South Shields author Catherine Cookson remembered in new hometown exhibition

Dame Catherine Cookson died 20 years ago.
Dame Catherine Cookson died 20 years ago.

The life and work of one of the world’s best-loved authors is the focus of a special exhibition in her South Shields home town.

Dame Catherine Cookson wrote almost 100 books - which sold more than 123 million copies - and her novels were translated into at least 20 languages.

Dame Catherine Cookson wrote almost 100 books.

Dame Catherine Cookson wrote almost 100 books.

To mark the 20th anniversary of her death in 1998, The Word, National Centre for the Written Word in South Shields, is launching Wor Catherine: Fact and Fiction.

The free exhibition, which opens on Monday, June 11, is supported by the Port of Tyne.

It will look back at the life of the woman who rose from poverty to become the most-widely-read author in Britain.

The illegitimate child of an alcoholic named Kate Fawcett, Catherine grew up thinking her unmarried mother was her sister, as she was brought up by her grandparents, Rose and John McMullen, at Tyne Dock and, later, Jarrow.

The exhibition marking the 20th anniversary of Dame Catherine's death is at The Word in South Shields.

The exhibition marking the 20th anniversary of Dame Catherine's death is at The Word in South Shields.

She left school at 14 and, after a period of domestic service, took a laundry job at Harton Workhouse, South Shields, moving south in 1929 to run the laundry at Hastings Workhouse.

In June 1940, at the age of 34, she married Tom Cookson, a teacher at Hastings Grammar School, and, having taken up writing as a form of therapy to tackle depression, her first novel, Kate Hannigan, was published in 1950.

She remained the most-borrowed author from public libraries in the UK for 17 years, until four years after her death.

Along with details of her life Wor Catherine: Fact and Fiction will feature quizzes – for visitors to test their knowledge of the author and her work – and some of Cookson’s written material, loaned by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Dame Catherine's books were translated into more than 20 languages. Pic: Freddie Mudditt.

Dame Catherine's books were translated into more than 20 languages. Pic: Freddie Mudditt.

Visitors will also be able to view a short film made by Unified Media and written by The Word’s writer in residence, Tom Kelly.

The film portrays a young Catherine coming back to South Shields, reflecting on her life in the town, seeing the places she has written about, and discovering what has changed about South Shields and what has remained as it was.

Tom said: “No-one brought an era - and an area - to life quite like Catherine Cookson.

“I’ve often wondered what she would think if she was to see it now – and that was very much the thinking behind the film.”

Tania Robinson, head of marketing and culture at The Word, said she hopes the exhibition will appeal to a new generation of readers who may not be familiar with her work, as well as Cookson fans.

“Through her books and her love for the North East she really put South Tyneside on the world map,” she said.

“Her stories are as readable now as they were when she wrote them, and I think this exhibition – created with the help of the Local and Family History department, South Tyneside Libraries - will introduce her to a whole new audience.”

Andrew Moffat, chief executive officer at the Port of Tyne, said: “We are delighted to be sponsoring this exhibition of Dame Catherine’s life and work in the town which inspired so many of her novels.”

For more information on the exhibition, visit www.theworduk.org.