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Lowell Thomas in London, 1919-20

[Blog post by Jeremy Wilson, 3 April 1910]

The first advertisement I have seen for the London performance of the Lowell Thomas Travelogue appeared on 1 August 1919. It reads:


PERCY BURTON (General Manager for Robert Lorraine, and by arrangement with THE GRAND OPERA SYNDCATE, presents

The Eminent American War Correspondent, in his Graphic Description of the British Campaign

With Allenby in Palestine

Most Wonderful of Human Stories and Greatest of all Moving Pictures.
Many taken from Aeroplane.

Under the auspices of the English Speaking Union.
President: Rt. Hon. A. J. Balfour, O.M., and Hon W.H. Taft
Box Office Opens August 7
Seats can now be secured by post in order of application.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Thursday EVENING AUGUST 14 and Nightly 8.30
Matinées Wed., and Sat. at 2.30


There were only two weeks from this first announcement to the opening night, and the promoters worked hard to secure advance publicity. For example, The Times of 11 August noted 'Another novelty this week will be the use of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as a lecture hall. Beginning on Thursday evening Mr Lowell Thomas . . . will lecture on Allenby's campaign, and his remarks will be illustrated by a series of moving and other pictures, many of which were taken from the air. He has recently been delivering the lecture in New York, where his stay had to be extended from one to ten weeks.'

The Travelogue was widely and favourably reviewed. Much of the initial comment focused on Allenby's campaign in Palestine, though over time the wider public would react differently. Some reviewers may have felt it proper to give Allenby priority (as did the early advertising). Others may have hurried away at the interval to file their copy, missing the second half.

'To describe the event as a lecture would hardly be accurate. Mr. Thomas has a very pleasing and easy style, and he chats to his audience while his pictures are shown on the screen. It is no disrespect to him to say that the value of the "travelogue" is greatly enhanced by the way in which it is illustrated. His pictures give quite the best idea of the campaign that one has so far been able to gather, for in addition to a number of coloured slides there is a wonderful series of cinematograph films, many of them taken from the air. It is a great advantage that Mr. Thomas, as orator, and Mr. Harry Chase, as the projector of the pictures, work in perfect cooperation, for the result is that the speaker is always dealing with the incident which is being shown on the screen at that precise moment - and very often in illustrated talks that is far form the case.' (The Times 15 August)

Other press comment was equally enthusiastic:

  • "Such an event is beyond imagination - vividly real - delightful entertainment - perfect." - Daily Mail
  • "In the most truthful sense of recommendation, something to be seen and heard."  - Daily Telegraph
  • "Splendid story - exceptionally fine pictures."  - Morning Post

The 'popular prices' for seats (including tax) were 1/- [one shilling], 2/-, 4/9, 5/9, 7/- and 8/6. Boxes with four seats cost 12/-, 19/-, £1-3-0, and £3-8-0.

Thanks to the reviews, and then to word-of-mouth, the opening weeks were a huge success. On 21 September The Times commented that, while it had previously been thought 'practically impossible' to fill the Royal Opera House during August, Thomas had "shattered that tradition". The next day the Daily Mail reported. 'One of the strangest sights to be seen by the Londoner at present is a large queue waiting in the vestibule of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to buy seats just before the evening entertainment. Such an event is beyond imagination - the reason is that Mr Lowell Thomas gives an amazingly graphic account of these campaigns which freed the Holy Land. These pictures should be seen.'

Advertisements in early September promoted the show aggressively as 'An Arabian Nights entertainment at lower prices than any other West End theatre.' They were now calling it With Allenby in Palestine and Arabia, in anticipation of Allenby's impending visit to England on leave.

Allenby arrived in London on 16 September, to a hero's welcome. Two days previously Lloyds News had reported: 'In honour of the great Field-Marshal's return home Mr. Burton . . . has engaged the band of the Welsh Guards to play national and patriotic airs both before and between the matinée and evening performances.'  The duration of the complete performance was increased by half an hour.

In a eulogy published in the Daily Mail on the day of Allenby's return, Lady Muir Mackenzie wrote:

'After witnessing the thrilling pictures at Covent Garden of Lord Allenby's campaign and Colonel Lawrence's romantic achievements in Arabia, one wishes that the story might be told in every town in the United Kingdom. These pictures tell us not only of Lord Allenby, the superman, but also of the steadfastness, loyalty, and joyous bravery of the thousands of men who helped him to obtain victory.

'Mr. Lowell Tomas, the American lecturer, in his entertaining way suggests that we English, as a nation, are too modest, and he hopes that we shall not mind hearing something of our great deeds "through the nose of an American". He has seen every place that he describes, and he was acquainted with the chief actors in this moving drama.

'When we reluctantly see the last picture fade into darkness and recover something from the spell laid upon us, we return to the everyday world convinced that we English are a chosen people.'

A few days later the promoters announced that a quarter of a million people had seen the travelogue, now renamed With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia. The change reflected obvious public enthusiasm for Thomas's story of the shy young Oxford archaeologist turned guerilla leader. Even before this, postcards printed to advertise the performances showed Lowell Thomas crouching in front of a tent, with Lawrence, in Arab dress, beside him.

Evelyn Wrench, of the English Speaking Union, quoted part of Thomas's script in his memoirs Struggle 1914-20 (London 1935, pp. 363-4):

'At this moment, somewhere in London, hiding from a host of feminine admirers, reporters, book publishers, autograph fiends and every species of hero-worshipper, is a young man whose name will go down in history beside those of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Lord Clive, Charles Gordon, and all the other famous heroes of Great Britain's glorious past. His first line of defence against these would-be visitors is an Amazonian landlady who battles day and night to save her illustrious guest from his admirers . . . The young man is at present flying from one part of London to another, dressed in mufti, with a hat three sizes too large pulled down over his eyes, trying to escape from the fairer sex.

'His name is Thomas E. Lawrence.

'The Germans and Turks were so impressed with Lawrence's achievements in Arabia that they expressed their admiration and appreciation by offering rewards amounting to over one hundred thousand pounds on his head - dead or alive. But the wild sons of Ishmael regarded their quiet, fair-headed leader as a sort of supernatural being who had been sent from heaven to deliver them from their oppressors, and they wouldn't have betrayed him for all the gold in the fabled mines of King Solomon.

'During the winter of 1917-1918, shortly after Allenby captured the Holy City, I met Lawrence on one of the narrow streets near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He was dressed in the garb of an Oriental ruler, and at his belt he carried the curved gold sword worn only by the direct descendants of the prophet Mohammed. Previous to that day I had heard nothing but wild rumours about him, and as no one either in Egypt or Palestine seemed to have any definite knowledge regarding him, I suspected that he was merely a myth.

'From what I saw of him in the few days he remained in Jerusalem I became convinced that he was one of the outstanding figures of the War, and a little later Allenby consented to my joining Lawrence and the Arab Army.

'From personal observation and from the lips of a group of equally daring and adventurous British officers who were associated with him, I discovered that Lawrence had accomplished more toward unifying the peoples of Arabia than all of the sultans and emirs since the days of the Great Caliphs six hundred years ago.

'His success was largely due to his genius for handling men, and his peculiar training, which made it possible for him to transform himself into an Arab.'

For Lawrence, this sudden publicity was extraordinarily useful. In the spring of 1919, his campaign at the Paris Peace Conference for Arab self-determination had been defeated by the combined imperial ambitions of France in Syria and Britain in Mesopotamia [Iraq]. In the opening chapter of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he wrote bitterly: 'when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took from us our victory, and remade it in the likeness of the former world they knew.'

Afterwards, the British Foreign Office had made no secret of its wish that Lawrence and his anti-imperial opinions would disappear into the wilderness. Now, Thomas helped him to do the opposite. To achieve this, and to justify the show's new title, Thomas needed more than words. The two had been together for no more than a day or two at Akaba in March 1918 and briefly in Jerusalem. Chase had only about a dozen wartime photographs of Lawrence. During several working visits to Thomas in London (how many is unclear), Lawrence allowed Chase to take more. These included the now-famous series of  images of Lawrence wearing the white robes of an Arab prince.

The London opera season was scheduled to begin in mid-October 1919, so the show would shortly lose its venue. Behind the scenes, Percy Burton was organising an alternative. Meanwhile, the publicity exploited fears that the run might end: 'SEATS NOW ON SALE FROM 10 a.m. FOR THE LAST TWO WEEKS.' Between 30 September and 14 October there were matinée and evening performances every day, 'owing to enormous demand for seats'.

On 5 October the National News urged:

'Those who have not yet seen the pictures "With Allenby to Palestine," which are being shown at Covent Garden, accompanied by a most graphic lecture by Mr. Lowell Thomas, the American war correspondent, should do so while the opportunity still remains. It is a most graphic and moving record of one of the greatest campaigns in history. The wonderful light and colour of the East make the pictures a feast to the eye, while the lecturer has a unique faculty for gripping his audience unceasingly during the whole of the two hours that he is on the platform. He has a keen sense of humour as well as great descriptive powers'.

The writer went on to lament that the show had only a week to run:

'as the theatre has then to be surrendered to Thomas Beecham. It needed some pluck on the part of Percy Burton to take this great house, but the experiment has been vastly successful. It will be a great pity if some suitable new home cannot be found for it, for it is a splendid show in itself and ought to be repeated all over Great Britain and the Dominions. It is one of the most inspiring things ever put on the stage. The Emir Feisal . . . was present with his staff on Thursday afternoon, and Field-Marshal Lord and Lady Allenby are to be present next Thursday. The American Ambassador and Mrs. John W. Davis were among other notabilities who attended the entertainment during the week.'

As planned, Sir Edmund and Lady Allenby attended the matinée performance on 9 October. According to The Times, 'The theatre was crowded in every part, and the Field-Marshal was received with great enthusiasm.'

On Monday 13 October, the penultimate day of the run, The Times revealed that Sir Thomas Beecham had agreed to postpone the opening of his seven-week season of Grand Opera in English. 'Mr. Lowell Thomas will continue to deliver his travelogue at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, twice daily until Saturday night, and it is hoped to arrange for an extension for one further week.'

Among those to take advantage of the reprieve were Lloyd George, Winston and Clemantine Churchill, and Sir Maurice Hankey, who saw the presentation on the evening of 23 October. A few days later, at a luncheon given in his honour by the English Speaking Union, Thomas reported that Lloyd George had 'told him that everything he said about Lawrence was absolutely true.' (The Times, 15 November 1919). Thomas would later use this as an endorsement for a series of articles about Lawrence he contributed to Strand Magazine.

A programme from this period lists the incidental music, played on the organ by the celebrated musician Quentin Morvaren:

Commencing at 2.10 and 7.40:-
Triumphal March from Aida - Verdi
Concert Overture in C Minor - Alfred Hollins
Chant Pastoral - Dubois
Allelulia - Dubois

Allegro Maestoso from the Sixth Symphony - Widor
Reverie du Soir, from the Suite Algérienne - Saint Saens
March: Pomp and Circumstance (No. 1 in D) - Elgar

Allegro Marziale - Frank Bridge

The advertising now moved to a new pitch: 'The only entertainment in London that will live two thousand years - A £20,000 production at popular prices (incl. tax) - Future generations will marvel at what millions will now miss - Last few days - Last nights.'

And so it seemed. Sir Thomas Beecham's rehearsals at Covent Garden would soon begin, for the opening of his season on 4 November. The last Lowell Thomas show would therefore be on the evening of Saturday, 25 October. He would then return to America to fufil speaking engagements there.

On 22 October advertisements announced the 100th and 101st performance of the travelogue. This was accompanied by a 'special announcement'. There had been a new stay of execution:

'Next Monday afternoon, at 2.30, for five matinées and six nights.

'Owing to continued demand for seats the above entertainment in its entirety will be transferred to the Royal Albert Hall.'

Nevertheless, so far as the public knew the show was about to close. Yet an advertisement that appeared half-way through the week at the Albert Hall hinted at something different:



On the same day the press announced eight further performances at the Albert Hall the following week, filling in slots available between other bookings. Mysteriously, there was no longer a suggestion that these would be the last (and indeed the arrangement continued until early December).

On 12 November, the press reported a new development:

'It is announced that Mr. Lowell Thomas has now arranged to postpone his American tour that he may continue to deliver in London and the British Isles generally his travelogue on Lord Allenby's campaign.

'Arrangements are being made, after his engagement at the Albert Hall, to transfer Mr. Lowell Thomas to a large place of entertainment in the West End, and it is also hoped to arrange for him to appear in most of the leading cities in the country.

'Mr. Winston Churchill has sent the following letter to Mr. Lowell Thomas:-

'"I am glad to hear that there is some possibility of your being able to postpone your American engagements with your illustrated lecture on the Palestine and Arabian campaign, which I have had the pleasure of attending. It would be of great public advantage that this impressive tribute from an impartial quarter to some of the most striking achievements of the British Army should be as widely known as possible, and I, therefore, sincerely trust that you may be able to make the suggested arrangements".' (The Times)

The Court Circular on 17 November announced that the Queen, accompanied by Princess Mary, the Duchess of Albany, and the Earl and Countess of Athlone had attended the matinée on the previous afternoon. She had afterwards summoned Mr. Thomas to her box to congratulate him.

Promotion continued on a variety of themes. Performances at the Albert Hall on 20, 23 and 24 November 1919 were billed as 'Two entertainments in one', on the basis that in New York the Palestine and Arabian sections had been 'two seperate entertainments. In London they are combined in one, at the same price.'

Members of the British monarchy and high-profile visitors such as the King of Spain provided endorsements with immeasurable value in terms of publicity. On 25 November, for example, an advertisement quoted a letter from J.H. Hertz, the Chief Rabbi: 'Please accept my heartiest congratulations on the splendid production . . . Every lover of the Holy Land and of the fame of Britain should see it.'

By the beginning of December, Percy Burton had secured a new London venue - or rather, two. He announced that Albert Hall performances would end on 6 December, after which there would be a fortnight at the Philharmonic Hall in Great Portland Street, with two performances daily. Then, on the afternoon of Boxing Day, Thomas would begin a season of 46 performances at the Queen's Hall in Langham Place. The Times commented on 6 December: 'Though an American lecturer, his knowledge of London halls will soon be extensive and peculiar . . . One of these days, when his popularity in London is exhausted, Mr Lowell Thomas will tell the story of the campaign in other parts of England - but that day is not yet.'

Advertising the opening at the Philharmonic Hall included a well orchestrated selection of press comment:

"Exceptionally interesting." - The Times
"Vividly real - delightful - perfect." - Mail
"Splendid story - fine pictures." - Post
"Something to be seen and heard." - Telegraph
"Most wonderful. All London talking about it." - Advertiser
"Entrancing entertainment. No audience more enthralled." - Evening News
"Fascinated audience." - Star
"The sensation of the century." - Sunday Chronicle
"Appeals strongly to popular imagination." - Sunday Times
"Most graphic and moving record. Gripping and inspiring." - National News
"Thrilfulness with plenty of amusement."- Referee
"Interesting experiences - wonderfully interwoven." - Observer
"Nothing more completely engrossing in London." - Lloyds
"Huge audiences thrilled." News of the World
"Rapt attention - unique pleasure." - Westminster Gazette
"Of extraordinary interest, and amusing too." - Daily News

At the Philharmonic Hall the advertised title briefly reverted to With Allenby in Palestine and Arabia, but Lawrence's name reappeared after the move to the Queen's Hall.

By 5 January 1920, after 200 London presentations, the travelogue was advertised as 'the greatest triumph ever known in England or America on the speaking-stage and moving-picture screen.' It was endorsed by Strand Magazine as 'The greatest Romance of Real Life ever told'.

At the Queen's Hall on 26 January the Bishop of Gloucester was named as the millionth member of the audience; but four days later, on 30 January, the London run ended. Thomas left to present the travelogue for two weeks in Washington, followed by a week in Baltimore and a week in Philadelphia. On 1 April he would be back in England, for a ten-day run at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, and then for a week (beginning 12 April) at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester.

By the time the tour of the British provinces ended in May 1920, the show had launched Lowell Thomas on a successful career, set a precedent for a new type of production (there were already imitators), and earned a lot of money.

Lawrence, for his part, had become an established celebrity. During 1920 he organised a press campaign against the settlement in Mesopotamia. Newspaper editors were happy to print his contributions. By the end of that year he was on the threshold of a partnership with Winston Churchill, who was about to become Colonial Secretary with Lawrence as his adviser on Arab Affairs. Between them, they would rewrite a large part of the post-war settlement in the Middle East.

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