Dr Robert Lawrence served as a medical missionary in China, first with the China Inland Mission and later with the Church Missionary Society. Born in 1885 in Dublin, he was the oldest son of Sir Thomas Robert Tighe Chapman, last of the Chapman Baronets of Killua Castle, Ireland and Sarah Junner, a former governess of the Chapman household. His parents chose to live under the surname Lawrence and brought up five boys. Thomas Edward, the second son, achieved fame through his exploits in the Middle East around the time of the First World War - the T. E. Lawrence immortalized as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
Their mother Sarah was an evangelical Christian and a strong-willed woman. Of her children Robert was closest to her in his commitment as a Christian and as a companion to her after the death of his father. T. E. said of Robert, “He is illuminated from inside, not from out. His face very often shines like a lamp.”
The Lawrence family eventually moved to Oxford, where the boys grew up, attending the City of Oxford High School. The family attended St. Aldgate’s Church in the city centre. After school, Robert became an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Oxford studying medicine, including a period studying under the renowned physician Sir William Osler. He went on to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (“Barts”) in London and then joined the Royal Army Medical Corps on graduation, to serve during the First World War.
Two of Robert’s younger brothers, William and Frank, were to die in military service during that war - Frank in May 1915 in the trenches and Will in October of the same year, as an observer for the Royal Flying Corp.
After the war, Robert became motivated to join the work of the China Inland Mission as a medical missionary. He was accepted into CIM in 1921 and on arrival in China trained during 1922 in language studies in Chinkiang, Kiangsu before being stationed at the Paoning Memorial Hospital in Szechuan. His mother, with two of her sons and her life partner now deceased, joined him there in 1923.
In 1927, due to the danger associated with increasing attacks on missionaries and other westerners, Robert and his mother returned to England, part of the evacuation of more than half of CIM staff in China at the time. T. E., then living in England in self-imposed obscurity and disillusioned with the fate of Arabs under colonialist powers, wrote to his mother, “I think probably there will be not much more missionary work done anywhere in the future”, tying it to his view that the era in which one nation regards the culture of another as inferior or subservient was drawing to a close.
Robert Lawrence returned to China in 1932 working as a locum for Dr J. H. Lechler at the Church Missionary Society hospital in Mienchu, accompanied again by his mother (who was then 70 years old). It must have been a demanding role; the CMS medical work in western China was provided through various dispensaries and centred on the Mienchu hospital, which was under the charge of Dr Lechler for more than thirty years.
Robert appears to have had less interest (or perhaps time) for letter writing than either T. E. or Sarah, and there was little direct communication between the two brothers. In 1930, in a letter to the writer and critic F. L. Lucas on his novel Cecile, T. E. wrote, “I can see, too, that in writing Cecile you were, in a sense, clearing up your own history….” and in regard to a particular character portrayed therein, he added, “Yet I have a brother who is a saint, and so I know how baffling saints are.” A reference, no doubt, to Robert’s work and commitment to a religious belief he did not share.
In 1935 the Lawrence’s were leaving China travelling down the Yangtze when they received news of the death of T. E. in a motorcycle accident in England.
Robert’s remaining brother Arnold, a noted architectural and sculpture expert, observed subsequently that the enduring legend of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was to place Robert in his late brother’s shadow, to always be “the brother of…” Robert must have also fallen under the same shadow, as he, like Arnold, then became engaged in the protracted issues of T.E.’s estate, particularly the management of the extensive legacy of correspondence and other papers that are still the source of much academic interest and interpretation today. Robert held his famous younger brother in very high regard. He compiled two books of letters that were published - The Home Letters of T.E. Lawrence and his Brothers and Letters from M. R. Lawrence (Eldest Brother of Lawrence of Arabia) To Stanhope Landick (A Jerseyman).
Robert Lawrence died in 1971 in Dorset, age 86.
- China Inland Mission (London) Archives, correspondence.
- “Hero. The life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia” by Michael Korda, Harper Collins, 2010.
- http://telawrence.info/ The website on T.E. Lawrence maintained by his authorised biographer, Jeremy Wilson and the Lawrence correspondence published therein.
- http://www.ampltd.co.uk/digital_guides/church_missionary_society_archive_general/ Editorial introduction to the Archive.