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Thursday, June 11, 1998 Published at 17:49 GMT 18:49 UK


'Our Kate', the people's author

A typical bookshop scene in many countries

Dame Catherine Cookson was the girl who often hid in her family's backyard lavatory, dreaming of owning "a nice home".

But unlike so many ambitious children born into north-eastern poverty, she made it, spending much of her later life in a 13-roomed stone-built house overlooking a three-acre garden and lake.

She was named as Britain's 17th richest woman in one newspaper survey which was hardly a surprise since her novels, around 70 of them, each sold a million copies on average.

[ image:  ]
The rags to riches story could have been from one of her best sellers, indeed her own autobiography Our Kate was one of her first big successes.

In it she explained the bitterness about her background, something she struggled to come to terms with.

Our Kate took 12 years to write, an eternity for an author who could pen on average two books a year.

Norman Smith of BBC Radio looks back at Catherine Cookson's life
The bitterness was not about the poverty she was born into in 1906 in Jarrow, but her family background.

In an age where an illegitimate child meant shame, she was told her grandmother was her mother, and that her real mother was her sister.

When she found out the truth, aged seven, it left a scar.

Early struggle

The wretched environment of her early years was one she would not forget as her books were almost exclusively set in the north-east of England she knew as a girl.

[ image: Catherine Cookson's childhood was tough]
Catherine Cookson's childhood was tough
However it was not until the age of 44 that she first saw her work in print.

She had left school at 13, to go into domestic service, before working in a laundry.

At 20 she was inspired by a novel to go into a public library for the first time in her life, an institution she would spend hours in and later describe as her "university".

She took voice projection lessons to control her Geordie accent and in 1929 went south to become head laundress at a Hastings workhouse, vowing she would "never, never go back".

[ image: The young woman - determined to 'better herself']
The young woman - determined to 'better herself'
Four years later she was able to buy "a gentleman's residence" in Hastings and during the war married a teacher, Tom Cookson who had lodged there.

The relationship was extremely happy but she was unable to have children, suffering four miscarriages in as many years.

The problem was diagnosed as telangiectasia, a rare, hereditary blood disorder which was traced back to regular nose bleeds in her teens.

The miscarriages sparked off a long nervous breakdown in which she experienced suicidal impulses and feelings of wanting to steal or harm any child.

But she found that writing about her early life proved therapeutic.

[ image: Her success was despite her critics]
Her success was despite her critics
The first novel, Kate Hannigan, was published in 1950 yet it was almost twenty years before her greatest period of success.

In the 1970's with the public eagerly lapping up titles such as Tilly Trotter and The Gambling Man, her work expanded to radio, television, and even a musical.

As with the books, millions watched the most successful TV adaptations.

She felt the acclaim was one in the eye for literary critics who had often dismissed her work.

"It shows they aren't always right - not when millions of viewers have proved them wrong."

Return to Cookson Country

[ image: In academic dress at the recipt of an honorary degree in 1991]
In academic dress at the recipt of an honorary degree in 1991
In 1976, Cookson ended her near half-century of self-imposed exile and was welcomed back to the north-east like a long-lost, well-loved queen.

Royalty, in fact, came to her. In 1986, the Prince of Wales presented her with the OBE during a visit to Tyneside.

Then the local council called the area Catherine Cookson Country to attract tourists and named a museum after her too.

She worked for charity - donating thousands to 110 good causes including research into arthritis, autism, and her own condition.

[ image: In later life she suffered failing health]
In later life she suffered failing health
But this brought its own strains and in 1992, while her husband recovered from stress linked with her huge mailbag, she spoke of Britain having become "a nation of beggars" and vowed to in future ignore begging letters.

In the New Years Honours of 1993 she became Dame Catherine and again was presented with the award in the north-east owing to her failing health.

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