Mayfair to Mecca: plucky Lady Evelyn

The Cobbold clan is renowned for its eccentric go-getters. Right up there is Lady Evelyn, hailed as the first British woman to convert to Islam. Steven Russell learns about a woman who went from Mayfair to Mecca - and whose son helped give us Ipswich Town Football Club

Steven Russell

The Cobbold clan is renowned for its eccentric go-getters. Right up there is Lady Evelyn, hailed as the first British woman to convert to Islam. Steven Russell learns about a woman who went from Mayfair to Mecca - and whose son helped give us Ipswich Town Football Club

THE Spice Girls banged on about girl power in the 1990s but their particular brand of assertiveness and capability pales into insignificance against the derring-do of socialite Lady Evelyn Cobbold. In 1933, in her mid-60s, the Anglo-Muslim aristocrat determined to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Her reflections were published in a book the following year: a day-by-day journal combined with observations on the history and plus-points of Islam, evocative impressions of local cultures, ceremonies, customs and their significance. Lady Evelyn was the first English writer to describe life in the women's quarters of the households where she stayed, too.

In the decades since, lament her supporters, this intriguing woman has been somewhat forgotten. They hope the reprinting of her book, about to enjoy some fanfare with an official launch in Suffolk, will rescue the aristocrat from obscurity - particularly since recent events have thrust Islam into the spotlight.

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William Facey, whose niche publishing arm has brought out Pilgrimage to Mecca, pointed out in a lecture to the Royal Geographical Society that she was ignored by an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2004 called Off the Beaten Track: Three Centuries of Women Travellers.

Female contemporaries who travelled in the Middle East were recognised, but none were able to visit the “inner sanctums of Arabia, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the goal of so many male explorers. Nor did these women even get to the Hijaz [the region home to Islam's holy places]. Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the sole Western woman to have performed this notable feat, rated not a mention”.

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That's a shame, because Evelyn was extraordinary by any definition. “Aristocrat, Mayfair socialite, owner of an estate in the Scottish Highlands, accomplished deerstalker and angler, not to mention mother and gardener too, she was surely unique in also being a Muslim and an Arabic-speaker.”

William and co-author Miranda Taylor, a great-great-niece of the aristocrat, have produced a detailed biographical introduction for the new edition, though it wasn't a doddle. By the time they came to write about her, she had almost totally dropped off the radar and virtually all her papers had been lost. Fortunately, two great-grandsons of Lady Evelyn - including Philip Hope-Cobbold, who lives at Glemham Hall, near Woodbridge - helped with access to family documents and photograph albums.

Lady Evelyn Murray was born in Edinburgh in 1867, the eldest child of Charles Adolphus Murray, 7th Earl of Dunmore, and Lady Gertrude Coke, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Leicester.

The earl was forever short of money and prone to wanderlust, so each winter he took his family to North Africa, where the children grew up with Algerian and Egyptian nurses and household staff. “The impact on young Evelyn was formative and profound,” says William. “She was steeped in the culture and language of everyday life in the Arab Muslim world, and came to feel completely at ease and at home there.”

She became, in her words, “unconsciously a little Moslem at heart”.

Evelyn was 24 when she was introduced in Cairo to John Dupuis Cobbold, part of the wealthy Suffolk brewing dynasty. After a glittering society wedding in April, 1891, they lived in Ipswich and had three children between 1893 and 1900; but, reports William, “it is fairly clear that Evelyn found it hard to settle”.

There had been earlier signs, he says, of her looking for meaning in life.

“By 1900 she was travelling, without her husband, on fishing trips to Norway, for example. Later, by the time her children were growing up, she was back in North Africa. In 1911, for example, at the age of 43, she was travelling in Egypt with a woman companion: we know this because she wrote a book about it: Wayfarers in the Libyan Desert.

“This is a very revealing little book, because it expresses her admiration for Islam in no uncertain terms. Though she does not actually declare herself a Muslim, there are numerous passages in which she extols the virtues of Islam and the Muslim way of life, though she is also critical of the too-closeted lives of women in the villages.” Her Muslim name was Zainab.

By the 1920s, it's believed Evelyn's attachment to Islam had caused a rift with the Cobbolds, and in 1922 she and her husband separated formally.

“The Cobbolds arranged a generous financial settlement, including the highland deer forest of Glencarron, in Wester Ross, which made her a very wealthy woman in her own right. Much of the 1920s was occupied by a cavalcade of grandchildren, as well as by the field sports at which she excelled. During this time she became the first woman to down a 14-point stag and she excelled at salmon-fishing.” But in 1929 her husband, then High Sheriff of Suffolk, died and it seems she began seriously to contemplate the pilgrimage.

A social contact in London sent a letter of introduction to Harry St John Philby in Jeddah (the father of double agent Kim Philby).

“He and his wife Dora duly received their unsolicited guest in their splendid old house in Jeddah,” explains William. “They were very good to her, introducing her to Jeddah's small expatriate social round, and even inviting the king's son, the Amir Faisal, to tea so that he could cast his eye over the prospective pilgrim.”

Not that long before, in September, 1932, Hijaz and three other regions had become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1933, before the oil boom, this was a very poor area.

“Looking at the map, her first journey took her north along the coast to Rabigh, where she joined the well-worn pilgrim route between Mecca and Medina.

“Cars had been introduced into the Hijaz only since the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, and were still a rarity, being used for the most part only by members of the royal court, to which Philby was attached . . . Desperate predatory Bedouin beggars along the way, who had once robbed pilgrim caravans and murdered stragglers, were reduced to glaring harmlessly through her car windows, and must have been especially dismayed by the new, if ramshackle, pilgrim buses which Evelyn was the first foreigner to report.”

Having returned to Jiddah, she prepared for her pilgrimage to Mecca, 48 miles inland. “Setting off by car once again, she would follow the usual pilgrimage rites . . .” including the Day of Standing at Arafat, where pilgrims exhort Allah to forgive them and wipe their souls clean, and the Stoning of the Devil at Mina.

William wryly points out that Lady Evelyn did receive some special treatment.

“Though generally she extols the egalitarianism of Islam and the way in which the Hajj symbolically reduces all people to equals before God, she was at the same time an unreconstructed British snob, and was not averse to availing herself of the advantages afforded by her status.

“For example, wherever she went she was accommodated in spacious quarters where her privacy was respected. On arrival at each holy city she was assigned her own personal pilgrim guide. Her Saudi host at Mecca generously made available to her the entire roof of his rented house at Mina, where otherwise all his womenfolk would have slept for the sake of the cool night air.”

He adds: “When challenged by a pious passer-by, suspicious of her strange reading matter in the car on the way to Arafat (it was Doughty's Arabia Deserta), her response was to silence him by declaring haughtily that 'this is an English book, and I am an English Moslem and I am here on pilgrimage by permission of the King'. A lesser mortal might not have got away with it so easily.”

She was though, William recognises, devout in her faith.

Pilgrimage to Mecca was published by John Murray in 1934. “It takes the form of a diary, punctuated with lengthy digressions intended to promote Islam to her readers.”

He explains: “Most remarkable about the book, however, is that as a lone female Muslim she was able to do something no English traveller before her had been able to do: to describe the secluded female side of domestic life in Mecca and Medina. This, and its author's religious commitment, set her account apart from every other English description of the Hijaz that had gone before.”

Back home in London, “The tabloids made her an instant Arabian Nights celebrity, and the more serious ones favourably reviewed her book.”

Lady Evelyn lived another three decades, dying in January, 1963. She was buried on a remote hillside on her Glencarron estate.

William Facey regrets that Lady Evelyn was not regarded as a “serious” traveller, despite her wide-ranging journeys in the Arab world and her mastery of the language.

“Her three publications were regarded as lightweight travel writing - as indeed they are, if compared with Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. What is remarkable about her books is not any quest for objective description, but how personal and heartfelt they are, a quality which comes across as naivety to the sophisticated modern reader.”

Prof Khizar Humayun Ansari, director of the Centre for Minority Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, says in a review: “She was uncomfortable with the draconian measures instituted by the [religious and military brotherhood] Ikhwan (whom she aptly likens to Cromwell's Puritans) - the destruction of the tombs of the Prophet's wives and companions, the severance of hand as punishment for theft, the forbidding of all amusements - yet, admirably, she was still able to understand their positive elements.”

Lady Evelyn Cobbold in her own words

“Some years went by and I happened to be in Rome staying with some Italian friends when my host asked if I would like to visit the Pope. Of course I was thrilled . . . When His Holiness suddenly addressed me, asking if I was a Catholic, I was taken aback for a moment and then replied that I was a Moslem. What possessed me I don't pretend to know, as I had not given a thought to Islam for many years. A match was lit and I then and there determined to read up and study the Faith.”

March 26, 1933: I am in the Mosque of Mecca, and for a few seconds I am lost to my surroundings because of the wonder of it. We are walking on white marble through a great vault whose ceiling is a full fifty feet above us, and enter pillared cloisters holding the arched roof and surrounding an immense quadrangle…. I had never imagined anything so stupendous…. We walk on to the Holy of Holies, the house of Allah [the Ka'bah] rising in simple majesty. It would require a master pen to describe the scene, poignant in its intensity of the great concourse of humanity of which I was one small unit, completely lost to their surroundings in a fervour of religious enthusiasm…. I felt caught up in a strong wave of spiritual exaltation….

April 1: As I have been granted the great privilege of being received as a guest in this Mecca household I feel it is up to me to refute the false impressions that still exist in the West about the harem. Not only in this house, but in every harem I have visited in Arabia I have found my host with only one wife. Far from being a sensuous life of ease these ladies are busy with their household duties; at the same time living a happy, even a gay life, entertaining their friends and having their own amusements and festive occasions.

ONE of Lady Evelyn's children was Col John Murray Cobbold - better known by his childhood nickname of Ivan. Born in 1897, he joined the family brewing business and was at Holywells in Ipswich for the 200th anniversary celebrations in 1923. He became chairman after his father died in 1929.

It was following a chance meeting with Arsenal chairman Sir Samuel Hill-Wood that Ivan put up the cash for Ipswich Town to become a professional club in 1936. The amateur side had been founded in 1878 by the boys of Ipswich School under the presidency of Ivan's great uncle, Thomas Clement Cobbold.

Ivan married Lady Blanche Cavendish and two of their children - John and Patrick - continued the Cobbolds' influential link with the football club. Both served as chairman - protecting the Corinthian spirit, maintaining a sense of perspective, and placing a high value on loyalty and consistency.

Pilgrimage to Mecca, by Lady Evelyn Cobbold, is published by Arabian Publishing at �25. ISBN 978-0-9544792-8-2.

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