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Explorer, Photographer, OP, Spy...

The story of Captain Shakespear OP.
21 Mar 2024
Written by John Sadden
OP updates
Ibn Saud's army on the move, as capture by Captain Shakespear's camera
Ibn Saud's army on the move, as capture by Captain Shakespear's camera

William Henry Irvine Shakespear OP was very much a man of his time. Born in 1878 in Britain’s imperial heyday and a year before the Boy’s Own Paper with its ripping yarns was first published, Shakespear spent his early childhood in India, where he learnt Punjabi from his family’s servants.  

In 1887, Mrs Shakespear and her three sons left Bombay, arriving in England several weeks later. She took rooms at Hartington Terrace in Portsmouth and enrolled the boys in the local preparatory school. In 1889, at the age of 10, William was admitted to Portsmouth Grammar School. When she was satisfied that her sons had settled in to their schools, Mrs Shakespear returned to her husband in the Punjab. William was now a boarder at the school's boarding house, Prescote, in St Edwards Road, Southsea, run by Mr Pares, a master at the school. 

Two familiar names appear in the class lists at this time whose subsequent careers could not have been more different. Cyril Garbett became Archbishop of York and Percy Westerman became the most prolific and popular children's author of the 1930s. Unlike William Shakespear, both men went on to enjoy fame, long careers and a ripe old age. 

William was an unexceptional student but did well in languages and geography. At this time, the school ran a museum and encouraged OPs, many of whom were serving in far-flung outposts of Empire, to donate artefacts and curiosities for the boys to enjoy as an educational resource. The Portmuthian of 1884, for example, acknowledges the donation of "a kaffir pipe", "a preserved snake in spirits", "two Patagonian bone spear heads", "a petrified cat's skull", "a head rest formerly belonging to Damas, King of Pondo", "a curious nut from Demerara" and "a necklace of birds' bones". These strange things from strange lands brought a glimpse of the mysterious, outside world into the drab and dull life of the Victorian schoolboy. At the age of 14, William was elected to the Museums Committee.

After leaving PGS in 1893, Shakespear was sent to a college on the Isle of Man. From there he went to Sandhurst to train as an army officer, and then to India as a 2nd Lieutenant. By 1901, ambitious and hungry for responsibility, he took up the post of an Assistant District Officer in Bombay. At this time, plague had hit the Bengal province and 100,000 people had perished. Nothing had been done to track down its source. Shakespear initiated a massive rat-killing campaign, organising as many soldiers as could be spared to systematically work their way through the Bombay slums with traps, sticks and guns, killing tens of thousands of rodents. His reputation for getting things done was growing and in 1904, he was appointed Consul at Bandar Abbas, Persia (Iran). It was at about this time that Shakespear started to take an interest in the exciting and mysterious land of Arabia, and learnt to speak Arabic fluently. 

In 1907, after almost nine years of unbroken duty, Captain Shakespear went to Karachi and bought himself a new 8 horse power Rover, a beautifully upholstered model costing £250. At that time, motor cars were a rare sight in England, but even more so in India. William  decided to use his new vehicle to travel overland to England, through Persia and Europe. With little experience of driving, or of the mechanics of the motor car, he set out on what he knew was a hazardous escapade, across countryside, deserts and mountainous areas where there were few roads. Inevitably, William was to experience many punctures on his epic journey. Through Persia, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, along the Adriatic Coast to Italy, his fame went before him. 

News spread of the mad Englishman’s arrival in his “iron horse” and crowds gathered to line the streets through towns and villages. By the time he reached England, he had travelled around 4000 miles across Asia Minor and Europe, one of the most remarkable journeys of the early years of motorised transport. Throughout his journey he had collected information on the lands and peoples he had encountered, which he dutifully passed on to his superiors. In 1909 he was transferred to the post of British Political Agent in Kuwait - in effect a spy. 

Having developed a taste for travelling and exploration, William began to draw up plans for something more significant and even more challenging – a journey across the great central deserts of Arabia by camel and by foot. And so began the first of seven epic, pioneering treks into the Arabian interior. Armed with his sextant, diary and camera, he intended to record everything he saw, becoming the first person to comprehensively chart areas of Northern Arabia. Britain was keen to keep open all routes across Asia to India, the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, and William’s pioneering role in discovering new routes was invaluable.

William began to learn the ways of the land and the badawan (Bedouin) tribes. As an accomplished photographer, he recorded many aspects of Arabian life for the first time. It was while he was on these expeditions that William met ibn Saud, an Arab sheik who was to become the future founder of Saudi Arabia. Shakespear drafted the first treaty signed between ibn Saud and Britain, the first international recognition of Saudi rule in Arabia.Their relationship grew into a great mutual trust and friendship, and by the time of the First World War, William was asked to garner support in the region. A rival tribe, the Rashidis, supported Germany’s allies, Turkey.

In January 1915, the two tribes clashed at the Battle of Jarrab, just north of Riyadh. What happened to William is not known for certain. One account suggests he was taking photographs and spotting for ibn Saud’s sole artilleryman, when he was shot in the thigh, the arm and then the back of the head. According to The Portmuthian, in an account said to have been given by the gunner, several Rashidis 
bodies were found next to William’s suggesting he had shot them before being killed. (Until recently, Wikipedia reported that “the victorious Rashidis cut off Shakespear’s head”, an account which did not seem to be supported by any other source and has since been taken down.)

Captain Shakespear became a legend in Saudi Arabia, and stories of his exploits are still well known there today. In "Seven Pillars of Wisdom", T E Lawrence (of Arabia) describes how lengthy stories of Shakespear “magnificence” were recounted to him over desert campfires. In this country he is largely forgotten, eclipsed by the adventures of the more glamorous Lawrence, aside from a biography by Victor (HVF) Winstone, and, of course, in his old school where his name appears amongst the casualties on the First World War plaque in the Memorial Library. 


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