The life and work of one of the world’s best loved authors is the focus of a special exhibition at her South Tyneside 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.

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

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

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 Catherine Cookson’s written material, loaned by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.   

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, National Centre for the Written Word, said she hopes the exhibition will appeal to Cookson fans as well as to a new generation of readers who may not be familiar with her work.

“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, Port of Tyne Chief Executive Officer 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 call 0191 427 1818 or visit