Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

30 Brechin Place

Newcombe's place of residence after retirement

Newcombe and retirement

On his retirement from the army in 1932 Stewart Newcombe and his wife, Elsie, moved to London and took up residence at 30 Brechin Place, South Kensington, an imposing four-storied terraced townhouse with additional attic rooms and basement. He soon settled into his new life away from the regiment and found time to renew his connections with old friends and colleagues at society meetings and clubs. At 53-years old he took on a civilian job, perhaps the first and only in his life, with Turner and Newall, a company specialising in asbestos products. His continuing interest in developing sustainable heat and energy for domestic housing made T&N a perfect vehicle for expanding his theories and would help in formulating some of his untried ideas on the subject of heat retention within the home.  The asbestos industry would later became mired in litigation and controversy but at the time was thought of as no more dangerous than many other industries such as coalmining or in the manufacture of steel. Lawrence took advantage of Newcombe’s connection to order some of their products to modernise his Dorset cottage, Clouds Hill,  but even he was aware of the inherent dangers of asbestos and referred to it as that ‘beastly stuff’.    

Lawrence – Final RAF duties

As Lawrence’s time in the RAF wound down he was worked hard – or more likely worked himself hard – right up until the end. For a couple of weeks he had been overseeing the assembly of a new batch of 100 h.p. power engines destined for RAF target boats at Henry Meadows Ltd, in Wolverhampton, but could be found at any number of locations that needed his presence. After residing briefly as Henry Meadows’ guest at Windermere House, he informed Newcombe that he had been forced to take up a bug infested accommodation as Wolverhampton seemed pretty full.
Windermere House

Lawrence was deeply unimpressed by Wolverhampton calling it ‘squalid’ and a ‘cess-pit’, adding that it had ‘the worse mannered local press of my experience!’ Coming from a press-hounded man like Lawrence it must have been particularly bad, so much so that he claims to have punched an editor in the mouth. He said that it had been the first time he had done so in his life; it would not be the last.

A lull in the manufacture at Meadows’ Fallings Park factory meant more meetings with the Air Council in London or back to Southampton for further fine-tuning at Scott-Paine’s power boat yard. “Since Wolverhampton,” he wrote, “I have been to London, Nottingham and Oxford; London; Plymouth; and London again.” At some point during this time, perhaps on 16 February when Lawrence’s meeting with the Secretary of the Air Ministry, Sir Christopher Bullock, was cancelled, he spent a day with the Newcombes at Brechin Place in London. A few weeks later Liddell Hart sent Newcombe an inscribed copy of his biography ‘T.E. Lawrence’ In Arabia and After and received the following letter describing the meeting:

2 March 1934
Dear Liddell Hart, It was extraordinarily kind of you to send me the book and also to insert a very flattering inscription. Naturally it has given my wife and me very great pleasure and very many thanks. T.E. was here about three weeks ago from 10 am till 6: as bright as ever.

Yours very sincerely
Stewart F. Newcombe

A rare moment of quietude

It must have been a rare treat for Lawrence to spend a whole day with Newcombe and Elsie instead of his usual nomadic existence in lodgings with snatched meals and working day and night on double shifts, ‘oiled up to the teeth,’ as he put it, ‘fed up to the teeth: and very unpopular.’ 

30 Brechin Place, now painted red

Today the Brechin Place house is painted in a cardinal red finish - too jarring for my tastes - one of only two in a typical street of London brick facades. When I last visited Kensington the house still seemed to reverberate with conversations both serious and jocular that took place within its walls eighty years ago between two old desert warriors and a brave woman that helped one of them escape under the very noses of his Turkish captors!

I would like to thank John Meadows for placing the history of his grandfather's factory online at Henry Meadows Ltd.

Monday, May 18, 2015

ON THIS DAY - 19 May 1935

T.E. LAWRENCE (16 August 1888 - 19 May 1935)

And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that go
es on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.


Eighty years ago today the archaeologist, soldier and writer, Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, died following a motorcycle accident on a quiet Dorset lane close to his cottage, Clouds Hill.

Brough SS100 "George V" RK 4907


T.E. Lawrence took his discharge from the R.A.F. on Monday 25 February 1935 in front of his Commanding Officer, Pilot-Officer J.F. Manning, who later became Air Commodore Manning. During the day, Lawrence wrote to Trenchard’s successor, the then current Air Chief Marshall, Sir Edward Ellington, giving his thanks for the forbearance he had shown in allowing him to complete his twelve year service. It was of course unusual for a humble airman to contact his Chief in this way and the moment was not lost on Lawrence:

‘Not many airmen, fortunately, write to their Chief of Staff upon discharge,’ he wrote, adding, ‘I’ve been at home in the ranks, and well and happy...So if you still keep that old file about me, will you please close it with this note which says how sadly I am going? The R.A.F. has been much more than my profession’. 

The next morning, Manning and a few colleagues, military and civilian, gathered at Bridlington harbour-side to see Lawrence off. He was wearing his familiar civvies of sports jacket and flannel trousers which were held in place at the ankles by bicycle clips. He had knotted a checked scarf at his neck and had tucked the ends into the front of his jacket. It was a crisp sunny Tuesday and he had a plan to cycle south to his old R.A.F. college at Cranwell and then onto Bourne in Lincolnshire to meet Frederick Manning, an Australian author Lawrence admired. Cambridge was also on his route where he could visit an old friend, Sydney Cockerell, Curator of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and where his brother Arnie lived with his wife Mary with their eight year old daughter, Jane. And then to Dorset and his cottage, Clouds Hill. It would be a long journey over a few days and he was keen to be on his way, partly to start eating up the distance, but mostly to face the dreaded moment that would severe him from the service that had been his home and refuge for the past twelve years. 

Unbeknown to him he was heading for a conflict with press reporters and photographers keen to discover his future intentions. His hoped-for sanctuary was about to be shattered. 

When he eventually reached Clouds Hill, he found the place besieged by the ‘press hounds’, as he called them. He immediately escaped to London and found lodgings in Waterloo, South London, under the not-very original name of T.E. Smith. After writing to Churchill to call in a favour he enlisted the help of Esmond Harmsworth, Chairman of the Newspaper Proprietors Association, to help persuade the press people to leave him alone. ‘If they agree to that,’ he wrote to Winstone, ‘the free-lancers find no market for their activities.’ 

Clouds Hill - An earthly paradise

It took a couple of weeks before his plea to be left alone was actioned but by the evening of 26 March he was back at Clouds Hill, now peaceful and deserted except for his solitary neighbour, Pat Knowles. This is where his books were, twelve hundred of them, each read at least once and worth reading again, and a gramophone to play music on. At last, perhaps this could be his refuge, a sanctuary from fame. 

The finishing touches to the refurbishment of his cottage kept him almost totally absorbed in its planning and execution over the coming weeks but he admitted to friends that he still needed time to heal the physical and emotional exhaustion he felt after his demanding role in the RAF, the wrench of its termination and his recent confrontations with the press. With those latter troubles now successfully dealt with following his approach to Churchill and Harmsworth he replied to Lady Astor on 8 May turning down an invitation to Cliveden during which she believed the reorganisation of the national Defence Forces would be offered to him by influential fellow guests that included Lionel Curtis and Stanley Baldwin: 

‘No wild mares would not at present take me away from Clouds Hill,’ he wrote. ‘It is an earthly paradise and I am staying here till I feel qualified for it. Also there’s something broken in the works as I told you: my will I think.’ 

He continued to write to his wide circle of correspondents, a mixture of bleak resignation regarding his situation and upbeat delight in his surroundings and in those simple tasks that went towards creating his own idiosyncratic home – a one man home he called it. Projects for the future were stored away until leisure time allowed them to be given the attention they deserved. Not that Lawrence did not feel slightly adrift in his new found circumstances, as this letter to the artist Eric Kennington illustrates:  

‘You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That's the feeling.’

(TEL to Eric Kennington, 6 May 1935)  

13 MAY 1935
Then just as abruptly as retirement had interrupted a life once so full of action, and without sufficient time to enjoy his new-found leisure, he was thrown over the handlebars of his powerful Brough motorcycle on Monday 13 May whilst trying to avoid two errand boys on bicycles who were approaching him out of a dip in the road close to his cottage. Lawrence lingered in that place between life and death for six days before finally surrendering his fragile hold on life and he died on Sunday 19 May 1935, one last ‘Sunday that goes on and on,’ as his friend the poet James Elroy Flecker had written. He had experienced true leisure for less than twelve weeks.

Lawrence's friend Sir Ronald Storrs, one-time Oriental Secretary in Cairo and Military Governor of Jerusalem, was with him on the 21 May when they prepared him for his burial. His eloquent description of those final moments is worth recounting: 

‘I stood beside him lying swathed in fleecy wool; stayed until the plain oak coffin was screwed down. There was nothing else in the mortuary chamber but a little altar behind his head with some lilies of the valley and red roses. I had come prepared to be greatly shocked by what I saw, but his injuries had been at the back of his head, and beyond some scarring and discoloration over the left eye, his countenance was not marred. His nose was sharper and delicately curved, and his chin less square... Nothing of his hair, nor of his hands was showing; only a powerful cowled mask, dark-stained ivory alive against the dead chemical sterility of the wrappings. It was somehow unreal to be watching beside him in these cerements, so strangely resembling the aba, the kuffiya and the aqál of an Arab Chief, as he lay in his last littlest room, very grave and strong and noble... As we carried the coffin into and out of the little church the clicking Kodaks and the whirring reels extracted from the dead body their last “personal” publicity.’  

(P. 531 Orientations, Storrs) 

Lawrence wrote a long letter to Robert Graves (28.6.27) in which he corrected passages of Graves’ draft biography of Lawrence and offered information to help the fledgling writer complete the project. In it he stated his love for his Brough motorbike, the aptly named Boanerges, or ‘Sons of Thunder’, which he described as ‘the jolliest things on wheels’. In doing so he provided his own epitaph, explaining his craving for speed and boasting of not harming anyone else in its pursuit:  

‘Put in a good word for Boanerges, my Brough bike,’ he wrote. ‘I had five of them in four years, and rode 100,000 miles on them, making only two insurance claims (for superficial damage to machine after skids), and hurting nobody. The greatest pleasure of my recent life has been speed on the road. The bike would do 100 m.p.h. but I'm not a racing man. It was my satisfaction to purr along gently between 60 and 70 m.p.h. and drink in the air and the general view. I lose detail at even moderate speeds, but gain comprehension. When I used to cross Salisbury Plain at 50 or so, I'd feel the earth moulding herself under me. It was me piling up this hill, hollowing this valley, stretching out this level place: almost the earth came alive, heaving and tossing on each side like a sea. That's a thing the slow coach will never feel. It is the reward of Speed. I could write for hours on the lustfulness of moving swiftly.’ 

It was a fitting epitaph that aptly described the instrument and the manner of his passing.   

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.