In her memoirs, Dame Catherine suggested that her actual date of birth was June 20, 1906, although there is no known documentary evidence of this.
Born Kate McMullen (Catherine Ann Davies) at 5 Leam Lane in Tyne Dock, South Shields, (then part of County Durham), she later 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. Cookson was the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother, Kate Fawcett. As a child, Cookson thought that her unmarried mother was her sister, and was raised by her grandmother Rose McMullen and her step-grandfather John McMullen.
She left school at 13 and, after a period of domestic service, took a laundry job in the workhouse in South Shields. In 1929 she moved south to run the laundry at Hastings workhouse, saving every penny to buy herself a large Victorian house and taking in gentleman 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.
Cookson 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. Cookson 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 authored 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 more than 20 years, only losing the title in 2004, which is testament to the ongoing popularity of her novels.
Many Catherine Cookson 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 Cookson adaptions were made, regularly attracting more than 10 million viewers.
Although she became a multi-millionaire from her books, Cookson was always famed for her care with money, although she indulged 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 gave it away for the benefit of less fortunate writers. She also gave more than £1 million for research into a cure for the illness that had afflicted her.
In 1985 she created the Catherine Cookson Trust at the University of Newcastle, and promised it more than £800,000. 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. Her foundation continues to make donations to worthy causes in the UK, particularly those offering services to young people and cultural ventures. There is also a building named the Catherine Cookson Building which is part of the medical faculty at Newcastle University.
She 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.
She was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 1985 and was elevated to a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993.
In later life, Catherine and Tom returned to the North East and settled first in Corbridge, a market town near Newcastle, and later in Langley, Northumberland, a small village nearby. As her health declined, they moved for a final time to Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne itself 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.
She died aged 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. Her husband, Tom Cookson, died on 28 June 1998, just 17 days after Catherine. He had been hospitalised for a week and the cause of his death was not announced. He was 86 years old.
A musical about the couple's life — Tom and Catherine — was written by local playwright Tom Kelly. It played to sell-out crowds at the Customs House in South Shields.
Catherine Cookson's Books on Amazon: Catherine Cookson