Many of us will have heard of Lawrence of Arabia: a figure in flowing white robes, mysterious, a legned to some.
Some of us will also know that T E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, died as a result of a motorcycle crash in May 1935. He was aged just 46.
While he will be always associated with the deserts of the Middle East, Lawrence also spent time in Yorkshire, and was in ‘God’s own county’ a matter of weeks before his early demise.
But his 1935 visit to Yorkshire was not his first. After serving in the Army during World War One, Lawrence joined the RAF in 1922. He was posted to the RAF Bridlington Marine Detachment Unit in 1932, and returned to the seaside town between November 1934 and February 1935. He also visited Hornsea on several occasions during those years, staying in White Cottage in the town, which has a blue plaque ‘marking the spot’.
His final stint in Bridlington commenced on 15th November, when he supervised the winter overhaul of ten fast launches, which included five armoured boats and five seaplane tenders. He stayed at the Ozone Hotel (now the somewhat altered Royal Yorkshire Yacht Club premises) located at the convergence of Windsor Crescent and West Street.
His billet was situated on the middle floor of the hotel’s distinctive turret tower, a single bedroom overlooking the North Sea. Lawrence’s modest quarters consisted of a bed, wardrobe, dressing table and an open coal fire. His notorious Brough Superior motorcycle was housed in a small garage to the rear of the hotel, whose landlady was Mrs Hilda Blanchard, helped by her husband and two children. Lawrence referred to Mrs Blanchard as his ‘Bridlington mother’. It has been suggested that Lawrence rode his Brough at break-neck speed along The Promenade.
While Lawrence wrote prosaically about his time in Arabia, his had mixed feelings about Bridlington. His 1932 visit was during the busy summer season, but a letter written on 28th November 1934 described the town as ‘a silent place, where cats and landladies’ husbands walk gently down the middles [sic] of the street. I prefer the bustle of summer …’
Perhaps the quiet atmosphere prompted Lawrence to get away from Bridlington and ride his motorcycle around Yorkshire. He visited York, Skipsea, Hull, Beverley, Goole and No Man’s Land, and it is likely he also paid visits to Whitby and Scarborough.
Ever the bookworm, Lawrence particularly liked Leo Walmsley’s works, who wrote about Robin Hoods Bay (Bramblewick) in his novels. Lawrence enjoyed Walmsley’s descriptions, about which he notes: ‘these coastal sketches … are charming …’
Another literary celebrity of the time was Osbert Sitwell, whose family once resided in Scarborough. Osbert wrote of Lawrence: “… for all his parade of ordinariness, for all his vanity, which led him to believe that he possessed such powers and would make the world safe only if he were not in a position to exert them, for all the perky banality of the mask he wore, it would have been impossible not to like him, or not to realise, even though you did not understand, his remarkable qualities …”
Yet Bridlington served Lawrence well. His desire to ‘back into the limelight’ meant he dreaded (yet paradoxically appeared to relish) the publicity spotlight and for the most part, Lawrence time in the town helped him avoid the press. When word got out about Lawrence’s impending retirement from the RAF (due at the end of February 1935), he decided to say farewell to Bridlington on 26th February. His final week in the town was a busy one: he attended a showing of Cecil B. DeMille’s film Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert and he saw John Galsworthy’s play Windows at the Spa Theatre. He had his final known photograph taken as he leant against the harbour wall the day before his departure. He wore his sports jacket, scarf and flannel trousers, and sat atop his trusty bicycle, which he rode all the way to his home, Clouds Hill in Dorset.
On Monday 13th May, Lawrence mounted his Brought Superior for the last time. On his return to Clouds Hill from nearby Bovington Camp, sometime between 11.25am and 11.45am, he encountered two pedal cyclists on a narrow stretch of road. He performed an emergency stop, which resulted in Lawrence being catapulted off his vehicle, sustaining fatal injuries. He gradually deteriorated and on Sunday 19th May, he passed away at about 8.30am.
Bridlington today still remembers Lawrence: The Lawrence Complex on the harbour side was built in 1993 on the site of the workshops of number 21 Air Sea Rescue Unit, near which there was a cafe Lawrence used to visit frequently; a sundial commemorates Lawrence’s connection with Bridlington. You will find it in the South Cliff Gardens, a fitting tribute perhaps, given ‘El Aurens’ spent many months under a blazing, hot sun.