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Crossing the Desert - Who was Gertrude Bell?

Posted on 21 December 2018

Of the four women to have inspired this year’s alternative Christmas show, Over the Top, the most powerful and politically influential was easily Gertrude Bell – an English writer, traveler, political officer, administrator, cartographer and archaeologist who worked predominantly in the Middle East.

Born into a wealthy and well-connected family in 1868, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell had her interest in politics and international affairs sparked young. Her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, was a Liberal MP who served during Benjamin Disraeli’s second term, and her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was a British minister (similar to an ambassador) in Tehran, Persia. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was a mill owner who also served in various governmental positions during his lifetime, and following the death of her mother early in her life, the young Gertrude became very close to her father.

Sir Hugh Bell was a progressive capitalist who believed in treating his workers well, ensuring they were fairly paid and looked after – an outlook which would come to shape Gertrude’s own politics. As well as campaigning actively for women’s education in later life, she was also held in much higher esteem by local people in the many countries she visited than the majority of her British colleagues, always treating them with the dignity and respect of equals.

Laura Tipper as Sergeant Bell

After completing her early education at Queen’s College in London, Bell went on to read History at Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall, established just a few years earlier by members of the newly formed Association for the Higher Education of Women. At the time, History was one of the few subjects women were permitted to study – and luckily Bell had a gift for it! After studying for just two years, she became the first woman to graduate from Oxford University with a First Class degree in Modern History.

Over the next few years, she travelled extensively, visiting her uncle in Persia, mountaineering in Switzerland (there is even an alpine peak, the Gertrudspitze, named after her), and becoming an expert in the regions of Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia. She soon discovered a passion for archaeology, and was also an expert linguist – fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German as well as speaking Turkish and Italian.

Following the outbreak of World War I, she requested a posting in the Middle East, which was denied, so she began the war volunteering for the Red Cross in France. However, the British Intelligence Service eventually realised their mistake, and called on her to use her extensive knowledge of the local geography and people to help soldiers navigate through the deserts. From this period until her death, she was the only woman holding direct political influence over British Imperial policy in the Middle East.

Laura Tipper and Miriam Grace Edwards as Sergeant Bell and Mickey Meade

Bell often worked closely with her rather more famous male colleague, T. E. Lawrence – a fellow Modern History graduate and fluent Arabic speaker. In November 1915, she was summoned to the nascent Arab Bureau in Cairo, where she and Lawrence worked to organise and process data about the location and disposition of Arab groups who might be encouraged to join the British campaign against the Ottoman Empire.

In March 1916, she was relocated to Basra, which had been captured by the British in November 1914. There she advised Chief Political Office Percy Cox, and drew maps to help the British army reach Baghdad safely. When she eventually received the title of Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo, she became the only female political officer in the British forces. As Field Controller to St John Philby, she also offered invaluable advice on the art of behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring.

After British troops took control of Baghdad on 10 March 1917, Bell was summoned there and given the title of “Oriental Secretary”, in which capacity she was assigned to conduct an analysis of the situation in Mesopotamia following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in 1919.

Laura Tipper as Gertrude Bell

An obituary written by D G Hogarth read, “No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”

In our alternative Christmas show, Gertrude Bell is played by Laura Tipper. You can find out more about the other real-life female heroes that inspired the show on our previous blog posts about Lena Ashwell, Lottie Meade and Edith Cavell.

Over the Top shows at the Belgrade Theatre until Saturday 29 December. Tickets are available to book now.

Over the Top full cast in finale