International Women's Day 2019

The Cook Sisters

Did you know that it's International Women's Day on 8th March?

Sunderland has it's fair share of strong, inspirational women who have worked towards a more gender-balanced world. We have featured some of our notible women here to commemorate the day



Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926)

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born into a wealthy family at Washington New Hall in what was then County Durham.  A Blue Plaque has since been mounted here in her honour.

Initially home-schooled she later attended school in London, eventually gaining a first-class pass in Modern History (degree equivalent) whilst attending Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Thereafter she travelled in Europe and also spent several months in Bucharest and in Tehran.

From the turn of the century, Gertrude developed a love of the Arab peoples - she learned their languages, investigated their archaeological sites and travelled deep into the desert. This intimate knowledge of the country and its tribes made her a target of British Intelligence recruitment during the First World War. At the end of the war, Gertrude focussed on the future of Mesopotamia and was to become a powerful force in Iraqi politics, becoming a kingmaker when her preferred choice, Faisal (son of Husain, the Sharif of Mecca and King of the Hijaz) was crowned King of the state of Iraq in August 1921.

Gertrude's first love remained archaeology and, as Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq, she established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.


Ida Cook (1904 – 1986) and Louise Cook (1901 – 1991)

The Cook sisters were born in the early 1900s, and were residents of 37 Croft Avenue, Sunderland where there is now a commemorative Blue Plaque in their honour.

The sisters never married and once they were in their thirties they discovered a passion for opera and travelled abroad frequently to see some of the greatest operatic performances. Whilst visiting the Salzburg Festival in 1934, they were befriended by the conductor and impresario Clemens Krauss. It was his wife who suggested they "look after" a friend who was visiting London and she opened their eyes to the situation Jewish people living in Germany and Austria faced at the time.

There were restrictions on all aspects of life and although Jews were at this stage able to leave the country, they were unable to take money or possessions with them.

Those wanting to come to Great Britain had to prove they had a job to go to or sufficient funds to live on - the latter presenting huge difficulties due to the money prohibition.

Ida and Louise were able to help them get around this situation by smuggling their valuable goods across the border.

The sisters would arrive in the country plainly dressed without coats, travelling home decked in jewellery and furs, which they pretended were their own

They also persuaded people to vouch for refugees, by offering work or financial guarantees, to satisfy the British requirements for immigration.

Soon the Cook name went around and they began getting "the most pitiable appeals" from people wanting to leave.

At that point Ida - then earning £5 a week as a shorthand typist - wrote what she described as "a light romance" which was published by Mills and Boon.

Over the course of the next 50 years, under the pen name of Mary Burchell, she wrote about 130 novels for the publisher and "the money just kept coming in".

During the late 1930s this funded the sisters' trips to Germany and Austria.

When their frequent visits aroused suspicion, Krauss, who was then director of the Munich Opera House, stepped in.

He arranged for performances - sometimes letting them choose which one - in the cities and on the days they requested.

This allowed them to do their work amid what Ida later described as "some of the greatest operatic performances of the century".

They were careful to arrive and depart via separate border crossings, as it would have given them away if they arrived with very little luggage but left two days later with large quantities of jewellery.


In 1965, the sisters received the Righteous Among the Nations honour from the state of Israel, for their "warmth of heart, devotion, rare perseverance [and willingness] to sacrifice their personal safety, time and energy".

Ida died in 1986, with Louise outliving her by just over four years.


Ellen Elizabeth Bell

Ellen Bell was elected to represent Hendon on the then town council, following a by-election in October 1919, just a year after women were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Serving as a Conservative councillor until 1943, she also sat on committees covering health, education and the arts alongside work as a school governor and borough magistrate.

She was also honoured by the King in 1939 for her 23 years of service and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire.


Elizabeth Donnison

Elizabeth and Charlotte Green  - Elizabeth was born on 21 April 1882, and Charlotte was born on 5 April 1884. They lived in the Pans, Bishopwearmouth. The girls were the youngest of six children. Their father was a shipwright and they lived comfortably until he died at Christmas 1891. The family was left with little money. The girls were aged 7 and 9 years when their father died. They were accepted into the Donnison School, and they continued their education until they were 16 years old. By this time they had been made orphans after the death of their mother. At the Donnison School the girls were instructed in the principles of Christianity and were required to attend church every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. On admission to the school they were provided with a complete set of clothes. During their time at the school, they received spelling books and other school provisions. On leaving the school they each received a school bible and their sampler

James Donnison was a vestryman and one of the Church wardens of Sunderland in 1745. In May 1766 he was elected as one of the freemen of the Borough. Mr Donnison was a butcher in Sunderland; he came to great fortune and became the owner of the free hold estate Farrington, near Silksworth. Mr Donnison was the second husband of Mrs Elizabeth Donnison (previously Mrs Guy). They married in January 1759. James Donnison died in 1777, aged 62 years. Elizabeth Donnison died in November 1778, and was buried near the south wall of the Sunderland Church.

The Church Walk school was established in 1777, after Elizabeth Donnison ,wife of church warden James, left money for the venture in her will.


If you would like more information on International Women's Day click here 

If you would like more information on Sunderland's blue plaques click here

If you would like more information on Sunderland Heritage click here


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