WHEN Pat Stewart posed with her friend Wendy on the railings of the Blackpool promenade one blustery day in 1951, she had no idea that the subsequent photograph would become famous.
The photo, taken by Bert Hardy for the magazine Picture Post, has since become a hugely popular and cherished image, a carefree snapshot of a postwar world that has long since gone.
For much of her life, though, Pat had all but forgotten about the photograph. Then in 2006, the mystery of the girl in the Polka Dot dress surfaced when a woman called Norma Edmondson came forward after friends had shown her the picture.
Mrs Edmondson remembered being in Blackpool and recognised the dress and believed she was the girl in the photo. She even appeared on BBC’s The One Show to explain how she came to be at the centre of one of the most memorable images of 20th Century. But the one thing she couldn’t recall was the exact moment the picture was taken.
The story then took a twist when Pat came forward, after Mrs Edmondson’s appearance, to say that she was actually the girl in the picture. She vividly remembered the day Bert took the picture in Blackpool and had the original contact sheet to prove it. Mrs Edmondson admitted she had made an honest mistake and Pat was then invited on The One Show to claim the credit.
The story sparked a flurry of media interest that has prompted Pat to write her memoir. “I realised that my grandchildren knew nothing about this story and I wanted them to know about this part of my life,” she says.
Her book, The Girl in the Spotty Dress, co-written with author Veronica Clark, charts her story from humble beginnings in Yorkshire, to showbusiness memories from the 1950s and that famous photograph.
Pat was born in Featherstone into a hard-working, but poor, family. “My father was a miner and during the General Strike to make some money he did bare-fist fighting at a fairground,” she says.
When she was growing up her parents scrimped and saved to pay for her to have dance lessons. “Money was very tight and my mum pulled pea to help pay for my classes,” she says. “My dad took me to my first dance class when I was little, it was at a studio in the Crescent Cinema on Ropergate in Pontefract.”
At the age of 12 she was taken on by Lilyman’s Dance School in Leeds, which had a reputation for being one of the best dance schools in Yorkshire. “I used to get the bus from Featherstone to Leeds, it took about an hour and I would sit and eat my peas,” says Pat.
By the time she was a teenager she had set her heart on becoming a dancer and it was a chance newspaper advert that caught her eye which led to her first break. “One day I was pottering about at home when I spotted a copy of the Yorkshire Post on the kitchen table and I noticed Francis Laidler advertising for chorus girls for a pantomime at Leeds Theatre Royal. I told my mum I was going to my dance class as usual, but instead I went to the audition and got the job.”
Her mother wanted her to go to college in Harrogate but eventually relented and let her take the job. Also performing in the pantomime were the fabled ‘Tiller Girls’, the Formula 1 of dance troupes. “I plucked up the courage and asked their choreographer if I could join them but she said I couldn’t because I’d signed a contract with Mr Laidler. But she said she’d keep an eye out for me.”
She was true to her word, helping her get a job with the Tiller Girls in Blackpool the following summer. And it was here where the famous photograph was taken. “After the show one Friday night the stage manager came to our dressing room door and said to me and Wendy that two fellas’ were here to see us. We were both 17 and started giggling, I think I said to Wendy, ‘do you think we’ve been discovered by Hollywood?’
“We went to meet them and we were a bit puzzled as they both seemed really old to us. One introduced himself as a reporter with Picture Post, which was the Hello of its day, and the other man was Bert Hardy.”
They wanted to photograph the girls for a photo competition which the magazine hoped would help boost its sales and Pat and Wendy agreed. “We met Bert and the reporter, Brian, the next morning. Bert had a Box Brownie camera and he took lots of photos of us on the beach and then we went up by the railings on the promenade,” she says.
“It was very windy that day, it’s always windy in Blackpool, and my dress kept billowing up. People have asked me since if I was really laughing and I think was too terrified. There was a big drop down on to the beach the other side and if you look at the photo I’m holding on to Wendy and that’s when the wind blew up my skirt.”
A few weeks later the photograph was published on the front cover of the magazine, although Pat wasn’t wholly enamoured with how she looked. “I thought my legs were too thin,” she says.
She wasn’t happy with the airbrushing either. “I was wearing a one piece swimsuit underneath my dress but when the photo was developed a bit of it was showing so it was airbrushed out which makes it look like I wasn’t wearing any knickers.”
As her career continued through the 50s and early 60s she forgot all about the photograph. During this period she performed numerous times in the much-loved music hall show The Good Old Days at Leeds City Varieties and worked with some of the biggest names in showbusiness including Benny Hill, Diana Dors and the Beverley Sisters.
In 1953 she appeared on the same bill as Laurel and Hardy at the Finsbury Park Empire which, after the Palladium, was considered one of the best variety theatres in the country. “By this time Laurel and Hardy were coming out of cinema because they weren’t getting the work but they were still big names over here.
“I often found that the bigger the star the nicer they were because they had nothing to prove. Ollie would stand and watch us from the wings and when I came off he asked, ‘what’s the audience like tonight, Pat?’ And I couldn’t believe this iconic star would bother asking me what I thought of the audience.
“Another night he said ‘you were great, I don’t know how we’re going to follow that,’ and at the end of the week he gave me a signed photo of him and Stan. They were lovely, they really were.”
In 1956, Pat married the Welsh comedian Johnny Stewart following a whirlwind romance. She retired from dancing and became a showbiz agent in the 60s, meeting the notorious Kray twins in the process.
Pat and Johnny raised a family and remained together until his death in 2000. Now, at the age of 82, Pat is enjoying reliving her past life as “the Blackpool Belle in the Polka Dot Dress.”
“It is just a picture at the end of the day, but it has changed my life, although it didn’t really change it till later on,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for that photograph then I wouldn’t have told my story so I’m grateful for that. It’s wonderful because the more you write about your life, the more you remember.”
But what about that famous dress? “I lost it,” she says. “I probably left it in some digs because in those days I was moving around so much... it’s probably worth a fortune now.”
The Girl in the Spotty Dress, published by John Blake Publishing Ltd, is out now priced £7.99.
Fun, fame and Featherstone
Pat Stewart was born in Featherstone, in West Yorkshire, in the 1930s.
She first put on a pair of ballet shoes when she was three and became a prestigious Tiller Girl at the age of 17.
She high-kicked her way from Leeds to Blackpool pier and on to some of the best (and worst) theatres and clubs in the country.
Pat has performed and befriended some of the biggest names in showbusiness, including Laurel and Hardy, Benny Hill, Morecambe and Wise, Diana Dors and the Beverley Sisters.
But she is best known for being “the Blackpool Belle in the Polka Dot Dress” in Bert Hardy’s iconic photograph that he took for Picture Post in 1951.