Last week, my wife Lilian and I started to watch a collection of 16 Catherine Cookson films I had downloaded from the DRAMA Channel’s ‘On Demand’ facility. They are hard work to watch in a single 2½ hour viewing but absolutely gripping, frustrating, brilliant and compulsive. The films are also extremely well-acted by a myriad of highly talented actors, many of whom are well known household names.
Some readers will have heard of Catherine Cookson and may already know that she was born in 1906, at 5 Leam Lane in Tyne Dock, South Shields, about half a mile from where I am writing this blog. Registered at birth as Catherine Ann Davies, her name was later changed to Catherine Ann McMullen and she spent her childhood in poverty.
After leaving school at the age of 13, Catherine spent some time as a domestic servant before taking a laundry job at Harton Workhouse in South Shields. The site was added to and became South Shields General Hospital, which it still is. When I left the Merchant Navy, I spent 5 years as a Hospital Engineer in South Tyneside, one year of which I was based in an office just across from the Harton Workhouse, which is now referred to as The Laundry, which is what it was always used as. Here is a link to photos of the workhouse that are copyright by Peter Higginbotham of workhouses.org.uk.
Described as one of Britain’s greatest romantic novelists, Catherine wrote almost 100 books, which sold more than 123 million copies. Her novels were translated into at least 20 languages and she was regularly in the top 20 of the most widely read British novelists and has rarely been out of the top ten most-borrowed books in British public libraries.
In 1987, in honour of Dame Catherine’s successes, she agreed to allow South Tyneside Council to brand the area as Catherine Cookson Country. It was a great success as a tourist attraction, encouraging huge numbers of her fans to visit the borough and it remained in place as a worthwhile venture for 25 years.
In 1997, the year before she died, for the second year running, 9 out of 10 of the most popular library books borrowed, were written by Dame Catherine Ann Cookson, DBE, as she then was.
I could never read a book written by Cookson, most of them are inches thick but watching them on TV is a real treat, plus living and working in the borough where she was born, is something I am very proud to tell everyone about.
John Lightfoot, MBE, CMarEng, FIMarEST, Fellow South Shields Marine School
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