One biographer of Gertrude described her own impressions of the city in the same period (the late 1800s), when for the first time she visited an aunt who lived there: The district round Middlesbrough and Tees side to the sea was caked with grime…For twenty miles the air smelt of chemicals and ash and soot, as the crowded houses smelt of cabbage, cheese and cat. Basements…were covered with black, gluey mud whenever it rained.’   The term ‘day-darkness’ was coined to describe the smog of industry; and in particular, Middlesbrough and Cleveland were said by a contemporary to succeed in almost excluding daylight from the district.

Daughter of the Desert. The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell.

Georgina Howell. 2007

The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell

A Story of adventure, discovery and political intrigue

Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar

28th May – January 2017


Meet Gertrude Bell – a North East born archaeologist, diplomat, linguist, writer & mountaineer who in 1921 advised Winston Churchill on the country that became Iraq, and helped shape the Middle East after World War 1. Gertrude Bell spent a large part of her childhood in Redcar residing at the family home – Red Barns in Kirkleatham Street, Redcar.


The exhibition features loans from the British Museum, Imperial War Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Geographical Society.


The Bell Family, Redcar & Werner Herzog


Gertrude Bell was the daughter of the fabulously rich industrialist, Sir Hugh Bell. The Bells were a family of industrialists with interests in mining, iron and steel, chemicals and railways. Sir Hugh asked his friend Philip Webb to design a family home to be built in Redcar, the result was Red Barns. Built in the pre-Raphaelite style with Webb as the building’s architect and the interiors designed by Edward Burne-Jones. Webb also designed the Bell Brother’s office building on Zetland Road in Middlesbrough, his one and only commercial building.


Sir Hugh’s first wife and Gertrude’s mother, Maria Shield, died in 1871. When Gertrude was four years old, Sir Hugh married Florence Olliffe . Florence was described as ‘an ugly, clever, nice woman, a linguist and playwright who belonged to the literary coteries of both London and Paris, as a child she had sat on Dicken’s knee’. In 1907 Florence published a book entitled At The Works. The book was a social investigation into the lives of the working people of Middlesbrough and provides a rare insight into the social, economic and cultural conditions of Victorian working-class Middlesbrough.


Gertrude Bell grew up to be one of the first women at Oxford and left with the highest marks in her year. After university she became a renowned traveller, a colonial administrator, an Arabist, a high-Tory, British intelligence spy, Archaeologist, anti-feminist and extrovert powerhouse. She travelled on a camel throughout Arabia, Mesopotania and the Middle East, alone except for Bedouin tribesmen. She published huge works about Syria, which she translated from the Persian. She was instrumental in the setting up of the modern state of Iraq and also founded the Great Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad.


Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell & T E Lawrence


The life of Gertrude Bell has been made into a epic biographical film, Queen of the Desert, which is due for release this year. The film was written and directed by the wonderful Werner Herzog. Nicole Kidman will play the part of Gertrude.