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General biography

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Youth 1888-1914

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T. E. Lawrence material in Oxford

By Jeremy Wilson

Sources of the collections - the collections today - manuscripts - Lawrence's correspondence - associated manuscripts - printed materials - photographs and works of art - other associated materials - online catalogues

A researcher planning to visit a particular place needs to know in advance what is available there. In the case of research on Lawrence, this is especially true for cities such as Oxford and London where material is available in several locations. 

There is no more appropriate place to make a start than Oxford, where the world's first 'T. E. Lawrence collection' began, through his own efforts, in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The collection of Lawrence materials now at Oxford is, in important respects, unlike any of the other major collections. It has not been gathered through the energy and resources of a single person, nor has it benefited from the enormous purchasing power of institutions such as the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, nor of leading private collectors such as Bayard L. Kilgour III or Edwards H. Metcalf. Much of the rarest material now at Oxford has come through the generosity of individuals who felt it right that the city and university where Lawrence was educated should hold a major collection relating to his life and work. I will begin, therefore, by saying something about these sources.

Sources of the collections

Undoubtedly, a key factor in building the Oxford collections has been the example set by Lawrence himself. One thinks immediately of the 1922 manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom - probably the most valuable twentieth-century manuscript held by the Bodleian - and of the copies of the subscribers' edition he gave to the Bodleian and All Souls.

There are, however, many other items in the University collections contributed by Lawrence. These include medieval pottery in the Ashmolean, a significant part of its fine Hittite seal collection, and diverse archaeological materials that he gathered during the Carchemish period. These on their own would form a notable memorial to Lawrence.

Such was his loyalty to the Ashmolean in the pre-war years that he found himself from time to time at loggerheads with his chief at Carchemish, Leonard Woolley, who was collecting on behalf of the British Museum. When a member of the Thornton family (the Oxford booksellers) asked Lawrence to bring an oriental carpet back from the East it, too, was diverted to the Ashmolean. All that the Thorntons received was an apologetic letter. Regrettably, C. F. Bell, Keeper of the Ashmolean's art department after the First World War, held strong views about contemporary work. Had this not been so, Oxford would now hold all the paintings and drawings commissioned by Lawrence to illustrate Seven Pillars of Wisdom. As it is, the University must be content with Augustus John's sketch of Hogarth, which Lawrence presented in 1935, and the magnificent John 'Feisal', which Lawrence chose as the book's frontispiece. This was presented by Eric Kennington in 1936 in fulfilment of Lawrence's wishes.

Lawrence's own acts of generosity to Oxford institutions were followed, over the years, by gifts from his brother A.W. Lawrence, acting sometimes in his own right and sometimes in the name of the T. E. Lawrence Trustees. To cite three examples:

  • He presented to the Ashmolean several important paintings and drawings that Lawrence had owned

  • At his instigation, the transcripts of Lawrence's letters gathered by David Garnett in the late 1930s were presented to the Bodleian by the Lawrence Letters Trustees

  • He built up, between 1935 and his death in 1991, a substantial horde of biographical reference materials. Together with the letters transcripts these materials are now open to readers. They have been catalogued and are referred to here as the T.E. Lawrence Papers.

The collection of letters transcripts was the initial content of the reserved collection, embargoed until the year 2000. During the last quarter of the twentieth century many researchers felt frustrated by the embargo. Some, to their discredit, tried to suggest that it was part of a conspiracy by which A. W. Lawrence was attempting to conceal unpleasant truths about his brother.

In reality, Lawrence's Trustees established the embargo when they contacted people who had received letters from Lawrence, asking permission for David Garnett to make copies. The purpose of the embargo was to guarantee their privacy.

Such a commitment, once given, could not be revoked - even when the original letters had passed into public collections. Today, the Garnett copies provide an insurance policy against destruction of the originals (as happened to some letters during WWII). They also provide researchers with access to the texts of letters whose originals are not located, or are in closed private collections.

A.W. Lawrence was not the only member of the Lawrence family to give material to Oxford collections. His mother and elder brother gave Lawrence's Oxford B.A. thesis on Crusader castles to Jesus College, and gave his letters home and various printed materials to the Bodleian. Their copy of the subscribers' Seven Pillars is in St John's College, where T.E. Lawrence's brothers Bob and Will were undergraduates.

These gifts by Lawrence and his family set an example which many others have followed. Substantial gifts came from friends such as Lionel Curtis. Despite ever-increasing market values, others have felt and continue to feel that Oxford is an appropriate place for letters, books, and objects associated with Lawrence. These included private collectors such as:

  • Malcolm Escombe, who bequeathed the manuscript of Lawrence's commonplace book Minorities to the Bodleian

  • Mary Wentworth Kelly, who purchased most of Lawrence's letters to his bank and gave them to Jesus College

  • Jeremy Wilson, who has helped to consolidate the Bodleian's printed books collection

Numerous smaller yet significant gifts have come from collectors who felt that a particular item in their possession would fill a gap in the collections at Oxford.

Occasionally, the Lawrence holdings are augmented by accessions that do not primarily concern him. One of the most fascinating Bodleian accessions in the twentieth century was the ephemera collection formed by John Johnson, printer to the University. It contained a number of items relating to Lawrence such as publishers' prospectuses, programmes, etc. Similarly, the Library has acquired, by purchase, gift, or deposit, the papers of various people who knew Lawrence including Lord Amulree, Lionel Curtis, and Geoffrey Dawson. Some of these collections include Lawrence letters.

In the field of printed material, one extremely important source has been British Copyright deposit. UK copyright law requires publishers to deposit copies of all new publications in six libraries, one of which is the Bodleian. As a result, the Bodleian is entitled to a free copy of every printed book and journal published in the UK. The deposits include not only trade editions, but private-press, and even wholly private editions. It follows that the Bodleian should contain a copy of all first English editions of works by and about Lawrence and of any reprint in which additional copyright material has been included.

From a researcher's viewpoint, this copyright deposit status brings enormous advantages. Quite apart from the Bodleian's holdings of works by and about Lawrence, it also holds:

  • Copies of almost all the books in the Clouds Hill library, very frequently in the edition Lawrence possessed.

  • The overwhelming majority of articles on Lawrence published in British periodicals

  • Copies of an enormous number of collateral works mentioning Lawrence or relevant to his life.

In other words, copyright-deposit status provides a context for the Oxford T.E. Lawrence collections which no non-copyright library could hope to match. Whenever someone discovers an unrecorded article by Lawrence, or references to him in an English book or periodical, the chances are that the Bodleian already holds a copy.

Copyright accessions are not, of course, the only sources of material in the Bodleian. For historical reasons, the Library ranks with the British Library as one of the two most important in Britain. It is among the finest anywhere in the English-speaking world. The Bodleian buys numerous American and other overseas publications and is able to draw on various funds for special purchases. It has regarded Lawrence as an area of interest for the past forty years. In the 1970s, with help from the Arts Council and other sources, the Department of Western Manuscripts acquired Lawrence's final corrected typescript of The Mint. Over the years it also purchased Lawrence's letters to Jock Chambers, and a few other letters that were offered. An extremely important printed accession came in 1977 when Eric Kennington's copy of the 1922 Oxford Times printing of Seven Pillars was accepted by the British Government in lieu of estate duty and allocated to the Bodleian. More recently, the Department of Printed Books purchased the two Corvinus Press titles missing from its collection and one of the twelve sets of Seven Pillars plates issued in 1927 by the Leicester Galleries.

I myself began to take an interest in the Bodleian's Lawrence holdings in 1967, working to help fill in gaps in the printed-books collection with Desmond Neill, and subsequently Jack Flavell. Although the Library held most English first editions and many rarities, there were some surprising omissions. For example, there were few American editions of his writings, few translations or foreign biographies, and little to represent the later publishing history of Lawrence's works. Publishers submitting a first edition would usually do so in the cheapest form so, for example, in 1967 the Bodleian lacked both the English and American limited large-paper editions of Revolt in the Desert.

I began reporting to the Library when I saw for sale copies of editions that were missing. If I thought that it would be difficult to make a case for a Bodleian purchase, I would often buy an edition for my own bibliographical collection. I always hoped that one day we would find some basis on which the Library could acquire from my collection the books and ephemera that it lacked. In 1986, after the fiftieth anniversary of Lawrence's death, and shortly before the centenary of his birth. The Bodleian purchased about a hundred of the major items at a valuation agreed by Maggs Bros, receiving a large amount of the less costly material as a gift. I think everyone concerned was pleased with the transaction.

The collections today

It is more than three-quarters of a century since T. E. Lawrence gave the manuscript of Seven Pillars to the Bodleian. How do the Oxford collections stand now?

I should define at the outset what I mean by the 'Oxford collections'. First of all, I am talking about materials held by any of the institutions that make up Oxford University: the Bodleian Library (which includes Rhodes House), the Ashmolean Museum, the Museum of the History of Science, and colleges such as All Souls, Jesus, Magdalen, St Antony's, St John's, and Worcester. Secondly, there is the Oxford High School, successor to the City of Oxford High School for Boys. As an aside, I will also draw attention to materials held in the library of Reading University, which is a half-way house, geographically speaking, between Oxford and London.

Taking these together, I will outline the extent of the collection under several headings: manuscripts, correspondence, associated manuscripts, printed materials, photographs and works of art, and other associated materials.


A recurrent theme in describing the Oxford collections will be the way in which the holdings are spread chronologically across Lawrence's adult life. Thus, in manuscripts, the earliest manuscript is a handwritten draft of part of his 1910 Crusader castles thesis, together with photographs. These were included by A.W. Lawrence among the T.E. Lawrence Papers. As already mentioned, the examiners' copy of the typed thesis, which carries later manuscript annotations, was presented by his mother and Bob Lawrence to Jesus College. Lawrence's manuscript maps for the thesis are at Magdalen College. There is also, among the T.E. Lawrence Papers, the editor's working proof of the 1936 Golden Cockerel Press edition of Crusader Castles. In this copy A.W. Lawrence added by hand Lawrence's marginal annotations from the examiners' copy and from the so-called 'rough copy' of the typescript, now in the Houghton Library.

The second major manuscript, in chronological sequence, is that of Seven Pillars. The bound volume presented by Lawrence to the Bodleian before he enlisted in the Tank Corps in 1922 contains the only surviving page of the second draft, written out hurriedly in 1920 after the first had been lost, and the whole of the third draft, used as the basis of the 1922 Oxford Times printing. Lawrence sent the dedication page, containing the draft poem 'To S.A.', to Robert Graves for comment. Graves returned it after adding in manuscript a poem of his own, titled 'A Crusader', which had been inspired by Lawrence's dedication.

The third Lawrence manuscript in the Oxford collections is also in the Bodleian. This is his 1919-27 commonplace book Minorities bequeathed in 1974 by Malcolm Escombe, who had bought it from J.G. Wilson of Bumpus. A little-known companion volume, which came to the Bodleian with Minorities, is the commonplace book of philosophical meditations that Charlotte Shaw gave to Lawrence when he was posted to India in 1927.

The last major manuscript in Oxford is a typescript of The Mint with Lawrence's annotations, sold to the Bodleian by the Lawrence family in 1977. This was the only item among many from that source for which the Library had to raise funds.

A listing of minor manuscript items should include a sheet of notes on speedboats, and Lawrence's address book at the time of his death, both in the T.E. Lawrence Papers.

Lawrence's correspondence

The Oxford collections hold roughly ten per cent of Lawrence's surviving letters known to me. I have seen some extraordinary guesstimates of the number of letters extant, but I think there may be something between five and six thousand. This estimate includes all the major correspondences we are aware of. In other words, if there are several thousand more letters waiting to be discovered, they must have been written to people we do not currently rank among Lawrence's correspondents.

Like the manuscript collection, the correspondence at Oxford covers a wide time-span. Lawrence's first known letter is here, written to his mother on 13 August 1905, as is his last known piece of writing: the wrapping of a parcel of books posted to Jock Chambers from Bovington Post Office on 13 May 1935, only minutes before his fatal accident. Between these two dates, there is hardly a year of his life not represented. Notable series of letters include 254 to his family, given to the Bodleian by Bob Lawrence; 98 to his banker Robin Buxton and others, presented to Jesus College by Mary Wentworth Kelly; 44 to Lionel Curtis, given by the Curtis estate to All Souls; about 12 to his solicitor Edward Eliot, added by Eliot's successors to the T.E. Lawrence Papers; 24 to Jock Chambers purchased by the Bodleian Library, and other single letters or small groups to various correspondents (including 11 to Sgt. Pugh and 7 to Geoffrey Cumberlege) to be found at the Bodleian, Jesus College, St. John's College, Worcester College, Rhodes House, and the Oxford High School. Among the letters in deposited collections at the Bodleian are 50 from Lawrence to E.T. Leeds, together with the original Leeds memoir and a letter from Lawrence to D. G. Hogarth which I did not include in the published edition of Lawrence's Letters to Leeds.

There are also a small number of letters to Lawrence at Oxford, including a wartime message from Feisal written in French, at All Souls, which also holds two or three post-war letters to Lawrence from Leonard Woolley. There are one or two other letters to Lawrence in the Buxton series at Jesus College, and important letters and documents among the T.E. Lawrence Papers concerning the production of the Oxford and subscribers' editions of Seven Pillars and the Bruce Rogers Odyssey.

As an aside, I should mention here the 44 letters from Lawrence to Nancy Astor, and other Lawrence materials from the Astor papers, held at Reading University Library only 25 miles away. The archive of Jonathan Cape Ltd., also at Reading, contains a further 18 letters from Lawrence.

From a research viewpoint, the transcripts of letters gathered by David Garnett are hardly less important than the originals held at Oxford. The T.E. Lawrence Papers include transcripts (mainly typed and often marked 'checked by originals') of hundreds of letters, in a series of bound volumes. The originals, as I have already said, are now mostly available elsewhere, but it is convenient to have access to so much in one place. Whenever A.W. Lawrence came upon further letters, he added transcripts or photocopies to the collection.

In addition to the Garnett transcripts, the Bodleian holds a very important volume containing copies of several hundred letters received by Lawrence, including many that were not included in the published Letters to T. E. Lawrence collection (ed. A. W. Lawrence, Cape, 1962). The originals of these letters, except for those sold at Sothebys in July 1981, are believed to have been lost while A.W. Lawrence was working overseas.

Associated manuscripts

For many people, the Lawrence manuscripts and correspondence must represent the jewels of the Oxford collection. There is, however, a wealth of other material. Before passing on to different categories, I will mention associated document collections. In some cases, for example the Lionel Curtis Papers, these contain nuggets such as the correspondence between Curtis and Charlotte Shaw about her attempt to present Lawrence with a Brough Superior motor cycle in January 1929. In other cases, for example the Philby, Allenby, and Hogarth collections at St Antony's, the main interest is collateral to Lawrence's biography. These were people who lived through the same events as Lawrence.

Oxford is rich in collections of this kind, some more useful than others. Although I think that the typescript diaries by Richard Meinertzhagen are of questionable historical value, they are at Rhodes House.

Lawrence's biographers have not favoured Oxford by depositing their research materials here, though there is a small yet useful group of papers relating to Robert Graves's Lawrence and the Arabs among the T.E. Lawrence Papers. Some years ago, I gave the typesetting draft and corrected proofs of Minorities while, more recently, I deposited the typesetting draft and editor's galley proofs of Lawrence's Letters to E.T. Leeds, and related correspondence with the Whittington Press. This seemed particularly appropriate because both Lawrence and Leeds were closely associated with Oxford during the period at which the correspondence took place, and the Whittington Press is only 40 miles from Oxford. Much though I would like to deposit more of my papers in the Bodleian, it is now short of space.

Printed materials

The Lawrence-related books and ephemera held by the Bodleian form, to my knowledge, the most complete bibliographical collection in the UK - and one of the two or three most comprehensive bibliographical collections in the world. Although Lawrence wrote relatively little, the publication history of his works is interesting. It spans a period of great change in printing technology and book marketing, while the books provide examples of a wide variety of production standards. In the case of his Odyssey translation, these range from the finest private-press work to a World War II armed-forces paperback.

There are many thousands of printed items by, about, or related to Lawrence in Oxford, and I will not attempt to list them here. Instead, I will try to illustrate the richness and depth of the collections in more general terms.

Looking at the Lawrence canon, the Bodleian holds a complete set of English first editions and a nearly complete set of US first editions, as well as many reprints from both countries. In recent years an effort has been made to acquire translations, although there is still some way to go.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

It is appropriate that a library that holds manuscripts of a particular work should also hold representative editions and reprints that record the work's publication history. Thus, with Seven Pillars, the Bodleian holds:

  • Copies of the 1922 and 1926 English editions (there is another copy of the 'complete' subscribers' edition in St John's college library as well as an 'incomplete' copy at All Souls).

  • An out-of-series copy of the American 1926 Seven Pillars from which the 1935 first English trade edition was typeset, deposited by Jonathan Cape.

  • Numerous English-language trade printings of the subscribers' abridgement

  • Translations into Arabic, Danish, Estonian, French, German, Italian and Spanish

  • All published editions of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete 1922 Text

  • Copies of both the abandoned first printing and the published edition of the parallel 1922 and 1926 Seven Pillars Texts 

The Mint

An interesting series of printings of The Mint in the Bodleian includes

  • A copy of the first American edition (1936) marked up by A.W. Lawrence with all Lawrence's later amendments, and thereafter used to typeset the first English trade edition of 1955 (T.E. Lawrence Papers). There is another copy of the 1936 American printing at All Souls.

  • David Garnett's copy of a 1948 Cape page proof, which his manuscript corrections throughout, acquired from A.E. Chambers.

  • English and American trade printings, 1955 to present.

  • Danish, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish translations

  • A page proof of the 1978 Penguin printing.

Other works

As regards other titles in the canon, it is probably easiest to point to gaps. There is as yet no copy here of Lawrence's 1916 Military Report on the Sinai Peninsula, nor of the Cairo edition of the Arab Bulletin, nor of the original duplicated typescript of his Notes on the RAF 200 Class Seaplane Tender (although the Bodleian holds a xerox of a copy that was subsequently destroyed). The 1924 eight-chapter sample proof from Seven Pillars is lacking, as is the 1932 American limited issue of the Odyssey. It would also be nice to see more translations, more proof copies, and special bindings of Corvinus, Golden Cockerel, and Whittington Press books.

The Bodleian may well be the only library with a major Lawrence collection to hold most if not all of the British periodicals and newspapers to which he contributed. These include the Oxford High School Magazine, Jesus College Magazine, the Royal Engineers' Journal, the Round Table, the Army Quarterly, The Owl, the Journal of the RAF College, Cranwell, the British Legion Journal, The Times, and the Spectator.


The Bodleian holds an impressive collection of biographies, with first English and American editions often present as well as reprints and a sprinkling of translations.

An extremely rare item is a 1937 page proof of a book by Edward Robinson called Lawrence the Patriot Rebel. Located among the T.E. Lawrence Papers, it carries annotations by A.W. Lawrence so critical that Jonathan Cape decided to abandon publication.

There are probably a few gaps among foreign works, but not many. Among recent additions is one of three recorded copies of the only known work on Lawrence in Yiddish, published in Warsaw before WW2.

An area worth expanding would be the collection of university theses on Lawrence. Some of these are well worth reading.

Film, Television and Radio

An unusual area in the Bodleian collection is material connected with film, television, and radio productions on Lawrence. This includes scripts of broadcasts. Two early film scripts based on Revolt in the Desert, by Miles Malleson and John Monk Saunders, were never filmed. There are scripts of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia and a selection of promotion ephemera connected with the film.


The Bodleian has truly impressive strength in this area. The John Johnson collection holds a remarkable series of publishers' lists and prospectuses describing books by and about Lawrence, as well as such things as theatre programmes, and even the page designs, by Bruce Rogers, for the Hesperides series Odyssey. While the Lawrence materials have not been physically gathered together, they have been indexed, and a Lawrence section has been created which holds a large number of items acquired in recent years.

Inevitably, the quest for ephemera, minor bibliographical variants, and reprints is endless - as is the task of trying to keep up with current publications. Life would be boring indeed if no such gaps remained, and I for one have had a great deal of pleasure over the years seeking out items for Oxford's bibliographical collection. The result amply demonstrates that publishing produced many variant copies, even in the days of lead type. I suspect that the ease of amending electronic typesetting will multiply variants still further, driving bibliographers to despair.

Dust jackets

Dust jackets are one of the growth areas of modern bibliography and, I am happy to say, the Bodleian has for some years retained the dust jackets of all new accessions. It acquired many earlier jackets on reprints and foreign editions from my collection, but it lacks the jackets for the first English editions it received in former years under copyright. I hope that it will eventually be possible to obtain these.

Association copies

There are heavy demands on the limited funding available to the Bodleian and other university libraries. They have not, therefore, thought it right to buy expensive association copies. Those now at Oxford were acquired primarily for other reasons, or have come through gift. Books from Lawrence's own library include a signed Arabia Deserta at Jesus College, an inscribed Dynasts and a copy of Adam Cast Forth at All Souls, and some thirty volumes from the Clouds Hill library deposited in the Bodleian after A. W. Lawrence's death.

Other association copies, apart from those already mentioned elsewhere, include Buxton's copy of the American Letters of T. E. Lawrence, and miscellaneous works signed by their authors or translators.

Photographs and works of art

The T.E. Lawrence Papers include a large number of photographs of and by Lawrence. I have already mentioned prints and negatives from the Crusader castles thesis. There are also photographs, drawings, and plans in the thesis itself at Jesus College. The T.E. Lawrence Papers include a series of prints of Lawrence's wartime photographs with his manuscript captions, and a number of Lowell Thomas prints with captions by Thomas. There is a set of Lawrence's photographs of Jidda, and an album of speedboat photographs given to Lawrence by the British Power Boat Company. Last but not least is his executors' album of photographs of Lawrence himself, the source for many of the best known images.

Under the heading 'works of art' one should, I imagine, include Lawrence's brass rubbings at Jesus College and the Ashmolean. More important, however, is the series of post-war Lawrence portraits which extends chronologically from McBey's sketch made in Damascus in October 1918 (Jesus College) to John's last charcoal sketch dating from January 1935 (Ashmolean). Lawrence intended to use this 1935 sketch as a frontispiece to his projected private printing of The Mint, and arranged to have a hundred collotype copies printed for the purpose. The Ashmolean therefore holds the original frontispiece illustrations Lawrence chose for both Seven Pillars and The Mint.

The other portraits at Oxford are spread across the years. One of the 1919 sketches made by Augustus John during the Paris Peace Conference was given to All Souls by Lionel Curtis. The original of Eric Kennington's 1920 ghost portrait was given to All Souls by Robin Buxton. A cast of Kathleen Scott's seated figure in Arab dress was given to the Oxford High School by a Mrs Lightfoot. William Roberts' 1922 oil of Lawrence in RAF uniform during his first enlistment was given to the Ashmolean by A. W. Lawrence. There is a cast of Eric Kennington's 1926 bronze bust at Jesus College. The Ashmolean holds a 1929 oil by John, again showing Lawrence in RAF uniform, given by A. W. Lawrence. There are also posthumous works such as Kennington's Oxford High School memorial plaque and a cast of Kathleen Scott's portrait bust, given to All Souls by Lord Kennet.

Nowhere else can one find so many portraits of Lawrence, by so many different artists, spread across such a time-span.

Other associated materials

There are many objects at Oxford associated with Lawrence. The Museum of the History of Science holds his archaeological camera, and also the camera used by his father. There is fine Arab clothing from the desert campaigns at the Ashmolean and at All Souls, where you can also see the small gold dagger specially made for him at Mecca. This was purchased for the college by Lionel Curtis. All Souls also owns two items - a bowl and a plate - from the silver service used by Lawrence in the desert. A cup from the same service was given by Lawrence to C.F. Bell, and by Bell to Magdalen College.

The Ashmolean now holds the magnificent carved doors shipped back from Jidda by Lawrence after his visit in 1921. Lastly, and perhaps most poignant of all, there is at All Souls the simple mapping pen which Lawrence used to write Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Online catalogues

The printed-books holdings of the Bodleian Library and many other libraries in the university can be searched online through OLIS. While books by and relating to T.E. Lawrence are not held as a 'special collection', OLIS provides a convenient summary of the holdings.

There is also an online catalogue of the T.E. Lawrence Papers, compiled by Anna Dunn. Note that, while this catalogue covers all the material that was formerly in the collection reserved until 2000, it does not include other manuscript holdings at the Bodleian related to T.E. Lawrence.

Copyright Jeremy Wilson, 1992, 200

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