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Jeremy Wilson


Page updated May 2012

T. E. Lawrence: family history

From Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia, The Authorised Biography, Appendix 1

Lawrence's Father

Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, Lawrence's father, was born on 6 November 1846. He was the second son of William Chapman (1811-89) and Martha Louisa Vansittart. Lawrence's early knowledge of the Chapman family history seems to have been derived from Debrett. According to the 1918 edition: 'This family was originally settled at Hinckley, in Leicestershire; but John Chapman, and his brother William, through the influence of Sir Walter Raleigh, their cousin-german, received large grants of land in Ireland, and settled in that country. Benjamin, the son of William Chapman, was an officer of cavalry in Cromwell's army, and for his services received the castle and estates of Killua, sometime the seat of the family. The 3rd baronet sat as M.P. for Westmeath . . . 1830-41. Sir Benjamin James, 4th baronet, sat as M.P. for Westmeath . . . 1841-7 and was Lord-Lieutenant of that county. The 5th baronet, Sir Montagu Richard, was High Sheriff of County Westmeath.' (Debrett's Illustrated Baronetage, London, 1918, p. 135). The Chapman family motto is curious, both in itself and as a comment on Lawrence's life after the First World War. Translated from the Latin, it reads: 'Virtue thrives under oppression.'

Lawrence's father was brought up to the life of a gentleman landowner, at a large manor house called South Hill, near the village of Delvin, County Westmeath. The family also maintained a town house in Dublin. The size of the Chapman fortune should not be judged by the relatively modest South Hill estate (173 acres). When the family land was sold in 1949 it totalled over 1,230 acres, in nine different locations. A better indication of the family's wealth is given by the valuation at probate of the estate of Francis Robert Chapman, Lawrence's uncle, who died in 1915. This amounted to £120,296, equivalent in 1990 to a sum of more than £3 million. All sources show that the Chapman family belonged to the upper tier of the Anglo-Irish landowning class. Through successive generations it had intermarried with families of comparable stature in England and Ireland. Thus Lawrence was a blood relative, on his father's side, of many Englishmen from distinguished backgrounds. For example Robert Vansittart, later Baron Vansittart, was his second cousin.

Thomas Chapman was educated at Eton (as were his two brothers). It was expected that he would run the family estates and from 1866-8 he studied at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. His elder brother, William, joined the army and served in the 15th Hussars, but in May 1870 he died. Thomas then assumed the position of eldest son, and his younger brother Francis was trained to run the estates. In 1873 Thomas married Edith Sarah Hamilton, from another landowning family in County Westmeath. There were four daughters: Eva Jane Louisa (b. 1874); Rose Isabel (b. 1878); Florence Lina (b.1880) and Mabel Cecele (b. 1881).

Lawrence's Mother

At some time in the late 1870s, a young Scotswoman known as Sarah Lawrence entered the Chapman household, having been engaged to work as governess to the daughters. Her industry, capability and cheerfulness were much appreciated. This was by stark contrast to the conduct of Edith Chapman, who developed an increasingly militant obsession with religion which made life extremely difficult for those closest to her. Most accounts agree that by the mid-1880s Edith Chapman had become a bitter and vindictive woman who subjected her family and servants to very frequent prayer meetings and disapproved of all but the most genteel pleasures. Thomas Chapman, for his part, had by that time become a heavy drinker. In due course he fell in love with Sarah Lawrence, who was fifteen years his junior.

While the history of the Chapman family is well documented, much less is known about Sarah Lawrence. She was herself illegitimate, born on 31st August 1861 in Sunderland, County Durham and registered at birth as Sarah Junner. Her mother's name was Elizabeth, and census records for Sunderland made in April of that year show that Elizabeth Junner was at that time working as a servant in the household of one Thomas Lawrence, who was by profession a Lloyd's surveyor.

There can be little doubt that Sarah Junner was the child of Thomas Lawrence's eldest son, John. Her birth certificate gives the name Junner both as the maiden name of the mother and as the surname of the father. As the name is unusual, this in itself is curious. However, Elizabeth Junner had been listed in the census only four months before the birth as an unmarried servant living in the Lawrence household. The profession of the child's father is given on the birth certificate as shipwright journeyman, and this corresponds to the profession given in the census for John Lawrence: that of ship's carpenter. The girl was given the name Sarah, which was the name of John Lawrence's mother (and also of one of his sisters). It must also be significant that when Sarah Junner grew older, she used the name Lawrence rather than the name Junner. It may be that the Lawrence family concerned itself with her education after her mother, who became an alcoholic, had died.

The 1861 census reveals a little more about Sarah Lawrence's parents. John Lawrence was born at Chepstow in 1843; his father Thomas at Swansea in 1808; his mother Sarah at Chepstow in 1811. Sarah appears, therefore, to have been half-Welsh. Elizabeth Junner, Sarah's mother, was born in Scotland in 1833. A family called Junner is mentioned in the 1861 census, living in Sunderland at 14 Hamilton Street. As the name is so uncommon it seems possible that these were her parents. If so, her father was John Junner, a retired master mariner born at Franfield, Sussex, in about 1807, and her mother Jane Junner, born at Monkwearmouth in about 1813.

The break-up of the Chapman household

In 1885 Sarah Lawrence became pregnant. She therefore left the Chapman household to live in rooms Thomas Chapman rented for her in Dublin. In December that year a son was born. He was christened Montagu Robert; both names are found in the Chapman pedigree.

For a time, Thomas Chapman continued to live at home while also seeing Sarah and his child. Eventually, however, Mrs Chapman discovered what had taken place. When faced with the choice of leaving his wife and daughters or giving up Sarah and his son, Thomas decided to go with Sarah. Soon afterwards he took her to live in Tremadoc in Wales, where their second son, christened Thomas Edward, was born in August 1888.

Thomas Chapman's subsequent financial position

On 30 March that year, Chapman had signed an Indenture under the terms of which he assigned his life interest in the family estates to his younger brother Francis (their father, William Chapman, did not die until 1889). In exchange, Thomas Chapman was to receive an annuity of £200 for the rest of his life. It seems that he also possessed or afterwards inherited other capital. According to his own statement, this amounted by the beginning of 1916 to rather more than £20,000. It would have produced, at prevailing interest rates, an income of about £1,000 per annum. This substantial figure contradicts Lawrence's later claim that his parents lived in straitened circumstances: it seems that Mr Lawrence's revenues during the boys' childhood amounted in reality to much more than the £400 per annum that Lawrence spoke of to his biographer Liddell Hart.

In 1914 Mr Lawrence became the seventh and last Chapman baronet. When he had separated from his wife, twenty years previously, it would have been difficult to foresee that the title might pass to him. At that time it was held by an uncle, Benjamin Chapman, who had two sons. They were each in turn to inherit it (becoming respectively 5th and 6th baronets) but neither had children.

Lawrence's father probably expected that the five sons Sarah bore him would eventually inherit a reasonable share of the Chapman fortune. He may therefore have been disappointed when his younger brother Francis, who died in 1915 without having married, bequeathed to him only £25,000 of the £120,296 Chapman estate. (Other specific bequests under the will included £10,000 to the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin, and £25,000 divided between the four Chapman daughters, Lawrence's half-sisters, who were also the residuary legatees.) When Mr Lawrence received this £25,000 inheritance, he shared part of it among his sons. In a draft of the letter he sent to Lawrence, he wrote: 'I am glad to say that circumstances allow me to hand over to Bob, you and Arnie exact equal portion of the same Securities as described on another page . . . I should mention that my capital will be increased by less than a third, so that I can never make any of you wealthy but I am very thankful I can do what I am doing and by your having this money now it enables you when this war is over to decide more freely on your future proceedings.' Mr Lawrence stated that the securities given to each of his sons would provide them with incomes of about £270 per annum.

Caroline Margaret Chapman

The last part of this history concerns Thomas Chapman's younger sister, Caroline Margaret Chapman (Lawrence's aunt). She had married her cousin, Montagu Chapman, who became 5th Chapman baronet. He died in 1907 without children, and four years later she drew up a will setting out the terms under which the Killua estate was to be broken up. In this will she arranged to bequeath £20,000 to her brother Thomas (Lawrence's father), making further generous legacies to his daughters in Ireland.

This separate provision for the Chapman girls leaves little doubt that she intended Thomas Chapman's £20,000 to pass, ultimately, to his sons. It is not unreasonable to suppose that he knew of these legacies and that he would have discussed them with Sarah Lawrence. If this is the case, it might account for some otherwise unexplained remarks in Lawrence's letters (see below).

Caroline Margaret Chapman was seriously ill for several years: a codicil to her will dated June 1916 was signed with a cross and witnessed by two nurses. She died in 1920, some months after the death of Lawrence's father. As he had predeceased her, the £20,000 bequest was passed, not to his sons, but to the residuary legatees under her will: his four Chapman daughters.

It seems possible that, following his father's death, Lawrence had learned from his mother of this bequest, and that this explains his remark in a letter to Eric Kennington of 1.10.1921: 'A lump of money I was expecting has not (probably will not) come.' The loss of the bequest may also explain the bitterness of the allusion to the Chapmans inserted by Lawrence in Liddell Hart's biography: 'The father's family seemed unconscious of his sons, even when after his death recognition of their achievement might have done honour to the name.'

If Lawrence did know of his aunt's bequest to his father (and I can discover no other 'lump of money' that he could have been expecting at that time) then it is less surprising that he should previously have given £3,000 of his earlier inheritance to Janet Hallsmith (ne Laurie).

Copyright © J. and N. Wilson, 1989


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