Mabel’s letters

In the days before e-mail and social media . . . Mabel Bent, foreign correspondent.

Mabel's Aksum letter
‘My dear People’. Page 1 of Mabel’s letter of ‘Friday 24th February 1893, Aksum, Abyssinia’. Private collection.

Very regrettably there is no actual Chronicle that records Theodore and Mabel’s significant 1893 expedition to ‘Abyssinia’ within the archives of the Joint Library of the Hellenic and Roman Societies. It is mysteriously missing and does not seem to have been listed with the others when they were donated by Mabel’s sisters after her death.

We know that there was one – Theodore quotes two, perhaps verbatim, extracts from it in his own book on the trip, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians – and countless details throughout his account would be exact references to Mabel’s notes.

Fortunately, there is a cache of seven family letters home by Mabel and they provide some additional background material and highlight the role of Mabel as correspondent.

Orphaned and with their two brothers also dead, the four surviving Hall-Dare sisters (Mabel, Ethel, Olivia, and Frances), and their sister-in-law Caroline, understandably developed close bonds. Caroline and Ethel had several children and consequently there was always a large amount of family news and information (more often than not including the activities of numerous aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides) to convey to Mabel and Theodore when they were far from home (as they were for about six months a year for fifteen years).

Telegrams were prohibitively costly and reserved for major announcements, emergencies and special occasions, so the means of contact was primarily epistolary. Whenever there was the slightest chance of making a post, Mabel would write, and her Chronicles are studded with references to the mails: if she wrote two letters a week while they were travelling, sometimes more, for six months a year, over fifteen years, we might expect thousands of letters from her to have been carried, carriaged, railed and sailed back to her families and friends in England and Ireland.
The Archives of the Royal Geographical Society have a folder containing 14 manuscript letters of Mabel’s.

Mabel Bent wrote thousands of letters; they turn up from time to time, abrupt as sneezes. Here’s one offered for sale (£275) written to a steamer companion, a Miss Grimond (unidentified), about a missing travel rug – an indispensable item on deck during long, chilly hours at sea. Mabel’s correspondent, sentimentally, was clearly keen to trace it – the pair were deckchair neighbours, no doubt, on a voyage through the Mediterranean. From Mabel’s concluding sentences it is evident that lost luggage, then as now, was an issue. The letter probably dates to the early 1900s (not the 1890s), when Mabel made almost annual solo trips to Palestine; safer then. We see her characteristic signature, and note her London townhouse address – 13 Great Cumberland Place – the large home, full of travel treasures, she shared with her husband Theodore Bent until his death in 1897, aged just 45; Mabel (b. 1847) died there in 1929.

Please do contact us on if you have or are aware of any original letters of Mabel’s you would care to share. There must still be thousands out there!