Iron Lady

Louise Cooke – This Exploited Land Heritage Officer

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on 14 July 1868 at Washington Hall in County Durham and died in Baghdad (then within British Mandate Mesopotamia) on 12 July Miss Bell - Keystone View Company - from She is a woman of the moment with the new Werner Herzog film ‘Queen of the Desert’ (staring Nicole Kidman) tracing her role as an archaeologist, spy and state-maker in the Near East. Although Gertrude is most associated with the Near East she had family connections to the North East (of England) and to the iron making industries that are the focus of our HLF funded This Exploited Land Landscape Partnership Project. By following those connections we can illustrate the associations, rivalries and mergers that characterised the iron and railway industries of North East England.


Gertrude’s Great Grandfather was Thomas Bell who in partnership with William Losh and Thomas Wilson created iron and alkali works at Walker on the River Tyne near Newcastle. It was Bell’s partner Thomas Wilson who identified the ironstone at Grosmont and in 1837 the Grosmont Ironstone Mine was opened to provide ironstone for the Losh, Wilson and Bell Iron Works at Walker.

Jump forward a generation and Gertrude’s Grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell established iron works at Port Clarence on the River Tees in 1852, pioneering blast furnaces for smelting iron and earning a reputation as the world’s greatest ironmaster. The Bell Brothers’ (Lowthian, Thomas, John) firm made rails for the railways rapidly expanding across Britain and the British Empire. Jump forward again – Gertrude’s father was Sir Hugh Bell who carried on and expanded the family firm (Bell Brothers).

Philip Webb designed a number of Arts and Crafts style buildings for the Bells; family homes at Rounton Grange near Northallerton, and Red Barns House near Redcar, and also the Bell Brothers’ Offices on Zetland Street in Middlesbrough which was Webb’s only commercial development.

Such Victorian Polymaths who were stalwarts of advancement of practical science and art are also connected to the railway developments that are central to our This Exploited Land story. The Whitby and Pickering Railway was opened as a horse drawn railway in 1836, it was later absorbed into the York and North Midland Railway Company in 1845 when it was gradually rebuilt as a steam railway. In 1854 the York and North Midland Railway was merged with other local companies to form the North Eastern Railway Company, for which both Lowthian and Hugh Bell were Directors.

Growing up in this family of extraordinarily capable individuals it is perhaps no surprise Gertrude Bell led such a life she did. In 1886 she went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she was the first woman to win a first-class degree in modern history. From 1892 Gertrude travelled widely establishing herself as an archaeologist and specialist in the Middle East. Her book Syria: The Desert and the Sown was published in 1907. She combined her long periods of work in the Near East with journeys back home to Rounton Grange. After Gertrude died Sir Hugh observed “there never were father and daughter who stood in such intimate relations as she and I did to one another”.

Because of her knowledge and experience, in 1915 Gertrude was called to the British Government’s Cairo Bureau where her war service (like T E Lawrence) was concerned with forming alliances with local tribes against the Ottoman Empire. After the war she worked in Baghdad under the title Oriental Secretary and was one of the Orientalists involved in the 1921 Cairo Conference that drew dividing lines and shaped the boundaries of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. There is one astonishing picture of Gertrude Bell at the Conference – she is a female face amongst 40 male faces. At one time she was widely considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire. Alongside her diplomatic role Gertrude Bell established the Archaeological Museum in Baghdad (which was officially opened in 1926) and she left £50,000 to the museum in her will when she died.

These connections between iron, railways and the Near East remind me of the scene in David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia film where the Hejaz Railway is blown up. This was part of the vast, planned Ottoman Railway that was intended to link Istanbul, Baghdad and the Red Sea. This section was planned to link Damascus to Mecca but was only laid as far as Medina. This railway was constructed using steel rails the analysis of which suggests the steel was produced via the Thomas process – which allowed the exploitation of iron ores with high levels of phosphorous which were common in continental Europe. Interestingly it was the development of this process that had enabled the advance of the German steel industry during the First World War.

Gertrude Bell’s extraordinary life rested on the wealth built by the ironmasters of the North East of England. This changed dramatically in the period after the First World War with the depression that characterised the 1920s, and the development of industrial processes in other countries. It is in this period that the use of the This Exploited Land landscape for ironstone exploitation came to an end with the Grosmont Iron Works, reduced to being used for slag reprocessing, closing in the early 1930s.

View of Grosmont by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853 - 1941) - by kind permission of Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society

I have a particular interest in this inspiring, complex woman and I have been fortunate enough to work on archaeological sites in the Middle East too. I’m fortunate now to be developing our This Exploited Land project that weaves in and out of the Bell family and their impact on the industrial development of the North York Moors in the North East of England.

Photograph of Harran, Turkey in  May 1911 by Gertrude Bell - from Gertrude Bell Archive, University of NewcastlePhotograph of Harran, Turkey in May 1911 by Gertrude Bell - from Gertrude Bell Archive, University of Newcastle

Photograph of Harran, Turkey May 2013 traditional earth buildings by Louise CookePhotogaph of Harran, Turkey May 2013 by Louise Cooke

The Gertrude Bell Archive (including 16 volumes of diaries and about 1,600 letters to her parents) is held by the University of Newcastle.




3 thoughts on “Iron Lady

  1. Pingback: Women and mothers | Louise Cooke

  2. Pingback: Last year’s top 5 posts … and what happens next with TEL | The official blog for the North York Moors National Park

  3. Pingback: exploited landscape stories | Louise Cooke

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