Doreen Ingrams was the first European woman to live and travel freely in the Hadhramaut in South Arabia, whose social and economic condition she investigated with her husband, Harold Ingrams, in the 1930s.
Born Doreen Shortt in 1906 into a highly conventional Edwardian family, she showed from an early age a reluctance to conform and a distaste for all forms of social distinction. At 12 she came across the works of Tolstoy and was moved to provoke a domestic revolution in the household of her father, Edward Shortt MP (later to become Home Secretary under Lloyd George). Henceforth, ordained the youngest member of his family, it would be her own responsibility and not that of the housemaid to empty her chamberpot.
It must have seemed like an omen; and sure enough, instead of accepting the destiny of almost all her contemporaries and making a "good marriage", she embarked determinedly on the first of three careers, none of which can have had an immediate appeal for her family, but in each of which she found fulfilment and notable success.
With only a rudimentary education and lacking qualifications of any kind, she went first for the stage, joining a repertory company and exchanging the airs and graces of South Kensington for the far more engaging turmoil of actors' lodgings in provincial towns. At the age of 18 she was earning local renown (and pounds 3 a week) for her portrayal of Lavender in Sweet Lavender, before moving on to Shakespearean roles in the company of such as Michael MacLiammoir, who in his memoir All for Hecuba (1946) described her as "a slim blonde whose father had been Secretary for Ireland and who was a charming Ophelia". And then on to London, where she understudied Edith Evans and shared a dressing room - and a lasting friendship - with Peggy Ashcroft.
And so it might have gone on had she not met and married a young colonial officer named Harold Ingrams, on leave from his post in Mauritius, whither she accompanied him in 1930. She found the colonial atmosphere oppressive and, searching for distraction from the tedium of life in a country the size of Surrey (and with a not dissimilar social hierarchy), found it in translating an 18th-century history of the island by the Vicomte de Vaux - and in learning basic Arabic.
It was a sound choice, for in 1934 Harold Ingrams achieved his ambition of being transferred to South Arabia and Doreen took off with him on what was to be for both of them the most significant period of their lives. Aden (now in the Yemen) was a crown colony, caught as rigidly as Mauritius in the amber of an outdated imperial system and both husband and wife found it irksome. But Harold managed to persuade the British Resident that he would be better employed investigating conditions in the inland territory of the Aden Protectorate, made up of a handful of tiny sheikhdoms and sultanates, all subject to an ill-defined form of British rule ("Protection") but each fiercely jealous of its theoretical independence.
From their base in Mukalla on the Indian Ocean, Doreen travelled with him for nine weeks, across a stony desert plateau and on beyond into the series of deep valleys which constitute the Hadhramaut.
It was a strange and fascinating territory, well watered in places, so that there were gardens and palm groves and among them mud-walled cities of tower blocks, all shut in by precipitous cliffs of rock a thousand feet high and surrounded by that boulder-strewn wasteland.
Communication between and along the separate valleys of the Hadhramaut was by donkey or camel and this was the way the Ingrams travelled, to produce for the Colonial Office an astonishingly detailed Report on the Social, Economic and Political Condition of Hadhramaut (1935), the earliest account of a territory still utterly remote from western eyes, and indeed very little known to the inhabitants of the neighbouring Arab countries. The report was for the most part Harold's work, though with much help from Doreen.
Thirteen years later, after they had been the first Europeans to live in the Hadhramaut and had explored all its network of valleys, sometimes together and sometimes separately, Doreen produced her own Survey of Social and Economic Conditions in the Aden Protectorate. In it she was able to extend the range of the information they had gathered, for when she travelled alone on her donkey (she preferred a camel) with a Bedouin escort and now speaking fluent Arabic in the local dialect, she was received into the homes of rich and poor where no European woman had ever been seen before.
It was altogether an experience she treasured and of which she kept a detailed record in diaries which she later distilled into an absorbing book entitled A Time in Arabia (1970). When she had the opportunity to make a return visit to the Hadhramaut many years later, she was able to travel by car in many places where there had been no roads when she lived there; but, she wrote: "I was glad that I had had the chance of seeing the Hadhramaut from the back of a camel for otherwise I would never have got to know the country or the people so well".
In her third career Doreen Ingrams spent 12 years as a Senior Assistant in the Arabic Service of the BBC, where she was in charge of talks and magazine programmes, especially programmes for women. Gathering material for these, she travelled widely and after her retirement in 1967 she kept closely in touch with developments in the Arab world.
In 1972 she made use of little-known archive material to produce a work of lasting historical significance in Palestine Papers 1917-1922 with the subtitle Seeds of Conflict, pinpointing the responsibility of British ministers and officials for the subsequent tragedy in Palestine. She was a founder- member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) and served for many years on its Executive Committee. At a reception in her honour in 1994 the members of the Arab Club in Britain presented her with a silver tray as a symbol of "her outstanding contribution to the promotion of Arab-British understanding".
For their pioneer work in Southern Arabia Harold and Doreen Ingrams were awarded jointly the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and the Lawrence of Arabia Medal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. In addition, Doreen received in 1993 the Sir Richard Burton Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Well into her eighties Doreen Ingrams was still devoting her talent for research and the marshalling of facts to the history of the country which held first place in her heart. With her daughter Leila, who survives her, she edited and published in 16 volumes the Records of Yemen 1798-1960 (1993), a fitting culmination to a long career of vigorous and creative activity in the service of others.
Doreen Constance Shortt, actress, writer and broadcaster: born London 24 January 1906; married 1930 Harold Ingrams (died 1973; one daughter and one adopted daughter); died Tenterden, Kent 25 July 1997.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies