Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Sisters Ida and Louise Cook, Battersea characters and heroines.


  • Ida and Louise

I read about Ida and Louise Cook who lived in Battersea at 24 Morella Road. Louise Carpenter  wrote about them in Granta.                                                 I was delighted that the Battersea Society hosted a talk on these two fascinating sisters given by Louise Carpenter.

They were two ordinary civil servant sisters who came from Sunderland with their family to Battersea.They were born at the beginning of the last century; Louise quieter and more intellectual in 1901; Ida chatty and confident – naturally garrulous – three years later in 1904 in Sunderland, Northeast England where their father, a Customs and Excise officer, was posted.where they lived for sixty years. But then they fell n love with opera which included traveling to America and Europe as they ‘followed their stars’ which became funded by Ida’s earnings as a Mills and Boons author of 112 books and their rescuing Jewish refugees and their families in the thirties, till war broke out.

As someone who is interested in people who have lived in or been associated with Battersea I was intrigued about them and their story and believe that they should be remembered and commemorated in Battersea and beyond. I bought Ida’s book Safe Passage. The original title was We followed our Stars which is the better and more accurate description.

We followed our stars

I was delighted to find this audio interview with them on a visit to America after the publication of We followed our Stars which was the original title of Ida’s memoirs.

I will now shamelessly quote eloquent reviewers in my quest to have these sisters commemorated in Battersea.


Ida with Tito Gobbi and his autobiography which she helped to write.

The original title embraces the whole of the book, which is about the sisters’ enthusiastic pursuit of opera stars; their enjoyment of Covent Garden queue culture; saving for (literally) years to sail to New York, flying to Cologne, and taking the night train to Milan, all to see one particular singer or to hear one particular conductor. Ida Cook was an early paparazza, snapping candid shots of the stars on her Box Brownie as they emerged from the Covent Garden stage door. She and Louise became close friends with the American singer Rosa Ponselle, the Italian coloratura Alita Galli-Curci, the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss and the Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac. There’s quite a bit of name-dropping  – ‘Years and years afterwards, Callas said to me …’ – but most will be lost on readers who are not musicologists. It’s the passion for music, and the warm friendships that grew up between these fans and their stars, that give this memoir its emotional depth.


Ida and Louise with Rosa Ponselle – one of the stars that they followed

Following their stars gave the Cook sisters the ideal cover story for their increasing trips to Germany and Austria to get Jewish refugees out. They used the guarantee system of visas, invented by the British consul in Frankfurt am Main, Robert Smallbones, by which the Nazi authorities allowed the departure of Jews to Britain if they had a guarantee of financial support in Britain. The Cook sisters found the guarantees and arranged the ‘safe passage’ of 29 German and Austrian Jews, focusing on getting families out as well as children. Ida financed this with her earnings as a fiction editor and as an increasingly successful novelist, and Louise taught herself German to be able to do the interviews with refugees and the authorities. To provide refugees with an income, they smuggled out furs by sewing in British labels, and got fabulously valuable jewellery past suspicious German customs agents by wearing it as if it came from Woolworth’s. Reselling these valuable items in Britain gave the refugees start-up financial security, so that often the guarantees of financial support that the Cooks were offered by friends and strangers were not needed. Since the Cook sisters were well-known at Cologne airport and in Vienna as eccentric English sisters who adored opera, their comings and goings were accepted. This is a tremendous story, and it is the heart of the memoir, but there is so much more.

Ida and Louise in finery

Ida and Louise in their finery ready for the opera

 The Cooks’ refugee work ended when war was declared, and they separated to carry out war work in Britain. Ida was assigned to superintend a night shelter at the Elephant and Castle, in south London. Her descriptions of enduring the Blitz, the physical effects of bomb blasts, what it sounds like when the buildings above are crashing into ruin, and the smell and colour of burning buildings, are extraordinarily powerful, which leads to another important aspect of this memoir (another aspect ignored by the publicity): she’s a terrific writer. Her style is apparently artless chattering, evoking the cheerful secretary that she was in her early twenties, and masking the sisters’ bravery during their humanitarian relief work. There is emotional truth to be found beneath the apparently trivial detail of the daily lives of these young professional women in 1930s London. Ida’s memoir is packed with the detail of ordinary lives from the 1930s that so often get ignored: dress-making from Mab’s Fashions on a tight budget, where shopgirls had their lunches, her work as a catastrophically useless sub-editor on one of the new fiction magazines that proliferated between the wars, and how the opera fans kept in touch, and kept music in their lives, during and after the war. The scene where the Cooks have arranged a party for all their Covent Garden queuing friends immediately after the war, and make a long-distance call to Rosa Ponselle in New York, who sings for them down the phone: well, that brought tears to my eyes. As did the scene during the Blitz when another singer and her accompanist had the 200 inhabitants of the night shelter singing Ben Jonson’s lyric ‘Drink to Me only With Thine Eyes’.

It is a very evocative read of their times as well recording their efforts in helping Jewish refugees because they were in a position to do so.

Ida and Eamonn Andrews

Ida appearing on This is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews in 1956. ‘perfectly wonderful evening….still happily dazzled”

Anne Sebba wrote the forward to the book                                                                                                                                                She wrote had it not been for the strong sense of justice in their upbringing, the sisters may not have had the courage to pursue their dangerous mission. Their mother’s instilling of values to the two young girls was one of the most touching parts of the story, says Sebba. “In the book, Ida says: ‘Our parents just taught us what was right.’ They just knew it instinctively.


Ida died of cancer in Parkside Hospital, Wimbledon, in 1986 and was later cremated at Putney Vale. Mary Louise joined her not long after in 1991.

They were recognized by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority as righteous.In 2010 they were each posthumously named ‘British Hero of the Holocaust’ by the British Government.

Our wish to have them commemorated with a plaque at the home in 24 Morella road SW12 has been turned down by the owners  on the grounds of privacy and security.

The talk is to take place on Thursday 19th January 2017 at St Mary’s Church.


Louise Carpenter

Thursday 19 January 2017
 Talk about Ida and Louise Cook
Time: 6.30pm for 7.00pm

Biographer Louise Carpenter tells the extraordinary story of two opera-mad
sisters, one of them a prolific writer for Mills & Boon, who decided to use their obsession and their new-found wealth for a higher purpose – to transport Jews out of Germany as Europe careered towards the Second World War.
Venue: St Mary’s Church
Location: Battersea Church Road, London SW11 3NA
Cost (per person): £5 payable on door


The presentation by Louise was great and it was well attended. One audience member said that he had been pushing for their story to be taken up by film/tv producers. We agreed how it has all  the ingredients for a feature film or documentary.

Caroline Shearman commented on this post in Battersea Memories :They were my neighbours. I lived at number 26. Wonderful inspiring women. Very sad th at a blue plague will not be going on their home. They are true heroines. Such bravery. I still treasure the books they gave me as a child. They opened up the world to me and gave me a love of reading. May they rest in peace.

I would loved to hear more from Caroline about her former neighbours. I will keep trying to have these sisters commemorated in Battersea.


One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Hilaire said, on March 28, 2016 at 10:16 am

    This is fascinating – thanks for raising their profiles!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: