Historical figures without children: Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926)

By Allix Denham 

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell

You could say that Gertrude Bell was always the outsider. The daughter of a County Durham steel magnate whose family was never accepted by ‘society’, Gertrude was ferociously intelligent and outspoken – the first woman ever to receive a first class honours degree from Oxford, in modern history.

When her uncle became the British ambassador in Persia, Gertrude, already fluent in several languages, spent six months learning Farsi, and joined him. In Tehran, she felt reborn, loving the desert and its vistas, as well as the lack of rules and expectations.

She fell in-love with Henry Cadogan, who introduced her to the Sufi poetry she went on to translate. Her father forbade them from marrying, however, after discovering that Cadogan’s income was ‘entirely insufficient’, and even worse, he was a gambler.

Gertrude took up mountaineering, becoming the first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörner range in the Swiss Alps. One is named after her, Gertrude’s Peak.

In 1900 she stayed in Jerusalem, where she studied Arabic and would ride out into the desert using a ‘masculine’ saddle and wearing custom-made divided riding skirts.

Fearless, she spent the next few years traversing parts of Arabia most men would hesitate to visit, getting to know its tribes and sheikhs. She drew detailed maps of the area, took up archaeology, wrote several books and reported on Germany’s activities in the Ottoman Empire for the Foreign Office.

In war hero Dick Doughty-Wylie she found her intellectual equal, who shared her passion for the desert and its people. Theirs was a deep but unconsummated love – he was married, and Gertrude couldn’t bring herself to commit adultery.

He was killed in Gallipoli in April 1915, and a year later Gertrude was sent to Basra and Baghdad, where she wrote a detailed analysis of what was to become of the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In 1921 she was the only woman in a select group of ‘Orientalists’ who attended the Cairo Summit to determine the boundaries of the British mandate and the new states.

She was instrumental in the appointment of the first king of Iraq, and became his adviser, supervising the selection of members of the new government. She also founded Baghdad’s Iraqi Archaeological Museum, and helped to develop women’s education and healthcare.

A heavy smoker, Gertrude suffered from pleurisy, and died of an overdose just before her 58th birthday. She was depressed and feeling redundant, and regretted never having married or having children.

Doing so might have tamed her adventurous spirit. But would she have been happy playing a supporting role to her husband, socialising with the ‘idle’ Englishwomen for whom she had so little time?

It’s unlikely that a woman of her intellect and energy could have settled for that.


Allix Denham is a writer currently based in France. She and her partner have no children, but entertain the neighbours’ cat on a regular basis.

Gertrude Bell


  1. What an inspiring woman and a great article! Yes she came from a privileged background, still, to be so fearlessly independent and adventurous for a woman at that time, may not have been easy. Yet not only did she manage to live her life mainly on her own terms (except for her father putting his foot down about her marrying a gambler, which most parents would approve of) , she also left a long lasting legacy in the region.

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