I have recently been lead down a rabbit hole of research. It involved, as many of my goose-chases do, chasing Lawrence of Arabia around London, and ended up in the archives of the British Museum, starting from a much more unlikely venue; a dark green wooden shed in the middle of a central London road junction.
Some months ago I was visiting a friend, not a million miles from Lords’ Cricket Ground, on Warwick Avenue. I was waiting to meet her in a conspicuous place near the Underground entrance, and chose to shelter from the rain under the awnings of a green wooden shed. On the side of the shed was a brass disc, that claimed that said shed was a “Cabman’s Shelter” and further that it had been restored in 1994 by “The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund, the Heritage of London Trust, and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust.” This set my mind wandering off towards an enormous grant from the Trust to wander the Hejaz, looking for the trains destroyed by Lawrence. (I know you can still find some of them, and it has long been my desire to go and locate them… the small matter of a bloody civil war in Syria has thus far thwarted me.) But then my friend arrived, and we dashed off for a pint.
These sheds used to be quite common in London, and you can see what they have been used for more recently in a BBC magazine video here. The Cabmen’s Shelter Fund was established in London as long ago as 1875 to run shelters for the drivers of hansom cabs and later hackney carriages. By law, cab drivers at the time could not leave the cab stand while their cab was parked there. This made it very difficult for them to obtain hot meals and could be unpleasant in bad weather. The Earl of Shaftesbury and other worthies therefore took it upon themselves to set up a charity to construct and run shelters at major cab stands, but I somehow can’t imagine he frequented them too often. There are still 13 of these dark green sheds around London (and a couple in Oxford, for you eagle eyed Oxonians) The shelters were originally provided with seats and tables and books and newspapers, most of them donated by the publishers or other benefactors. Most could accommodate ten to thirteen men, but gambling, drinking, and swearing were strictly forbidden! Now these shelters are Grade II listed buildings.
“Fascinating!” I hear you cry, but what of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust?
Well, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom Fund is now a charity that awards grants for archaeological, environmental, and other academic projects. There were originally two Trusts, both set up in 1936 by A. W. Lawrence, who was the sole beneficiary under the will of T. E. Lawrence, and thus inherited the copyright of all his brother’s works. To the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust’ he assigned the copyright in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was shortly afterwards given its first publication. To the ‘Letters and Symposium Trust’ he assigned the copyright in all his brother’s letters. The two Trusts were amalgamated in 1986.
So, apart from rebuilding Green Sheds in central London what else have they been up to? Well, I might be wrong, but seemingly not a lot… they hardly advertise themselves, but did make a contribution towards the purchase of a stunning 19th Century BC Babylonian relief, called the Queen of the Night, for those luck people at the British Museum. And she is stunning.
The nude female figure is depicted with tapering feathered wings and talons, standing with her legs together, and sporting a sort of bizarre headdress of four pairs of horns topped by a disc. She is ‘supported’ by a pair of addorsed lions above a scale-pattern representing mountains, and is flanked by a pair of standing owls. Quite what this has to do with Lawrence, or green sheds, I have no idea!