Mabel Bent

Mabel Virginia Anna Bent (née Hall-Dare, a.k.a. Mrs J. Theodore Bent) (28 January 1847 – 3 July 1929), was an Anglo-Irish explorer, excavator, writer and photographer. With her husband, J. Theodore Bent (1852–1897), she spent two decades (1877–1897) travelling, collecting and researching in remote regions of the Eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor, Africa, and Arabia.[1][2][3]

Mabel Virginia Anna Bent (1847–1929), a portrait from page 61 of The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland; Being a Record of Excavation and Exploration in 1891 by J. Theodore Bent, 1892. Longmans, Green and Co. The photograph is by Henry Van der Weyde

Early lifeEdit

Hall-Dare was born on 28 January 1847, second daughter of Robert Westley Hall-Dare (1817–1866) and his wife Frances Anna Catherine (née Lambart) (c. 1819–1862).[4] Her birthplace was her grandfather’s estate, Beauparc, on the River Boyne in County Meath, Ireland. Shortly after her birth the family moved to Temple House, County Sligo, before re-locating in the early 1860s to County Wexford, acquiring the property that was later to become Newtownbarry House, in Newtownbarry (now the village of Bunclody). While a teenager, Hall-Dare suffered several bereavements, losing both her parents and her two brothers.

Hall-Dare and her sisters received education at home with private governesses and tutors.[5]

Married lifeEdit

Distant cousins (via the Lambarts), and having met in Norway,[6] Hall-Dare married J. Theodore Bent on 2 August 1877 in the church of Staplestown, Co. Carlow, not far from Mabel’s Irish home. There was wealth on both sides, and the Bents set up home first at 43 Great Cumberland Place, near Marble Arch, in London, later moving closer to the Arch at number 13; Mabel remained in that same rented townhouse for 30 years after Theodore’s death in 1897, until her own death in 1929.[7]

Their first journeys took them to Italy at the end of the 1870s, Theodore, who read history at Oxford University,[8] being interested in Garibaldi[9] and Italian unification.

In the winter of 1882/3, the Bents made a short tour of Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, disembarking, on their way home, at the Cycladic islands of Tinos and Amorgos to witness the Easter celebrations. They returned late in the year to the same region, the Greek Cyclades, their accounts featuring in Theodore's work (1885) The Cyclades, or Life Among the Insular Greeks.[10] It was during this trip that Mabel Bent began what she called her ‘Chronicles’,[11] essentially her travel notes and diaries that her husband was to use on their return to aid him in writing his articles and papers. Her collection of notebooks is now in the archives of the Hellenic and Roman Library, Senate House, London.[12] Several of her letters home from Africa and Arabia are held in the Royal Geographical Society in London.

In the main, Mabel and Theodore Bent chose to spend the winter and spring months of every year travelling, using summers and autumns to write up their findings and prepare for their next campaigns. Their geographical fields of interest can be roughly grouped into three primary areas: Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean (the 1880s); Africa (the early 1890s); and Southern Arabia (the mid 1890s).[13] Many of the finds and acquisitions the couple collected on their travels are in the British Museum[14] and the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Some examples of Greek island costumes Mabel Bent brought home from Greece are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Benaki Museum, Athens.

Many of Bent’s acquisitions from overseas remained with her until her final years. In 1926 she presented a large amount to the British Museum.[15] She was also in the habit of opening her home for charitable events to display her collection[16] – described as ‘more interesting than many museums’.[17]

For their trip to what are now referred to as the Greek Dodecanese islands (then Turkish) in 1885, Bent travelled with her photographic equipment and, from then on, became expedition photographer.[18] Few of her original photographs have survived, but many were used to produce the illustrations that feature in her husband’s books and articles, and the lantern slides that enhanced his lectures at the Royal Geographical Society in London and elsewhere.[19]

On the Cycladic island of Antiparos in early 1884, the Bents were shown some prehistoric graves by local mining engineers, Robert and John Swan.[20] Theodore Bent undertook amateur archaeological investigations at two sites on the island and returned to London with skeletal remnants which are now in the Natural History Museum, and many ceramic, stone and obsidian finds that now form a significant part of the British Museum’s Cycladic collection; within a few months he had published the material[21] and his career as an archaeologist/ethnographer, and in which his wife was to be central, was launched.

In the village of Komiaki on Naxos in January 1884, Mabel Bent was introduced to Matthew Simos, a native of Anafi, who became the Bents' dragoman for the majority of their future expeditions.[22]

Bent's journeys with her husband 1880s–1890s[23]Edit

  • 1883: Areas of Turkey and Greece
  • 1884: The Greek Cyclades
  • 1885: The Greek Dodecanese
  • 1886–1888: The northern Aegean, and far down along the Turkish coast
  • 1889: Bahrain, to excavate the Dilmun Burial Mounds, via India and, south-north, the length of Iran on horseback
  • 1890: Along the Turkish coast and into Armenia
  • 1891: Mashonaland (modern Zimbabwe) on behalf of Cecil Rhodes to explore the site of Great Zimbabwe
  • 1893: Ethiopia (Aksum)
  • 1894: Yemen (Wadi Hadramaut)
  • 1895: Muscat, Oman and Dhofar, during which they identify the remains at Khor Rori
  • 1896: Sudan and the west coast of the Red Sea
  • 1897: Socotra and Yemen

The extended journeys made by the Bents in remote places called for them to carry with them adequate medical supplies. Mabel Bent tried to alleviate where possible ailments presented by the people they travelled among, for example in the Wadi Khonab (Hadramaut, Yemen) in January 1894, as recorded in her diary: ‘Among the patients was brought a baby… such an awful object of thinness and sores… No cure had we, and thouh we did consult over ¼ drop of chlorodine, in much water, we felt it was really dangerous to meddle with the poor thing… Theodore told them it could not live long and it died that evening or the next day.’[24][25]

Widowhood and later lifeEdit

Theodore Bent died in May 1897[26] of malarial complications after a hurried return to London from Aden, where the couple were both hospitalized at the end of their last journey together.[27]

The year after her husband's death, Bent made a solo visit to Egypt to see the sites on the Nile. She attempted a last diary, which she headed 'A lonely useless journey'. It is the last of her travel notebooks in the archives of the Hellenic and Roman Library, Senate House, London.[28]

Until 1914, Mabel Bent was a regular visitor to the Holy Land.[29] In Jerusalem, Bent joined the ‘Garden Tomb Association’, whose members were dedicated to preserving a tomb-site just outside the Damascus Gate, which they believed to be Christ’s tomb. Bent was made London secretary and later co-edited an update of the guidebook,[30] with Charlotte Hussey, a fellow Irishwoman, who was the official custodian of the tomb in Jerusalem. Bent and Hussey fell out with the local consular official, John Dickson, which resulted ultimately in questions to the House of Commons[31] and an enquiry. Documents in Bent’s Foreign Office files contain comments such as: ‘A most tiresome and persistent woman’; ‘Could not the F.O. cause these women to be ejected from the place?’; ‘It would be an excellent thing if Mrs. Bent could be prosecuted for libel’; ‘She is a very vindictive and obnoxious person, and has given the unfortunate Consul for a long time past a great deal of trouble by her vicious proceedings’.[32] Further incidents included a solitary and potentially dangerous outing to the salt deserts around Jebel Usdum, south of Jerusalem, where her horse rolled on her, breaking her leg. Her sister Ethel was required to travel from Ireland to nurse her.[33]

The Bethel SealEdit

Some writers think that Bent may have been involved in an archaeological puzzle known as the ‘Bethel Seal’ controversy. Some 15 km north of Jerusalem, in the village of Bethel (modern Beytin/Baytin/Beitin), a small clay stamp/seal was found in 1957 that looked identical to one obtained by Theodore Bent on their trip into the Wadi Hadramaut (Yemen) in 1894. There have been suggestions that Bent had deposited the artefact in archaeological remains in Bethel as a token to her husband, to bolster his theories about early trade links in the wider region, at a time when Theodore Bent's findings were being criticized and his academic reputation questioned, especially his interpretation of the Great Zimbabwe monuments.[34]


Bent was suggested as a possible inclusion among the first women Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. The suggestion began from an article in the Observer (April 1893), on the eve of the debate as to whether more women Fellows should be appointed in the future, after the first group the previous year. This article concludes: ‘... the battle of the ladies promises to become historic in the annals of the Society… On the original question of the eligibility of women as Fellows of the Society it is scarcely possible that there can be two opinions. Mrs. Bishop (Miss Isabella Bird) and Miss Gordon Cumming are ladies who are surely as much entitled to membership of the Royal Geographical Society as are the great majority of the gentlemen who write F.R.G.S. after their names, and Mrs. Theodore Bent, Mrs. St. George Littledale, Mrs. Archibald Little, and a host of others might be named who have shared their husbands’ travels in little known lands, and may fairly claim such privileges as Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society confers.’[35] However, by the end of July 1893, the then RGS president, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, had resigned over the failed vote to continue admitting women Fellows and no more women were admitted.[36]


Bent published four books.[2] Southern Arabia (1900)[37] is a travel book she prepared from her notebooks and those of her husband covering all their journeys in the region. In 1903 she published a small anthology of card games for travellers, A patience pocket book: plainly printed.[38] Based on her interests in British Israelism, Anglo-Saxons from Palestine; or, The imperial mystery of the lost tribes appeared in 1908.[39] Her final publication was a revised edition of a guide to the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, The Garden Tomb, Golgotha and the Garden of Resurrection (c. 1920).[30]


Mabel Bent died in her London home on 3 July 1929, her death certificate citing ‘myocardial failure’ and ‘rheumatoid arthritis (chronic)’.[40][41][5]

She is buried with her husband in the Hall-Dare family plot, St Mary’s Church, Theydon Bois, Essex.


  1. ^ Much of the biographical material herein is from two obituaries of Mabel Bent: 'Mrs. Theodore Bent', Nature 124, 65 (1929). and The Times, 4 July 1929.
  2. ^ a b Creese, Mary R.S. (2000). Ladies in the Laboratory? American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900: A Survey of Their Contributions to Research. Scarecrow Press. p. 323.
  3. ^ Bo Beolens; Michael Watkins; Michael Grayson (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. JHU Press. p. 23.
  4. ^ For the Hall-Dare family, see
  5. ^ a b Obituary, 'Mrs J. Theodore Bent', The Times, 4 July 1929.
  6. ^ Mabel V.A. Bent, ‘In the Days of My Youth: Chapters of Autobiography’, M.A.P., 10, Issue 240 (17 January 1903), pp. 72-3 (M.A.P. [Mainly about People]: A Popular Penny Weekly of Pleasant Gossip, Personal Portraits, and Social News.
  7. ^ ‘Few who see Mrs. Theodore Bent for the first time would dream that a woman so apparently fragile and so essentially feminine could be one of the most daring of travellers and adventure-lovers. It is almost more easy to say where Mrs. Bent has not been than where she has travelled. She has explored Asia Minor in its wildest recesses, and is familiar with the remotest by-ways of Persia. She knows Arabia better than West London; and in fact has roamed almost everywhere from the Cyclades to Central Africa, while she has faced death in a hundred forms. And yet so adaptable is this charming lady that when you see her in her home in Great Cumberland Place you might pardonably think that she had never wandered more than a hundred miles from her drawing-room, so naturally does she fit her environment.’ (Bromyard News – Thursday 8 October 1903).
  8. ^ Obituary, J, Theodore Bent, The Times, 7 May 1897.
  9. ^ J. Theodore Bent, The Life of Giuseppe Garibaldi, 1881. London, Longmans, Green, and Co.
  10. ^ J. Theodore Bent, The Cyclades; or, Life among the Insular Greeks, 1885. London, Longmans & Co.
  11. ^ The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent (3 vols), 2006, 2010, 2012. Oxford, Archaeopress.
  12. ^ London University: Institute of Classical Studies: NRA 35451 (Bent).
  13. ^ Expanded details of all the Bents’ journeys are available at
  14. ^ For the Bents’ finds in the British Museum, see
  15. ^ For the objects Mrs Bent gave to the British Museum in 1926, see
  16. ^ The Times, 28 November 1899: ‘Exhibition of South African, Arabian and other curiosities at the house of Mrs. Theodore Bent, 13 Great Cumberland-place, in aid of the Imperial War Fund, 12-7 (three days).’
  17. ^ The Belfast Telegraph, Saturday 27 June 1908
  18. ^ The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, 2006, Oxford, page 80.
  19. ^ For Mabel Bent's photographs, see, in particular, Southern Arabia (Theodore and Mabel Bent), 1900. London, Smith, Elder and Co.
  20. ^ J. Theodore Bent, The Cyclades; or, Life among the Insular Greeks, 1885. London, Longmans & Co., Chapter XVI.
  21. ^ ‘Researches among the Cyclades’. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 5, 42-59. [With J.G. Garson].
  22. ^ The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 1, 2006, Oxford, page 31.
  23. ^ For full details and dates of the Bents' journeys, see The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent (3 vols), 2006, 2010, 2012. Oxford, Archaeopress.
  24. ^ The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 3, 2010, Oxford, pages 171-2.
  25. ^ Mabel Bent maintained her interest in the well-being of the sick abroad, especially children. In 1909 she went out of her way to visit the English hospital in Jaffa: ‘The doctors were late, and some of the children were getting impatient, when, instead of doctors, several travellers appeared in the corridor, one of whom was a lady, and, if she will pardon me the proclamation, may I add a very charming one? It was Mrs. Theodore Bent, who, as everyone knows, is an ardent lover of the East.’ (The British Journal of Nursing, Vol. 42, March 13, 1909, pp. 213-215).
  26. ^ Obituary, The Times, 7 May 1897.
  27. ^ For the dramatic final days of the Bents' last tour, seeSouthern Arabia (Theodore and Mabel Bent), 1900. London, Smith, Elder and Co., Chapter XXXVII: 427-9.
  28. ^ The heading of Bent’s final ‘’Chronicle’’ in 1898 reads ‘A lonely useless journey’. Her diary peters out in Athens after four days. Her last chronicled words being: ‘Of course I have not neglected the antiquities either…’ (’’The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent’’, Vol. 1, page 331, Oxford, 2006).
  29. ^ Belfast Telegraph, Saturday 17 October 1908.
  30. ^ a b The Garden Tomb, Golgotha and the Garden of Resurrection (with Arthur William Crawley-Boevey and Miss Hussey), c. 1920. Jerusalem: Committee of the Garden Tomb Maintenance Fund.
  31. ^ Hansard, HC Deb., 11 November 1902, Vol. 114 cc593-4 (‘British Residents at Jerusalem’).
  32. ^ Consul Dickson’s papers: Middle East Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford (GB165-0086); for the FO references: FO 78/5418 1905; FO 78/5099; FO 78/5470; FO 78/4781; FO 369/43 (Turkey) nos. 2533, 5380, 10120.
  33. ^ Mabel Bent’s letter to Kew Director, Sir William Turner Thiselton-Dyer: ‘Dear Sir William… Thank you for sending me the flower pictures. I like them very much… This winter I only got to Jebel Usdum and arrived in Jerusalem with a broken leg, my horse having fallen on me in the wilderness of Judea. My sister Mrs. Bagenal came from Ireland and fetched me from the hospital where I was for 7 weeks. I cannot walk yet but am getting on well and my leg is quite straight and long I am thankful to say… Yours truly Mabel V.A. Bent.’ [Letter, 19 April 1904 to Thiselton-Dyer at Kew; RBG Archives: Directors’ Correspondence 1904].
  34. ^ Van Beek, G. W. and Jamme, A., 1958. ‘An Inscribed South Arabian Clay Stamp from Bethel’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 151: 9-16; Jamme, A. and Van Beek, G. W., 1961. ‘The South-Arabian Clay Stamp from Bethel Again’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 163: 15-18; Yadin, Y., 1969. ‘An Inscribed South-Arabian Clay Stamp from Bethel’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 196: 37-45; Van Beek, G. W. and Jamme, A., 1970. ‘The Authenticity of the Bethel Stamp Seal’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 199: 59-65; Kelso, J. L., 1970. ‘A Reply to Yadin’s Article on the Finding of the Bethel Seal’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 199: 65; Cleveland, R. L., 1973. ‘More on the South Arabian Clay Stamp Found at Beitîn’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 209: 33-6; Blake, I., 1973. ‘The Bethel Stamp Seal: A Mystery Revealed?’, The Irish Times, 16 August 1973; Jamme, A., 1990. ‘The Bethel Inscribed Stamp Again: A Vindication of Mrs. Theodore Bent’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 280: 89-91; Brisch, G.E., 2012 ‘A grieving widow’s token to her archaeologist husband? Where is the ‘Bethel Seal’ now? Oxford: Archaeopress Blog.
  35. ^ ‘The Royal Geographical Society and Lady Members’, The Observer, 23 April 1893.
  36. ^ ‘The Admission of Women Fellows to the Royal Geographical Society, 1892-1914; the Controversy and the Outcome’, Morag Bell and Cheryl McEwan, The Geographical Journal, 1996, Vol. 162 (3): 295-312. See also, B. Melman, Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718–1918: Sexuality, Religion and Work, page 8. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, and
  37. ^ Southern Arabia (Theodore and Mabel Bent), 1900. London, Smith, Elder and Co.
  38. ^ A patience pocket book: plainly printed, 1903/4. Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith & London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. Ltd.
  39. ^ Anglo-Saxons from Palestine; or, The imperial mystery of the lost tribes, 1908. London: Sherratt & Hughes.
  40. ^ The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent, Vol. 3, 2010: xxv. Oxford: Archaeopress.
  41. ^ 'Mrs. Theodore Bent'. Nature 124, 65 (1929).