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Cookson [née Davies], Dame Catherine Annfree

  • Kathleen Jones

Dame Catherine Ann Cookson (1906–1998)

by Chris Hay, 1987

Cookson [née Davies], Dame Catherine Ann (1906–1998), writer, was born on 20 June 1906 at 5 Leam Lane, South Shields, co. Durham, the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant, Catherine Fawcett (1883–1956), known as Kate. Catherine was brought up by her grandmother and stepgrandfather (Rose Fawcett, née McConnell, and John McMullen), in a strong Irish Catholic family, and believed for the first eight years of her life that the McMullens were her parents and that Kate was her sister. She learned the truth from children in the street. Her childhood was marred by alcoholism, unemployment, and poverty: she made regular trips to the pawnshop for her mother and scavenged for wood and coal on the banks of the Tyne. The story she later told in Our Kate and earlier unpublished manuscripts portrays a family in which physical and sexual abuse were common: Catherine's mother admitted to Catherine before she died that she had been abused by both her stepfather and her half-brother. Catherine, in turn, claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a lodger and to have been emotionally and physically abused by her mother when under the influence of alcohol. At times she hated Kate so much that she fantasized about killing her. In unpublished autobiographical manuscripts Catherine writes of 'tragic secrets' and 'things so terrible' that they can never be told.

Always known at this stage as Kitty or Katie McMullen, Catherine did not discover until she was given a copy of her birth certificate in her late twenties that her real name was Catherine Ann Davies and her official date of birth 27 June 1906. Kate had registered her daughter's birth later than the legal time allowed, and falsified her date of birth to avoid the penalty. She also claimed to be married to Catherine's father, named on the certificate as Alexander Davies, commission agent, in a vain attempt to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy. He is believed to have been Alexander Davies Pate (1879–1948), a handsome labourer of Scots–Irish descent with a passion for gambling, who already had a wife in Newcastle and later bigamously married another. Catherine clung to the fantasy that her father had been a 'gentleman' and rarely admitted that she knew his true identity. She inherited her father's good looks and red gold hair as well as his charismatic personality and ability to tell stories. Less welcome was the rare blood disorder she also inherited from him—hereditary haemorrhagic telangiectasis—from which he eventually died and whose symptoms blighted Catherine's life.

Educated at St Peter and St Paul's Roman Catholic School at Tyne Dock, Jarrow, Catherine left school because of ill health before she was thirteen and followed her mother into domestic service. She was already writing stories and trying to get them published but, realizing that her lack of education was a restriction, she began to educate herself by a programme of reading and night classes. At various times she also took lessons in bookkeeping, elocution, fabric painting, juggling, French, and music in an effort to better herself and was eventually rewarded by the offer of a job in the workhouse laundry at Harton in South Shields. More senior posts followed at Tendring in Essex and at Hastings in Sussex, where Catherine finally settled. There she bought her first house, run initially as a lodging-house with help from her mother and a friend, Nan Smyth (Annie Smyth; 1895–1969), with whom Catherine had an intense and ambiguous relationship. Although they were together for nine years, 'We lived together; we slept together', Catherine always denied that it was anything other than a close female friendship. Nan kept letters which she later used to try to disrupt Catherine's marriage to Thomas Henry Cookson (1912–1998), an Oxford mathematics graduate teaching at Hastings grammar school who came initially as a lodger to the house Catherine and Nan were sharing. Tom was a protestant and Catherine had to face considerable opposition from the priests, her mother, and Nan Smyth before they were able to marry on 1 June 1940 at St Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Hastings. Catherine claimed that Nan had threatened to shoot her on the morning of the wedding if she allowed it to take place.

During the war Catherine Cookson accompanied her husband on his postings around the country as an RAF instructor. She earned a living as a skilled illustrator for J. Arthur Dixon and continued a programme of self-education, helped by Tom who drew up a reading list and taught her English grammar. Religious doubts and a series of stillbirths and miscarriages affected Cookson's mental health, which was already shaky following the breakup of her friendship with Nan Smyth. She became ill with severe depression and was admitted to St Mary's Hospital in Herefordshire, where she had several sessions of electroconvulsive therapy. She was never able to have a child and allowed her Catholic faith to lapse.

After the war the Cooksons returned to Hastings and Catherine Cookson joined the Hastings writers' circle and began to try to get her work published. Her first, autobiographical, novel, Kate Hannigan, was taken up by agent John Smith at Christy and Moore and published by Macmillan in 1950. Though she was devastated when her second was rejected, she quickly began the series of Jarrow novels that made her famous as a novelist of the social history of the north-east of England. The ‘Cookson novel’ became a genre in its own right. Fame was slow to come, however, until The Round Tower won the Winifred Holtby award in 1969.

Cookson also wrote many nineteenth-century historical novels, such as The Glass Virgin and The Black Velvet Gown, children's books, and humorous novels such as the Mary Ann series based on her own childhood. The story of her own and her mother's life, Our Kate, which was published in 1969, is a much edited version of the memoir she had begun in 1956 after the death of her mother, with whom she had had a difficult and often turbulent relationship. It was a very powerful story, portraying an illegitimate girl growing up in one of the poorest communities in the Western world, struggling with family problems such as poverty, illiteracy, abuse, and alcoholism, to become one of the best-selling novelists of all time.

With the sale of Katie Mulholland to America and publication of the Mallen trilogy in 1973, Cookson's books began to dominate the best-seller lists. Characteristically, she gave much of her wealth to charity. She returned to live in the north-east, first at Corbridge in Northumberland, then in the village of Langley, and finally at 23 Glastonbury Grove in Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne. She continued to struggle with ill health, both mental and physical. In particular haemorrhagic telangiectasis caused spontaneous bleeding from nose, mouth, and stomach and necessitated frequent trips to hospital and frequent blood transfusions. Catherine gave many hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund genetic research into the condition. She was cared for by her devoted husband Tom who, she admitted, had 'given up his life' so that she could write. Although now a multi-millionaire (she once described herself as 'the best paid bastard in the business!'), Cookson was still haunted by religious doubts and the shame of her illegitimate birth. She remained loyal to her roots, insisting that she had always been 'a child of the Tyne', her novels recording the rise and decline of the industries on its banks across a period of nearly 200 years.

Catherine Cookson herself soon became one of the region's most profitable industries as interest in her novels attracted tourists into the area. South Shields declared itself 'Catherine Cookson country', and a replica of her old home (demolished under a slum clearance programme) was re-erected in the town museum. During the 1980s and 1990s her books were made into films for television and reached an even wider audience, being translated into sixty-eight languages. She wrote a total of 103 books—89 novels, 10 children's books, and 4 autobiographical works—continuing to dictate fiction until her ninetieth year.

Cookson was given an honorary MA by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1982 and an honorary doctorate by the University of Sunderland in 1990. St Hilda's College, Oxford, made her an honorary fellow in 1997. In 1985 she was appointed OBE, and in 1993 she was made a dame of the British empire.

Cookson was reconciled to the Roman Catholic church in the last year of her life and died at her home in Jesmond on 11 June 1998, from heart failure. She was cremated later in June at the West Road crematorium, Newcastle. Her husband died just seventeen days later, and the bulk of their joint estate was left to a charitable trust.

Several of her novels were published posthumously, including A House Divided, Rosie of the River, The Silent Lady, The Blind Years, Riley, The Thursday Friend, and her rejected second novel, Kate Hannigan's Girl. Catherine Cookson's will failed to appoint a literary executor. This resulted in some confusion over manuscripts still unpublished and in major disagreements between her agents Anthony Sheil (who represented Cookson for almost thirty years) and Sonia Land of Sheil Land Associates Ltd, which were resolved when Anthony Sheil left the agency. Sheil Land Associates Ltd continued to represent the Cookson estate after her death.


  • K. Jones, Catherine Cookson: the biography (1999)
  • unpublished MSS, Boston University
  • autobiographical tapes, priv. coll.
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.


  • Boston University, literary MSS and papers
  • U. Newcastle, Catherine Cookson collection
  • South Shields Museum and Art Gallery, Catherine Cookson collection


  • U. Newcastle


  • A. Reynolds, photograph, 1973, Hult. Arch.
  • C. Hay, photograph, 1987, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£8,994,174: probate, 4 Sept 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£8,476,174: publication of will in Newcastle Journal