Cookson (registered as Catherine Ann Davies) was born at 5 Leam Lane in Tyne Dock, South Shields, County Durham and known as "Kate" as a child. She moved to East Jarrow, County Durham which would become the setting for one of her best-known novels, The Fifteen Streets. The illegitimate child of an alcoholic named Kate Fawcett, she grew up thinking her unmarried mother was her sister, as she was brought up by her grandparents, Rose and John McMullen. Biographer Kathleen Jones tracked down her father, whose name was Alexander Davies, a bigamist and gambler from Lanarkshire.
She left school at 14 and, after a period of domestic service, took a laundry job at Harton Workhouse in South Shields. In 1929, she moved south to run the laundry at Hastings Workhouse, saving every penny to buy a large Victorian house, and then taking in lodgers to supplement her income.
In June 1940, at the age of 34, she married Tom Cookson, a teacher at Hastings Grammar School. After experiencing four miscarriages late in pregnancy, it was discovered she was suffering from a rare vascular disease, telangiectasia, which causes bleeding from the nose, fingers and stomach and results in anemia. A mental breakdown followed the miscarriages, from which it took her a decade to recover.
She took up writing as a form of therapy to tackle her depression, and joined Hastings Writers' Group. Her first novel, Kate Hannigan, was published in 1950. Though it was labelled a romance, she expressed discontent with the stereotype. Her books were, she said, historical novels about people and conditions she knew. Cookson had little connection with the London literary circus. She was always more interested in practising the art of writing. Her research could be uncomfortable—going down a mine, for instance, because her heroine came from a mining area. Having in her youth wanted to write about 'above stairs' in grand houses, she later and successfully concentrated on people ground down by circumstances, taking care to know them well.
Cookson wrote almost 100 books, which sold more than 123 million copies, her novels being translated into at least 20 languages. She also wrote books under the pseudonyms Catherine Marchant and a name derived from her childhood name, Katie McMullen. She remained the most borrowed author from public libraries in the UK for 17 years, up until four years after her death, losing the top spot to Jacqueline Wilson only in 2002.
Many of Cookson's novels have been adapted for film, radio, and the stage. The first film adaptation of her work was Jacqueline (1956), directed by Roy Ward Baker, based on her book A Grand Man. It was followed by Rooney (1958), directed by George Pollock, based on her book Rooney. Both starred John Gregson. For commercial reasons, the action of both films was transferred from South Shields to Ireland.
In 1983 Katie Mulholland was adapted into a stage musical by composer Eric Boswell and writer-director Ken Hill. Cookson attended the première.
It was on television, however, that she had her greatest media success, with a series of dramas that appeared over the course of a decade on ITV and achieved huge ratings. Eighteen books were adapted for television between 1990 and 2001. They were all produced by Ray Marshall from Festival Film & TV who was given permission by Cookson in 1988 to bring her works to the screen. The first film to be made, The Fifteen Streets starring Sean Bean & Owen Teale, was nominated for an Emmy award in 1990. The second production, The Black Velvet Gown, won an International Emmy for Best Drama in 1991. The mini series regularly attracted audiences over 10 million and are still showing in the UK on the Yesterday Channel.
In 1985, she pledged more than £800,000 to the University of Newcastle. In gratitude, the university set up a lectureship in hematology. Some £40,000 was given to provide a laser to help treat bleeding disorders and £50,000 went to create a new post in ear, nose and throat studies, with particular reference to the detection of deafness in children. She had already given £20,000 towards the university's Hatton Gallery and £32,000 to its library. In recognition of this generosity, a building in the university medical faculty has been named after her. Her foundation continues to make donations to worthy causes in the UK, particularly those offering services to young people and cultural ventures, such as the Tyneside Cinema.
She was created an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1985 and was elevated to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993.
Cookson received the Freedom of the Borough of South Tyneside, and an honorary degree from the University of Newcastle. The Variety Club of Great Britain named her Writer of the Year, and she was voted Personality of the North East.
In later life, Cookson and her husband Tom returned to the North East and settled first in Haldane Terrace, Jesmond. They then moved to Corbridge, a market town near Newcastle, and later to Langley, Northumberland, a small village nearby. As her health declined, they moved for a final time to the Jesmond area of Newcastle upon Tyne to be nearer medical facilities. For the last few years of her life, she was bed-ridden and she gave her final TV interview to North East Tonight, the regional ITV Tyne Tees news programme, from her sickbed. It was conducted by Mike Neville.
Catherine Cookson died at the age of 91, sixteen days before her 92nd birthday, at her home in Newcastle. Her novels, many written from her sickbed, continued to be published posthumously until 2002. Tom died on 28 June 1998, just 17 days later. He had been hospitalised for a week and the cause of his death was not announced. He was 86 years old.
In March 2008, the Dame Catherine Cookson Memorial Garden was unveiled in the grounds of South Tyneside District Hospital in South Shields, based on the theme of a serpentine symbol, commonly used to symbolise health and caring. The hospital occupies the site of the Harton Workhouse, where Cookson worked from 1924 to 1929. The project was partly funded by the Catherine Cookson Trust.
Tom and Catherine, a musical about the couple's life, was written by local playwright Tom Kelly. It played to sell-out crowds at the Customs House in South Shields.To Be a Lady: Biography of Catherine Cookson by Cliff Goodwin (1994)
The Girl From Leam Lane: The Life and Writing of Catherine Cookson by Piers Dudgeon (1997)
Catherine Cookson by Kathleen Jones Constable(1999)
Kate's Daughter: The Real Catherine Cookson by Piers Dudgeon (2003)
Seeking Catherine Cookson's Da by Kathleen Jones Constable (2004)
The Fifteen Streets (1989) with Sean Bean, Owen Teale, Clare Holman and Jane Horrocks
The Black Velvet Gown (1991) with Janet McTeer, Bob Peck, Geraldine Somerville won the International Emmy award for best drama.
The Cinder Path (1994) with Catherine Zeta-Jones
The Dwelling Place (1994) with Tracy Whitwell, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Ray Stevenson
The Tide of Life (1996) with Gillian Kearney and future Rome co-star James Purefoy
The Gambling Man (1995) with Robson Green
The Mallens (1979–1980) with John Hallam and Juliet Stevenson
Our John Willie (1980) with Ian Cullen, David Burke, James Garbutt, John Malcolm and Malcolm Terris
The Black Candle (1991) with Nathaniel Parker and Samantha Bond
The Man Who Cried (1993) with Ciarán Hinds and Amanda Root
The Glass Virgin (1995) with Nigel Havers, Emily Mortimer and Brendan Coyle
The Girl (1996) with Jonathan Cake, Malcolm Stoddard, Jill Baker and Siobhan Flynn
The Moth (1997) with Jack Davenport, Juliet Aubrey and Justine Waddell
The Rag Nymph (1997) with Honeysuckle Weeks, Alec Newman and Val McLane
The Wingless Bird (1997) with Claire Skinner, Anne Reid and Julian Wadham
Colour Blind (1997) with Niamh Cusack, Tony Armatrading, Art Malik, and Carmen Ejogo
The Round Tower (1997) with Emilia Fox, Ben Miles and Denis Lawson
Tilly Trotter (1998) with Carli Norris, Beth Goddard, Sarah Alexander, Amelia Bullmore, Rosemary Leach and Simon Shepherd
The Secret (1999) with Colin Buchanan, Hannah Yelland, Elizabeth Carling, Clare Higgins, and Stephen Moyer
A Dinner of Herbs (2000) with Jonathan Kerrigan, Melanie Clark Pullen, Debra Stephenson, David Threlfall and Billie Whitelaw