South Hill was home to the Chapmans, a family connected to this border area between Meath and Westmeath. T.E Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Chapman, the 7th and last Baronet.
Thomas Chapman was a landowner, holding lands at South Hill, Delvin. His father was William Chapman, the younger son of Thomas Chapman of Killua Castle, Clonmellon. William settled at South Hill and served as High Sheriff of Westmeath. In 1883 William Chapman of South Hill held 1,386 acres in county Meath along with lands in Westmeath while Sir Benjamin Chapman of Killua castle held 241 acres in County Meath along with lands in Westmeath.
The Chapman family received large grants of lands in Ireland during the time of Elizabeth I and following the Cromwellian plantation. The family were active in the politics in Meath and Westmeath. William Chapman of St. Lucy’s, Killua was M.P. for Athboy from 1776 to 1783.Sir Benjamin Chapman served as a member of the Grand Jury of Meath in 1801. In 1811 and 1812 Sir Thomas Chapman served on the Grand Jury of Meath.
Thomas Chapman was educated at Eton and it was expected that he would manage the family estates. He also studied at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. When his elder brother, William, died in 1870, Thomas became heir to the estate. In 1873 Thomas married Edith Sarah Hamilton Rochfort-Boyd, from another landowning family in County Westmeath and they had four daughters. In 1879 Sarah Lawrence was recruited as a nanny or governess for the Chapman girls.
Edith Chapman turned to religion and went around the countryside preaching about the evils of drink. Ironically to cope with this manic religiosity Thomas became a heavy drinker. He fell in love with Sarah Lawrence, who was younger than him by some fifteen years. His daughters recalled later that whenever Sarah was with their father he lost his dour tone and became cheerful. When Sarah discovered she was pregnant in 1885 Chapman moved her to a house in Dublin. When the family butler overheard the young woman give her name as Mrs. Thomas Chapman to a Dublin grocer, he reported the event to his mistress.
As a result of the discovery Chapman took the opportunity to leave his wife and the couple fled to North Wales where Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence was born on 16 August 1888. Adopting the name ‘Lawrence’ the couple never married. A couple of weeks after T.E.’s birth the family moved to Scotland, then to Normandy coast, then back to England finally settling in Oxford. The couple had eight children altogether, but three of them died young, leaving five sons who survived infancy. In 1888 Chapman assigned his life interest in his father’s estates to his younger brother, Francis Chapman, in exchange for an annuity for life of £200 and his father also left him a sum in his will of 1889. Having an annual income of £1,000 Chapman lived a life of leisure and spent much of his time with his sons.
In 1914 when Thomas’s cousin, Sir Benjamin Rupert Chapman in Clonmellon, died Thomas succeeded to the title of 7th Baronet Chapman, of St. Lucy’s, Killua, co. Westmeath. When his brother Francis died unmarried in 1915 the bulk of the estate went to the Adelaide Hospital and Thomas’s four daughters. As Thomas left no legitimate heir, the title became extinct on his death in 1919. Two sons were killed in the First World War while another son became a medical missionary in China. Sarah died in China in 1959.
During the First World War T.E. Lawrence co-ordinated British military operations with the Arab Revolt against the Turks. It could be argued the recent Arab Spring is a further manifestation of the Arab people’s desire for self-government. Towns and cities familiar to Lawrence are in the headlines once again: Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Tafas. Lawrence may have met Michael Collins in London during the Treaty talks of December 1921. After the war unable to find a suitable role Lawrence drifted until he died in a motorcycle accident in 1935. The Chapman family motto reads: ‘Virtue thrives under oppression’ which is appropriate to the life of Lawrence of Arabia. In 1962 the noted move maker, David Lean, made a film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ based on the life of T.E. Lawrence.
The family home at South Hill is now the property of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary where they provide services to persons with intellectual and physical disability.