Dame shed tears over Prince's gift

To mark the centenary of Dame Catherine Cookson's birth, Hannah Davies finds out more about Wor Kate and the legacy she left behind.

To mark the centenary of Dame Catherine Cookson's birth, Hannah Davies finds out more about Wor Kate and the legacy she left behind.

The smoky, grubby banks of the River Tyne at the turn of the 20th century were a brutal place to live.

Houses were crowded slums, and there was an average of seven people living in one Tyneside flat.

Money was short in many of these homes, food often scarce and items such as shoes a luxury.

Life was hard, and without vacuum cleaners, convenience foods, running water, central heating and washing machines, running a house was a full-time job.

Men working in treacherous conditions in the shipyards and living in over-crowded conditions often died young, and many succumbed to drink.

It was into this environment that Kate McMullen - later to find fame and fortune as author Catherine Cookson - was born on June 20, 1906, although there is some confusion over this date.

Her mother, Kate Fawcett, had become pregnant while working in the Ravensworth Arms, Lamesley, Gateshead. She returned to the family home at 5 Leam Lane in Tyne Dock, South Shields, to have her illegitimate child.

Catherine's birth certificate records the date as June 27, 1906. She later explained this was because Kate Fawcett was afraid she'd get told off for registering it a week late.

From birth Catherine was raised to believe her grandmother, Rose McMullen, was her mother, while her real mum, who was sent away to work, was her sister.

Her step-grandfather, John McMullen, was a difficult man, short of temper and fond of a drink. But Catherine loved him and her grandmother. She was seven when she discovered Kate was really her mother, and her world was shattered.

In 1912, the McMullens had moved to William Black Street in East Jarrow. This area was to be the setting for many of Catherine's novels, including Kate Hannigan, Maggie Rowan and, of course, the autobiographical Our Kate.

Kate Fawcett descended into alcoholism, which isolated her from Catherine, who left school at 13. After a period of domestic service as a maid in Harton Village, South Shields, Catherine took a laundry job at South Shields workhouse.

She continued to work there unhappily until in 1929 she moved south to run the laundry at the Tendering workhouse near Clacton-on-Sea, Essex.

Catherine then moved on to Hastings workhouse, saving every penny to buy herself a large Victorian house where she took in gentleman lodgers to supplement her income.

It was here she was to meet the love of her life, a teacher at Hastings Grammar School called Tom Cookson. In June 1940, at the age of 34, she married him.

The trials of Catherine's life were far from over, however. After suffering 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 turns to anaemia.

But it was the psychiatric effect of the miscarriages which caused most trauma. Catherine suffered a mental breakdown and took a decade to recover.

She took up writing as a form of therapy to tackle her depression, and joined Hastings Writers' Group.

Catherine Cookson's first novel, Kate Hannigan, was published in 1950.

She went on to write almost 100 books, selling more than 123 million copies, her works being translated into at least 20 languages. She also authored books under the pseudonyms Catherine Marchant and Katie McMullen - derived from her birth name.

Her books were, Catherine said, historical novels about people and conditions she knew. She had little to do with the London literary circus and was often snubbed by them.

Her research could be uncomfortable - going down a mine, for instance, because her heroine came from a mining area.

She became a multi-millionaire from her books, many of which transferred to stage, film and radio.

It was on television, however, that she achieved her greatest media success, with a string of hugely successful dramas on ITV produced by North-East-born Ray Marshall, of Festival Films, and starring such acting luminaries as Catherine Zeta Jones, Nigel Havers, Ciaran Hinds, Niamh Cusack and June Whitfield.

Catherine was always famed for her care with money, although she indulged in discreet philanthropy, supporting causes in her beloved North-East and medical research in areas 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 £1m for research into a cure for the illness that had afflicted her.

After 46 years living away from the North-East, Catherine and Tom returned to the region in 1965.

"Tom persuaded me to return to the North so I could die among my own folk," she said at the time.

The couple settled first in Corbridge, Northumberland, and later in Langley. As her health declined, they moved for a final time back to Tyneside, to Jesmond, Newcastle, to be nearer medical facilities.

Catherine said the greatest moment of her life was receiving a basket of flowers from Prince Charles on the day she became a Dame.

She said she was so overcome by the prince's thoughtful gesture on the day she was honoured by the Queen in the 1993 honours list, that she broke down in tears. She said: "In life there are highlights - but this superseded them all."

Dame Catherine Cookson died at her home in Jesmond on June 11, 1998, nine days short of her 92nd birthday. A heartbroken Tom Cookson died just 17 days later. He was 86.

Catherine Cookson's name has been associated with South Tyneside's annual summer festival since the mid-1980s.

But in her centenary year her name is being dropped to make way for the Summer Festival.

South Tyneside Council has played down the significance of the name change and denied it is a slur to the best-selling author.

They say the decision was taken to reflect the expansion of the festival and its much-wider programme of events.

Kathleen Jones, author of Catherine Cookson: The Biography, has been involved with many events in support of the author's centenary year.

She says: "I am aware that people are not happy with South Tyneside's association with Catherine Cookson because they portray a picture of a poverty-stricken Jarrow and South Shields.

"I can understand that they may want to distance themselves from that image, but to do so in her centenary year is not the most tactful thing to do."

However, the Cookson Parade will still take place on July 1, with bands, vintage transport and costumed characters.

The university was the recipient of many of Catherine Cookson's donations.

A spokeswoman from Newcastle University says: "Dame Catherine Cookson enjoyed strong connections with Newcastle University. For many years, she offered generous financial support for the purchase of equipment in the medical school and to assist with research.

"Her interest in the institution and its activities - most notably those in the area of medical research, and in the University Library and Hatton Gallery - was further augmented when, in 1985, she made a major donation to the university which enabled the establishment of the Catherine Cookson Foundation to support research and other academic projects.

"Items left to the university's Robinson Library include copies of her manuscripts and various generous gifts of similar items left during her lifetime. There is also a large collection of her novels, in most of the European languages.

"In 1987, the university recognised her as one of its greatest benefactors by naming the new Medical School building The Catherine Cookson Building.

"Dame Catherine enjoyed a long association with the Hatton Gallery and the gallery in turn benefited from her generous support. In 1984 she made a donation towards an extension which enabled the permanent display of the Fred and Diana Uhlman collection of African Art, and in the summer of 1997, she stepped in with funding to help secure the future of the gallery.

"In 1983, the university awarded Dame Catherine an honorary degree for her services to literature and for her charitable contributions to the community."

Dame Catherine was famous for her generosity and supported scores of charities, especially those devoted to the care of children.

In 1985, she created the Catherine Cookson Trust at Newcastle University, and promised it more than £800,000. In gratitude, the university set up a lectureship in haematology.

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.

Dame Catherine had already given £20,000 to Newcastle University's Hatton Gallery and £32,000 to its library.

The Trust continues to make donations to worthy causes in the UK.

She received the Freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, today known as Catherine Cookson Country, and an honorary degree from Newcastle University. The Variety Club of Great Britain named her Writer of the Year, and she was voted Personality of The North-East.

Catherine was given the Order of the British Empire in 1985 and created a dame in 1993.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of pounds are still being given to worthy causes.

And her legacy continues to bring investment and jobs to Tyneside as tourists continue their love affair with Cookson Country.

Coun Jim Sewell, South Tyneside Council's Lead Member for Culture and Wellbeing, says: "Catherine Cookson has left a lasting legacy for the people of South Tyneside, and we are very proud to be associated with her. The Cookson Trust has been a great supporter of projects in the borough, and the South Shields Museum has an area dedicated to Dame Catherine.

"Our Cookson tours are still very popular with coach operators, and her books continue to be among the most borrowed from our libraries. Our Kate is still a household name in South Tyneside and she continues to inspire new generations of writers."


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