Dame Catherine Cookson DBE (27 June 1906 — 11 June 1998) was an English author. She became the United Kingdom's most widely read novelist, with sales topping 100 million, while remaining a relatively low-profile figure in the world of celebrity writers. Her books were inspired by her deprived youth in North East England, the setting for her novels.
Born as Catherine Ann McMullen at 5 Leam Lane in Tyne Dock, South Shields, (then part of County Durham), she was known as "Kate" as a child. She moved to East Jarrow, County Durham (now in Tyne and Wear), which would become the setting for one of her best-known novels, The Fifteen Streets. The illegitimate child of an alcoholic named Kate Fawcett, she grew up thinking her unmarried mother was her sister, as she was raised by her grandparents, Rose and John McMullen. Biographer Kathleen Jones tracked down her father whose name was Alexander Davies, a bigamist and gambler from Lanarkshire.
She left school at 13 and, after a period of domestic service, took a laundry job at Harton Workhouse in South Shields. In 1929, she moved south to run the laundry at Hastings Workhouse, saving every penny to buy a large Victorian house, and then taking in gentleman and lady lodgers to supplement her income.
In June 1940, at the age of 34, she married Tom Cookson, a teacher at Hastings Grammar School. After experiencing four miscarriages late in pregnancy, it was discovered she was suffering from a rare vascular disease, telangiectasia, which causes bleeding from the nose, fingers and stomach and results in anemia. A mental breakdown followed the miscarriages, from which she took a decade to recover.
She took up writing as a form of therapy to tackle her depression, and joined Hastings Writers' Group. Her first novel, Kate Hannigan, was published in 1950. Though it was labelled a romance, she expressed discontent with the stereotype. Her books were, she said, historical novels about people and conditions she knew. Catherine had little to do with the London literary circus. She was always more interested in practicing the art of writing. Her research could be uncomfortable ... going down a mine, for instance, because her heroine came from a mining area. Having in her youth wanted to write about "above stairs" in grand houses, she later and successfully concentrated on people ground down by circumstances, taking care to know them well.
Cookson went on to write almost 100 books, selling more than 123 million copies of her books, her works being translated into at least 20 languages. She also wrote books under the pseudonyms Catherine Marchant and a name derived from her childhood name, Katie McMullen. She remained the most borrowed author from public libraries in the UK for 17 years, only losing the title in 2002, four years after her death.
Many of Cookson's novels have been transferred to stage, film and radio. It was on television, however, that she achieved her greatest media success, with a series of dramas on ITV lasting over a decade and achieving huge ratings. Eighteen adaptations were produced by Tyne Tees Television, regularly attracting more than 10 million viewers. These include: -
The Fifteen Streets (1989) starring Sean Bean and Jane Horrocks, which became hugely successful.
The Black Velvet Gown (1991), with Janet McTeer, Bob Peck, Geraldine Somerville won the International Emmy award for best drama. In 1994,
The Cinder Path with Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tracy Whitwell and Ray Stevenson in The Dwelling Place.
The Tide of Life (1996) with Gillian Kearney and future Rome co-star James Purefoy.
The 1995 adaption of The Gambling Man starring Robson Green.
The Mallens (1979—1980) with John Hallam and Juliet Stevenson;
The Black Candle (1991) with Nathaniel Parker and Samantha Bond;
The Man Who Cried (1993) with Ciarán Hinds and Amanda Root;
The Glass Virgin (1995) with Nigel Havers, Emily Mortimer and Brendan Coyle;
The Girl (1996) with Jonathan Cake and Siobhan Flynn;
The Moth (1997) with Jack Davenport, Juliet Aubrey and Justine Waddell;
The Rag Nymph (1997) with Honeysuckle Weeks, Alec Newman and Val McLane;
The Wingless Bird (1997) with Claire Skinner, Anne Reid and Julian Wadham;
Colour Blind (1997) with Niamh Cusack, Tony Armatrading, Art Malik, and Carmen Ejogo;
The Round Tower (1997) with Emilia Fox, Ben Miles and Denis Lawson;
Tilly Trotter (1998) with Carli Norris and Simon Shepherd;
The Secret (1999) with Colin Buchanan, Hannah Yelland, Elizabeth Carling and Clare Higgins;
A Dinner of Herbs (2000) with Jonathan Kerrigan, Melanie Clark Pullen, Debra Stephenson, David Threlfall and Billie Whitelaw.
Although she became a multi-millionaire from her books, Dame Catherine was famed for her care with money. She did, however, indulge in discreet philanthropy, supporting causes in North East England and medical research in areas that were close to her heart. When public lending rights were introduced for authors, she became immediately eligible for the maximum £5,000 a year but donated it for the benefit of less fortunate writers. She also donated more than £1 million for research into a cure for the illness that afflicted her.
In 1985, she pledged more than £800,000 to the University of Newcastle. In gratitude, the university set up a lectureship in hematology. Some £40,000 was given to provide a laser to help treat bleeding disorders and £50,000 went to create a new post in ear, nose and throat studies, with particular reference to the detection of deafness in children. She had already given £20,000 towards the university's Hatton Gallery and £32,000 to its library. In recognition of this generosity, a building in the university medical faculty has been named after her. Her foundation continues to make donations to worthy causes in the UK, particularly those offering services to young people and cultural ventures, such as the Tyneside Cinema.
She was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1985 and was elevated to a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993
Cookson received the Freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, today known as Catherine Cookson Country and an honorary degree from the University of Newcastle. The Variety Club of Great Britain named her Writer of the Year, and she was voted Personality of the North East.
In later life, Catherine and Tom returned to the North East and settled first in Haldane Terrace, Jesmond. They then moved to Corbridge, a market town near Newcastle, and later to Langley, Northumberland, a small village nearby. As her health declined, they moved for a final time to the Jesmond area of Newcastle upon Tyne to be nearer medical facilities. For the last few years of her life, she was bed-ridden and she gave her final TV interview to North East Tonight, the regional ITV Tyne Tees news programme, from her sickbed. It was conducted by Mike Neville.
Catherine Cookson died at the age of 91 (16 days before her 92nd birthday) at her home in Newcastle, although her novels, many written from her sickbed, continued to be published posthumously until 2002. Tom died on 28 June 1998, just 17 days later. He had been hospitalised for a week and the cause of his death was not announced. He was 86 years old.
In March 2008, the Dame Catherine Cookson Memorial Garden was unveiled in the grounds of South Tyneside District Hospital in South Shields, based on the theme of a serpentine symbol, commonly used to symbolise health and caring. The hospital occupies the site of the Harton Workhouse, where Cookson worked from 1924 to 1929. The project was partly funded by the Catherine Cookson Trust.
Tom and Catherine, a musical about the couple's life, was written by local playwright Tom Kelly. It played to sell-out crowds at the Customs House in South Shields.