Bailiffgate’s Mick Grant describes the history of two remarkable sisters with Alnwick connections, and his contribution to the book below.
Researching the Cook Sisters
A 1956 episode of the BBC television programme This is Your Life, featured the lives of two brave sisters, Louise and Ida Cook who, between 1912 and 1919 spent seven years of their childhood living in Alnwick. Some years later in 1964 the two women were awarded Israel’s Certificate of Recognition of the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority “for their many noble and courageous acts of humanity in rescuing Jews from Germany and Austria”.
During the 1920s the sisters were living in London and had become passionate opera fans attending as many operas as possible. Waiting outside the stage door to see the stars they became friendly with many of the performers and musicians, many of whom were Jewish. In the 1920s both sisters had civil service and local government clerical jobs and did not earn very much. They certainly couldn’t afford to buy expensive dresses to attend the opera, so they made their own. However, by the 1930s Ida had a job as a sub-editor at a fashion magazine and had begun a successful career as a writer of romantic fiction. Eventually she wrote over 100 novels for Mills and Boon (under the name of Mary Burchell). So, by the mid-30s she was quite affluent and able to purchase a flat in the newly built Dolphin Square development in London. By that time the sisters were increasingly aware through their contacts in the operatic world of the plight of Jewish people in Germany and Austria. They decided to do whatever they could to help. Using Ida’s income, they would travel to Germany and Austria to help Jewish people to escape. In all they helped 29 Jewish refugees to escape from the Nazi regime.
As a museum we quite often receive queries from people asking if we have information in our collection about particular people. In early 2019, we received an email from Isabel Vincent, an American journalist and author, asking if we had any information about the Cook sisters. In my role as a collections volunteer I knew that the sisters had spent part of their childhood living in Alnwick and that they feature in our permanent display. However, I had not researched them in any detail. Isabel had read Ida Cook’s autobiographical work We Followed our Stars (later republished as Safe Passage) in which Ida describes their time in Alnwick in a single paragraph in which she tells her readers how much they had enjoyed their time living in a historic town and studying at The Duchess’s School. Isabel was hoping the museum could provide more information about their lives in Alnwick that would fill out some detail for a book she was in the process of writing.
Having first conducted a little internet research I found that Louise had been born in Surrey in 1901, Ida in Sunderland in 1904. The family had then moved to South London where they lived until 1912, I then turned to our extensive collection of Duchess’s School resources. At that time the school involved both primary and secondary sections. The primary section was state funded and the secondary section was fee paying, but some girls were funded in secondary education by the local authority, having passed the 11+. The school enrolment records in our collection showed that they had enrolled at the school in September 1912. Their father was a Surveyor of Customs and Taxes and the family lived at Lovaine House at the top of Percy Terrace. Their previous school was listed as a Convent School in Barnes, south-west London. The enrolment forms also showed that both girls had missed the spring term of 1914 due to whooping cough. Louise (whose full name was Mary Louise) appears to have had quite a nervous disposition. The record shows that she failed a music exam due to nerves even though she was the best candidate in the school and all the others passed. It is hard to reconcile this with the woman who twenty years later took great risks in helping Jewish people to escape from Germany and Austria.
Enrolment form for Louise Cook
The school first published a school magazine in 1915 and in 1917 there is a reference to the sisters’ interest in music. At a concert to raise funds to help wounded soldiers Louise played a piano duet with another pupil and Ida played a violin solo accompanied by a teacher. The 1919 school magazine could not be produced in printed form due to paper shortages following the Great War. Instead, it consisted of a single handwritten copy with a range of contributions that were stapled together and circulated around the school. We are fortunate to have in our collection what we believe to be the only copy. In the case of the Cook sisters it is remarkable in that it contains a three-page handwritten romantic short story written by 15-year-old Ida Cook in which she shows early signs of the talent that would later make her a successful author. The opening paragraph can be seen below:
The school magazines from the years between the wars show how much the sisters had valued their time at the school and the friendships that they had made there. Ida was a frequent contributor of lengthy articles for the Old Girls section of the magazine and was the secretary of the London section of the Old Girls Guild.
Some of the friendships that Louise and Ida made with other girls at The Duchess’s School were to last for the rest of their lives. One of the committee members listed in the above is Margaret (Rettie) Douglas of Amble who attended the school with her twin sister Elizabeth. Although the two pairs of sisters came from different social backgrounds (the Douglas twins being the daughters of a coal miner from Radcliffe colliery) they became lifelong friends.
By a fortunate coincidence, while researching the Cook sisters, I was able to meet with the daughter of Elizabeth Douglas thanks to a donation to the museum collection. One day a lady came to the museum to donate some old dresses that had been part of a costume collection worn in amateur dramatics. She mentioned that one of the dresses had been made by a woman who had lived in Alnwick and had become famous for helping to rescue Jewish refugees. When I asked her if she was referring to one of the Cook sisters she said ‘yes’. It turned out that at some point Ida had given one of her home-made dresses (a pale green satin evening dress with a bolero jacket) to her friend Rettie Douglas. Later, Rettie had passed the dress to her niece (Elizabeth Douglas’s daughter, who was also called Margaret) who was involved in amateur dramatics, and this dress was part of the donation.
Dress made by Ida Cook in the 1920s
It turned out that Elizabeth’s daughter, Margaret was still alive and well and approaching her 90th birthday. The lady who was donating the dresses arranged for myself and a colleague to go and meet her. We spent a very interesting afternoon hearing her reminiscences of visiting the Cook sisters in London during the 1930s and 40s. She also allowed me to copy a photo of the Cooks on a visit to Northumberland in 1941.
Taken at Amble Dunes the photo shows Louise and Ida with two sisters (Nesta and Jane Guthrie) who were friends of theirs from London, three friends from schooldays in Alnwick and three of their friends’ children.
Back row: (left) Louise Cook, (right) Nesta Guthrie (friend from London who had lost an eye in a bombing raid)
Middle row: (left) Ida Cook, (centre) Elsie Patterson (née Akeroyd – school friend), (right) Elizabeth Douglas.
Front Row: (left) Rettie Douglas, (centre) Elsie’s daughter, Elizabeth’s son, Elizabeth’s daughter (the owner of this photograph), (right) Jane Guthrie.
The connection between the Cooks and the Douglases was a strong one. In 1944, worried about the flying bomb raids on London, Ida and Louise’s parents came to Northumberland to live with Rettie and Elizabeth’s parents and stayed in the area until the war ended. It turned out to be a good decision as a few days after moving North their London home was severely damaged by a flying bomb.
Another lifelong school friendship was with Emily Thompson, whose parents owned a shop on Fenkle Street in Alnwick. Just before the first covid lockdown Emily’s son came to visit the museum and having spoken to him he sent me some photos including one of his mother’s wedding in Alnwick in 1924 which was attended by the Cook sisters, and where Louise was a bridesmaid (at the right in the picture below).
The sisters never married and lived together throughout their lives. Ida died in 1986 aged 82 and Louise in 1991 aged 89.
The publication of Isabel Vincent’s book, Overture of Hope, was delayed due to Covid but in late 2022 the book was published. It is currently available in hardback and on Kindle and a paperback version is due in 2023. When I received a copy from Isabel, posted from New York, it was very satisfying to see that the material from our collection had helped her in writing the book.