MIDDLE EAST POLITICS & DIPLOMACY, 1904-1950
The Private Letters and Diaries of Sir Ronald Storrs (1881-1955) from Pembroke College, Cambridge
Professor Donald S Birn, University of Albany, State University
of New York
Sir Ronald Storrs belongs in the pantheon
of noteworthy leaders of the British Empire, yet he seems a bit
out of place alongside those illustrious soldier-conquerors and
administrators. Storrs talents lay elsewhere. His close
friend T E Lawrence, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, described
him as "the most brilliant Englishman in the Near East,"
and tried to capture his greatness and his shortcomings.
Lawrence saw him as "subtly efficient, despite his
diversion of energy in love of music and letters, of sculpture,
of whatever was beautiful in the worlds fruit .... Storrs
was ... always first, and the great man among us. His shadow
would have covered our work and British policy in the east like a
cloak, had he been able to deny himself the world, and to prepare
his mind and body with the sternness of an athlete for a great
In describing him in the Dictionary of
National Biography, Sir Harry Luke noted that "for an
Englishman without a drop of non-English blood he had a
surprisingly cosmopolitan outlook on life." 2
Storrs was not only English, he came from that familiar
breeding ground of those ready to go forth and bear the white mans
burden, a vicarage family. Born in Bury St Edmunds in 1881, he
was the eldest son of the Reverend John Storrs, a London vicar
who became Dean of Rochester in 1913. Educated in the classics at
Charterhouse and Pembroke College, Cambridge, Storrs began his
career in the Egyptian Civil Service in 1904. Assigned first to
the Ministry of Finance, and then to other departments in the
next five years, he did not take to routine administrative duties
What he did do was to immerse himself in
the language, culture and history of Egypt. In 1909, he became
Oriental Secretary at the British agency in Cairo serving first
under Sir Eldon Gorst and then Lord Kitchener and Sir Henry
McMahon. Here he was able to distinguish himself, to use his keen
intellect and knowledge of colloquial Arabic to good effect as
the consummate Near East hand. When war came in 1914, Storrs
became involved in the negotiations with Sherif Hussein, later
King Hussein. His close associate T E Lawrence had much to say
about Storrs in his classic Revolt in the Desert and
Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The portrait which emerges is
complex and intriguing. "Storrs intolerant brain
seldom stooped to company," Lawrence noted at one point,
before going on to describe Storrs conversing in German, Arabic
and French on the relative merits of Debussy and Wagner with
someone who was worthy of his attention.3
Storrs interest in the arts was
profound. He became an art collector and also a committed
preservationist. His interest in medieval Cairo led to membership
in an advisory group in charge of ancient monuments, the Comite
pour la Conservation des Monuments Arabes. This in turn
allowed him to press for the the preservation of Coptic Christian
remains, and he was instrumental in the establishment of the
Coptic Museum in Cairo.4 Storrs showed the same
interest in historic preservation in his later postings after
Cairo, especially in Jerusalem in the 1920s. There he promoted
the Pro-Jerusalem Society and worked with the Town Planning
Commission to control building while increasing amenities - no
easy task. One writer, noting the many hindrances which the
Commission faced, said that "in this matter Government
was certainly in advance of public opinion."5
During World War One, Storrs served as a
political officer with the Anglo-French Expeditionary Force, an
assignment which took him to Baghdad. Late in 1917, he then
served briefly with the secretariat of the British war Cabinet
before being appointed to the newly created position of governor
of Jerusalem. First as military governor, and then in 1920, when
a civilian administration was established, as civil governor,
Storrs had a difficult time. Riots in 1920 and 1921 aggravated
tensions between Arabs and Jews.
Storrs, steeped in Arabic culture for years,
was accused by many Jews of being hostile, the "evil
genius" behind the High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel.
This campaign of vilification irked Storrs, who was sympathetic
to Zionism, if not the socialist ideals of Zionist pioneers. In
his memoirs he wrote "I am still unable to understand how
I did not emerge from it an anti-Semite for life." 6
He weathered this criticism and gradually won respect in all
communities. Peace hd been restored to Jerusalem by the time he
left in 1926, due in some measure to his work in bringing
together otherwise hostile groups in the Pro-Jerusalem Society to
As the Governor of Cyprus from 1926 to 1932,
Storrs started out winning great popularity by convincing the
British government to abolish the detested tribute, the annual
payments the island made to pay off a share of the Turkish debt.
His appreciation of Greek culture also endeared him to the
majority of Cypriots. However, he ran into bitter opposition on
several fronts: trade unionists objected to his crackdown on
leftist agitation and church leaders were infuriated by his
Elementary Education bill of 1929, which sought to keep schools
from being used to spread Greek or Turkish nationalist propaganda.
By 1931 the movement for Enosis, the union of Cyprus with
Greece, was especially active, and it provoked riots in October
1931, which led to the burning of his residence, Government House.
British troops brought in from Egypt and Malta quickly restored
order and the leaders of the Enosis agitation - including
the bishops of Kition and Kyrenia - were expelled from the island.
For Storrs it was still a great tragedy, for although he had been
away during the crisis, it still destroyed his precious library
and art collection.
As Governor of Northern Rhodesia from 1932
to 1934, Storrs was out of his element and clearly unhappy. One
of his main tasks was to organise the transfer of the capital
from Livingstone to Lusaka. Ill health led to his retirement from
government service and return home, but not to the end of an
active public life. He served on the London County Council for
East Islington from 1937 to 1945, and was active on the Church of
England Council on Foreign relations and many civic organisations.
He also achieved considerable renown as a popular lecturer on
literary subjects or his old friend Lawrence of Arabia. His
gracefully written memoir, Orientations, reached a wide
readership when it was published in 1937.
Storrs died in London in 1955, survived by
his wife of thirty-two years, the former Louisa Lucy, but no
children. In addition to the knighthood he had been awarded in
1924, he held a KCMG (1929), Italian and Greek decorations and an
honorary Ll.D of Aberdeen and of Dublin.
Donald S Birn
1 T E Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
(New York, 1926), p57.
2 "Storrs, Sir Ronald Henry Amherst," Dictionary of
National Biography, 1951-1960, p931.
3 T E Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York, 1926),
4 Ronald Storrs, Orientations (London, 1937), p110ff.
5 Albert M Hyamson, Palestine Under the Mandate (Westport,
CT, 1950, 1976), p187.
6 Ronald Storrs, Orientations (London, 1937), p428.