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Late-blooming English actor, Liz Smith (1921-2016), was in kinship care from the age of two and adopted at the age of nine.

Betty Gleadle was born in Crosby, Lincolnshire. Her mother, Nellie Foster, died in childbirth (as did the baby) two years later and Betty was taken in by her maternal grandparents. Betty saw her father occasionally:

…I never saw Dad but then he would suddenly appear…he might have come back with a brace of rabbits he’d shot or a hare or something, or on the other hand he might throw me up in the air and then take me to the cinema. He was fun. He was a fun father that I hardly ever saw. But he was fun when he was there and I adored him.

One day, when Betty was seven, her father said he was going away and that he would write to Betty. But he never did write, and Betty never saw him again.

After Betty’s grandfather died, Betty’s grandmother adopted her and Betty took on the surname Smith. The motivation for the adoption appears to have been to stop the child’s father from reclaiming her.

Smith worked as a dressmaker after leaving school. She then joined the WRENS (Women’s Royal Navy Service)—inspired by the uniform—shortly after the outbreak of WWII and served in Scotland, South Africa, and India.

Liz Smith married Jack Thomas, an aspiring playwright in 1945. By then she owned her own home, thanks to a legacy from her grandmother, and she worked from home while raising her children, Sarah and Robert.

The couple divorced in 1959, after which Liz worked during the day to support her children and also joined London’s Unity Theatre which gave her considerable experience in improvising.

Liz Smith was 49 when she was chosen for the role of teacher Pat’s mother in Bleak Moments, the 1971 and first film made by Mike Leigh.

She then went on to perform in a number of other films and television programs, including as Letitia Cropley in The Vicar of Dibley, a role that made Liz a household name.

The batty old woman in a hat was renowned for the awful cakes she made – the subject of a tricky question she asked Dawn French’s pioneering female priest when Smith was written out: “My cooking. Was I a great experimenter, a pioneer…or was my food just ghastly?”

Liz also took on the role of Norma Speakman, or Nana, in the Bafta-nominated comedy, The Royle Family, from 1998 to 2000. She won the 2007 British Comedy Awards Best Actress and in 2009 was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).


Barker, Dennis. “Liz Smith obituary.” The Guardian, 27 December 2016.

Hayward, Anthony. “Liz Smith obituary: Actress who left poverty behind to play Nana in ‘The Royle Family’ and the cake-making church organist in ‘The Vicar of Dibley“. Independent, 27 December 2016. 

Liz Smith (2008) Desert Island Discs, BBC Sounds. 

Image available here.