[The following article originally appeared as an obituary in the now defunct North-Easterner Magazine in 1998]
An Obituary of Dame Catherine Cookson
Loved and respected by thousands of admirers the world over, Dame Catherine Cookson, author extraordinaire, died peacefully in her sleep on 11th June 1998 – a few days short of her 92nd birthday. She was arguably the greatest and perhaps the most famous living North-Easterner until her recent passing, selling more than 100 million copies of her 100 or so novels worldwide in 18 different languages. Though she didn’t begin writing until she was 44 years of age, for the last decade of her life she headed the list of the most-borrowed library books in the UK. She was awarded an OBE in 1985, and became a Dame in 1993.
Catherine was born on 27th June 1906, at 5 Leam Lane, Tyne Dock, on the south bank of the Tyne, the illegitimate daughter of a tragic, broken alcoholic, Kate McMullen. For the first seven years of her life she was led to believe that Kate was actually her elder sister, and was brought up by her grandmother Rose McMullen and ‘step-grandfather’ John McMullen – whom she believed to be her real parents. Her biological father was one Alexander Davies (her birth was actually registered under the name of Davies), a well-to-do regular at the pub where Kate worked. However, Alexander had left the scene by the time of her birth - never to be seen again.
Catherine endured a childhood of abject poverty – very much the norm amidst the docklands of Tyneside. Shortly after learning the truth about her parentage, she was molested by an Irish lodger who lived next door – at the time her mother’s boyfriend. Furthermore, she suffered regular beatings at the hands of the uncaring Kate, and endured a life of general drudgery. The family soon moved onto Jarrow in 1912, a house which was permanently filled with lodgers thus putting yet further strain upon the young Catherine. Five years later, in 1917, her grandmother, Rose, died – and Catherine herself, in fact, almost died soon afterwards as the wear and tear on her young body took its toll. But, pulling through, she determined to make good, and pushed herself through a series of self-improvement projects in her teens, despite her low social standing.
Shunned by her boyfriend on her 21st birthday she decided to break her ties with the North and fled south – firstly to Essex, and then to Hastings where she found a fairly well-paid job as a workhouse laundry manageress. She scrimped and saved her money, only to learn that, to her horror, her mother, Kate, had decided to move south to live nearby. Catherine, however, was eventually able to take out a mortgage on a large house in 1933, and took in guests – keeping her mother at arm’s length in her old house in the centre of Hastings. One of Catherine’s lodgers, Tom Cookson, was to eventually become her husband – tying the knot, as they did, on 1st June 1940. Her mother returned in disgust to Tyneside.
Suffering three miscarriages and a nervous breakdown, Catherine’s problems continued, however. She even spent some time in a psychiatric hospital near Hereford during the war, eventually returning to her Hastings home where she spent many a lonely night without husband Tom who was away on RAF duty. Suffering a fourth miscarriage, she eventually found solace in writing. Struggling for themes and a style, she began to make use of her own life experiences which finally found form in her first published novel, Kate Hannigan, in 1950. It earned her £100 – a huge amount of money in those days; but, more importantly, was to launch her on a career which was to bring her worldwide fame, and a fortune beyond her wildest dreams.
The publication of Kate Hannigan was only the first step on the long road to fame for Catherine Cookson – who was, by then, already 44 years of age. Her life until then had been a one of perpetual heartache, it had seemed; and even throughout the early years of her new career her health remained a constant problem. She suffered a hereditary blood disorder all her life, and was in constant need of medical attention – and regular blood transfusions. Against the odds, though, she lived on, and on, and continued to write, and write. The money began to pour in as the years rolled by; and when authors began to be paid a fee each time their books were borrowed from libraries it was the making of her – though she donated her first year’s income from this scheme to less fortunate writers than herself. Indeed she was to donate millions of pounds to all sorts of charities and causes over the years.
In 1961, writer’s cramp forced Catherine to start dictating her work. In 1968, she won the Winifred Holtby Prize for the Best Regional Novel for The Round Tower; and the following year one of her best-loved novels, Our Kate, was published. She was made a Freeman of South Shields in 1973, and was granted the Freedom of the Borough in 1974. In 1975, she and husband, Tom, decided to establish a base in the North-East and bought a house in Jesmond – but made the move north permanent in 1976 by buying a house in Morpeth. They later bought houses in Corbridge and Langley, Northumberland. Catherine was elected Variety Club Woman of the Year in 1982 (an honour later gained on two further occasions), and was named as Britain’s top creative writer by Woman’s Own magazine the same year. In 1983, she was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by Newcastle University.
She achieved true national acclaim in 1985 when she was awarded an OBE. It was at about this time, too, that many of her novels started being dramatised for TV in a big way – The Fifteen Streets being perhaps the most famous, appearing on our screens in 1989 – and winning the Best Network Programme on TV Award. But in 1990 Catherine suffered two heart attacks – though she recovered, and enjoyed another honour in the shape of an honorary doctorate from Sunderland Polytechnic in 1991. The very same year she and Tom moved into a bungalow in Jesmond.
On January 1st 1993, Catherine was made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours list – the ultimate accolade. By then she was a novelist of international repute. And in her native North-East there were permanent tributes to be enjoyed by all in the shape of, most notably, the ‘Catherine Cookson Country’ tourist trail (which effectively doubled the number of tourists to South Tyneside, Catherine’s ‘home patch’ of her childhood) and the permanent ‘Catherine Cookson Display’ at South Shields Museum & Art Gallery. Both attractions still bring in thousands upon thousands of Cookson fans to the region every year.
But perhaps Dame Catherine Cookson’s greatest legacy is her immense charity donations. £1million to Newcastle University for research into blood disorders; £100,000 to Jarrow’s ‘Bede’s World’; £224,000 to help Durham Cathedral display its ‘Treasures of St.Cuthbert’; £187,000 to safeguard the future of Newcastle's Hatton Gallery; Children’s Literacy in Newcastle received £163,000; South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade were handed £163,000, too - as was the Library Campaign; and she celebrated her 80th birthday in 1986 by donating £160,000 to various causes. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Yes, Dame Catherine Cookson was, indeed, one of the world’s best-loved story-tellers. But she was much more than that. When she died peacefully of heart failure in her sleep on 11th June 1998, the people of the North-East had lost a living legend whose generosity knew no bounds. Her husband of almost 60 years, Tom, followed her to the grave less than three weeks later, on 29th June 1998, aged 86.