The Cheshire Mystery of Lawrence of Arabia
What was the secret behind his visit to a Northwich shipyard?

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 O’Toole 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 Churchill.

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 years later.

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 Yarwood’s and whilst in Northwich he stayed at the local Crown & Anchor pub.

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 Yarwood’s as well. Fortunately no-one gave him away and the journalists did not discover his visit until after he had left Cheshire.

Because of Lawrence’s 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 Lawrence’s 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 Lloyd’s 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 George’s telegram to his brother, said: “Your brother’s 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.”