On this day in history : 20th June 1906 – Dame Catherine Cookson, one of Britain’s most widely read novelists, is born in Tyne Dock, South Shields….
Registered as Catherine Ann Davies but known as Kate as a child, Catherine was born at 5, Leam Lane in Tyne Dock, East Jarrod – close to the mouth of the River Tyne…. She was the illegitimate daughter of Kate Fawcett, an alcoholic barmaid who had fallen on hard times…. Catherine grew up thinking that her mother was her sister and she was brought up by her grandparents, Rose and John McMullen; she was 7-years-old before she found out that her ‘sister’ was in fact her mother….
Catherine left school around the age of 14 and went into service as a maid for a while, before going to work as a laundry checker at the Harton Workhouse…. In 1929 she moved to the South Coast to run the laundry at Hastings Workhouse….
She worked hard, saved every penny she could and in 1933 managed to get a £1,000 mortgage….with which she bought a large 14 bedroom Victorian house – ‘The Hurst’…. She turned this into a lodging house/old-peoples’ home/nursing home….
In June 1940 Catherine married Tom Cookson, a teacher at Hastings Grammar School…. They could not have been more like ‘chalk and cheese’…. Whereas Catherine was strong-willed and of a dominant nature, Tom was shy and softly-spoken…. Catherine came from a working-class, poverty-stricken background…. Tom, the son of a verger, was an Oxford graduate…. Catherine was 34 when they married, senior to Tom by 6 years….
Their first child, a boy, was born three months premature and was still-born; during the Second World War years Catherine suffered a further three miscarriages…. It was also discovered she had telangiectasia – a rare vascular disease which causes bleeding…. She had a breakdown which was to take the best part of 15 years to recover from….
As part of the therapy for her depression Catherine took up writing…. She had been an avid reader as a child and had written her first short story ‘The Wild Irish Girl’ at the age of 11…. She had sent it to the local newspaper – but it had been returned unpublished….
She joined the Hastings Writers’ Group and started her first novel ‘Kate Hannigan’ in 1946 and it was published in 1950…. But her writing career really took off in the late 1960s; her first major success ‘Our Kate’, published in 1969, took her 12 years to write….
Catherine Cookson wrote 103 books, often two a year, selling over 123 million copies – and her work has been translated into nearly 20 languages…. She was also published under the pseudonyms of Catherine Marchant and Katie McMullen…. For 17 years she was the most borrowed author from British libraries…. Many of her books have been adapted for film, radio, stage and particularly TV…. Between 1990 and 2001 some 18 of her books had been adapted for the small screen….
Most of her novels were set in a run-down North East, reflecting the poverty of her early life; Tyneside was then one of the poorest parts of the Country…. But in later life the North East was where she and Tom were to return…. After living in several locations they finally settled in 1989 in the Jesmond area of Newcastle-upon-Tyne…. Catherine’s health had deteriorated considerably and she spent the last few years of her life bedridden….her final novels were written whilst she was in her sickbed….
Catherine died at home 16 days before her 92nd birthday, on the 11th of June 1998…. She had vascular disease, had suffered five heart attacks and was almost blind…. Her husband died just 17 days later…. After their deaths the couple’s £20m fortune was donated to charities…. Catherine had done much for charity in her lifetime; in 1985 she had given £800,000 to the University of Newcastle….who in gratitude set up a lectureship in haematology….
Catherine was awarded an OBE in 1985 and became a Dame of the British Empire in 1993…. In 1997 she was appointed Honorary Fellow of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford….