Recalling the times of Catherine Cookson

Catherine Cookson.
Catherine Cookson.

I was telling you the other day how learners on a Workers’ Education Association course had come up with a treasure trove of memories.

Those recollections and writings have now been compiled into volume five of The Streets of South Shields series.

Today, Yvonne Richardson shares his thoughts on Catherine Cookson and Tyne Dock.

“I decided to include Catherine Cookson, England’s most popular author of the 20th-century and chronicler of North-Eastern life, in my research into the history of Tyne Dock because she was well acquainted with the area, and often used it as a back drop in many of her novels.

“She was born Katie Mulholland on June 20, 1906, at 5 Leam Lane, Tyne Dock (known as Leam Lane End).

“The illegitimate daughter of Kate Fawcett, she was brought up by her grandparents Rose and John Mulholland, whom she called Ma and Da, as she believed them to be her parents until she was six years old.

“Located at the Jarrow Road entrance to the Tyne Dock Arches, her home was next door to the Alexander Public House, locally known as the 27 Bar, on the east side of Lema Lane.”

Yvonne goes on to explain that at the age of seven, Catherine (as we’ll call her) moved to number 10 William Black Street, just a hundred yards up the Jarrow Road, into East Jarrow.

“It was interesting to discover on an old OS map, dated 1895, that east Jarrow was actually part of South Shields, and did not become part of Jarrow until 1936.

“By now, Catherine was aware that Kate was her real mother, and was often made to run errands for her, such as being sent for beer in a stone gallon jar called a Grey Hen, sometimes as far as two miles to Pratt’s Odd Licence in Brinkburn Street, Tyne Dock.

“The journey, on foot, took her along the Jarrow Road, past the timber yards and saw mills, then through Tyne Dock Arches, then all the way up Hudson Street and Boldon Lane and over Stanhope Road.

“She would struggle all the way home with the heavy jug balanced on her hip, quite a feat for a small child.

“There were lots of off-licences/beer houses in the area, especially on the way up Hudson Street, and young Katie would have to visit them all at one time or another in the years to come.”

Yvonne says every Monday, Catherine would dread the humiliating task of going to Bob Compertz, the pawnbroker, on Bede Street, Tyne Dock, with her little bundle to pawn for just a ‘few coppers.’

“Through the five arches again, past the dockers lined up at the shipping offices, at Tyne Dock, seeking work, then up the dock bank.

“The shame she felt as they looked on knowingly, was very hard to bear.

“Another errand she protested against was being sent up Hudson Street to Walker’s the Chemist for head lice powder – all the while praying she would have the good fortune not to bump into any of her friends.

“Catherine quoted in an interview, with author Piers Dudgeon: ‘You had to keep your head down and keep away from the wall of arches as they were filthy and dripping with greasy slime.

‘But sometimes my imagination would take flight and I felt like I was entering an underworld of subterranean caves, full of mystery and for just a little while I would be in my own fairytale land.’”

Yvonne’s work goes on to say that some women refused to venture through the arches unless they had an umbrella for protection.

“There were some chores she did enjoy, including collecting fire wood which she found floating on Jarrow Slake, directly opposite her home.

“Another was following the coke carts along the bumpety Jarrow Road, and hoping the horse would shy, causing the coke to fall off the back, where she would collect it and put it in her bag with the firewood.

“It meant when money was scarce at least they had a nice warm fire.

“Every Saturday evening, without fail, she would take a different route which took her past the dock gates towards Commercial Road, to the Tyne Dock Hotel, known locally as ‘Kennedy’s’ in Thornton Avenue, to pay her Granda’s union dues. ‘No union dues, no work’, he used to say to her.”

Catherine attended St Peter and Paul’s School and St Peter and Paul’s Roman Catholic Church at the top of Hudson Street, both next to Tyne Dock Railway Station.

“Also at the top of Hudson Street was the Crown Cinema, and when all her chores were done for the week Catherine would escape there on a Saturday afternoon to the ‘penny matinee.’

“The teenage Catherine was also a regular at various youth clubs in Tyne Dock–usually held in church halls, such as the one in the Methodist Chapel Hall, in Lord Nelson Street.

Yvonne concludes her piece in the book by saying: “Through the hardship and poverty of being brought up in the heavy industrial area of Tyne Dock came the basis for many of Catherine Cookson’s books which were sold in their millions worldwide.

“Tourists now come from all over the world to visit her birthplace, and we are sincerely grateful to her for putting, not only the North-East on the map – but also Tyne Dock.”

The Streets of South Shields group meets on a Wednesday morning, between 10am and noon at Central Library.

Meanwhile, tutor Janet Wylie is starting one of her Life Story courses in January.

For details, contact Janet on (0191) 4554830, 07954413542 or email her on