Lawrence of Arabia by Augustus John, 1919, Tate Gallery, London, painting with Lawrence in Arab robes

Lawrence of Arabia’s Family

by james w thomas

Sherif Ali [Omar Sharif]: I do not understand this. Your father’s name is Chapman…
T. E. Lawrence [Peter O’Toole]: Ali, he didn’t marry my mother.
Sherif Ali: It seems to me that you are free to choose your own name, then.

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. 1962. Columbia Pictures

He chose his own name twice, as John Ross and T.E. Shaw – to avoid his worldwide fame as Lawrence of Arabia. Lowell Thomas chose his legendary name after World War I when he took his movie With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia worldwide in 1920. He featured the victorious British Field Marshall Allenby but the film made the co-star famous. The Welsh-born Lawrence went out an officer and came back a star. He then spent over a decade trying to hide from the public as an enlisted man.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, born on 16 August 1888 in Tremadog, Caernarvonshire (now Gwynedd), Wales, was the second son of Thomas Chapman, a name that belonged to his parents and his half-sisters but not to him or his four brothers. The name Lawrence was assumed and all the boys were illegitimate.

Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, 7th and last Anglo-Irish baronet of Killua Castle in Ireland, married Edith Sarah Hamilton Rochfort-Boyd in 1873 and fathered four daughters: Eva, Rose, Florence, and Mabel. But he had no sons until he met the family governess, Sarah Junner or Lawrence, daughter of the unmarried Elizabeth Junner and John Lawrence. Pregnant with her first son, Sarah was sent to Dublin where Montagu Robert was born in 1885. Lady Chapman found out and Sir Thomas left home.

Taking the family name of Lawrence for themselves, the peripatetic couple first moved to North Wales where T.E., called Ned, was born at Gorphwysfa, or “Resting Place,” now Snowdon Lodge. The third son, William George, was born in 1889 in Galloway, Scotland; number four, Frank Helier, in Jersey in 1893; and Arnold Walter in 1900 in Oxford, England, where his older brother Ned grew up.

After a tour of castles in Ottoman Syria – his dream way to “escape from bourgeois England” – Lawrence graduated from Jesus College, Oxford, in 1910 as an archaeologist. He then escaped to the site of Carchemish, a major city of the ancient Hittite Empire that reached its peak shortly after the fall of Homer’s Troy about 1200 BC. He also learned Arabic there. The modern town of Karkamiş is just north of Jarabulus, Syria, recently recaptured by Turkish troops from the Islamic State in 2016.

In 1916 during World War I, Lawrence, an intelligence officer in Egypt, found himself a liaison to Prince Faisal, military leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Together they led a guerilla force against the Turks, raiding outposts, destroying railways, and winning the Battle of Aqaba in July 1917, described in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom and over-dramatized in the movie Lawrence of Arabia.

Three Lawrence brothers also served in the war. Older brother Robert joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, survived, and died in 1971 in England. 2nd Lt. Frank Lawrence, Gloucestershire Regiment, was killed on 5 September 1915 during the Battle of Aubers Ridge. 2nd Lt. William Lawrence, Royal Flying Corps, died on 23 October 1915 in action as an observer near St. Quentin after the Battle of Loos.

Youngest brother Arnold missed the military, served as T.E.’s literary executor, and became a professor of archaeology at Cambridge University, dying in 1991. Sir Thomas Chapman died of influenza in 1919 at age 72. His partner Sarah Lawrence died in 1959 aged 98, in an Oxford nursing home. She never got to see her son on film as Peter O’Toole played him in David Lean’s 1962 movie.

The famous enlisted man Lawrence, or Ross in the Royal Air Force and Shaw in the Tank Corps as he named himself and a recent retiree from the RAF, died after a motorcycle accident on 19 May at age 46.