The story of Lawrence of Arabia's Sunderland mother - legendary hero’s mum was a hat maker from Monkwearmouth
The remarkable life of Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, was so epically eventful that it could easily have been made into a Hollywood blockbuster. In fact it was.
A legend is born
TE Lawrence was born in Gwynedd in North Wales on August 16, 1888. His father was Sir Thomas Chapman, an old Etonian whose wealthy family owned huge amounts of land in Ireland.
In 1873 Thomas married Edith Sarah Hamilton with whom he had four daughters. Edith became an increasingly unbearable presence and Thomas’ eye was caught by Sarah Junner, who had come to work at the Chapmans’ home as a governess in 1879.
It is not known exactly when Thomas and Sarah began their affair, but by 1885 she was pregnant.
“Affair” is a somewhat inadequate noun here. They would eventually have five sons of which TE Lawrence was the second (two others were stillborn, while another only survived for a few hours). But they would never marry, although Thomas Chapman did leave his wife. Eventually.
Chapman continued to live at home for some time while also seeing Sarah and their first child, Robert Lawrence. But Mrs Chapman finally rumbled them and delivered an ultimatum. Her or me.
Thomas chose Sarah and, although it must have been hard for him to leave his four girls, from what we can ascertain of his wife’s “difficult” characteristics (ie. she was horrendous) we can understand his choice. Sarah could make him smile; something his wife would never be accused of.
The five Lawrence brothers were born in five different countries. Their parents moved constantly to avoid the ignominy of not being married. That aside, the Lawrence boys had a very typically Victorian, religious childhood. They were well educated and TE would read history at Oxford.
Sarah’s life and Sunderland background
The family as a whole was not, by the standards of the day, voraciously addicted to wedding cake. Sarah Junner was herself born illegitimate, on August 31, 1861 in Sunderland.
As Junner is rather an unusual surname (if you know any Junners they may well be related to Lawrence of Arabia) we can be reasonably sure from the 1861 census that she was born, or at least lived at, number 14 Hamilton Street.
The street is now long gone, but we understand it was in Monkwearmouth.
(There is something about Monkwearmouth and mothers with famous sons in this period. In the 1850s Butch Cassidy’s mother lived in Dundas Street.)
Sarah’s father, John Lawrence, was Welsh. Her mother, Elizabeth Junner, was Scottish. The census also shows that Elizabeth Junner was then a servant in the household of someone called Thomas Lawrence, who was a Lloyd’s surveyor.
His son, John Lawrence is generally supposed to have been Sarah’s biological father and therefore TE Lawrence’s grandfather (Sarah was also the name of John Lawrence's mother and one of his sisters too).
Sarah Junner would appropriate the surname.
In those days it was far easier for Sarah to share her father’s, rather than mother’s surname. Even more so in her case as her single mother died an alcoholic.
Sarah’s maternal grandmother, Jane Junner, was also born in Monkwearmouth, in about 1813.
When the 1881 Scotland census was taken, it showed that Sarah Junner was by then 19 and known as Sarah Lawrence, living in Inverness at the home of an uncle, George Junner, and working as a milliner.
It is worth reiterating at this point that the mother of the great Lawrence of Arabia ... was a hat maker from Monkwearmouth.
Furthermore, he was known to his family as Ned. Hollywood moguls later decided that the working title Ned Lawrence: the Hat Maker’s Lad lacked the requisite exotic touch for their movie posters.
Her later life
When TE Lawrence’s unmarried parents began having children, they went to live in Dublin as “Mr and Mrs” Chapman. When their scandalous life became common knowledge, the Lawrences, as they then called themselves, moved to Wales where their celebrated second son was born.
Despite the outrage caused by their relationship, Thomas, who was 15 years older than Sarah, became a baronet in 1914 and died in 1919 at the height of his son’s exploits.
Sarah, the dominant figure in the family, would later travel to China as a missionary with her eldest son Robert when she was 70. She returned to England in 1935 after her more famous son had been killed in a motorcycle crash in Dorset aged 46.
Sarah Lawrence died in 1959 in Oxford where she is buried alongside Thomas. She was 98.
In 1962 Peter O’Toole gave an Oscar nominated performance for the title role in Lawrence of Arabia, based partly on Lawrence’s semi-autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Neither of Lawrence’s parents are depicted in the film.
The movie is not entirely historically inaccurate, but Lawrence is portrayed about as heroically as any real life figure has ever been on screen (for a start O’Toole was nine inches taller than Lawrence).
Wearsiders might feel that his mother is more conspicuous by her absence. Perhaps the producers couldn’t find anyone who could adequately portray her.
There is an ill-founded rumour that Elizabeth Taylor, having signed up to a major role elsewhere, was kicking herself for missing out on playing Sarah Lawrence.
The plum role of a hat maker from Monkwearmouth would never be hers, so she had to make do with Cleopatra. Or so the almost certainly invented story goes.
By curious coincidence Peter O’Toole was a huge supporter of Sunderland AFC. It is not known exactly why, although we do know that he was a very heavy drinker.