Liz Dawn - the former Leeds shop girl who became one of TV’s best-known faces

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SHE was the former Leeds shop girl who became one of TV’s best-known faces.

Along the way, Liz Dawn met prime ministers, royalty and even the Pope.

MAY 2005: Coronation Street star Liz Dawn became the new Lady Mayoress of Leeds.

MAY 2005: Coronation Street star Liz Dawn became the new Lady Mayoress of Leeds.

Yet the girl born in the front room of a council house in Torre Mount, Burmantofts, never forgot her White Rose roots.

As she once said, playing foghorn-voiced Vera Duckworth on Manchester-based Coronation Street may have made her a celebrity – but she always remained “a Yorkshire woman inside”.

Actress, fundraiser, mum, national treasure. Liz Dawn was a true one-off.

Real name Sylvia Butterfield, Liz came kicking and screaming into the world on November 8, 1939.

Her family didn’t have it easy, with her dad in the Army and her mum working in a factory. Most purchases were on ‘tick’ and paid off weekly.

But, as Liz would recall: “It’s not what you’ve got in life but how much love. And I had a lot. All I can remember from my earliest days was laughter.

“I grew up a romantic in a world where everybody lived happily ever after.

“I couldn’t have been happier if I was born to millionaire parents.”

Liz, a middle child of three, went to Corpus Christi High School in Halton Moor before getting a job at a clothes factory on York Road.

From there it was onto shop work and at one point she could be found selling light bulbs in Woolworths.

At 18 she was married and soon had a son, Graham.

Her relationship with her husband did not work out, however, and by 21 they had separated.

“It was dreadful,” she’d later say. “I was on nerve tablets for ages. I was so depressed, I thought I’d made a mess of everything.”

Better times thankfully lay ahead, starting with Liz’s meeting with electrician Don Ibbetson at the old Fforde Grene pub in Harehills.

They married in 1965 at Leeds Register Office and three daughters followed.

It was around this time that Liz took the decision that was to change her life, launching herself as a singer onto the northern club circuit after winning a talent contest at a holiday camp near Scarborough.

There was no grand masterplan for fame and she only started taking work as a TV extra to top up her usual wages.

Nevertheless, Liz began landing parts on the small screen – most notably in the BBC’s Play For Today series.

Then, in 1974, ‘our Vera’ marched onto the cobbles of ITV soap Coronation Street.

Her first appearance was a brief one, as a factory worker demanding a better deal for herself and her colleagues.

Surrounded by some of telly’s biggest names, she was a bundle of nerves – although the rest of the cast probably never guessed it.

“I’d grit my teeth, switch on my most confident smile and stride into action as though I’d just called in from the Royal Shakespeare Company,” Liz once remembered.

Five years went by before Vera enrolled as a regular character along with her long-suffering husband Jack.

Liz’s screen hubby was played by Bill Tarmey, an ex-builder whose route to the soap had also seen him paying his dues in the tough nightclubs of the North.

Viewers loved their full-blooded portrayal of a couple who spent as much time feuding as they did making up.

And, in September 1983, the Duckworths became Corrie residents, as they moved into number nine on the street.

They enjoyed a stream of profile-boosting storylines, including a stint at the helm of the Rovers Return pub.

Liz’s status as a major star was confirmed in 1990 when she was picked to be the subject of an edition of TV’s This Is Your Life show.

Three years later she wrote an autobiography, entitled Vera Duckworth – My Story.

Then, in 1996, a new chapter opened for Liz when she launched an appeal to raise funds for a £260,000 refurbishment of the breast cancer unit at St James’s Hospital in Leeds.

The target was reached within months but what became known as the Liz Dawn Cancer Appeal rolled on, eventually raising more than £1m.

Devout Catholic Liz’s charity work was rewarded when she was chosen for a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Rome in the late 1990s.

Another honour arrived for the staunch royalist in 2000, when she received the MBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

That same year the then Lord Mayor of Leeds, Coun Bernard Atha, decided to celebrate the contribution women had made to the city by choosing several Lady Mayoresses to accompany him on different civic duties.

Sure enough, one of those selected was Liz, who admitted to being “gobsmacked”.

Still more was to come, as she was named Yorkshire’s Woman of Achievement in 2001.

That honour was bestowed on her at a Yorkshire Evening Post-sponsored bash at Leeds’s Queens Hotel which included a flying visit from Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Liz’s fans could, at this stage, have been forgiven for regarding her as an unstoppable force of nature, on and off the screen.

Soon, though, it became clear that ill health was taking its toll on the queen of soapland.

Liz was ordered to rest by doctors after complaining of a pounding in her head while filming in 2004.

A few months afterwards she told the YEP: “I feel like I’ve had enough. There’s only so long you can go on [and] I think I’d quite like to walk off into the sunset.”

Confirmation of her problems came in late 2005, when Liz announced she was suffering from incurable lung disease emphysema.

Typically, she kept fighting and stayed on the programme she loved for another two years.

Her heartbreaking exit scene aired at the start of 2008 and showed Jack finding Vera dead in an armchair following a heart attack.

Two years later, however, she made a moving one-off comeback. Just before he himself passed away, Jack saw a vision of his late wife and they shared a last dance together.

Liz could now have been excused for putting her feet up – and, indeed, she spent a good deal of her retirement enjoying holiday cruises.

But she refused to be a full-time lady of leisure, signing up as one of the British Lung Foundation’s celebrity supporters.

Now the charities she helped, as well as Leeds and the country’s entire showbusiness community, must get used to life without her.

Ta-ra chuck. You did us proud.