Cheshire Mystery of Lawrence of Arabia
What was the secret behind his visit to a Northwich
One of the most enigmatic figures associated with the 20th century
was Lawrence of Arabia a man whose entire life, and
death, was shrouded in mystery. He is, of course, most famously
remembered as the British soldier who incredibly organised an Arab
revolt against the Turks during the First World War, an escapade
which was later turned into a major award-winning film with Peter
OToole cast in the starring role.
What happened to Lawrence (his full name was Thomas
Edward Lawrence), after his exploits in Arabia, came to be the subject
of much controversy over the years. Was he a spy, or simply an embarrassment
to the British government ? Was his death in 1935 an accident, or
was he assassinated as he rode a powerful motorbike near to his
home, Clouds Hill, in Dorset ?
Whatever the truth, he was the stuff of legend and more has probably
been written about him in Britain than any other man, save Winston
So how was it that Lawrence of Arabia, under the psuedonym,
Aircraftsman T.E.Shaw, came to work in Cheshire for a brief period
in 1934 ?
The answer is, no-one knows for certain, even now almost seventy
The only sure fact is that Lawrence turned up at W.J.Yarwood &
Sons, Shipbuilders of Northwich, apparently to oversee the fitting
out, for the Air Ministry, of H.M.S. Auxiliary Aquarius,
the most up-to-date vessel of her type.
Lawrence was one of a team of three from the Air Ministry at Yarwoods
and whilst in Northwich he stayed at the local Crown & Anchor
A quiet man, introspective and shy, and having been hounded by the
press he was anxious to keep his identity secret, though of course
he was instantly recognised by the landlord and one or two workmen
at Yarwoods as well. Fortunately no-one gave him away and
the journalists did not discover his visit until after he had left
Because of Lawrences involvement, many theories have been
put forward, and embroidered, about the Aquarius, the
most popular that it was trialling top-secret radar tests. However,
in 1934 this would have been highly improbable.
Another was that the Aquarius was conducting highly
secret research in ASDIC, named after the 1917 Allied Submarine
Detection Investigation Committee.
The most likely reason was as a result of an incident whilst he
was stationed at a flying boat base in Plymouth Sound. A flying
boat crashed into the water and the Admirality tenders were so heavy
and slow that by the time they got to the wreckage, nine of the
twelve crew had drowned.
As he had influence in high places, Colonel Lawrence persuaded the
Air Ministry to allow him to pursue research, in conjunction with
the British Power Boat Company, of Southampton, who built prototypes.
These Lawrence tested himself.
Production was sub-contracted to a number of small shipyards around
the country, one of which was W.J.Yarwood & Sons, of Northwich.
As the design was unfamiliar it was Lawrences job to travel
round the country giving advice, hence his presence in Cheshire.
Lawrence remained in Northwich for about three weeks and then stayed
on board the Aquarius during the acceptance trials on
the Mersey, after which she sailed to Davenport, Plymouth. After
taking on board stores and special equipment, Aquarius
then made her 9,000-mile maiden voyage to Singapore, to serve as
a depot ship for flying boats.
Unfortunately there was to be a tragic ending for Aquarius.
When Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15th, 1942, she
escaped and was endeavouring to make for a friendly port, believed
to be Darwin, in Australia.
To quote from Lloyds War Losses for World War II - about
14 February 1942, Aquarius was sunk near the Tjibea
Islands, north of Banka, off the south east coast of Sumatra, on
board were 60 to 70 persons, of which only 3 survived the loss of
the Aquarius and these also died subsequently.
As for Lawrence of Arabia, his death was universally
mourned in 1935.
King Georges telegram to his brother, said: Your brothers
name will live in history. Churchill wrote: In Colonel
Lawrence we have lost one of the greatest beings of our time. I
had the honour of his friendship.
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