Catherine Cookson was born the illegitimate daughter of a domestic servant in South Shields in 1906, raised by her Grandmother and Stepgrandfather. Her childhood was spent in poverty and it is said her mother would often scavenge for wood and coal on the banks of the Tyne. Cookson was educated at St Peter and St Paul's Roman Catholic School at Jarrow, however, due to ill health she left and followed her mother into domestic service. During this time, Cookson began writing books and trying to get her work published, yet she found her lack of education was a barrier to success. Thus, she embarked upon a course of self-education by attending reading and night classes to further her learning.

During the war Catherine accompanied her husband to various RAF postings around the country, afterwards settling in Hastings, Sussex. It was here that she joined a writer's circle and was able to get her first autobiographical novel published, entitled 'Kate Hannigan'. Following this, Cookson began the series of Jarrow-based novels that gained her the reputation as a leading novelist of the social history of the north east of England. Her novels often recorded the rise and decline of the industries along the Tyne and painted a powerful picture of the impoverished lives of her characters, very much based on historical fact. In 1969, she won the Winifred Holtby award for her novel, The Round Tower and her works quickly came to dominate the best-seller list. During the 1980s and 1990s, Cooksons books were made into films for television that were subsequently translated into 68 languages. In her lifetime, Catherine wrote a total of 103 books, 89 novels, 10 children's books and 4 autobiographical works, continuing to dictate fiction until her 90th year.

Throughout her success, Catherine's life was blighted by a hereditary condition known as 'haemorrhagic telangiectasia', causing bleeding from the nose, mouth and stomach. This resulted in frequent hospital trips and blood transfusions. Due to this Cookson donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund genetic research into the condition and characteristically gave much of her wealth to charity.

Her literary and philanthropic contributions were commemorated when in 1982 she was awarded an honorary MA by the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and in 1993 she was made a Dame of the British Empire. South Shields even declared itself 'Catherine Cookson country' and a Newcastle Metro carriage holds a plaque of commemoration dedicated to her.

Catherine Cookson died at her home in Jesmond on 11th June, 1998 from heart failure. Having no children, the bulk of her joint estate was left to a charitable trust which aims to identify and meet the local needs of the area in which Catherine was brought up in and resided.