Most people would assume that authors – especially authors with the success of Catherine Cookson – are highly educated. This was not the case with Cookson though. Amazingly, she left school at the age of 13. After working as a domestic and then in the laundry of a workhouse, she moved south to Hastings, to begin a new chapter in her life. She wouldn’t return to live in the north-east until her later life.
Life Down South
Cookson moved south to the city of Hastings, where she began her job of running the laundry at Hastings Workhouse. For the time, she was relatively old at the age of 34 when she married a teacher by the name of Tom Cookson. While marriage was clearly something that brought her joy, the following years gave no such pleasure…
As most married couples do, the Cooksons decided to try for children. Unfortunately though, she experienced four miscarriages, which meant that they were never able to add to their family. The cause of these miscarriages was diagnosed as haemorrhagic telangiectasia, which was an illness that later influenced much of her charitable work.
Every cloud has a silver lining though. Although these miscarriages caused Cookson to go through a 10 year period of depression, they were also one of the reasons why she began to write. To cope with her depression, she joined a writing group and the rest, as they say, is history.
Cookson’s books were often characterised by their focus on the working class – the real people behind the scenes. This is in marked contrast to her dream when she was younger, a dream that she wanted to write about the more privileged members of society. This is a tried and tested method for many authors: writing about what they know, and therefore ensuring that their novels are as real as possible.
Cookson didn’t just rely on her upbringing and life experience though, as she also went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that her writing was accurate. For example, she once took a trip down a mine to ensure that she understood the conditions faced by one of her characters – a particularly unladylike thing to do in those days!
Her research clearly paid off though, as she was able to write over 100 novels in her lifetime, with sales of 123 million copies. This puts her in the list of the world’s most successful authors, above other huge names such as Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll.
Later Life and Legacy
As is the case with many people, Cookson returned to her place of birth to live during her later years, first moving to Jesmond, then Corbridge, and then Langley. Due to her declining health, they then moved one last time, back to Jesmond again. She died at the age of 91, however her work continued to be published after her death, thanks to the fact that she continued to write until the end. In a sad but romantic twist, her husband of all those years died just 17 days after her.
Those from the north-east can still see the legacy left by Catherine Cookson to this very day. The most visible part of this legacy is without doubt the Dame Catherine Cookson Memorial Garden found at South Tyneside District Hospital – a hospital built on the grounds of the workhouse she once worked in. This was partly funded by the Catherine Cookson Trust.
Other parts of her legacy stretch widely within the medical community. Due to her own illness she donated large amounts of money to research into areas that affected her, with one donation of £800,000 to the University of Newcastle used in part to purchase a laser to help with bleeding disorders. Thanks to her philanthropy, there is a building within the university named after her.
So, perhaps the north-east should remember Cookson not only for her literary works, but also for the lasting impact she left on her place of birth?
 Catherine Cookson | Wikipedia
 Katie and Cookie | Hastings Chronicle
 Catherine Cookson | IWNE
 Catherine Cookson | Famous Authors
 List of best-selling fiction authors | Wikipedia
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An exploration of the world of Ingrid Hall - book reviews and a little bit of Newcastle history. They do say variety is the spice of life!