The First ‘Multi-Media’ Show? Lawrence of Arabia in Surbiton

Many people with an interest in imperial history are familiar with the life and wartime career of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), mainly through the famous epic feature film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The smash-hit and critically acclaimed movie starred the late Peter O’Toole as the enigmatic British officer who helped create and organise the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War One. Character actor Jack Hawkins was equally memorable as his tough but fair-minded commanding officer, General Allenby, who had strongly supported Lawrence’s campaign, despite initial reservations.


Although wonderfully entertaining and surprisingly accurate in some key ways, the film – directed by David Lean and with a screenplay by the famous playwright Robert Bolt – inevitably cut corners and embellished aspects of T.E. Lawrence’s wartime story, mainly in order to synthesise and convey the main events of the Arab revolt on the big screen for the entertainment of 1960s cinemagoers.

Importantly, one can argue that the 1962 movie in turn was clearly influenced by the powerful image of Lawrence (see photo) that had been developed during the 1920s and 1930s by the American journalist Lowell Thomas (1892-1981), who had spent some time with the quiet and mysterious Englishman in the desert, and had witnessed some of the daring ‘hit and run’ guerilla warfare employed behind Turkish lines by Lawrence and his small army of Arab fighters.

In fact, in many ways, Thomas was instrumental in crafting all the eye-catching and glamorous iconography that came to be associated with Lawrence: indeed, the American helped launch and build the Lawrence ‘legend’ when he personally presented a post-war show called With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, which some commentators have termed the first ‘multi-media’ show. This show was seen by many thousands of people in New York and London in 1919-20 and, when it went ‘on the road’, it was estimated that the show was eventually seen by up to 3 million people in the English-speaking world between 1919-1924. According to his biographers, it was also seen by Lawrence himself at least five times, who sat in anonymously with London audiences, unrecognised by the public in the dark auditorium. Lawrence grew increasingly uneasy about the show, however, and began to complain to his friends that Thomas had ‘made me a kind of matinee idol’.

Lawrence with Lowell Thomas

Thomas (pictured here with Lawrence in a post-war pose) combined cinefilm with photos and orchestral music, and his personal narrative was expertly synchronised with the imagery and live music. He started the show with the words ‘Come with me to the lands of mystery, history and romance’, and audiences were evidently entranced by the ‘glamour’ and sheer scale of the Lawrence story, especially compared to the bleak imagery that had emerged from the recent bloody fighting on the Western Front. In a Britain thirsty for individual heroes, Lawrence appeared to meet all the criteria. The show made Thomas almost as famous as Lawrence; it also made Thomas large sums of money, and versions of the show, hosted by other speakers and using the cinefilm Thomas had shot of Lawrence during the wartime desert campaign, were taken on tour around Britain in the early 1920s, including in the Thames Valley area.

Interestingly, Kingston had already had a taste of the Lawrence ‘legend’ when, in February, 1921, Captain Laurence M. Gotch, who had served as a Topographical Officer on General Allenby’s staff in Egypt and Palestine (and had met Lawrence in the war), gave what the local press called ‘a thrilling narrative’ of the achievements of Lawrence in an illustrated lecture given to members of the Kingston Congregational Church Guild. According to the Surrey Comet, Captain Gotch ‘painted a fine picture’ of Lawrence as ‘a man of exceptional abilities’.

Surbiton Assembly Rooms today

This enthusiastic version of Lawrence as the great ‘Uncrowned King of Arabia’ was reinforced a few months later, in October, 1921, when a version of With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia ran for three days at Surbiton Assembly Rooms at the bottom of Surbiton Hill (see recent photo). Lowell Thomas’s cinefilm was combined with a special travel talk, called ‘The Lowell Thomas Travelogues’, presented by William A. Courtney, who had served in the war with the RAF in the Middle East.

This event at the Assembly Rooms proved to be very popular with local people in Surbiton and Kingston, and the show was taken to other parts of south-west London, where it also attracted large numbers of people and saw high ticket sales. The local newspapers in the suburbs of London were extremely complimentary about the show and about the details of the life of Lawrence, who was presented as a great ‘imperial’ hero. Ironically, this greatly troubled Lawrence himself, who felt that both Britain and France had actually reneged on the original promises Lawrence had made to the Arabs in 1917.

Thomas also allowed versions of his show to be put on in many other towns and cities across Britain. For Lawrence himself, however, this was more and more of a problem, to the point where he simply wanted to retreat from public life and ‘disappear’ into the background.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)





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Upcoming Talk at Kingston University: ‘The French Revolution: Terror, Conspiracy and the Guillotine’

Kingston University History Research Seminar Series

Dr. Marisa Linton

Associate Professor of History at Kingston University and a leading international expert on all aspects of the French Revolution, will be speaking on:

 The French Revolution: Terror, Conspiracy and the Guillotine’ 


Tuesday, 10th October, 2017, 17.00-19.00pm


Room JG1007,

Penrhyn Road campus, Kingston University


Many of the ideas and ideologies that are central to the way we see the modern political world today first came about as a consequence of the French Revolution. The words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ were first coined to describe the violence of the French Revolutionaries. The fear of ‘conspiracy’ by political opponents was a key feature of revolutionary politics. The Revolutionaries themselves were also subject to terror. As well as meting out a legalised form of terror, they too were vulnerable to the laws enabling terror. As a consequence, many French Revolutionaries themselves lost their heads under the guillotine.

Dr. Marisa Linton, Associate Professor of History at Kingston University, and an international research specialist on the French Revolution, has given many invited talks on the Revolution, including in the USA, France, Canada, Australia, Germany and Norway. Do take this opportunity to hear her speak at Kingston.

All are very welcome to attend! Free refreshments will be provided.

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Red Scare: Surbiton and Fears of Bolshevism

One hundred years ago this October (depending upon which version of the calendar one uses) the Bolshevik party under Lenin achieved a dramatic seizure of power in Russia, a coup d’etat which sent a chill of fear across much of Europe, including in Britain.

In the immediate years following 1917, numerous anti-Bolshevik meetings were held across the country (including in the south-west London area), where Russian refugees or other speakers gave gloomy accounts of what had happened in the former Czarist Empire, and offered dire warnings about what could befall Britain and its Empire if people did not ‘wake up’ to the growing Communist menace, and to the possibility of a Russian-style revolution occurring here.

Surbiton Assembly Rooms today

A typical example of this occurred in Surbiton in February, 1920, and careful exploration of local newspaper coverage can help piece the full details together. Held under the auspices of the new ‘Middle Classes Union’ (MCU), an organisation founded in 1919 to protect the middle classes from Socialism, strikes and general working-class agitation, a lecture on ‘The Bolshevik Terror’ was given in the large hall of the Surbiton Assembly Rooms (see recent photo) by Mr. George Curnock, who was described in the local press as a ‘well-known London journalist’.

Presided over by Mr. George Curnock, a ‘large and deeply interested audience’ listened to Curnock for an hour and a half while he described the ‘men and forces’ which, he claimed, were trying to bring Bolshevism to England, and also dealt with various aspects of life in Russia under the new Soviet regime. In what was called a series of ‘vivid pictures’, the lecturer showed to the audience the ‘type of men’ who advocated Bolshevism in Russia and the methods they had adopted to deal ‘with those who do not agree with them’.

Curnock also dwelt upon what he alleged was the strong relationship between the Bolshevists in Russia and their ‘admirers and would-be imitators’ in Britain. The revolutionary Socialism of today, he argued, was the Communism of Karl Marx, who had taught the working-man to look upon his employer as an ‘active enemy’ instead of a friend. Moreover, in Curnock’s estimation, all Communists were confirmed students of Karl Marx, whether they were found in Russia as Bolshevists, or in England ‘as alleged leaders of British labour’.


London, said Curnock, had in recent years shielded several men, including Peter the Painter, one of the Sydney Street anarchists from a well-known siege in 1911, and other men who had since gone on to directly join Lenin and Trotsky in Russia. Revolution, Curnock told his Surbiton Assembly Room audience,  had not yet been stirred up in England, ‘but it behoved all who loved their country to be prepared to defend it against the vile forces of revolution and anarchy’, forces which, ‘in the the name of Bolshevism or Communism or in some other guise’, would – if they were not watchful – ‘throw Britain into the abyss in which Russia was already sinking…’.

Princess Bariatinsky

A few months later, the local Middle Classes Union organised another anti-Bolshevik event in the form of an open air fete, held at Raven’s Ait on the River Thames (‘by kind permission of Kingston Rowing Club’), which is just a ten-minute walk away from the Assembly Rooms. Guest of honour at the event was Princess Bariatinsky (1871-1921), an aristocratic refugee from Russia.

Bariatinsky (see photo) had been a famous theatre actress and socialite in Czarist Russia, who had taken the stage-name of Lydia Yavorska, and eventually became a staunch critic of the Bolsheviks and their revolution. The new Communist regime had issued an arrest warrant for her, but the Princess had made a daring escape from Russia before they could detain her.

After music from a band heralded her arrival at the Raiven’s Ait event, and she was introduced to local members of the MCU, the Princess spoke of her experiences in Soviet Russia. She read a letter which she said she had just received from her brother, which had informed her of his wife’s death of typhus in a Russian prison. The condition of the people in Russia, the Princess said, ‘under Lenin’s savage and inhuman rule was simply appalling’, it being the ‘most merciless tyranny ever recorded in history’, a situation which she had personally escaped from. An account of her escape, she said, was about to appear in a journal.

Local members of the MCU continued to highlight their concerns about Socialism and Bolshevism for the rest of 1920, often seeking to link the new Labour Party in Surbiton and Kingston with the ‘Red Peril’ posed by Bolshevik Russia and its agents. In October, 1920, Mr. A. P. Crouch, the Hon. Secretary of the Kingston Branch of the MCU, penned a letter to the Surrey Comet newspaper in which he claimed that the Labour Socialists were ‘out for the nationalisation of everything’. Nationalisation in Russia, he warned, had ‘spelt absolute chaos’. He added: ‘We do not want the same result in England’.

In fact, the Bolshevik Revolution remained a useful ideological weapon for organisations such as the MCU, whose activists in Surrey and elsewhere remained markedly keen to always link the Soviet regime to all industrial unrest, or indeed any other signs of discontent, in the Britain of the 1920s.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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A New Side to Clement Attlee? Fresh evidence from British archives

The image of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee in the historiography has often been one of a shy, rather reserved but efficient individual, who was primarily interested in carefully planned domestic reform in post-war Britain, but also had notable distrust of Communists in the country, especially as the ‘Cold War’ developed.

NPG x45166; Clement Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee by Vivienne

New archival evidence appears to suggest a new side to the Labour Prime Minister, who died 50 years ago this October – he was even more virulent in his anti-Communism than historians had previously assumed.

Various biographers of Attlee had been aware of his opposition to Communist activities and his firm support for tough counter-measures, and a number of intriguing pieces of new evidence have emerged in recent years that reinforced this. For example, in 2009, previously top secret papers released at the National Archives in Kew, south-west London, showed that Attlee’s government was on the verge of introducing controversial legislation which would have equipped the Home Secretary with extensive new powers to ban British subjects going abroad. This would have included Communist Party members who were of interest to the State.

However, according to a new article by Dr. Dan Lomas, published in the latest edition of BBC History magazine (October, 2017), Attlee – who was Deputy to Winston Churchill in the wartime Coalition government (1940-45), and then served as British Labour Premier from 1945 to 1951 – was not only keen to deal decisively with any signs of Communist activity at home in Britain, but was also prepared to allow the extensive employment of sabotage, subversion and bribery by the British intelligence services in the countries of the Communist Eastern Bloc.

Clement Attlee

Dr. Lomas’s article is a companion to a recent similar article written by him for History Today magazine (September, 2017), and also provides readers with a great summary of some of the findings that he set forth in more detail in his recent critically well-received book Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments (Manchester University Press, 2016).

In his BBC History piece, Lomas refers to British Intelligence operations in Albania in particular. Attlee, for example, gave his full backing to ‘Operation Valuable’, an Anglo-American mission which was very much the brainchild of MI6, Britain’s foreign espionage service (otherwise known as the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS). In 1949, a team of well-armed anti-Communists, who had been trained in sabotage and subversion skills on the British-held island of Malta, was secretly inserted by MI6 into Albania’s Karaburun Peninsula. Not only were they tasked with setting up a network of insurrectionists within Albania, but their long-term objective was to bring about the overthrow of the Albanian Communist dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-1985). In other words, engineer either a coup d’état or a mass uprising.

In fact, Attlee’s post-war enthusiasm for employing intelligence and subversion to combat Communism was strongly present even earlier in his career and, despite being on the Left of the political spectrum, he ‘harboured a hatred of Communism’, an attitude he still held when he was Deputy PM in the war. This came to the fore when he became Labour Prime Minister in July, 1945. Although Attlee’s government was initially committed to the maintenance of friendly relations with the Soviet Union (USSR), the new Prime Minister became more and more alarmed by British intelligence reports about ‘subversion, sabotage and strikes’ sponsored by the USSR, and he also developed a notable distaste for British ‘fellow-travellers’ (those within the Labour movement and more generally at home who held secret Communist sympathies, including one or two of his own MPs). He was certainly very interested in the regular reports on such people provided to him by MI5, Britain’s domestic security service.

Attlee, Truman and Stalin

Looking at the wider global scene, Attlee grew to seriously dislike and even loathe Joseph Stalin, the totalitarian dictator of Russia, a figure he had distrusted during the wartime anti-Nazi Alliance between Britain, America and Russia, and whom he now saw as a very serious threat to Western post-war democracy. He also viewed Albania’s Hoxha as a similarly ruthless dictator, a kind of ‘mini-Stalin’. Indeed, it was no secret that Hoxha himself openly admired many of the policies of the Soviet leader, and arguably based his own Albanian police state, with its regular purges and brutal labour camp system, on the Stalinist model.

As Lomas notes, thanks to a range of recent document releases, historians can now see the full extent to which Attlee allowed his deep scepticism about Communism to shape secret British government policy during his time as Premier. This resulted, at first, in the creation of the ‘Information Research Department’, a highly secret branch of the Foreign Office which was responsible for mounting a major anti-Communist information offensive. Moreover, as the Cold War became even colder (and, on a number of occasions, nearly slipped into direct ‘hot’ war between East and West), Attlee became especially keen on covert operations and secret direct intervention in Communist countries, of which ‘Operation Valuable’ was a prime (but not the only) example.

Another fascinating dimension to this secret war against Stalin and the USSR involved British secret operations in Western Europe, too. According to Lomas, MI6 agents quietly buried weapons and radios across the continent to help prepare ‘stay behind’ resistance networks in case Stalin’s regime decided to mount a full-scale invasion of Western Europe.

As Lomas persuasively points out, as ‘more archive material becomes available’, so it becomes increasingly evident that there was a lot more to Clement Attlee than his role in creating the Welfare State, the National Health Service, and many new homes in post-1945 Britain. Attlee was evidently something of a Cold War warrior.

BBC History Magazine (October, 2017) is on sale now.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University.

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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Blackshirts and Women: New study looks at suffragettes who became fascists

A new pamphlet from the Bristol Radical History Group explores the appeal of interwar British fascism to a number of women who were formerly militant suffragettes. Written by Rosemary L. Caldicott, Lady BlackshirtsThe Perils of Perception – suffragettes who became fascists (2017), surveys the extent to which various women who had previously fought for emancipation took surprising new ideological directions in the aftermath of the First World War.

BUF Woem's Drum Corp, lead by Heather Bond

Caldicott’s 64-page study acknowledges in its introduction that this is ‘a peculiar conundrum’, because fascism generally brings forth images of a patriarchal, disciplined, macho force, with members wearing masculine military uniforms and showing unquestionable loyalty to a male leader (often via a ‘cult of personality’ built around such a figure). Yet, as Caldicott points out, it is estimated that at one time up to 25% of the members of the ‘British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) in this country in the 1930s were women. Moreover, the original fascist party in Britain, the ‘British Fascists’ of the 1920s (created in 1923) was founded by a woman, Miss Rotha Lintorn-Orman (1888-1935), and also saw some significant input from former feminist activists, especially in the London area and the Southern Counties of England.

Seeking to explain the context to all this, Caldicott notes: ‘This was an era when many social and political organisations were opening up to new ideas…’, and ‘some women changed their political allegiance from socialism to fascism’. Moreover, a small number of former suffragettes and feminist campaigners appear to have genuinely believed that a new fascist way of running the country might ultimately achieve better living conditions for ordinary women in society.

Norah Dacre Fox (Nora Elam)

A good example is the militant feminist Norah Dacre-Fox (1878-1961), who was later known as Norah Elam. After being imprisoned three times for her actions on behalf of women, in 1913 she had been appointed General Secretary of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). But the War evidently changed some of her views, pushing her to the right of the political spectrum.

In the 1918 General Election, she stood as an Independent candidate in the Richmond-on-Thames constituency, and included in her campaign various warnings about German ‘immigrants’ in the country. By the 1920s, she had moved towards the Conservatives, becoming chair of the Chichester branch. She then joined Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in 1934, and became the organisation’s County Women’s Officer for West Sussex (see photo).

Another example discussed by Caldicott is Mary Sophia Allen (1878-1964), former Branch Leader of the West of England Women’s Social and Political Union. Allen became Commandant of the Women Police Volunteers and, later in the interwar period, she became a speaker and propagandist for the BUF. Allen was also a keen aircraft pilot and, at one point, loaned her plane to a special flying club for BUF women members. As Caldicott observes, this did not go unnoticed by the authorities, and questions were even raised in the House of Commons, the concern being that the BUF  was enabling its own Air Defence Force.


Indeed, Caldicott has identified and discussed a notable number of women who went from feminism to fascism, and sets out some important material on how the BUF in particular set out to ‘woo’ such women. She argues that Sir Oswald Mosley (see photo from 1936), who founded the BUF in October, 1932, soon realised that the Blackshirt movement needed women to ‘politicise’ the home, the internal weapon that could convert both man and child.

Furthermore, he also needed women who were trained and already sufficiently radicalised to confront conventional, ‘mainstream’ forms of politics. Such women, he felt, would make ideal militant activists for the BUF. And former members of the WSPU and other women’s movements often met many of these requirements.

Interestingly, just six months after the launch of the BUF in 1932, the ‘Women’s Section’ was created in March, 1933, chaired by Lady Ester Makgill. Makgill was later expelled for stealing party funds, and was replaced by Mosley’s own mother, Lady Katherine Maud ‘Ma’ Mosley (1874-1948). Lady Mosley was apparently an extremely active recruiter for the BUF. Similarly, on February 28th, 1934, at Holborn in central London, the first significant BUF indoor meeting organised entirely for women was held, addressed by the Chief Women’s Officer, Anne Brock-Griggs (d. 1960), who became editor of the ‘Woman’s Page’ in the movement’s newspaper, Action. Brock-Griggs later penned a key BUF pamphlet, Women and Fascism10 Important Points (1936).


As Caldicott correctly notes, the original aim of the suffrage movement in Britain was to involve more women in politics and to secure the right to the vote. This was partly achieved, of course, in 1918. By the 1930s, however, as younger women between the age of 21 and under 30 had only been able to vote for the first time in 1929, there was still the perception that the progress of female emancipation had been too slow and limited, leaving many former suffragettes and other feminist activists disillusioned. The BUF was in the market to recruit such women and, in some cases, clearly succeeded.

Although the topic of women and British fascism has been previously covered in the work of historians such as Martin Durham, Stephen Cullen and Julie Gottlieb, Caldicott’s new pamphlet is a worthy addition to the available historiography, and offers further important detail on fascist policy towards women.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)



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Between Antiquity and Nature: The Gendered Politics of the French Revolution and Wollstonecraft in Norway

Dr. Marisa Linton, Associate Professor in History at Kingston University and one of Britain’s leading experts on the French Revolution, recently gave an invited keynote lecture for the meeting of the Norwegian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, which was held at Trondheim, Norway, from 31st August to 2nd September, 2017.

Marisa MW 1

The subject of Marisa’s talk was ‘Between Antiquity and Nature: The Gendered Politics of the French Revolution’. The venue for the conference was the beautiful Ringve Museum, Norway’s national museum of music and musical instruments, and included a special conference dinner (see photo). It was ‘a great event’, Marisa reports; her hosts were ‘very welcoming’ and the conference both intellectually stimulating and inclusive, a genuine ‘republic of letters’.

The day before the conference there was a masterclass for doctoral students, where Marisa led a session discussing Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in SwedenNorwayand Denmark. First published in 1796, Wollstonecraft’s book was both profoundly intellectual and deeply emotional. It combined her insights into the impact of the French Revolution in Scandinavia, observations on communities and customs in the places where she travelled, thoughts on the oppression of women, and deeply personal reflections on her own life. It was a journey simultaneously into what was then a remote part of Europe, and into the nature of human existence.

Marisa MW 3

The book was published by Wollstonecraft’s regular publisher in England, Joseph Johnson, and was the last text issued during her tragically short life (she died aged just 38, following complications caused by childbirth). It sold very well in the 1790s, and was praised by critics, as well as Mary’s future husband, William Godwin. The text was translated into Dutch, German, Portuguese and Swedish, and also appeared in America.

Wollstonecraft’s book produced a lively discussion in the doctoral class. In Marisa’s view, the students ‘were terrific – enthusiastic, well-informed and full of insights’. Marisa says, ‘I learned as much from the students as they did from me, and they made me see a book I thought I knew well from a different perspective. Mary Wollstonecraft would have loved it!’

Marisa Linton’s publications include Choosing TerrorVirtueFriendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013)

(Image of Wollstonecraft: WikiMedia Commons)

Marisa MW 2

Marisa with some of the Doctoral students after the masterclass

Posted in European History, Events, French History, Oxford University Press, Public History, Research, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

African Explorer: The brief but dramatic career of Joseph Moloney (1858-1896)

Being a historian is a bit like being a detective. A simple inscription on an old broken memorial led me to piece together a fascinating story about human endurance. The main cemetery in Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey contains the grave of a relatively young Irish explorer, now largely forgotten, who helped save a major expedition to the African Congo in the nineteenth century and guide it back to safety.

Dr Joseph Moloney

Joseph August Moloney (1858-1896) died at the early age of 38 of a heart problem, which his close friends and others believed was due to his experiences in Africa. Moloney (see photo) had recently returned to Kingston, after leading an expedition in 1895 to plant the British flag in territories to the west of Lake Nyassa, on behalf of the British South Africa Company.

In its story on the surprise death of Moloney, the local Surrey Comet newspaper reported that Moloney’s illness was ‘no doubt’ brought on by the privation he suffered when he was engaged as a Medical Officer (MO) on an earlier expedition to the Congo in 1891. It was this expedition, known as the ‘Stairs Expedition’, which provided me with some fascinating insights into a tale of adventure and high risk.

Moloney, who was born in Newry, Ireland, and studied medicine at Dublin University, practiced as a doctor for several years in south London. However, perhaps in search of something more challenging, he offered his services as an MO to the Stairs Expedition, which was led by a British Army Officer, William Stairs, and sponsored by Belgium. Moloney’s account of the expedition was later published in in his book With Captain Stairs to Katanga (1893), and was also outlined in a paper he gave to the prestigious Royal Geographical Society in 1893.

It is evident from this material and other archive sources that Moloney was instrumental in saving the Stairs Expedition from disaster. Captain Stairs, who had been involved in several expeditions to Africa, had obtained permission from the British War Office to command the Belgian Katanga Company Expedition (the ‘Stairs Expedition’) which, backed by the Belgian Government, left for ‘Katangaland’ in May, 1891. The Katanga territories lay at the heart of the Congo and were rich in copper deposits; as part of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ the area had seen some intense rivalry between European states but also, at certain junctures, some cooperation as well, especially between Britain and Belgium. State-sanctioned companies often employed soldiers to ruthlessly wipe out any local tribal opposition. The Katanga Company, an international syndicate, was a good example of this.

The Stairs Expedition, with Stairs as leader, Captain Bodson as second-in-command and the Marquis de Bonchamps as the third officer, also included Thomas Robinson as the carpenter and Joseph Moloney as the MO. The five Europeans were supported by a native caravan of 336. The column set off in June, 1891, marching through various territories and, on October 9th, encamped at a French mission station. From that point onwards, the Expedition took on a much more dangerous nature, passing into largely unmapped areas of mountains, tropical rain forests and crocodile-infested rivers.

Dr Moloney

At one stage, the Expedition ran out of food, while violent thunderstorms often put out the camp fires at night. After five months of marching, the Expedition encamped near Bunkeia, which was the capital of the tribal Kingdom of King Msiri. Stairs hoisted the Belgian flag to claim the area for King Leopold’s Congo Free State. However, a bungled attempt to capture King Msiri ended in the native chief being killed, while the Expedition’s second-in-command, Captain Bodson, died from wounds inflicted by Msiri’s slaves. Moloney took a major risk to retrieve Bodson’s body under fire.

Further misfortune occurred. Stairs became very ill, so it fell to Moloney to start negotiating with the local tribes and buy time, which he did successfully by concluding fifteen separate treaties. Christmas, 1891, though, brought further misery. The native porters had scoured the countryside for food but it became very clear that none was available. For the next three weeks, the Stairs Expedition had to exist on a diet (to use Moloney’s own words) of ‘leaves and grass, varied by fired locusts and ants’. Fever, hunger and desertion reduced the caravan down to 200 people. The Marquis de Bonchamps caught fever and, according to Moloney, both Stairs and Thomas Robinson also ‘lay at death’s door’.

In early February, 1892, Stairs decided that the Expedition would have to retrace their steps and try to return to the coast and to safety. This was extremely difficult because the rains had dramatically altered much of the landscape, making much of it swamp water, which they reluctantly had to wade through while the sun above took its toll. Many of the native porters died, and the four remaining Europeans were all sick with fever.

It was largely down to Moloney, who effectively took command, that the Expedition finally made it back to a Portuguese port (‘Vincenti’) on June 3rd, 1892. Shortly after this, on June 9th, Stairs died. In his memoirs, the ever-loyal Moloney was generous in his praise of Stairs, but later critics suggested that Stairs had been too brutal in his conduct towards the natives and incompetent in some of his decision-making. Moreover, when the Royal Geographical Society met in June, 1893, to hear an account of the Expedition, they decided that Moloney had been ‘the backbone of the expedition’, acting bravely under fire, using his diplomatic skills wisely and, against tremendous odds, he had managed to lead the dying men back to safety.

While care must be taken not to convert Moloney’s career into a ‘Boy’s Own’ style romantic adventure, the historical evidence suggests (to me, at least) that the modest Dr. Moloney was an astute and brave individual, who managed to show leadership in circumstances that would have defeated many other people.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

Note: Much of the above was first published in my article for Ancestors, no. 73 (2008)




Posted in African History, British history, European History, History of Medicine, Irish History, Local History, Medical History, Public History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment