Gertrude Bell: at home in Yorkshire and Iraq

Gertrude Bell in Yorkshire and Iraq

East Rounton church hosts a memorial window to Gertrude Bell, inscibed in the languages of both her homes in Yorkshire and Iraq

East Rounton church hosts a memorial window to Gertrude Bell, inscibed in the languages of both her homes in Yorkshire and Iraq

Getrude Bell was a remarkable woman who was equally at home in Yorkshire and Iraq. She died in Iraq in 1926, and now, wild woods are reclaiming her Yorkshire home in East Rounton. The trees conceal the remains of a once magnificent mansion house, her beloved garden, and scenes of passion for Gertrude, dubbed ‘Queen of the Desert’.

Her family were wealthy industrialists, with ironworks on the banks of the nearby river Tees. On Teesside, ironstone from North Yorkshire met coal from Durham and created fabulous wealth.

Arts and Crafts Architecture at East Rounton


East Rounton Village Hall by George Jack

East Rounton Village Hall by George Jack

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Gertrude’s Grandfather, Sir Lowthian Bell, and Gertrude’s father, Sir Hugh Bell, commissioned noted Arts and Crafts architects to build Rounton Grange, and the houses of the surrounding village of East Rounton.


Into this wealthy family, in 1868, arrived Gertrude. Her mother died when she was an infant, but she enjoyed a happy relationship with her stepmother, Lady Florence Bell.

Gertrude the pioneer

Gertrude grew up in the Victorian era, when educating women was considered risky: it was alleged that it made them infertile. However, Gertrude went to the newly-founded Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University.


Here, under huge pressure not to bring disrepute to the venture, women were segregated in lectures and chaperoned when they went out. This, however, did not stop Gertrude from correcting an examiner during her finals – ‘but with such good grace, that no-body minded,’ reported a fellow student. Gertrude graduated with a First.


After graduating, a woman of Gertrude’s class would have been expected to do the ‘debutante season’ in London, get married, and embark upon a career of household managemen, social hostessing, child-rearing, and charity work.


But Gertrude was different. She was restless. She had a thirst for adventure. So she went travelling.


At first she was accompanied by Father, brother, or cousin. Later, she went alone.


She began in Europe. She went mountaineering in Switzerland; she went to Italy; she met archaeologists in Greece. She went on two around the world journeys – conveniently taking in the Delhi Durbar to celebrate the accession of King Edward VII.


But it was the deserts of Arabia that captured her heart.

Queen of the Desert

After visiting an uncle who was Ambassodor in Tehran in 1892, Gertrude studied Arabic and Persian, and spent the rest of her life travelling in Syria, Palestine, Anatolia (now Turkey) and the Arabian peninsula.


She learned archaeology, cartography and photography, and recorded the remains of Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Assyrian archaeolgy. Her records of Bronze age remains in Mesopotamia, along the Tigris and Euphrates, are priceless, as a century of earthquake, flood, war and weather has damaged or destroyed many of these old buildings. More are being destroyed by the current wars.

Home in East Rounton

Between travels, Gertrude returned to East Rounton, where she wrote books and took a keen interest in local life. She brought home a Cedar of Lebanon to plant on the lawn, and made the gardens into one of the horticultural showpieces of Northern England.


She helped her stepmother with welfare work. The Bells were considered enlightened employers at the time, and Lady Bell published a study of the lives of the families of Teesside’s iron workers. Gertrude helped her with the research.


Despite Gertrude’s own pioneering activities, she opposed the Suffragette’s cause of Votes for Women. Gertrude felt so strongly, that in 1912, she actually organised an anti-suffragette rally in Middlesbrough. She was against militancy, but she also thought that most women were too naive to be trusted with the vote.


However, in later years, Gertrude did campaign for education for women in Iraq.

Desert Archaeology

On her travels around the archaeology of the Middle East, Gertrude would visit local tribal leaders. Having learned the languages, she was able to chat, and she clearly felt at home in both the mens’ and the womens’ quarters.


She records, on one occasion, “Back into the desert, met another Shaik, Fahad Bey: I alighted at his tents and claimed his hospitality. He treated me with fatherly kindness……” Fahad proved an ally to the British later on.


On another occasion, she discussed veiling with a woman. Gertrude herself stuck to her western dress, taking a keen interest in fashion and forever sending home for this or that piece of clothing. She once declared that the ideal garb for the desert was a ‘cotton gown and a fur coat’: the gown for the hot days, the fur coat for the cold nights.

War work

East Rounton War Memorial and village hallWhen the Great War broke out in 1914, Gertrude volunteered for the Red Cross. While her stepmother ran a Red Cross hospital in the village hall at East Rounton, Gertrude was sent to France, to work informing families of the losses of their men.


She soon ended up in the London office, where she reorganised the system to make it work better.


But in 1915, she was called up by British Intelligence, and sent to an office in Cairo: her intimate knowledge of the desert and its tribes were wanted.


The lands that Gertrude had roamed, studying their archaeology and making friends with the inhabitants, were, at that time, part of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, it was now enemy territory. Furthermore, oil had been discovered there, and oil was wanted for the British Navy. Gertrude was to advise on who – and how – native peoples might act to the benefit of Britain.

Government Adviser

When the war was over, the Ottoman Empire was defeated, and the lands were carved up into new States. While the politicians negotiated, Gertrude advised them.


Not all her advice was taken – there were other political considerations too. Today, we might wish that more consideration had been given to her advice: she knew the local tribes better than the European politicians who had the final say in the disposition of the lands.

Home in Iraq

Gertrude was particularly fond of one of the new states, Iraq. She became an administator for its new Head of State, King Faisal. She took a house by the river in Baghdad, and had English flowers shipped over to make a garden.


She was made Honorary Director of Antiquities, and had the delicate task of deciding who got the artefacts: the British, who saw them as spoils of war; the Germans, who had done most of the pre-war archaeology, or the Iraqis, in whose lands they were discovered. She founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, now the National Museum of Iraq.


Gertrude never married. Her first love died of illness, her second, a married man with whom she had a passionate affair, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915.


But her ‘baby’ was Iraq; the new country which she helped to create, which she loved dearly, and where she ended her days in 1926.


She died of an overdose of painkillers. Suicide or accident, no-one knows. Friends like to remember her as a contemporary from Oxford, Janet Hogarth, described her:. “She was, I think, the most brilliant creature who ever came amongst us, the most alive at every point, with her timeless energy, her splendid vitality, her unlimited capacity for work, for talk, for play.”


Her legacy in Iraq lives on, and deep in the woods at East Rounton, a Cedar of Lebanon, brought to Yorkshire by Gertrude, is a living link to the woman who was at home in both Yorkshire and Iraq.



Read more about Gertrude Bell in the February 2016 issue of Dalesman Magazine


See Newcastle University’s Gertrude Bell archive

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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