Meet Pat, the girl with the spotty dress and flashing smile

editorial image
0
Have your say

She has performed and befriended some of the biggest names in showbusiness, including Laurel and Hardy, Benny Hill and Morecambe and Wise.

And her career started here, in Blackpool, in 1951, as a tiller girl.

Pat Stewart, wearing her outlandish rafia shoes in shot at Blackpool in 1950

Pat Stewart, wearing her outlandish rafia shoes in shot at Blackpool in 1950

But Pat Stewart is probably best-known for THAT photograph.

The famous image, taken in Blackpool on a blustery day in the 50s, showed two girls sitting on seafront railings, one wearing a spotted dress being caught by the wind.

The charming picture – taken by Bert Hardy for the magazine Picture Post – became a hugely popular and cherished image, a carefree snapshot of postwar Britain, one of the most memorable images of the 20th century.

When Pat posed with her friend Wendy for the photo, sitting on the railings in Blackpool, she had no idea how famous her smile would become.

Pat Stewart in the Tiller Girls, at Blackpool's North Pier

Pat Stewart in the Tiller Girls, at Blackpool's North Pier

And she had forgotten about the picture until in 2006, the mystery of the girl in the Polka dot dress surfaced.

A women called Norma Edmondson had come forward to say she remembered being in Blackpool and recognised the dress and believed she was the girl in the photo, even appearing on BBC’s The One Show to talk about it.

But Pat stepped forward after seeing the programme, and explained it was actually her in the picture – and she even had the original contact sheet to prove it.

Pat then appeared on the One Show to claim the credit.

Pat Stewart, as a gala queen, opening Purston Park, in Featherstone in 1949

Pat Stewart, as a gala queen, opening Purston Park, in Featherstone in 1949

After the inevitable media interest, Pat decided to write her memoir.

And her book, co-written with author Veronica Clark, charts her story from humble beginnings in Yorkshire, to showbusiness memories from 1950s Blackpool and of course, the picture which propelled her to nation-wide fame.

Pat recalls how she and her friend Wendy were chosen by the photographer while performing as Tiller Girls in Blackpool in 1951.

It was Pat’s first season in the resort with the famous dance troupe, and she was just 17.

Pat, who grew up in Featherstone, Yorkshire, said: “The dress was one my mother had given me to go away with. It was white with brown spots.

“One day, when we had finished the show at North Pier, Wendy and I were called to the stage door. I was Pat Wilson then, my maiden name of course.

“I remember saying to Wendy perhaps we had been discovered by Hollywood and they had come for us.

“It was a reporter from the Picture Post, which was the Hello of its day, and a photographer called Bert Hardy.”

The magazine, in a bid to boost falling circulation, was running a photo competition and wanted to recruit the girls to help.

They met Bert the next morning on the Promenade and he took a number of snaps on his Box Brownie, including the now iconic image.

Pat, now a grandmother, said: “Bert would not let me hold onto the railings, and there was a 12ft drop from the railings on the other side.

“He would however, let me hold onto Wendy, who was holding onto the railings. I had got my foot wrapped around the railings for extra support.

“When the wind blew up my dress, I couldn’t use my hand to push it down as you naturally would, because I really dare not let go of Wendy.

“People have said I look like I’m laughing, but I think it was sheer terror, thinking ‘I cannot let go’.

“Of course, as the wind blew, he snapped the picture.

“Bert had a theory it wasn’t the camera which created the picture, it was the man behind the camera and I think he was right.”

While the picture went on to became an enduring image of the 20th century, Pat wasn’t initially that impressed.

“I remember thinking my legs looked awfully skinny on it.

“And Bert told me years later how the editor thought my knickers were showing and decide to airbrush it – in the end it made it look like I wasn’t wearing any knickers!

“I was actually wearing a one-piece swimsuit underneath my dress. That was what they could see.

“But Marilyn Monroe eat your heart out – I beat you to it!”

Pat has many happy memories of the resort, before she went on to enjoy a career performing at some of the best (and worst) venues in England.

Pat, who put on her first ballet shoes at the age of three, spent two seasons in Blackpool.

She said: “My first memories of Blackpool are when I was about 12 or 13 visiting the Pleasure Beach. Blackpool was wonderful with all the theatres, the Piers and the Winter Gardens. The first season with the Tiller Girls I stayed with a landlady called Mrs Williams, she was very nice.

“I remember she had a mole on her chin which had a long hair sticking out of it.

“She would allow us to go for drinks at the Winter Gardens and she always waited up.

“In the second year, I became very friendly with a girl called Doreen Hodgson who had just joined the Tiller Girls, she was from Blackpool and had been in the circus.

“I used to go to Doreen’s mum’s house with her and ended up staying there, because she would do the cooking and cleaning. Doreen left to join the Bluebell Girls in Paris.

“I left the Tiller Girls after two years, because as I was a trained dancer in ballet, I got bored of all the kicking.

“It was a great experience for me though, because I got to do the theatre at North Pier, which was a number one theatre, and working with the creme de la creme.

“But by midway through my second season, I was getting cheesed off with just kicking.

“We used to do a Wednesday matinee at the Pier and a lot of the audience would be made up of equity members from other shows who did not have a matinee.” One day, when a performer from another show – Nick Bernard – called at the stage-door for Pat after a matinee, and suggested they form a double-act, she saw her chance and the pair began rehearsing immediately.

They eventually got their big break after performing in a show which featured nudes (Pat: “I certainly kept all my clothes on”) and she went on to appear on TV and work onstage with such famous names as Laurel and Hardy and the Beverly Sisters.

It was through the theatre she met her husband, Welsh comedian Johnny Stewart, and they married in 1956, following a whirlwind romance.

Pat retired from dancing and became a showbiz agent in the 60s, meeting the notorious Krays twins in the process.

Pat and Johnny raised three children and remained together, until his death in 2000.

Pat decided, after the story became well-known several years ago, she wanted to write her book to leave a legacy for her family – the story of the “Blackpool Belle in the Polka Dot Dress.”

She said: “I realised my grandchildren knew nothing about this story and I wanted them to know about it and that part of my life.”

The Girl in the Spotty Dress by Pat Stewart with Veronica Clark is out now, published by John Blake Publishing in paperback and priced £7.99