something to the general stock of scientific knowledge.” – ‘The Morning Post’, Thursday, March 15, 1900.

James Theodore Bent came into the world on March 30th 1852 at 20 Bedford Street South in Liverpool and was baptized in St Philip’s Church (then in Hardman Street near the city centre) on April 28th. His uncle, Sir John Bent (1793-1857) was Lord Mayor in 1850/1.  The young Bent spent his early years at the family home – the modestly grand Baildon House, near Bradford in Yorkshire in the north of England. He was the only child of James and Margaret Eleanor Bent. The family was wealthy, having made their money largely from the brewing and pottery industries, and young James had a comfortable upbringing.

After his preparatory school (taken to be May Place, Malvern Wells, Worcestershire, attending from c. 1863-65), he went to Repton public school (in Derbyshire, slightly nearer to home), and from there to Wadham College, Oxford (c. 1873-75), where he graduated with a B.A. degree (a Second) in Modern History (matriculated 8 June 1871, aged 19, B.A. 1875 (Oxford University Alumni, 1500-1886, Vol.1)). Bizarrely, on 26th January 1875, he was initiated as a Freemason, appearing in the records of the Apollo University Lodge on that date – in pencil there is also a note that he was ‘erased’ for non-payment of subs on 26th November 1889 (England, United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Registers, 1751-1921). On leaving university, Theodore, as he preferred to be called (James being reserved for his father), briefly took up law as a student at Lincoln’s Inn in London’s legal district. However, the world of law seemed too tame for Theodore and he never went on to become a barrister. His real interests lay in travel, social history and archaeology. He is described as being ‘fair-haired, blue-eyed, short and stocky’.

For a little of the Bent family history there are interesting contributions in The Bent family in America. Being mainly a genealogy of the descendants of John Bent who settled in Sudbury, Mass., in 1638, with notes upon the family in England and elsewhere by Allen Herbert Bent (1900, p.277-8) and Tales of travel, life and love: an autobiography by George Payne Bent (1924, p.18), although the latter claims Theodore wrote fourteen books for some reason (presumably he mistook some of Bent’s articles for monographs).

Mabel Virginia Anna Bent
Mabel Virginia Anna Bent, probably photographed in her home at 13 Great Cumberland Place, London, in the 1890s.

Mabel Virginia Anna Hall-Dare was born at Beauparc House, County Meath in Ireland on January 28th 1847. The daughter of Robert Westley Hall-Dare and Frances Catherine Anna Lambart; she was descended from a line of Anglo-Irish aristocracy with strong, historic ties to the county of Essex, just outside London. Mabel must have inherited her mettle from her forebears. Her great-great-grandfather was Lord Mayor of London in 1743 and her great-grandfather was a planter in Guyana. Mabel’s father had relocated to Ireland from Essex sometime before Mabel’s birth and had established the family seat at Newtownbarry House in Co Wexford (following a period in Sligo at Temple House).

Mabel is described as being ‘Five feet eight inches tall, a green-eyed, sturdy redhead – striking in her photographs – her flaming, plaited hair was often the subject of native wonder. Outgoing and confident, she was as happy taking fences at full gallop in her native Wexford as she was dining with British ambassadors in Cairo or Constantinople.’

We do not know how the couple chanced upon each other (they were in fact very distant cousins via the Lambarts) but Mabel has told us that they met in Norway, probably in the early 1870s. Theodore and Mabel married on August 2nd 1877. Both of independent financial means, and after honeymooning in Norway, they soon embarked upon their travels, most winters seeing them leave their home in London, embarking for extended tours abroad (more often than not, via Dover-Calais, a train to Marseilles, then a ship to the Eastern Mediterranean, and beyond….).

Their first trips were to Italy and in 1879 Theodore published a book on the republic of San Marino entitled A Freak of Freedom: Or, the Republic of San Marino. In recognition of his work, Theodore and Mabel were made honorary citizens of San Marino. In 1880 he published Genoa: How the Republic Rose and Fell, followed in 1882 by The Life of Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Their journeys around the Cyclades followed between 1883 and 1885 and the very successful book The Cyclades or Life Among the Insular Greeks was published in 1885. In the succeeding years they continued exploring the more easterly islands of the Aegean Sea, many of which were then Turkish, as well as the Aegean coast of Turkey.

1889 saw them exploring the Bahrain islands of the Persian Gulf. Their trip in 1891 to Africa was the basis for Theodore’s next best-seller, The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, published in 1892. Ethiopia followed with the resulting book, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians, being published in 1893. During their final years of travel, Theodore and Mabel concentrated on the southern Arabian Peninsula and the African coast of the Red Sea.

It was on the island of Socotra, in the Gulf of Aden, that Theodore contracted the malaria that was to bring about his premature death. They managed to get back home to London but Theodore died four days later on May 5th 1897 at the age of just 45. Mabel buried her hero near her ancestral home at St. Mary the Virgin Church, in Theydon Bois, Essex.

Of the many many obituaries and fond recollections of the man, several are now provided below. Of all the thousands of words, three,  by  Sir James Knowles, Bent’s friend and editor, seem to say it all – ‘delightful and adventurous’ (‘The Island of Socotra’. The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 41 (244) (June 1897), p. 975).

E.W. Bradbrook, president of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, recalled Theodore in his anniversary address of 11 January 1898, saying (and Mabel would have been in the audience most probably) “In the death of Mr. J. Theodore Bent, the Institute has to deplore the early termination of a life of remarkable achievement and high promise. An intrepid explorer and a ripe scholar, Mr. Bent was also a man of singularly attractive and engaging character…” (The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 27 (1898), pp. 552-553).

The great Superintendent of Frontier Surveys in British India, Colonel Sir Thomas H. Holdich, K.C.I.E., C.B., R.E., was a good acquaintance of Bent’s, who travelled to India to consult him on Yemeni matters. Holdich gave a short but moving tribute in an address to the Royal Geographical Society: “ Theodore Bent has left the fields of Arabia and Africa; Elias will no more tread the steppes of Central Asia…” (Holdich, T. (1901). Advances in Asia and Imperial Consolidation in India. The Geographical Journal, 17(3), 240-250).

The Royal Geographical Society’s obituary  at the time is a full one, and again stresses Bent’s good nature: “Mr. Bent’s kindly and genial nature had endeared him to a wide circle of friends, by whom his loss will be keenly felt…” (The Geographical Journal. v.9 1897 Jan-Jun. pages 670-1 and reprinted in The Ancient Ruins of Rhodesia: Monomotapae Imperium by R.N. Hall and W.G. Neal, pages 11-12, London, 1902).

Theodore was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries on 1 July 1886. In their magazine they pick up on his popularity with the general public: “Readers of the Antiquary will have heard with much regret of the death of Mr. J. Theodore Bent, F.S.A. Mr Bent… was both an explorer and an antiquary, and he was one of those fortunate persons whose writings at once caught the ear of the public… Had Mr. Bent’s life been spared to a longer period, there is no doubt that he might have hoped to take a fairly high place in the niche of fame.” (Antiquary: A Magazine Devoted to the Study of the Past, 1896, page 165).

Mabel never really recovered from the loss of her constant partner, her travel companion and her raison d’être. She did make more journeys abroad after Theodore’s death but found her first one to Egypt ‘lonely’ and ‘useless’! With great strength she completed the book that Theodore had started, recounting their final journey; Southern Arabia was published in 1900. In 1904 she published A Patience Pocket Book and in 1908 Anglo-Saxons from Palestine: or, the Imperial mystery of the lost tribes.

(In the first three decades of the 20th century, Mabel’s name appears fairly regularly on passenger lists to Palestine. As we might well expect of her, she was still travelling well into her 70s. The Great War was still fresh in the memory when she again resumed her trips to Jerusalem and the Holy Land; in April 1920 she boarded the Union Castle’s Grantully Castle at Port Said for London Docks. And on December 30, 1921, she embarked on the P.&O. Delta at London Docks for Port Said once more.)

The preface, and the final words, of her great work and in many ways her legacy, Southern Arabia, paint a poignant picture of Mabel’s profound grief and sadness at losing Theodore:

If my fellow-traveller had lived, he intended to have put together in book form such information as we had gathered about Southern Arabia. Now, as he died four days after our return from our last journey there, I have had to undertake the task myself. It has been very sad to me, but I have been helped by knowing that, however imperfect this book may be, what is written here will surely be a help to those who, by following in our footsteps, will be able to get beyond them, and to whom I so heartily wish success and a Happy Home-coming, the best wish a traveller may have.

The book’s final two sentences read:

This is all I can write about this journey. It would have been better told, but that I only am left to tell it.

Dying at the age of 83 on July 3rd 1929, Mabel was buried alongside Theodore at Theydon Bois. She and Theodore never had children and she never remarried. She spent the last 32 years of her life alone, perhaps living up to the motto on her family coat-of-arms – ‘Loyauté sans tache’ – ‘Unsullied loyalty’.

A review of Mabel’s book Southern Arabia provides a happy paean: “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)

While the Bents’ journeys throughout the Cyclades were full of adventure, and oft-times real danger, one finds it hard to imagine the courage and resolve needed to undertake those later journeys in such uncertain times to such dangerous places. Theodore and Mabel were, truly, intrepid explorers who contributed greatly to the knowledge we have today of the societies they researched on their travels.

Read more about the Bents’ extraordinary lives: