The new headmaster
of Eton College wants to develop emotional intelligence in his pupils
and provide them with a “holistic, rounded” education.
Simon Henderson, who
took over the headship of the top public school at the beginning of
this term, is attempting to signal a change of tone at Eton – a
byword for privilege, power and considerable wealth.
“The whole point
of school is to prepare young people for happiness and success in
their personal lives and working lives,” Henderson told the
awareness of emotional intelligence and of mental health, of young
people building confidence and resilience to manage themselves in a
fast-changing, challenging environment,” he said.
The move is the
latest attempt by private schools to reduce some of the stresses
pupils can find themselves in in highly competitive environments.
Cheltenham Ladies’ College announced in the summer that it was
bringing in meditation and curbing homework demands.
Henderson said that
while excellent academic standards were important, he wanted Eton
College – which has educated 19 British prime ministers, including
the present incumbent, as well as countless members of the
establishment over generations – to be innovative, forward
thinking, outward looking and open.
self-respecting institution should be reflecting from time to time on
things it does,” he said. “The best traditions should stand up to
modern scrutiny. This is about incremental change.”
Henderson, who went
to Winchester and studied history at Brasenose College, Oxford, wants
more bursaries for boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that
anyone with the necessary talent can be financially supported at the
spends £6.5m on means-tested bursaries; 73 of the 1,300 pupils have
their entire fees paid by Eton, while a further 270 receive
significant financial support, and have on average two-thirds of
their fees paid for them.
Among those who have
recently benefited from a full scholarship, Henderson said, is Andrew
Isama, a former pupil at Wayne Rooney’s old school in Croxteth,
Liverpool, who is now on his gap year after sixth-form studies at
Eton. “We want talented boys to be able to come to Eton whatever
their financial circumstances,” Henderson insists.
At 39, Henderson is
the youngest Eton headmaster. Formerly head of Bradfield
co-educational college in Berkshire, he was encouraged to apply for
the job, vacated by Tony Little, after a period at Eton as head of
history from 2001-2009.
For his interview
with the Guardian, Henderson is trying his best to defy expectations.
Rather than the formal black gown usually worn by Eton beaks, he wore
a smart but casual felted blue suit with striped shirt and red tie.
He was speaking in the brand new Tony Little Centre for Innovation
and Research, which, with its sleek white walls and designer chairs,
would not look out of place in a smart inner-city academy.
however, and at the end of the interview boys emerge from their
lessons dressed in their traditional tailcoats, waistcoats and formal
striped trousers. Despite reports, there are no current plans to
scrap the distinctive uniform.
Henderson, a father
of four small children aged seven, five, three and two, clearly
wishes to be seen as a modernising headmaster. That was his pitch for
the job, which he finally secured after four interviews.
energetically about technology transforming teaching, about the
importance of the creative arts in developing life skills, about
partnerships beyond the school, opening up facilities, service and
being socially responsible. He said he wants better access to sports
for all boys at Eton – not just those at the top of their game.
His references are
not grand or literary – he mentions former England rugby coach
Clive Woodward’s 2004 autobiography Winning! and his theory of
“critical non-essentials”. And at an assembly at Holyport College
– the boarding free school Eton sponsors down the road – about
success, determination and team work. Incy Wincy Spider and Bob the
Builder are used to make his points.
acknowledges that the vast majority of pupils will leave Eton with
outstanding results and go on to universities such as Oxford,
Cambridge, and further afield in the US. What’s more important to
him, he says, are the values they leave with.
He wants them to be
“confident without being arrogant”, to have integrity, moral
courage, resilience and perseverance to overcome obstacles so as to
make “a really positive contribution” to wider society.
It’s a long way
from the perceptions held by many of Eton, not helped by recent
accounts of hedonistic behaviour by wealthy Old Etonians who party at
Oxford in clubs such as the Bullingdon and the Piers Gaveston then go
on to dominate British political life.
that the school is a political football, “particularly at the
moment as the prime minister is from Eton”.
“I understand that
people will have particular perceptions of Eton,” he says. “They
are entitled to their opinion. There’s no point us being defensive
about it. The responsibility sits with me and Eton as an institution
to try and show people what I regard as the real Eton.
a school,” says Henderson. “It’s a school full of teenage boys
and teenage boys are teenage boys.”
this the end for tailcoats at Eton College?
Eton’s new (and
youngest-ever) headmaster Simon Henderson wants more bursaries, 'real
world’ values – and might even bin the tailcoats
greets me with an apology. Eton’s new headmaster – at 39 the
youngest ever – says he can’t welcome me into his office because
he hasn’t got one yet.
It is not, however,
a sign that he’s struggling to find his feet at Britain’s most
famous public school, alma mater to 19 prime ministers, including the
incumbent, and many others now at the pinnacle of public life.
Quite the opposite.
Henderson is relocating the head’s study from its traditional spot
in a quiet corner of an ancient quad to a central new location where
the 1,300 pupils mill about between lessons. “I want to be in the
middle of the passing traffic of boys,” he tells me.
intends to shake things up a little is clear: updating traditions –
possibly even the uniform, with its distinctive tailcoats and
“spongebag” trousers – and making more places available to
pupils for whom the yearly fees of £35,000 a year are out of reach,
are a priority.
He is committed to
maintaining excellence but says a '“string of A*s” is not a
guarantee of future happiness and wants his charges to understand
that. Ultimately, his mission is to use the school’s resources and
status to make a wider “forward-looking” contribution to British
about people, and should be judged by the quality of the human
relationships within them."
But how will this
contribution be greeted? The over-representation of Old Etonians in
the Cabinet and the House of Commons of late has made the school
something of a political football.
Stories of alleged
unsavoury high jinks on the part of OEs in various exclusive Oxford
university clubs such as the Bullingdon and the Piers Gaveston have
created an impression that it exists in a parallel universe with
rules of its own.
“I’m not going
to make any political comments,” Henderson replies diplomatically.
“We live in a democracy and everyone can have their opinion, but I
do understand that people will have their perceptions of Eton.” In
challenging them he intends to do more listening than lecturing.
further on the partnerships with state schools that Eton already has
we will have as much to learn, if not more, than we have to give. But
I’m struck by what a forward‑thinking place Eton is trying to
Henderson, the school governors couldn’t have given a clearer
signal that they recognised the need for change.
He is, he says, “a
normal sort of guy”, with an accent that is hard to place. Three of
his children – aged seven, five and three – attend local schools.
His wife, Ali, a civil servant and former adviser to Tony Blair and
Gordon Brown, today is looking after their youngest, aged 2, in the
headmaster’s lodgings on site.
In a school where
the boys still wear Victorian tailcoats and white dickey bows to
lessons, their head is instead sporting what he calls “teacher
casual” – a linen jacket and chino-like trousers. He dons a tie
for the photographs but discards it immediately after.
Will he be extending
that privilege to the 1,300 pupils? “Tradition is important here,”
he replies cautiously, “and the uniform is a physical connection
with that tradition. However, Eton hasn’t survived since 1440 by
relying on tradition alone. It has constantly reinvented itself.”
So is he hinting that something a little more 21st century might be
on the cards?
“I’m not getting
rid of the uniform this week,” he replies with an expression that
suggests “watch this space”. He has perfected the knack of
embodying the spirit of change, without actually promising anything
And what about
co-ed? “My previous school” – he was head of Bradfield College
in Berkshire for four years – “was co-educational. What makes a
good school isn’t about whether it is all-boys or co-educational.”
That, at least, sounds like a resolute “no”.
"It was an
unexpected challenge when it came but one that I felt ultimately I
couldn’t turn down."
“encouraged to apply” for the vacancy at Eton, having previously
spent eight years here as head of history, before decamping to
Sherborne en route to Bradfield.
“It was an
unexpected challenge when it came but one that I felt ultimately I
couldn’t turn down,” he says.
And though his own
schooling was solidly in the private sector – his South
African-raised lawyer father and doctor mother sent him first to a
local prep school near the family home in Kent, and then to
Winchester – Henderson has a greater first-hand knowledge of other
types of school than most of his illustrious predecessors.
A career in teaching
was already in his sights when reading history at Brasenose College,
Oxford. In his gap year he went to South Africa and taught in a
school on the outskirts of Johannesburg. “I’d already thought I
might want to teach, but it was my time there that inspired me.”
After a brief and
unhappy flirtation with the City, he opted for a PGCE, the
postgraduate teaching training qualification that is not as
widespread in the private as in the state sector. His first job was
teaching history at a comprehensive, Windsor Boys, between 1999 and
2001. A conscious choice of a state school? “At that stage, it was.
I thought it was important to be in the state sector and get a wide
experience, particularly given my own background.”
His next move was to
Eton. Reverting to type? “I want to educate children and I think
that my passion is educating young people whatever their background.
That has always been my driver, rather than the particular type of
That, surely, is to
gloss over the substantial differences between state and private
schools in terms of class size, resources and social mix.
Educationalists, for example, refer to an “Eton effect” whereby
privately educated pupils emerge from their schools with an inbuilt
“We take the view
that young people learn as much, if not more, from each other as from
their teachers and as much, if not more, outside the classroom as
within it,” he replies. “This all breeds confidence.
However, I think it
would be a big generalisation to say that privately educated pupils
leave school with much more confidence than their state peers. That
ethos of being confident without being arrogant, of having high
expectations, being willing to challenge yourself is key at Eton, but
is not exclusive to us, or to private schools.”
It is a reasonable
defence, but I wonder how easy it is going to be to disarm the
school’s detractors when he starts offering his thoughts on
improving the nation’s schools.
learn as much, if not more, from each other as from their teachers
and as much, if not more, outside the classroom as within it."
“Clearly at Eton
we are fortunate in the resources, and we don’t have some of the
challenges that teachers face in other schools. But ultimately
schools are about people, and should be judged by the quality of the
human relationships within them.”
And anyway, he adds,
that picture of competitiveness, even hostility, between private and
state sectors is misleading. “I have been a governor of several
state schools and have always found that similarities between pupils
and between teachers are far greater than their differences.”
High on Henderson’s
agenda are more bursaries – “a top priority”. Currently some
£6.5 million per year is spent on 73 pupils who pay no fees at
all, and 270 who “have significant levels of financial support”.
But what will this charismatic head be arguing for beyond the walls
of the school?
predecessor, Tony Little, he is not a fan of the exam and league
table culture heavily promoted by Michael Gove when in office, and
which still exerts such a steely grip on school timetables.
tables show one important feature of a school – the examination
results – they do not demonstrate the quality of the all-round
education. And they tend not to take into account the academic
profile of the intake and so do not usually demonstrate the progress
made by pupils,” he explains.
Eton opts out of the
league tables that are published immediately after the release of
results in August – on the grounds that results change following
re-marks. It is one policy that Henderson has no intention of
“Of course, exam
results are the currency that the world uses, rightly or wrongly. If,
as a school, you have a strong exam profile, that opens doors to the
future for your pupils.”
But there is, he
acknowledges, a cost. “How happy and successful your pupils are in
their personal and professional life when they walk out of those
doors depends on a much broader range of things than exam results. We
must promote creativity. This country needs young people who have
ideas for themselves and that must be encouraged in the curriculum.”
He quotes the
benefits of drama, art and music – all marginalised in recent years
by policymakers as non-“core” subjects and, according to teaching
unions, starved of resources – as key. Pushing youngsters to strive
solely for strings of A*s is a mistake, he argues.
reflect work in the real world. You work with other people. You
collaborate. You discuss."
“When I am going
about my daily work at no point am I going to be asked to sit in
silence in a room for two hours and write everything I know about a
topic without consulting other people, or without the use of notes.
reflect work in the real world. You work with other people. You
collaborate. You discuss. The types of real-world skills required are
not necessarily what is tested in exams.”
He is also
determined to promote teachers and teaching as a career, believing
that the profession deserves to be held in greater esteem. Even
today, precious few Oxbridge graduates choose, as he did in 1998, to
opt for teacher-training.
With some 20 or even
30 years ahead of him as Eton headmaster, Simon Henderson will have
plenty of time to make a distinctive contribution to education
debates. Does he worry as the new broom about getting people’s
backs up? “Maybe I’m not everyone’s perception of what the Eton
headmaster would be,” he concedes, “but I am the one they have
and the making of a modern elite
most famous school aspires to become an agent of social change; but,
as old boy Christopher de Bellaigue learns when he goes back, it is
also an increasingly effective way for the global elite to give its
offspring an expensive leg up in life
One of Simon
Henderson’s first decisions after taking over last summer as
headmaster of Eton College was to move his office out of the
labyrinthine, late-medieval centre of the school and into a corporate
bunker that has been appended (“insensitively”, as an
architectural historian might say) to a Victorian teaching block.
Here, in classless, optimistic tones, Henderson lays out a vision of
a formerly Olympian institution becoming a mirror of modern society,
diversifying its intake so that anyone “from a poor boy at a
primary school in the north of England to one from a great fee-paying
prep school in the south” can aspire to be educated there (so long
as he’s a he, of course), joyfully sharing expertise, teachers and
facilities with the state sector – in short, striving “to be
relevant and to contribute”. His aspiration that Eton should become
an agent of social change is not one that many of his 70 predecessors
in the job over the past six centuries would have shared; and it is
somehow no surprise to hear that he has incurred the displeasure of
some of the more traditionally minded boys by high-fiving them. What
had happened, I wondered as I left the bunker, to the Eton I knew
when I was a pupil in the late 1980s – a school so grand it didn’t
care what anyone thought of it, a four-letter word for the Left, a
source of pride for the Right, and a British brand to rival Marmite
and King Arthur?
To judge from
appearances in this historic little town across the Thames from
Windsor Castle, which many tourists think is worth a visit between
the Round Tower and Legoland, the answer is actually not a lot. Aside
from the fact that there are more brown, black and Asian faces
around, the boys go about in their undertakers’ uniforms of
tailcoats and starched collars, as they seem to have done for
centuries, learning in the old schoolrooms and depleting testosterone
on the old playing fields before being locked up for the night in
houses they share with 50 of their peers (each boy has his own room).
As the absence of girls demonstrates, Eton considers itself exempt
from the modern belief in the integration of the sexes that so many
independent schools now espouse. And it remains a boarding school –
a form of education which is in decline, and which some people
consider a mild form of child abuse. Add to all this the statue of
Henry VI, who founded the school in 1440, amid the uneven cobbles of
School Yard, and the masters cycling in their gowns to their
mid-morning meeting, resembling nothing so much as a synod of ravens,
and you get the opposite impression to that conveyed by Henderson:
one of solidity, immobility – anything but dynamism.
To the question,
“which is the ‘real’ Eton?” – the laboratory for
progressive ideas about social inclusion, or an annexe to Britain’s
heritage industry – the answer is of course “both”.
All schools are
defined by their intake, but none more so than Eton, which for
hundreds of years received the pipsqueak sons of the ruling class and
disgorged them to become statesmen and administrators. (Nineteen Old
Etonians – OES – including David Cameron, have served as prime
minister.) This has now changed, and a new admissions policy has
brought in poor clever boys, foreign boys and “new money” that
the school would not have welcomed in the past. A recent parent
described his surprise at finding out that the commonest name at the
school was Patel.
At the same time,
many elements of the timeless, traditional Eton have been preserved.
They’re among the reasons new parents send their sons here, along
with the belief that the school will coax and push and cajole the
best out of the boy – that Eton is, as the headmaster puts it,
“unashamed in its pursuit of excellence”. The school aims to
educate the elite, as it always has, but it has reshaped itself in
order to accommodate a new elite defined by money, brains and
ambition, not pedigree, titles and acres.
relationship seems likely to exist at Eton in the coming years,
between deserving boys of modest background who enter the school on
bursaries, often in the face of incredulity or even opposition at
home, and the poised, prepared, nutritionally optimised children of
the new upper class whose parents are expected to finance all this
largesse – not simply by paying their fees, but also by responding
to pretty much continuous appeals for money. The latest “exciting
and strictly limited opportunity” is the chance to have your name
inscribed on a stone around School Yard, costing £10,000 spread over
four consecutive tax years.
Eton’s rich and
poor coalesce and become each other’s raison d’être in the
context of the school’s ambition to be “needs-blind” in the
manner of Harvard – that is to say, able to offer a boy a place
regardless of his parents’ ability to pay. Eton’s big plan was
evoked succinctly by William Waldegrave, the provost (head of the
governing body), when he told me, “what I hope is that this school
will continue to produce the prime minister, the Archbishop of
Canterbury, and entrepreneurs of all sorts, but that three-quarters
of them will have been here on bursaries.”
Henderson may be the latest advocates of Eton’s transformation, but
the process began a generation ago. Over the past quarter-century
many places have opened up to poorer families, with some 270 of the
pupil body of 1,300 now receiving substantial or complete fees
remission and the school recently taking out a £45m loan to raise
this number further. The school can also draw on a very large
endowment by British standards. As of August 2014 it had investment
and property portfolios worth £300m and an annual income from school
fees of around £45m, not to mention all the immovable assets and art
collections. For all that, many more millions need to be wrung from
parents and OES if the school is to become genuinely needs-blind.
As the school
mediates between the aspiring rich and the deserving poor, a third
group fights for survival: old “Eton” families who have been
sending boys to the school for generations. This group dominated the
Eton I attended in the 1980s, when the school was still a
barely-selective rite of passage for the descendants of Britain’s
Edwardian upper and upper-middle classes – complacent, snobby and
full of surnames recognisable from the inter-war diaries of Harold
Nicolson. This tribe’s representation is shrinking. The percentage
of pupils at the school with an OE father went down from 60% in 1960
to 33% in 1994 to 20% now. Eton has gone from being an heirloom
handed down through the generations to a revolving door.
Pupils cheer during
the Eton wall game, a sport unique to the college
No elite connives in
its own dethroning, however, and Eton is a living illustration of the
oft-forgotten truth that social mobility cuts both ways. Having
striven to get their son into a school whose fabric reeks of
continuity, it would not be a surprise if the new Eton families
showed tenacity in trying to hang on to their new status by forming
dynasties of their own. This new elite, floating on its liquid
wealth, is probably better placed to preserve itself than the old,
landed one. As often as not Mum is as high powered as Dad, and the
progeny are primed not to rest on inherited laurels but to go out and
achieve material success.
Here, in the
emergence of a new upper class – more fluid, more international,
and yet revelling in its association with the old, snobbish, British
continuities – lies the tension at the heart of Eton’s ambition
to become a meritocracy. To borrow from the Patek Philippe advert,
“You never actually own a place at Eton. You merely look after it
for the next generation”.
I performed badly in
my entrance test to Eton and squeaked in only after my mother pleaded
with the admissions tutor that her father had been at the school: in
those days, Eton took care of its own. The establishment I entered in
the spring of 1985 looked to me like the embodiment of continuity,
but across the country, the mood was turning hostile. The immediate
post-war period had witnessed three Etonian prime ministers in
succession (one of whom, Harold Macmillan, named no fewer than 35 OES
to serve in his government), but the squall of egalitarianism in the
late 1960s, aggravated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s ethos of
self-help and aspiration, loosened the school’s grip on power. In
1990, when Thatcher lost the Tory-party leadership, Douglas Hurd, who
stood to succeed her, found his Eton background being used against
him. “I thought I was running for leadership of the Conservative
Party,” he complained, “not some demented Marxist sect.” Hurd
lost the election – and the keys to 10 Downing Street – to John
Major, a state-educated former insurance clerk.
Tony Blair’s New
Labour administration of the late 1990s and early 2000s married
Thatcher’s brassy meritocracy with a social conscience. Oxford,
Cambridge and the other major universities came under pressure to
admit more state-educated pupils, and private schools were told to
share their facilities with publicly funded neighbours or forfeit the
tax breaks to which they, as charities, were entitled. In 1999, in a
clear sign that the school could no longer count on its old links to
parliament, almost 700 hereditary peers (many if not most of them
OES) were expelled from the House of Lords.
In any case by now
Eton had read the runes. There was a feeling among masters and
governors that the school needed to raise standards in order to
maintain market share in the new, more meritocratic Britain – to
keep feeding boys to Oxford and Cambridge; to keep producing prime
ministers – and a more competitive admissions system was the key.
But the school had an image problem. It was widely considered a
closed shop that would favour the dim and idle viscount over the
up-and-coming City trader’s brilliant, motivated son, with the
result that the City trader didn’t apply. The school’s policy of
allowing parents to register their sons at birth for the so-called
“Eton List” exemplified the school’s built-in prejudice in
favour of its own. The Eton List effectively allowed an OE to sew up
a place for his son while the boy was in nappies.
In 1990 the Eton
List was abolished and a decade later a uniform entrance test and
interview were introduced for all would-be entrants at the age of 11,
under which the children of OES enjoyed no head start over the sons
of people who had not been privately educated, or, for that matter,
the offspring of successful Pakistani immigrants or Malaysian
electronic-chip manufacturers. In time the tests got harder, the
yearly intake cleverer, and the dim, idle viscounts were turned away.
(Clever, industrious viscounts continued to get in.) Aided by its
proximity to London, whose attractiveness as a safe deposit box for
the super-wealthy was on the rise, the school became heavily
oversubscribed. (In the 1950s the school had empty places.) Each
year, around five and a half boys compete for each of the 260 places
internal reforms were well under way by the time Tony Little,
Henderson’s predecessor, took over in 2002, this former scholar (an
Etonian in the 1960s, he was the first member of his family to be
educated over the age of 14) introduced them to a sceptical world. He
was “more foreign secretary than home secretary”, as one master
recalls, giving interviews and making friends with educational
reformers in the Blair government; his railing against the “deadly
cloud of class awareness” rates as one of the more unexpected
interventions from an Eton headmaster.
Under Little, Eton
sponsored a state boarding school up the road in Ascot and a
sixth-form college in the London borough of Newham. Bursary schemes
were also set up by wealthy OES. At first, bringing in boys from some
of the poorest parts of Britain and overseas turned out to be
surprisingly difficult; heads weren’t keen on losing their
brightest boys, and parents needed some convincing that Eton wasn’t
another planet. A documentary about three Eton scholarship boys that
was shown on the BBC’s children’s channel in 2014 led to a spike
in applications, the school’s access officer told me, “not
because parents saw it, but because their sons did, and thought, ‘I’d
like to do that.’” Of two former bursary boys in their 20s I
recently spoke to, one has gone on to become a speech-writer for a
Conservative MP and aims to go into parliament; another is a rising
Changes to the
admissions policy have seen the school’s non-Anglo-Saxon intake
rise considerably, though for all the foreign names one sees on
pigeon holes in each house, Eton remains a “British” school, and
its policy of diversifying its intake seems aimed at preventing it
from being captured by any particular sub-group of the global elite.
Traditionalists have chafed at the more international atmosphere,
however, and Little described how one “finger-jabbing” OE accused
him of being a “socialist who won’t rest until you have built a
mosque on the school playing fields”.
Visiting Eton this
spring, I spent an hour in College Library, watching the school’s
Arabic master show three 16-year-old Palestinians some medieval
manuscripts that the school had recently purchased, among them a page
from a ninth-century Kufic Koran. Born in refugee camps in Lebanon,
these boys had been flown to Britain for interview. Come September,
two of them will be in tails.
at Eton is a shiny research complex, the donor-funded Tony Little
Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, which joined forces
with Harvard to advance research into the adolescent brain – all
synaptic pruning and neural pathways. The centre’s mission
statement is a slightly laboured attempt to establish Britain’s
poshest school as a public good: “we want Eton and the wider UK to
be at the forefront of new developments in teaching and learning, for
the benefit of all.”
The new Eton –
friendly to the international plutocracy while also containing strong
elements of political correctness – naturally went down badly with
the established Eton families whose names adorn the war-memorial
plaques and the sporting cups, and whose sons have been rejected in
big numbers. In 2009, at a reunion I attended, Waldegrave delivered a
speech lauding diversity of intake and beating the drum for an
appeal. “They want our money,” my neighbour growled, “but not
our sons.” In the main, however, the old guard seems resigned to
its demotion, in part because, however exercised they are by the
newcomers, many OES would be unable to afford the school even if
their sons were admitted.
My father paid
around £6,000 per year (around £14,500 today) for me to go to Eton
in the late 1980s. The annual fees are now £34,000 ($50,000, or
about £7,000 more than the average annual wage in Britain). The
merely well off – the country solicitors and provincial landowners
who once formed the school’s backbone – have been priced out. In
the words of one OE, “many people in my circle have decided that
it’s not worth it, and that a good state school will do just as
To say that there is
a cultural divide between the old Eton and the new one would be an
understatement. Traditional parents wince as they describe
corporate-hospitality tents and sushi bars being erected by brash
parvenus for the Fourth of June, the school’s annual shindig (which
is not, of course, held on June 4th). Back in the 1980s it was
hard-boiled eggs and wine out of a box, consumed while rocking on
one’s haunches on a picnic blanket.
For all the talk of
270 bursary boys and rising, furthermore, the vaunted egalitarianism
of the new Eton is not always obvious. “We tried to identify the
bursary boys who are with my son,” remarked a pupil’s mother,
“but his year group includes two oligarchs’ sons and a family
with four children all at different English boarding schools. Our
suspicions fell on the parents of an Indian boy but then we bumped
into them while skiing in Val d’Isère.”
Some newcomers feel
that change hasn’t gone far enough. As an American mother said,
“you still get some students who would have been there 100 years
ago, and they’re not always the cleverest. But”, she went on with
evident relief, “they don’t dominate.” Her only regret is that
Little didn’t bring in girls. Henderson is rumoured to want to
abolish tails, though that would face opposition from the boys, who
are attached, in quite a sweet way, to Etonian traditions.
cultural divisions felt by parents are less important to the pupils,
in part because the uniform has the advantage of flattening
socio-economic disparities. One former bursary boy told me, “Only
after I left the school, and visited my friends in the amazing flats
they had been given by their parents, did I realise just how rich
With every place at
Eton so keenly contested, enterprising parents sometimes try the back
door. The recently retired head of admissions, Charles Milne, was
visited by a famous Russian oligarch whose son had been placed on a
waiting list after failing to win a place in the entrance test. “They
crowded into my little office,” Milne explained, “the Russian and
his two bodyguards – one of them eight foot tall. I began
explaining how the system works, that other boys would have to give
up their places for his son to get in.” Milne had not got far
before the oligarch raised a hand to silence him. “Mr Milne,” he
said, “I won’t waste your time. When you have decided what needs
to be done for my son to get his place, you will tell me.” The boy
ended up at another school. Another very rich foreigner, whose son
had been rejected, phoned Milne to tell him he was a “fucking
bastard”. It became an in-joke between Milne and Little. “When I
went to see the headmaster, he would greet me, ‘hello, fucking
Given the intense
competition to get a place, it’s no wonder that the waiting room
before the test (much harder than the one I took) is like the Russian
roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter”. Children sit ashen-faced
while their parents confer in whispers. No one speaks to anyone else;
the tension is palpable. Some boys burst into tears when they get
into the interview room.
The contest isn’t
simply between candidates. It’s a battle of wits between a school
whose proclaimed intention is to identify deserving talent and
ambition, and parents who will do everything to stack things in their
child’s favour. Well-off, well-organised parents prepare their sons
ruthlessly, hiring tutors, making the boys do ceaseless verbal and
non-verbal reasoning tests and sending them to interview classes to
learn how to be sparky and empathetic. The school is wise to these
constantly evolving efforts to game the system, however, and a lot of
boys who have done brilliantly in the computerised test are turned
down because they aren’t “interesting” at interview. “If
a boy makes me laugh,” says one of the school’s interviewers, “he
stands a good chance of getting in.”
The battle to enter
Eton is the first exchange in a relationship between parents, boys
and school that is characterised by high expectations. The rich
parents want their kids to flourish and go on to an excellent
university, preferably Oxford or Cambridge. The school wants these
parents to show their appreciation in five figures. The bursary boys
need to validate the decision to give them bursaries. Meanwhile the
OES bite their fingernails and hope that the 20% figure won’t go
down or the fees rise even further.
The story of Eton’s
reconquest of the commanding heights of Britain is one of gradual
rehabilitation. With the weakening of the hard left, the prospect of
private schools being abolished receded, while Eton’s efforts to
present itself less as a throwback to an earlier age than a guarantor
of achievement in the current one began to pay dividends. Though
confessing to an Eton education remains a conversation-stopper in
liberal-left north London, in general the school has become less of a
lightning rod for class resentment. And over the past decade OES have
become more pervasive than ever.
Back in the 1950s it
was the fact of having been to Eton, more than the education you
received there, which set you up for success. Now the inverse is
true. The teaching is superb, the facilities unparalleled, the
results impressive. This year 85 Etonians were offered places at
Oxford or Cambridge. St Paul’s, Westminster and Winchester have
higher Oxbridge admission rates, but then those schools always
specialised in cultivating clever boys. What’s interesting about
Eton is the way it changed its focus from class to brains. The school
has seen off the threats to its continued relevance by taking in
clever boys, and sending out cleverer young men into a world that no
longer defers to inherited privilege, and prizes cleverness and
ambition above all.
This shift in
strategy has changed the culture of the school. The ordeal of the
entrance test; the upwardly mobile parents; the fact that the boys
know they got into the school on their own merits, not because their
fathers are OES – all this militates against the studied unconcern,
the famous “entitlement”, that was the default pose of Etonians
in the 1980s. Just as it was intensely uncool to be industrious then,
now the opposite is the case. “It’s the boy who doesn’t take
advantage of all the opportunities at Eton who’s considered odd,”
a current Etonian told me, “not those who do.”
A strong work ethic
comes naturally in a school that opts in to the hardest public exams
and fosters competitive relationships between pupils. One recent
Etonian noticed this cultural peculiarity while observing a debate at
St Paul’s, Concord, a posh American boarding school. (Eton’s
debating teams often sweep the board at inter-school competitions.)
“The Americans were elaborately polite to each other,” he
recalled, “whereas at Eton we could be brutal, saying, ‘that’s
an incredibly stupid thing to say’.”
The Fourth of June
in the 1980s
More than schools
with higher Oxbridge acceptance rates, Eton stresses activities
outside the classroom. Drama, one of its particular strengths, is an
opportunity for collective endeavour that also contributes to the
legendary Etonian self-assurance. The production budget at the
400-seat Farrer Theatre is higher than that at one of Britain’s top
drama schools. No wonder scouts and agents are often to be spotted
there, looking for the next Eddie Redmayne – one of Eton’s many
recent showbiz alumni.
The investment in a
wide range of extra-curricular interests may help explain why, when
it comes to success defined more broadly than through exam results,
Eton comes top. According to the Sutton Trust, a charity which works
to widen opportunity, the school educates just 0.04% of Britain’s
secondary school population, but some 4% of nearly 8,000 “leading
people” whose education the trust tracked were OES. Eton produces
more than three times as many big cheeses as its nearest rival,
Winchester (Henderson’s alma mater). Taking into account Eton’s
larger student body, its high-achiever output rate is 50% higher.
And that figure
underplays Eton’s success, for OES cluster at the very pinnacle of
British life. The closer you get to power and achievement, in other
words, the more likely you are to run into one. David Cameron and his
rival for the soul of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, the
former mayor of London, both attended the school. So did Prince
William and Prince Harry, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby,
the actors Tom Hiddleston and Damian Lewis as well as Redmayne, the
adventurers Bear Grylls and Ranulph Fiennes and the Nobel
prize-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon. The law, business and
banking fester with Old Etonians.
It’s very likely
that Eton has a higher “strike rate” than it did in the 1980s,
when for every top banker or ambassador there were one or two who
conspicuously failed to enter well-paid careers (or indeed careers of
any sort), and ended up cultivating marijuana or running a small
country estate into the ground. No father of an Etonian in the 1980s
would have admitted to thinking about anything so crass as a “return”
on his investment, nor were we boys party to our parents’ financial
affairs. This too has changed. A recent bursary boy who attended the
school with a third of his fees remitted told me that his parents,
both teachers at state schools, had sold the family home in order to
afford the other two-thirds.
Britain no longer
has a ruling class, and the boys who enter Eton are anyway too varied
to constitute one. Yet by the time they leave they belong to
something like an emerging global elite. They have in common brains,
determination and, in many cases, an aspirational family that sets
great store by worldly success. These qualities got them to Eton, and
they are deployed again and again to ensure they get the most out of
the experience. Whether it’s arranging holiday internships with
City law firms, Skype tutorials in the run-up to a geography exam, or
a reels refresher course before the Caledonian Ball, parents are
constantly (and expensively) bolting on all kinds of optional,
mini-advantages to the considerable advantage of an Eton education.
The great project of modern elite parenting is all about leaving
nothing to chance.
There is, of course,
a natural tension between the school’s role in this enterprise and
its ambition to be an engine of social mobility – just as there is
at the American Ivy League universities that Eton’s admissions
system seeks to emulate. A small number of Etonians are poor; some
are only modestly well-off; but the majority of them are seriously
wealthy by the standards of most of the world. One of the
consequences of Eton’s transformation is thus to ensure that the
children of the very rich stay that way.
For all its inbuilt
advantages, the task facing Eton at the turn of the millennium was a
tricky one. It needed to entrench its position at the top of British
life while carrying out controversial and difficult reforms. Few
would argue that the changes have been anything but necessary and
skilfully accomplished, but they have come at an intangible price. A
recently retired master complained that teaching has got more boring
because boys constantly harp on the need to stick to the syllabus:
“are we going to need this for the exam, sir?”
Eton used to have a
strong sideline in rebels and oddballs. My time there was enriched by
exposure to some truly unusual characters, both masters and boys,
which engendered a tolerance of human foibles and acted as vital
redress from a hierarchical, rules-based institution. Inevitably, as
the school has grown more concerned with outcomes and assessments and
ever keener to maximise the use to which its facilities are put, the
eccentrics have been purged from the institution.
The value of such
people is hard to quantify; their achievement doesn’t show through
in the exam results, but in the diffusion of a spirit of irreverence
and scepticism. One boy in my house, William Sinclair, was a
brilliant subversive and satirist of the school; his lampooning of
the authorities and disrespect for conventional hierarchies among the
boys punctured the pretension and self-regard to which Eton is easily
prone. William’s planting of a live chicken in our housemaster’s
bathtub was the least of his misdemeanours.
My tutor over my
final years was Michael Kidson, a lop-shouldered historian who
terrorised us in thrilling, beautiful, confident English, threw
blackboard rubbers at boys who offended against syntax and grammar –
I got one in the head for pluralising “protagonist” – and
defended his oversexed spaniel for trying to solace itself against
our thighs. (“Nothing wrong with a young man wanting a wank!”)
Above all, Kidson was loyal and would fight fiercely for you if you
got into trouble; several boys escaped expulsion thanks to his
efforts. On all sorts of levels it is hard to imagine either Sinclair
or Kidson being welcomed to today’s Eton, but back then they were
among the school’s best-loved figures and knowing them seems as
useful to me now as any City internship would have been.
Eton isn’t alone
among reformed institutions to have got duller as it has got better,
and few of the current boys’ families will rue the absence of
eccentrics if their son gets his Oxbridge place. The school has gone
from being a rite of passage for a now-defunct upper class to a
coalition of different sorts of people who have signed up to an
ambitious agenda that may not, in fact, be their own. If Eton hasn’t
quite become the liberal, socially transformative institution the
reformists seek, it is undeniably more discerning in allocating one
of the best starts in life that money (or brains, or ambition) can
Bellaigueis an author and journalist. His forthcoming book, “The
Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason, 1798 to
Modern Times”, will be published in 2017
Britain's most inspirational Second World War pilot after helping the
Allies beat the Germans in the air despite losing both legs in a
Now, the MG sports
car once owned by RAF hero Sir Douglas Bader is to go on sale at
auction and is expected to fetch £80,000.
The fighter pilot,
who famously flew in the Battle of Britain, was the first owner of
the Midget TA Roadster.
He bought it in
1938, seven years after he lost his legs, registering the open-top
car to his address in upmarket Kensington, West London.
The MG T series is a
range of body-on-frame convertible sports cars that were produced by
MG from 1936 to 1955. The series included the MG TA, MG TB, MG TC, MG
TD, and MG TF Midget models. The last of these models, the TF, was
replaced by the MGA.
The TF name was
reinstated in 2002 on the mid-engined MG TF sports car.
The MG TA Midget
replaced the PB in 1936. It was an evolution of the previous car and
was 3 inches (76 mm) wider in its track at 45 inches (1,100 mm) and 7
inches (180 mm) longer in its wheelbase at 94 inches (2,400 mm).
advanced overhead-cam inline-four engine was now not in use by any
other production car so it was replaced by the MPJG OHV unit from the
Wolseley 10 but with twin SU carburettors, modified camshaft and
manifolding. The engine displaced just 1292 cc, with a stroke of 102
mm (4.0 in) and a bore of 63.5 mm (2.5 in) and power output was 50 hp
(40.3 kW) at 4,500 rpm. The four-speed manual gearbox now had
synchromesh on the two top ratios and was connected to the engine by
a cork-faced clutch running in oil. Unlike the PB, hydraulic brakes
were fitted with 9-inch (230 mm) drums.
Like the PB, most
were two-seat open cars with a steel body on an ash frame. A
bench-type seat was fitted with storage space behind. From 1938 the
car could also be had with a more luxurious Tickford drophead coupé
body by Salmons of Newport Pagnell and 252 were made. The soft top
could be used in three positions, fully open, closed or open just
over the seats. Wind-up windows were fitted to the higher topped
doors making the car more weathertight and individual bucket seats
used in the fully carpeted interior. Complete chassis were fitted
with a very basic body at the Abingdon factory and driven to Newport
Pagnell to have their coachwork fitted. A closed Airline coupé made
by Carbodies, as fitted to the P type, was also offered but only one
or two is thought to have been made.
The T-type was
capable of reaching almost 80 mph (130 km/h) in standard tune with a
0–60 mph time of 23.1 seconds.
3,003 were made and
in 1936 it cost £222 on the home market, the same as had been asked
for the PB.
introduced the model was known as the T Type and only after the
advent of the TB did the TA designation come into use.
Allan Tomlinson won
the 1939 Australian Grand Prix driving an MG TA
The TA was replaced
by the TB Midget in May 1939. It had a smaller but more modern XPAG
engine as fitted to the Morris Ten Series M, but in a more highly
tuned state and like the TA with twin SU carburettors. This 1250 cc
I4 unit featured a slightly less undersquare 66.6 mm (2.6 in) bore
and 90 mm (3.5 in) stroke and had a maximum power output of 54 hp (40
kW) at 5200 rpm. The oil-immersed clutch was also replaced by a
dry-plate type and gear ratios revised.
Available as an open
2-seater or more luxurious Tickford drophead coupé, this is the
rarest of the T-type cars; only 379 were made.
The TC Midget was
the first postwar MG, launched in 1945. It was quite similar to the
pre-war TB, sharing the same 1,250 cc (76 cu in) pushrod-OHV engine
with a slightly higher compression ratio of 7.4:1 giving 54.5 bhp
(40.6 kW) at 5200 rpm. The makers also provided several alternative
stages of tuning for "specific purposes".
It was exported to
the United States, even though only ever built in right-hand drive.
The export version had slightly smaller US specification sealed-beam
headlights and larger twin rear lights, as well as turn signals and
chrome-plated front and rear bumpers.
The body was
approximately 4 inches (100 mm) wider than the TB measured at the
rear of the doors to give more cockpit space. The overall car width
remained the same resulting in narrower running boards with two tread
strips as opposed to the previous three. The tachometer was directly
in front of the driver, while the speedometer was on the other side
of the dash in front of the passenger.
10,001 TCs were
produced, from September 1945 (chassis number TC0251) to Nov. 1949
(chassis number TC10251), more than any previous MG model. It cost
£527 on the home market in 1947.
Fuel consumption was
28 mpg-imp (10.1 L/100 km; 23.3 mpg-US). Its 0–60 mph time was
22.7 seconds, a respectable performance at the time.
Back in the 1880s,
the evening train from Middlesbrough would often stop right in front
of a stately house in Redcar called Red Barns. Out would step Hugh
Bell, the cultured and wealthy head of a sprawling iron, steel and
chemical empire. As often as not, waiting to greet him as he strode
up the garden path would be the daughter who would later find fame as
an explorer, archaeologist, writer and spy.
Once a book-lined
and pet-filled family home, Red Barns has fallen on hard times. But a
campaign has now been launched to buy it and convert it into a
memorial to Gertrude Bell, turning the spotlight back on to a woman
who was, in the early 20th century, as famous as Lawrence of Arabia.
Gertrude was one of
those rare individuals who have only to take up an activity to make a
success of it. Aged just 20, she was the first woman to achieve a
first in history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. By her early 30s, she
had mastered Farsi well enough to produce a translation of the Divan
of Hafiz that is still admired in present-day Iran. She then became
so successful a mountaineer that a peak in the Swiss Alps is named
after her. And she was one of the first archaeologists – and
certainly the first woman - to examine the Byzantine remains of
On the day her
grandfather's iron and steel works opened, he rode through Newcastle
in an aluminium top hat
Yet those are her
mere add-on accomplishments. For today, Gertrude is mainly remembered
as the woman who explored much of the Middle East, taking some of the
earliest photographs of the monuments now being destroyed by Isis.
The knowledge she acquired became invaluable to the British
government during the first world war. In later life, Gertrude
settled in Baghdad and took on the role of kingmaker to Faisal. Once
the new monarchy was established, she threw herself into the creation
of the National Museum of Iraq. She died in 1926, in Baghdad, almost
certainly at her own hand.
Gertrude – whose
story was told in Werner Herzog’s 2015 film Queen of the Desert,
starring Nicole Kidman – was not the only larger than life
character in her family. The wealth that facilitated her Middle
Eastern wanderings was originally created by her formidable
grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, who had set up an iron and
steel works in Newcastle and an aluminium plant in Middlesbrough. On
the day it opened, he rode through Newcastle wearing an aluminium top
hat. Despite their important role in the history of northeast
England, the Bells are oddly unremembered. A blue plaque on Red Barns
may commemorate Gertrude, but there is no statue of her let alone a
home, Red Barns, in Redcar, in the 1920s.
The blue plaque at
Red Barns Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
A rare opportunity
has presented itself to right this wrong. In 1868, Gertrude’s
father commissioned a new home for his young family in the heart of
Redcar. Largely the brainchild of William Morris, the Arts and Crafts
movement tends to be associated with southern England. But the Bells
were to become enthusiastic patrons of the style in the northeast. In
1868, it was to Philip Webb, a man synonymous with Arts and Crafts,
that Hugh turned.
Only Webb’s second
commission as an architect, Red Barns bears a striking resemblance to
the better-known Red House in Bexleyheath, London, which he had
co-designed with Morris in 1860. A two-storeyed mansion built from
hand-moulded bricks and featuring hipped roofs and soaring chimneys,
Red Barns is described as Georgian vernacular revival by Historic
England. Its interior was the work of Morris, who wallpapered it with
blackbirds singing against a bright blue sky.
Red Barns is infused
with Gertrude’s presence. It was here that she played games of
“housemaids” with her brothers and sisters, dashing silently from
the cellars to the attics while attempting to avoid being spotted by
the servants. It was in the extensive gardens that she cultivated her
lifelong love of flowers. Scrambling up the scaffolding as the house
was extended in 1882 may have given her the head for heights that
turned her into a mountaineer. Riding the ponies stabled at Red Barns
gave her the confidence to ride across virtually unmapped tracts of
the Middle East. And it was while living at Red Barns that she
developed another lifelong passion that has made her such a gift to
Nicole Kidman as
Gertrude Bell and Robert Pattinson as TE Lawrence in Queen of the
Much taken with
Webb’s work, Gertrude’s grandfather also commissioned him to
design Rounton Grange near Northallerton, entrusting the interior
decoration to Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. And his weekend retreat,
the medieval Mount Grace Priory near Osmotherley, was also treated to
an Arts and Crafts update. Given the family’s involvement with the
industrial development of the northeast, it’s ironic that they
should have chosen to associate themselves so strongly with an
architectural movement whose practitioners were proudly
After the first
world war, luck ran out for the Bell family. They lost much of their
fortune to death duties and increased competition in the iron and
steel industry. Mount Grace Priory is now owned by English Heritage,
which meticulously reproduced some of the original Morris wallpaper
in its restoration. Otherwise, time has not been especially kind to
their built legacy. Washington New Hall has been turned into
apartments. And once the family’s fortune was gone, nothing could
save magnificent Rounton Grange from the wrecker’s ball. In 1953,
it was completely demolished.
that stood in the garden has been stolen
“Red Barns is
Grade II* listed,” says Carol Pyrah of Historic England, “putting
it in the top 8% of buildings in England in terms of its special
architectural and historic interest.” Yet even so, it was converted
into a pub and hotel. Now the hotel has closed, leaving the house
vulnerable to vandalism. Stones have been thrown at the lovely
“porthole” stained-glass window and, according to Jan Long,
founder of the Gertrude Bell Society, the fountain that stood proudly
in the garden where Gertrude planted flowers has been stolen.
In 2015, the Great
North Museum in Newcastle hosted a successful exhibition entitled The
Extraordinary Gertrude Bell, which has now moved to Kirkleatham
Museum in Redcar. But members of the newly formed Friends of Red
Barns think the house would make a perfect permanent home for the
exhibition and have launched a campaign to save it from conversion
Redcar MP Anna
Turley is spearheading the campaign. “I was becoming increasingly
distressed at the visible decline of this historic building,” she
says, “and was contacted by many constituents with the same
concerns.” Now she is hopeful that a new museum could help
kickstart tourism in an area badly hit by recent steelwork closures.
has shown the importance of an understanding of past events and
issues that have ongoing significance in the Middle East in
particular,” says Dr Mark Jackson, manager of the Gertrude Bell
Photographic Archive at Newcastle University and co-curator of the
exhibition. “Red Barns promises to provide inspiration for a host
of initiatives that could sustain the building long term while making
a very positive contribution to future society.”
The trains may no
longer stop in front of Gertrude Bell’s childhood home. But the
chance now exists to turn Red Barns into a memorial to one of the
greatest women ever born in the UK.
Extraordinary Gertrude Bell is at Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar, until 1
Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English
writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, spy and
archaeologist who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to
British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts,
built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia,
Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped
support the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in
She played a major
role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq,
utilising her unique perspective from her travels and relations with
tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she
was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an
immense amount of power for a woman at the time. She has been
described as "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's
Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling
Bell was born on 14
July 1868 in Washington New Hall, County Durham, England – now
known as Dame Margaret Hall – to a family whose wealth enabled her
travels. She is described as having "reddish hair and piercing
blue-green eyes, with her mother's bow shaped lips and rounded chin,
her father’s oval face and pointed nose". Her personality was
characterised by energy, intellect, and a thirst for adventure which
shaped her path in life. Her grandfather was the ironmaster Sir Isaac
Lowthian Bell, an industrialist and a Liberal Member of Parliament,
in Benjamin Disraeli's second term. His role in British policy-making
exposed Gertrude at a young age to international matters and most
likely encouraged her curiosity for the world, and her later
involvement in international politics.
Bell's mother, Mary
Shield Bell, died in 1871 while giving birth to a son, Maurice (later
the 3rd Baronet). Gertrude Bell was just three at the time, and the
death led to a lifelong close relationship with her father, Sir Hugh
Bell, 2nd Baronet, who was three times mayor of Middlesbrough (1874,
1883 and 1911), High Sheriff of Durham (1895), Justice of the Peace,
Deputy Lieutenant of County Durham and Lord Lieutenant of the North
Riding of Yorkshire. Throughout her life she consulted with him on
political matters. Some biographies say the loss of her mother had
caused underlying childhood trauma, revealed through periods of
depression and risky behaviour.
At the age of seven
Bell acquired a stepmother, Florence Bell, and eventually, three
half-siblings. Florence Bell was a playwright and author of
children's stories, as well as the author of a study of Bell factory
workers. She instilled concepts of duty and decorum in Gertrude and
contributed to her intellectual development. Florence Bell's
activities with the wives of Bolckow Vaughan ironworkers in Eston,
near Middlesbrough, may have helped influence her step-daughter's
later stance promoting education of Iraqi women.
received her early education from Queen's College in London and then
later at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, at the age of 17.
History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study, due
to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time. She specialised
in modern history, in which she received a first class honours degree
in two years.
Bell never married
or had children. She befriended British colonial administrator Sir
Frank Swettenham on a visit to Singapore with her brother Hugo in
1903 and maintained a correspondence with him until 1909. She had a
"brief but passionate affair" with Swettenham following his
retirement to England in 1904. She also had an unconsummated affair
with Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man, with whom she
exchanged love letters from 1913 to 1915. After his death in 1915
during the Battle of Gallipoli, Bell launched herself into her work.
Bell's uncle, Sir
Frank Lascelles, was British minister (similar to ambassador) at
Tehran, Persia. In May 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell travelled to
Persia to visit him. She described this journey in her book, Persian
Pictures, which was published in 1894. She spent much of the next
decade travelling around the world, mountaineering in Switzerland,
and developing a passion for archaeology and languages. She had
become fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German as well as also
speaking Italian and Turkish. In 1899, Bell again went to the Middle
East. She visited Palestine and Syria that year and in 1900, on a
trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, she became acquainted with the Druze
living in Jabal al-Druze.She travelled across Arabia six times over
the next 12 years.
Between 1899 and
1904, she conquered a number of mountains including the La Meije and
Mont Blanc as she recorded 10 new paths or first ascents in the
Bernese Alps. One Alpine peak in the Bernese Oberland, the 2,632 m
(8,635 ft) Gertrudspitze, was named after her after it was first
traversed by her and her guides Ulrich and Heinrich Fuhrer in 1901.
However, she did fail in an attempt of the Finsteraarhorn in August
1902 when inclement weather including snow, hail and lightning forced
her to spend "forty eight hours on the rope" with her
guides, clinging to the rock face in terrifying conditions which
nearly cost her her life.
Bell's workers at
the Binbirkilise excavations in 1907
She published her
observations in the book Syria: The Desert and the Sown published in
1907 (William Heinemann Ltd, London). In this book she described,
photographed and detailed her trip to Greater Syria's towns and
cities like Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Antioch and Alexandretta.
Bell's vivid descriptions opened up the Arabian deserts to the
western world. In March 1907, Bell journeyed to the Ottoman Empire
and began to work with the archaeologist and New Testament scholar
Sir William M. Ramsey. Their excavations in Binbirkilise were
chronicled in A Thousand and One Churches. In 1907, they discovered a
field of ruins in northern Syria on the east bank of the upper course
of the Euphrates to the steep slope of the former river valley. From
the ruins, they created a plan and described the ramparts: "Munbayah,
where my tents were pitched – the Arabic name means only a
high-altitude course – was probably the Bersiba in Ptolemy's list
of city names. It consists of a double rampart, situated on the river
In January 1909, she
left for Mesopotamia. She visited the Hittite city of Carchemish,
mapped and described the ruin of Ukhaidir and finally went to Babylon
and Najaf. Back in Carchemish, she consulted with the two
archaeologists on site. One of them was T. E. Lawrence. Her 1913
Arabian journey was generally difficult. She was the second foreign
woman after Lady Anne Blunt to visit Ha'il.
In 1927, a year
after her death, her stepmother Dame Florence Bell published two
volumes of Bell's collected correspondence written during the 20
years preceding World War I.
At the outbreak of
World War I, Bell's request for a Middle East posting was initially
denied. She instead volunteered with the Red Cross in France.
Later, she was asked
by British Intelligence to get soldiers through the deserts, and from
the World War I period until her death she was the only woman holding
political power and influence in shaping British imperial policy in
the Middle East. She often acquired a team of locals which she
directed and led on her expeditions. Throughout her travels Bell
established close relations with tribe members across the Middle
East. Additionally, being a woman gave her exclusive access to the
chambers of wives of tribe leaders, giving her access to other
perspectives and functions.
In November 1915,
however she was summoned to Cairo to the nascent Arab Bureau, headed
by General Gilbert Clayton. She also again met T. E. Lawrence.
Like Lawrence, Bell
had attended Oxford and earned First Class Honours in Modern History.
Bell spoke Arabic, Persian, French and German. She was an
archaeologist, traveller and photographer in the Middle East before
World War I. Upon the recommendation of renowned archaeologist and
historian Lt. Cmdr. David Hogarth, first Lawrence, then Bell, were
assigned to Army Intelligence Headquarters in Cairo in 1915 for war
service. Because both Bell and Lawrence had travelled the desert and
established ties with the local tribes and gained unique perspectives
of the people and the land before World War I, Hogarth realised the
value of Lawrence and Bell's expertise. Both Bell and Lawrence stood
hardly 5'5", yet both could ride with great determination and
endurance through the desert for hours on end.
Arriving in February
1916, she did not, at first, receive an official position, but
instead helped Hogarth set about organising and processing her own,
Lawrence's and Capt. W. H. I. Shakespear's data about the location
and disposition of Arab tribes that could be encouraged to join the
British against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence and the British used the
information in forming alliances with the Arabs.
On 3 March 1916,
Gen. Clayton abruptly sent Bell to Basra, which British forces had
captured in November 1914, to advise Chief Political Officer Percy
Cox regarding an area she knew better than any other Westerner. Cox
found her an office in his headquarters, where she was employed for
the two days per week she was not at Military GHQ Basra. She drew
maps to help the British army reach Baghdad safely. She became the
only female political officer in the British forces and received the
title of "Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo" (i.e. to
the Arab Bureau where she had been assigned). She was St. John
Philby's field controller, and taught him the finer arts of
behind-the-scenes political manoeuvering.
I went out last week
along the light railway 25 miles into the desert it's the Nasariyeh
Railway - ...it was so curious to travel 50 minutes by rail and
find...General Maude, our new army commander, has just arrived. I've
made his acquaintance…
While in the Middle
East, Gertrude Bell became a witness to the Armenian Genocide. She
remarked that in comparison to previous massacres, the massacres of
preceding years "were not comparable to the massacres carried
out in 1915 and the succeeding years." Bell also reported that
in Damascus, "Turks sold Armenian women openly in the public
market." In an intelligence report, Gertrude Bell wrote:
The battalion left
Aleppo on 3 February and reached Ras al-Ain in twelve hours....some
12,000 Armenians were concentrated under the guardianship of some
hundred Kurds...These Kurds were called gendarmes, but in reality
mere butchers; bands of them were publicly ordered to take parties of
Armenians, of both sexes, to various destinations, but had secret
instructions to destroy the males, children and old women...One of
these gendarmes confessed to killing 100 Armenian men himself...the
empty desert cisterns and caves were also filled with corpses...No
man can ever think of a woman's body except as a matter of horror,
instead of attraction, after Ras al-Ain."
After British troops
took Baghdad on 10 March 1917, Bell was summoned by Cox to Baghdad
and given the title of "Oriental Secretary." She, Cox and
Lawrence were among a select group of "Orientalists"
convened by Winston Churchill to attend a 1921 Conference in Cairo to
determine the boundaries of the British mandate (e.g., "the
British Partitions") and nascent states such as Iraq. Gertrude
is supposed to have described Lawrence as being able "to ignite
fires in cold rooms".
conference, she, Cox and Lawrence worked tirelessly to promote the
establishment of the countries of Transjordan and Iraq to be presided
over by the Kings Abdullah and Faisal, sons of the instigator of the
Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1915–1916), Hussein bin
Ali, Sharif and Emir of Mecca. Until her death in Baghdad, she served
in the Iraq British High Commission advisory group there.
Another target of
her efforts was thwarting the ambitions of Zionist movement. Gertrude
Bell's hostility towards Zionism was as passionate as her advocacy of
the Arab cause - she thought the Jews had no place in Palestine.
Referred to by
Persians as "al-Khatun" (a Lady of the Court who keeps an
open eye and ear for the benefit of the State), she was a confidante
of King Faisal of Iraq and helped ease his passage into the role,
amongst Iraq's other tribal leaders at the start of his reign. He
helped her to found Baghdad's great Iraqi Archaeological Museum from
her own modest artefact collection and to establish The British
School of Archaeology, Iraq, for the endowment of excavation projects
from proceeds in her will. The stress of authoring a prodigious
output of books, correspondence, intelligence reports, reference
works, and white papers; of recurring bronchitis attacks brought on
by years of heavy smoking in the company of English and Arab cohorts;
of bouts with malaria; and finally, of coping with Baghdad's summer
heat all took a toll on her health. Somewhat frail to start with, she
became nearly emaciated.
Some consider the
present troubles in Iraq are derived from the political boundaries
Bell conceived, to create its borders. Perhaps so, but her reports
indicate that problems were foreseen, and that it was clearly
understood that there were just not many (if any) permanent solutions
for calming the divisive forces at work in that part of the world.
Mark Sykes, the
British diplomat responsible for the Sykes–Picot Agreement, was not
fond of her. He once described her as
gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rumpwagging,
As the dismantling
of the Ottoman Empire was finalised by the end of the war in late
January 1919, Bell was assigned to conduct an analysis of the
situation in Mesopotamia. Due to her familiarity and relations with
the tribes in the area she had strong ideas about the leadership
needed in Iraq. She spent the next ten months writing what was later
considered a masterly official report, "Self Determination in
Mesopotamia". The British Commissioner in Mesopotamia, Arnold
Wilson, had different ideas of how Iraq should be run, preferring an
Arab government to be under the influence of British officials who
would retain real control, as he felt, from experience, that
Mesopotamian populations were not yet ready to govern and administer
the country efficiently and peacefully.
On 11 October 1920,
Percy Cox returned to Baghdad and asked her to continue as Oriental
Secretary, acting as liaison with the forthcoming Arab government.
Gertrude Bell essentially played the role of mediator between the
Arab government and British officials. Bell often had to mediate
between the various groups of Iraq including a majority population of
Shias in the southern region, Sunnis in central Iraq, and the Kurds,
mostly in the northern region, who wished to be autonomous. Keeping
these groups united was essential for political balance in Iraq and
for British imperial interests. Iraq not only contained valuable
resources in oil but would act as a buffer zone, with the help of
Kurds in the north as a standing army in the region to protect
against Turkey, Persia (Iran), and Syria. British officials in
London, especially Churchill, were highly concerned about cutting
heavy costs in the colonies, including the cost of quashing tribal
infighting. Another important project for both the British and new
Iraqi rulers was creating a new identity for these people so that
they would identify themselves as one nation.
quickly realised that their strategies in governing were adding to
costs. Iraq would be cheaper as a self-governing state. The Cairo
Conference of 1921 was held to determine the political and geographic
structure of what later became Iraq and the modern Middle East.
Significant input was given by Gertrude Bell in these discussions
thus she was an essential part of its creation. At the Cairo
Conference Bell and Lawrence highly recommended Faisal bin Hussein,
(the son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca), former commander of the Arab
forces that helped the British during the war and entered Damascus at
the culmination of the Arab Revolt. He had been recently deposed by
France as King of Syria, and British officials at the Cairo
Conference decided to make him the first king of Iraq. They believed
that due to his lineage as a Hashemite and his diplomatic skills he
would be respected and have the ability to unite the various groups
in the country. Shias would respect him because of his lineage from
Muhammad. Sunnis, including Kurds, would follow him because he was
Sunni from a respected family. Keeping all the groups under control
in Iraq was essential to balance the political and economic interests
of the British Empire.
arrival in 1921, Bell advised him in local questions, including
matters involving tribal geography and local business. She also
supervised the selection of appointees for cabinet and other
leadership posts in the new government.
Throughout the early
1920s Bell was an integral part of the administration of Iraq. The
new Hashemite monarchy used the Sharifian flag, which consisted of a
black stripe representing the Abbasid caliphate, white stripe
representing the Umayyad caliphate, and a green stripe for Fatimid
Dynasty, and lastly a red triangle to set across the three bands
symbolising Islam. Bell felt it essential to customise it for Iraq by
adding a gold star to the design. Faisal was crowned king of Iraq
on 23 August 1921, but he was not completely welcomed. Utilizing
Shi'ite history to gain support for Faisal, during the holy month of
Muharram, Bell compared Faisal's arrival in Baghdad to Husayn,
grandson of Muhammad.
However, she did not
find working with the new king to be easy: "You may rely upon
one thing — I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too
great a strain.
returned to Britain in 1925, and found herself facing family problems
and ill health. Her family's fortune had begun to decline due to the
onset of post-World War I worker strikes in Britain and economic
depression in Europe. She returned to Baghdad and soon developed
pleurisy. When she recovered, she heard that her younger half brother
Hugh had died of typhoid.
On 12 July 1926,
Bell was discovered dead, of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills.
There is much debate on her death, but it is unknown whether the
overdose was an intentional suicide or accidental since she had asked
her maid to wake her.
She was buried at
the British cemetery in Baghdad's Bab al-Sharji district. Her
funeral was a major event, attended by large numbers of people
including her colleagues, British officials and the King of Iraq. It
was said King Faisal watched the procession from his private balcony
as they carried her coffin to the cemetery