Row over London 'trying to claim' Sunderland explorer Gertrude Bell as heroic women honoured with blue plaques

Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell
0
Have your say

Heritage chiefs have been accused of trying to claim a Sunderland hero with strong North East roots for London.

Gertrude Bell, an explorer, diplomat, writer and archaeologist, was one of the most prominent and influential women of her day.

The heroic historical figure, who was played by Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert, the 2015 biographical drama about her life, was born in Washington in 1868 to a wealthy family who made their fortune in iron.

Now English Heritage has been accused of claiming the North East hero for London by planning a blue plaque in the capital for her as part of a drive to honour more women from history.

Graham Best, who has written a biography of Bell, has said: “She didn’t really have anything to do with Londonapart from her grandmother living there in a lovely house in Cadogan Square,” he said. “Is this a case of cultural appropriation?”

Related: New play celebrates the life of remarkable Washington woman who advised Winston Churchill


Mr Best, who was speaking to The Guardian, said: "“The thing with Gertrude Bell is that everyone is trying to appropriate her as a person. She is deeply misunderstood.”

There are already blue plaques for Bell at her place of birth in Washington, and at Red Barns in Redcar where she later called home. Best said another plaque is not needed in London's Knightsbridge at the home where she stayed from time to time.

A hero of her day, Bell became the first woman to gain a first class degree in modern history from Oxford University. But her achievements by no means stopped there.

She became an explorer, travel writer, archaeologist, diplomat and had a hand in politics, with her language skills and knowledge of people and places proving invaluable as she was called in to help Winston Churchill as the future of the Middle East was discussed.

Related: Gertrude Bell’s love letters go on show



During the First World War, her experiences of Mesopotamia saw her assist British intelligence, including working with TE Lawrence - the famed Lawrence of Arabia.

At the end of the war she focused on the future of the country, playing a part in the creation of the Iraqi state as the Ottoman Empire was dismantled following the First World War.

Her love of archaeology kept her in the country, where she was honorary director of its antiquities and founded the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, She died in the city in 1926, aged 57, after an overdose of sleeping tablets - which it was never established whether it was accidental.

Her funeral was a major event, attended by large numbers of people including her colleagues, British officials and the King of Iraq.

English Heritage told The Guardian it was still to get official permission from the London building's owners for the new plaque to Gertrude Bell, but the tribute had already been signed off by its own panel of experts. The plaque is expected to happen in 2019.

The organisation said the blue plaque scheme was designed to celebrate notable people and their connections to London buildings, and commemorated many who have lived in other parts of the country and other countries.

It said Bell was a figure of international renown and is commemorated in various locations across England and as far afield as Iraq.

Howard Spencer, senior historian at English Heritage, said: “When considering anyone for a blue plaque, English Heritage undertakes extensive research on that person’s achievements and their connections with London buildings. This is then reviewed by the independent experts who make up the blue plaques panel.

“In the case of Bell, the London address selected was a family home where she stayed regularly, and with which she was associated for over 40 years.”