Catherine Cookson

*Dame Catherine Cookson, one of the 20th century's most well-known and successful writers was born in South Tyneside and the area of her birth and childhood influenced many of her works.

Dame Catherine Cookson was born Katie McMullen on 20th June 1906 in Tyne Dock. Her unmarried mother, Kate Fawcett, returned to service, leaving little Katie to be brought up by her Grandmother Rose and Step-Grandfather John McMullen.

Young Katie McMullen's childhood was tainted by the taunts of local schoolchildren who had learned of her illegitimacy. She left St. Peter and St. Paul's school in Tyne Dock at the age of 14 to enter domestic service. When she was 18 Katie started work as a laundry checker at Harton Workhouse, on the site of the present South Tyneside District Hospital.

Craving security and respectability, she left the North East in 1929 to manage a laundry in Sussex. By the age of 27 she had scrimped and saved enough to buy a large house and take in gentlemen boarders. One was schoolmaster Thomas Cookson with whom she fell in love and married in 1940. Katie McMullen then became Catherine Cookson, but happiness seemed to evade the young Mrs Cookson and there were years of physical and mental illness and the heartbreak of several miscarriages.

On the advice of her doctor, Catherine took up writing and her first novel 'Kate Hannigan' was completed in 1948 at the age of 42. She continued to write at a punishing pace, often from her sick bed, eventually completing 103 books.

As Catherine's health deteriorated the Cooksons settled back in the North East. There were countless literary awards and honours including the OBE in 1985 and an honorary Doctorate of letters by Sunderland Polytechnic in 1991. South Tyneside's most famous daughter became Dame Catherine Cookson in the 1993 New Year's Honours List. Dame Catherine Cookson died on 11th June 1998 at home in Newcastle.


Childhood environment

In the early twentieth century Tyne Dock was at the heart of industrial Tyneside. Catherine was born at 5 Leam Lane, a two roomed terrace next to the docks and the five Tyne Dock arches. At the bottom of the lane, trams would set off for Jarrow passing the 'Slake' and St. Paul's Church along the way. A few minutes walk west up Leam Lane was the little county school that Catherine first attended set amidst the farms and fields of Simonside.

Millions of tons of coal a year were brought to Tyne Dock. Day and night coal trains could be heard thundering over the arches and into the docks. A short walk under the arches and up the dock bank was St. Peter and St. Paul's Catholic Church, situated next to the railway station. Catherine was a regular attender at the church and nearby pawn shop 'Bobs' in Bede Street.

When Catherine was six, the family moved to 10 William Black Street in East Jarrow, a small community of three streets and two terraces, situated halfway between Tyne Dock and Jarrow. Across the road was Jarrow Slake, a large area of tidal mudflats that flooded twice a day. The river Don, a small tributary of the Tyne, flowed around the mudflats. The Don was nicknamed 'The Gut' and could be particularly dangerous when the tide turned.