To the Secretary, Palestine Exploration Fund

By Amara Thornton

The anniversary of the Great War is now in full swing. The PEF ceased formal excavations during the war, but an intriguing set of correspondence in the PEF’s office archives highlights how the Fund was viewed immediately after the conflict.

The correspondence in question is a series of letters addressed to the Secretary, Mr G L Ovenden. Most of them are from ex-servicemen enquiring about the potential for employment on projects in Palestine. The earliest dated letter in the series is from January 1919.

The former Ottoman Empire territory of Palestine was at that time under military occupation, with French and British controlled zones. The future of the region still hung in the balance. By the end of the Great War, the PEF had been active in Palestine for just over half a century (the PEF’s 50th anniversary was in 1915).  To the British public it would have been associated with archaeological exploration and excavation in the region.

A few key members of the PEF’s Committee were particularly interested in converting soldiers with first-hand experience serving in Palestine into subscribing members after the conflict. Perhaps these letters are evidence of the PEF’s subscription drive at work. They also reflect the difficulties ex-servicemen faced returning to everyday life in post-war Britain, and a yearning to return to Palestine to make a new start – particularly a Palestine under British administration.

Detail of a letter to the PEF from an ex-serviceman in London (PEF archive).

Detail of a letter to the PEF from an ex-serviceman in London (PEF archive).

Letter 1

The first page of an ex-servicemen’s letter to the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF archive).

Some of the soldiers writing into the PEF had served in the Egypt Expeditionary Force, and had been stationed in Palestine. Among the correspondents were men who served in the Yeomanry, 1st Kings Regiment, 3rd Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, the Royal Air Force, and one man from the London Mounted Brigade Field Ambulance.

Londoners formed a significant proportion of correspondents. One, formerly of the Essex Regiment, Egypt Expeditionary Force, wrote:

Should your society have any position vacant likely to suit an ex soldier I shall be pleased to hear from you.

I have recently been demobilized after four years overseas in the Levant. I took part in the Gallipoli, the Sinai + the Palestine campaigns.

I am interested in history and speak fluently French + Spanish also some Portuguese + Arabic.

In pre war days I spent some considerable time in the Upper Amazon + took part in travelling expeditions in the Uroyali, Favony + also had charge of a store near Iquitos.

I have also been in Paraguay + in Bolivia where I was employed in the Accountants dept of railway companies in those countries. I am conversant with clerical work, book keeping etc. + am used to native labor, camel transport work. I could act as camp master, help to organise expeditions etc. …”

As far as I know, only one of the men writing to the PEF between 1919 and 1923 ended up working in archaeology in Palestine – J. Lee Warner from Cambridge. He became the first student at the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and then an Inspector in the Department of Antiquities.

I find these letters intriguing and poignant pieces of social history. Although they contribute little to the history of excavation, they speak volumes of post-war conditions and attitudes towards the Middle East – which emerges almost as a place of refuge for men who had returned ‘home’ from the trauma of war abroad.

The letters also help remind us that as much as the Fund is associated with excavations overseas – something that comes across clearly in these letters – it is also, for Londoners, a local institution.

“Dear B”

By Penny Butler, PEF Committee Member and volunteer

A couple of years ago I started archiving the PEF office archive. The office correspondence was in more or less date order and I started in the late 1860s, progressing through about 30 years. From the beginning I was fascinated by the etiquette of official letter writing.

For instance, Christian names were never used, not even in the signature at the end of the letter. Thus I found RF Burton for the famous explorer Richard Burton, and W Besant and G Grove, both secretaries of the PEF. It took me some time to figure out that W was for Walter and G for George. The greatest intimacy I came across was in a letter from Grove to Besant, starting “Dear B”. References to other people were always by surname only. The greetings and sign-offs progressed (in modern terms) from very formal to formal.

The writing paper was interesting too, usually small in size and folded, not single sheet like today; and respondents would write up and down the margins so as not to waste paper.

A letter from Charles Wilson to George Grove, dated 14 July 1868, proposing a scheme for the Survey of Western Palestine. Page 1 of 3.

A letter from Charles Wilson to George Grove, dated 14 July 1868, proposing a scheme for the Survey of Western Palestine. Page 2 of 3.

A letter from Charles Wilson to George Grove, dated 14 July 1868, proposing a scheme for the Survey of Western Palestine. Page 2 of 3.

A letter from Charles Wilson to George Grove, dated 14 July 1868, proposing a scheme for the Survey of Western Palestine. Page 3 of 3.

A letter from Charles Wilson to George Grove, dated 14 July 1868, proposing a scheme for the Survey of Western Palestine. Page 3 of 3.