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  • Martin Castle

"To wake in that desert dawn was like waking in the heart of an opal."

You may remember from the post regarding T E Lawrence that it created a little conversation about Gertrude Bell so I thought I would place her in your consciousness - apologies for those who know of her already and this will be a whistle-stop tour.

She is one of a a remarkable group of women that spread themselves across the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th. Some still known, some lost in the mists of the past. Here are just some of them:

Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929). Aged just twenty-two, Millicent Garrett Fawcett began her life’s work leading a powerful campaign for women’s suffrage. Her intimate knowledge of the democratic process and her no-nonsense, rational thinking played a vital role in navigating their case through Parliament.

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 -1928) is synonymous with the British suffrage movement. Remembered as one of the bravest and most inspirational suffrage leaders in history, Emmeline founded the militant WSPU, the Suffragettes, in 1903 and campaigned fiercely for the next 11 years.

Agnes Hunt (1867-1948) is recognised as the first orthopaedic nurse, Hunt pioneered disability care when she opened a convalescent home for children in Shropshire in 1900.

Top: l-r Marie Stopes-1918; Gertrude Jekyll; Emily Murphy-c1917

Middle: l-r Janet Lane-Claypon-1907; Francesca Wilson; Beatrice Webb-c1875

Bottom: l-r Margaret Sanger; Emmeline Pankhurst-1913; Agnes Hunt

Marie Stopes (1880-1958) started as a paleobotanist but is best known as a sex education campaigner who, in 1921, opened the first family planning clinic. Her 1918 book, Married Love, advocated equality in marriage and gave detailed information on sex.

Janet Lane-Claypon (1877-1967) is one of the founders of the science of epidemiology. She pioneered the use of control studies to make public health decisions. She completed the first study of up to 500 women with breast cancer, the findings from which still inform treatments today. She also proved the health benefits of breast milk.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) probably had the most significant impact on British gardening of the past 100 years. The colourful mixed flower borders in a million English gardens are derived from her style.

Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) helped sow the seeds for what would become the welfare state, Webb's Minority Report – an economic and social study of the nation's poor – struck a powerful blow against the idea that people in poverty were to blame for their fate. Her research was the template, 30 years later, for the creation of the Welfare State.

Marie Curie (1867 – 4 July 1934) became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics. After her husband’s death in 1906, Marie took over his post, becoming the first female professor at the Sorbonne. In 1911, Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry for her discoveries of polonium and radium. To this day, Curie is the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes.

l: Millicent Fawcett;

top r: Marie Curie- 1920

bottom r: Charlotte Cooper

Margaret Sanger's (1879-1966) efforts to popularize birth control have probably materially changed more women’s lives than almost anyone else. She founded family planning clinics and in old age was a firm proponent of the birth control pill. She remains a controversial figure partly because of her stance on birth control, but also because she was a supporter of eugenics.

Emily Murphy (1868-1933) was the first woman magistrate anywhere in the British Empire. In 1927 she joined forces with four other Canadian women who sought to challenge an old Canadian law that said, "women should not be counted as persons."

Charlotte Cooper (1870-1966) reached 12 Wimbledon single finals, winning 5 of them. She was also the first individual female Olympic champion, winning the tennis gold medal in Paris 1900.

Francesca Wilson (1888-1981) a teacher from a Newcastle Quaker family who in her 'spare time' worked with refugees and their relief. In France in 1916, with Belgians, caring for wounded Serbians, feeding children in post-war Vienna and then in Russia, during the Spanish Civil War and then with Spanish and Polish refugees during and after WW2. Working for UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) she assisted displaced persons in post-war Germany. Her memoir, In the Margins of Chaos (1944) became a best-seller.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (1868–1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, and archaeologist who explored, mapped, and became highly influential due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and exerted an immense amount of power.

From her early adult years, Bell had been extremely fit, active and adventurous; plus, she was a risk taker. She was born into a wealthy family at Washington New Hall in what was then County Durham. After gaining a first-class pass in Modern History (degree equivalent) whilst attending Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford she travelled in Europe and also spent several months in Bucharest and in Tehran. Her travels continued with two round-the-world trips: one in 1897-1898 and one in 1902-1903.

Gertrude developed a love of the Arab peoples - she learned their languages, investigated their archaeological sites and travelled deep into the desert. This intimate knowledge of the country and its tribes made her a target of British Intelligence recruitment during the First World War. At the end of the war, Gertrude focussed on the future of Mesopotamia and was to become a powerful force in Iraqi politics, becoming a kingmaker when her preferred choice, Faisal (son of Husain, the Sharif of Mecca and King of the Hijaz) was crowned King of the state of Iraq in August 1921.

Gertrude Bell & T E Lawrence during the 1921 Cairo Conference

Gertrude's first love remained archaeology and, as Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. She was an advocate that antiquities should remain in their country of origin and not be removed to western museums and collections.

In an obituary written by her peer D. G. Hogarth he honoured her by saying,

"No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit."

Gertrude Bell is remembered in Iraq in the 21st century. The British diplomat, travel writer and ex-MP Rory Stewart wrote:

"When I served as a British official in southern Iraq in 2003, I often heard Iraqis compare my female colleagues to "Gertrude Bell." It was generally casual flattery, and yet the example of Bell and her colleagues was unsettling. More than ten biographies have portrayed her as the ideal Arabist, political analyst, and administrator," and he quoted her - "No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us."

Thanks for following these musings but I'm taking a break for a week as I will be on holiday - mostly in my garden and mostly trying to read - something I promised myself when I stopped working full-time in February. See you in June.

In the meantime enjoy this Persian pudding - Not Ambrosia but ... ambrosia


Sholeh Zard

Saffron rice pudding


1 ½ cup basmati rice, uncooked

8 cups water

¼ tsp salt

3 cup granulated sugar

¼ tsp crushed saffron

2 tbsp hot water

¼ cup unsalted butter, melted

4 tbsp almond slivers

1 tsp ground cardamom

¼ cup rose water

1 tsp ground cinnamon

2 tbsp pistachios, (optional)


1. In a medium-sized bowl cover rice with water and gently wash the rice by stirring the rice in the water with your hand. This helps wash some of the starch and grit out. Pour out the water and repeat two more times.

2. Drain washed rice and place in a 10 pint non-stick pan with 8 cups water and salt. Bring it to a boil, skimming the white foam from the surface as it forms.

3. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes or until rice is completely soft then stir in sugar and cook for 20 more minutes, stirring constantly.

4. While rice is cooking, combine saffron and 2tbsp hot water in a small bowl and reserve.

5. After rice has cooked for 20 mins, add saffron liquid, butter, almond slivers, cardamom, and rose water. Cover and simmer on low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until mixture has thickened to a pudding.

6. Pour saffron pudding into a shallow serving dish or spoon into individual serving bowls.

7. Garnish with 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 2tbsp almond slivers, and 2 tbsp pistachios.

8. Chill in refrigerator until set, about 2 hours. Serve cold.

Robert Macfarlane's Word of the Day is ...

"cuneiform– oldest known writing system, originating in Mesopotamia c. 3400BC, made using stylus edge on wet clay (Latin cuneus, wedge-shaped)."

Tablet XI The Epic of Gilgamesh (@britishmuseum) "You gods may I be mindful of these days & never forget them."

ps; D G Hogarth is the basis of the character Mr Dryden in the film Lawrence of Arabia.


Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength. “ - Corrie ten Boom
"The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love." - William Wordsworth
"Cling tight to your sense of humour. You will need it every day." T E Lawrence
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May 22, 2020

As a student physiotherapist I attended a weekend course at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire. It was a very snowy time and the train from London stopped at Gobowen station a village a couple of miles from the hospital. We had to trudge through 1-2 feet of snow to the hospital which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere!

There are three cuneiform bones in the tarsus of the foot, all wedge shaped.

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