Unveiling of Blue Plaque to T.E. Lawrence
Myrtle Cottage Hythe
On 22 October 2007 Jeremy Wilson unveiled a blue plaque at Myrtle Cottage, Hythe, Southampton, where Lawrence rented rooms while working at the British Power Boat Co. on high-speed motor launches for the RAF. He was introduced by Councillor Malcolm Wade, Chairman of the Hythe and Dibden Parish Council. In a brief address, Jeremy Wilson said:
'T. E. Lawrence first came to this area as a child. In the spring of 1894 his parents moved from Brittany to a house called Langley Lodge, demolished some years ago.
'The family stayed for three summers before moving to Oxford in the early autumn of 1897. By all accounts it was an extremely happy period for the four young brothers (a fifth was born in 1900). Their father enjoyed outdoor pursuits and encouraged his sons to do likewise. A treat for the boys was to go to Lepe and watch yachts sailing in the Solent. It is quite likely that the young Lawrence sailed on Southampton Water. He later wrote: 'my father had yachts and used to take me with him from my fourth year.'
'At Langley Lodge, the boys received private lessons from a governess. Their formal schooling began in Oxford, where Ned, the second son, went on to win an exhibition to Jesus College and First Class Honours in Modern History.
'Although he occasionally passed through the port of Southampton on his travels, it was not until the autumn of 1929 that Lawrence again spent significant time in this area. By then he was serving as an aircraftman in the R.A.F., and assisting his Commanding Officer with arrangements for the Schneider Trophy contest.
'During the event itself they lived on board a private motor yacht, the Karen. One of the yacht's tenders was an American Biscayne Baby speedboat. The boat's engine tended to give trouble but Lawrence, who was mechanically minded, took an interest and managed to keep it running well. Afterwards the Karen's millionaire owner gave the speedboat to Lawrence and his CO as a memento of their visit. They took it back to R.A.F. Mount Batten in Plymouth, the seaplane base where they were stationed.
'Through owning this speedboat, both Lawrence and his CO became interested in replacing the slow conventional boats used as seaplane tenders with something faster. In February 1931 Lawrence watched as an R.A.F. flying boat crashed while landing a few hundred yards offshore. He rushed to the duty boat but by the time they reached the scene several of the aircraft's crew had drowned. He later gave evidence at the Inquest, and helped his CO campaign within the RAF for faster boats. The immediate result was his posting to Hythe, where Hubert Scott-Paine had begun building hard chine planing hulls at the British Power Boat Company.
'During 1931-2 Lawrence was based here overseeing the construction and trials of new 321/2ft Seaplane Tenders for the R.A.F. He rented a room at Myrtle Cottage. His landlady Mrs Harriett Biddlecombe later recalled that he stayed for about ten months in 1931-2, and later returned for a shorter period. Certainly, Lawrence continued visiting the British Power Boat Co, which went on to build more 321/2ft launches, as well as tenders and larger armoured target-boats for the Air Force. When his service ended in 1935, plans for a larger version were already well advanced.
'Myrtle cottage is, so far as I know, the only building associated with Lawrence that survives in Hythe (or indeed in Southampton. At a later stage, when he needed to visit both Hythe and White's Shipyard in East Cowes, he had lodgings there in Birmingham Street, but the house has since been pulled down). The other relic is, of course, RAF 206, one of the first batch of 321/2 ft launches. It has been restored and still runs.
'Lawrence found the hours he spent at sea testing boats physically exhausting. Nevertheless, he believed the work was important - as indeed it turned out to be. During the Second World War the boats he helped develop here in the 1930s saved thousands of lives on Air-Sea Rescue missions.
'Throughout his life Lawrence was both practical and strongly creative. He was completely committed to his work here at Hythe, and proud of what he helped achieve. It is surely fitting to mark his time here with a blue plaque.
In February 1935 Lawrence wrote:
'I have been so curiously fortunate as to share in a little revolution we have made in boat design. People have thought we were at finality there, for since 1850 ships have merely got bigger. When I went into R.A.F. boats in 1929, every type was an Admiralty design. All were round-bottomed, derived from the first hollow tree, with only a fin, called a keel, to delay their rolling about and over. They progressed by pushing their own bulk of water aside. Now (1935) not one type of R.A.F. boat in production is naval... We have found, chosen, selected or derived our own sorts: they have (power for power) three times the speed of their predecessors, less weight, less cost, more room, more safety, more seaworthiness. As their speed increases, they rise out of the water and run over its face. They cannot roll, nor pitch, having no pendulum nor period, but a subtly modelled planning bottom and sharp edges.
'Now I do not claim to have made these boats. They have grown out of joint experience, skill and imaginations of many men. But I can (secretly) feel that they owe to me their opportunity and their acceptance. The pundits met them with a fierce hostility: all the R.A.F. sailors, and all the Navy, said that they would break, sink, wear out, be unmanageable. To-day we are advising the War Office in refitting the coast defences entirely with boats of our model, and the Admiralty has specified them for the modernised battleships: while the Germans, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese Governments have adopted them! In inventing them we have had to make new engines, new auxiliaries, use new timbers, new metals, new materials. It has been five years of intense and co-ordinated progress. Nothing now hinders the application of our design to big ships - except the conservatism of man, of course. Patience. It cannot be stopped now.'
The owners of Myrtle Cottage provided generous hospitality, much enjoyed by all.
This T. E. Lawrence Studies website is edited and maintained by Jeremy Wilson.