Barbara Windsor, Queen of the real East End, dies aged 83
- Credit: LBTH
Barbara Windsor, the most famous and loved East Ender in real life and on screen, has died at the age of 83.
The “Queen of the East End”, who was awarded a Damehood for services to charity and entertainment and an honorary doctorate from the University of East London, played the landlady of The Vic pub in the BBC soap EastEnders for several years and starred in many Carry On films.
A close friend of The Krays, she had humble beginnings in Shoreditch and returned to the Queen Victoria seamen’s rest centre in Limehouse when she opened an extension in 2011. She was also invited to open the first Tower Hamlets Council community hub in the Hackney Road in 2018.
Barbara’s birth was registered in 1937 in the Borough of Stepney. She was the only child of costermonger John Deeks and dressmaker Rose living in Shoreditch in what was once Angela Street.
The family moved to Stoke Newington when the Second World War broke out and Babs went to school at St Mary’s Infants’ before being evacuated.
She returned in 1944 and attended William Patten School and finally Our Lady’s Convent Secondary in Stamford Hill.
But Babs was always itching to get on the stage and trained at the Aida Foster drama school in Golders Green, making her debut at 13 and her West End debut at 15 in 1952.
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She took the stage name Windsor, inspired by the Queen’s coronation the following year.
Television work soon poured in, including the BBC’s Six-Five Special hit-music show.
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Her first sitcom brought her back to her roots as a flighty seamstress in The Rag Trade about life in an East End garment sweatshop.
She had already appeared on the big screen as a teenager in The Belles of St Trinian’s in 1954 before she joined Joan Littlewood’s company at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, from where Babs then got her first star role in the 1963 film Sparrows Can’t Sing about the Cockney East End.
The East End was always in her blood. She was buddies with The Krays and had a brief affair with Reggie and frequented their nightclubs regularly when she lived in Mile End.
She even married a known Kray associate, East End gangster Ronnie Knight, the first of three marriages.
In her 2000 autobiography All of Me, Barbara revealed she had five abortions, admitting she never wanted children because of her father rejecting her after her parents’ divorce.
She devoted much of her off-screen life to community work. Boris Johnson, who was Mayor of London, made her his “street party ambassador” in the Big Lunch festivities for the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain on the original 1951 site on the Southbank.
She recalled at the time: “I have fabulous memories of growing up in east London and the street parties we got involved in. They were the atmosphere for communities to come together and neighbours to get to know one another.”
The following February marked the 60th anniversary of the Queen ascending the throne in 1952.
Dame Babs, as she became known in east London, attended the annual memorial service at Bethnal Green to the 173 men, women and children killed in 1943 in Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster when a staircase railing collapsed in the rush into the public shelter during an air-raid alert.
She was made an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours in 2000, then received the Freedom of both the City of London and City of Westminster in 2010, before being made a Dame in 2016 for services to charity and entertainment.
An honorary doctorate from the University of East London came in 2018.
At 77 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Her husband Scott Mitchell and some of her former BBC co-stars from EastEnders ran in the London Marathon in 2019 in aid of dementia research. The couple became “ambassadors” for the Alzheimer’s Society on her 82nd birthday in August last year.
Dame Babs moved into a care home in August, where she died last night (December 10) aged 83.