We never need an excuse to celebrate our beloved soap matriarchs both past and present, so here is our countdown of the most iconic women in soapland.
EastEnders, Coronation Street, and Emmerdale all have a rich history of having powerful, independent women at the heart of their broods. Steely stalwarts who command the audience’s attention and are able to tackle whatever life throws at them in order to keep their family ship afloat.
Although many of these iconic females are no longer with us, their legacy and influence live on. Here’s our countdown of the most indomitable matriarchs soap has ever seen…
10. Lisa Dingle (Emmerdale)
Coming in at number 10 is the late Lisa Dingle, who deserved a medal of endurance for keeping the Dales' most disorderly clan (mostly) in line. Lisa came to the village in 1996 and accepted a marriage proposal to Albert Dingle, but heart really lay with his brother, Zak.
The soulmates ended up getting hitched, and on Christmas Day 1998 Lisa gave Zak a present he’d never forget when she gave birth to baby Belle in a barn, without even knowing she was pregnant.
Over the years, Lisa experienced a lot of dark moments – she was sexually abused by her work colleague Derek, supported Belle as she battled crippling psychosis, and endured the agony of Zak leaving her for another woman. Despite that, Lisa was always there for her loved ones and acted as a mother figure to Cain, Charity, Sam, and Chas, giving them all a clip round the ear when needed.
Emmerdale fans were overjoyed when Lisa eventually forgave Zak, but their reunion was short-lived as she tragically died of amyloidosis in May 2019.
9. Lou Beale (EastEnders)
Only those very brave, or foolish, would dare take on Walford’s original battle axe, Lou Beale. The formidable force of nature was mum to 10 (yes 10!) children, including Pauline Fowler and Pete Beale, who was Ian Beale’s father.
Having moved into 45 Albert Square straight after her marriage in 1935, Lou brought up her family in that house and remained living there the rest of her life. An East End institution, Lou was firm friends with her neighbours Dot Cotton, Ethel Skinner and Dr Legg, and adored her favourite grandson, Ian, but had a stormy relationship with her son-in-law Arthur, who she believed wasn’t good enough for Pauline.
Arthur wasn’t the only one in the firing line - Lou also disapproved of Pete’s first wife, Pat and made no secret of her disdain towards her. A bossyboots right to the end, Lou spent her last evening on earth in July 1988 giving the Fowlers and Beale families her ‘words of wisdom’, before retiring to her bed where she peacefully slipped away.
8. Dot Cotton (EastEnders)
Dot/Dorothy/Mrs C – long-suffering mum to Nasty Nick, adored grandma and friend to all. The legendary launderette worker was first introduced to viewers in 1985, and Walford certainly would be have been a duller place without her chain-smoking, bible-bashing, and gossiping in The Vic over a sweet sherry.
Dot’s made her mark on popular culture too, being the muse for fashion designers and spoofed by comedians. Amongst all the laughs have been many traumas – Dot was abused by her first husband Charlie, her only son Nick tried to bump her off on more than one occasion, and she’s lost a lot of loved ones along the way. But Dot is one of Soapland’s greatest survivors, and the phenomenal June Brown always managed to steal every single scene she was in.
After an incredible 35 years on our screens, June stepped down from her role, and the character is currently residing in Ireland with her grandson, Charlie. The door has been left open for her return, so fingers crossed we haven’t seen the last of Dot.
7. Annie Sugden (Emmerdale)
Not only was Annie Sugden the original Emmerdale matriarch, she was also one heck of a strong and capable lady, who had to deal with countless family tragedies. After being widowed when husband Jacob died in 1972, farm owner Annie found herself caught in the middle of her quarreling sons Jack and Joe as they fought over the family business.
The following year Annie’s only daughter, Peggy succumbed to a fatal brain hemorrhage, leaving behind baby twins. And a decade later, her new husband Leonard Kempinski was killed in the 1993 plane crash, which also left Annie fighting for her life. After making a full recovery, Annie went on to marry her third husband Amos Brearly and the couple emigrated to Spain.
But she was dealt two further cruel blows when son Joe died in a car accident, and her last surviving son, Jack, passed away in 2009, whilst staying with her. Annie accompanied Jack’s coffin back to the village and laid him to rest, before returning to Spain, where she remained living until her death in 2020 at the grand old age of 100.
6. Blanche Hunt (Coronation Street)
At first glance Deirdre's mother looked like your typical sweet old dear, but she was anything but. The queen of throwing shade and with more front than Blackpool, Blanche was unashamedly outspoken and didn't hold back in giving her opinions of the Weatherfield locals.
Who can forget her scathing review of Liz McDonald - "Skirt no bigger than a belt, too much eyeliner, and roots as dark as her soul." Ouch! Blanche also despaired of Deirdre’s tumultuous love life – particularly her relationship with on/off hubby Ken. After discovering Ken had done the dirty on her daughter, Blanche took great delight in showing him up during an AA meeting they were attending for his son Peter. The only one who was seemingly safe from her acid tongue was her beloved pet pooch Eccles.
Played by the inimitable Maggie Jones, who twice scooped the gong for Best Comedy Performance at the British Soap Awards, Blanche starred in over 840 episodes of Coronation Street until the actress’s death in December 2009. She was also reported to be the late singer George Michael’s favourite soap character!
5. Pat Butcher (EastEnders)
Former gangster’s moll Pat was a tart with the biggest heart. Known for her love of leopard print and possessing the best earring collection in the land, she was bold, brassy and unapologetically herself. Arriving in 1986, Pat created drama from the word go and certainly knew how to ruffle the feathers of the Walford locals.
Although having been not the best mum to her sons Simon and David during their childhood, Pat tried to make up for her mistakes later in life. And after reuniting with her teen sweetheart Frank Butcher, she took on his kids, Diane, Ricky, and Janine as if they were her own.
Being a step mum came with its challenges, and over the years Pat had more than her fair share of grief from manipulative minx Janine. She also took in several of the local waifs and strays and gave them a roof over their heads.
After bringing Pat’s sass to the small screen for a quarter of a century, actress Pam St Clement decided the time had come to hang up her character’s earrings. Pat passed away on New Year’s Day 2012, and made a brief reappearance in 2016 for Peggy’s final curtain call. We bet she’s up there on her cloud, fag in one hand and a G&T in the other.
4. Gail Rodwell (Coronation Street)
Gail Rodwell, formerly Potter, Tilsley, Platt, Hillman and McIntyre, has been a cornerstone of the cobbles since 1974 – that’s nearly 50 years! She’s been involved in some of the soap’s most shocking and spectacular storylines and is also Corrie’s most married female character, having been hitched no fewer than six times to five different husbands.
Family is everything to Gail, who’s a proud mum to Nick, Sarah Louise and David. She’s super protective of her clan, which often borders on overbearing, and means she’s unable to resist sticking her beak into her kids’ business. But she’s also incredibly forgiving, which is amazing considering all the aggro her offspring, particularly David have put her through.
Street fans were left devastated last year when Gail announced she wanted to move away due to her family’s constant quarrelling, but thankfully she had a change of heart. Long may she reign in Weatherfield!
3. Pauline Fowler (EastEnders)
Having been handed the baton of matriarch by her mum Lou, Pauline took her duties as head of the Fowler/Beale household very seriously. One of the original EastEnders characters, Pauline was born and raised on Albert Square and lived her whole life at Number 45. A real grafter, she juggled her job at the local launderette with looking after a home and raising her young son Martin single-handedly after her husband Arthur passed away.
Fiercely loyal of her brood, Pauline was also mum to Michelle and her son Mark, who she proudly supported when he faced prejudice over his HIV diagnosis. Undoubtedly hardened by the rough hand she’d been dealt, grumpy Pauline wasn’t always the easiest person to love and had several enemies, but Walford wouldn’t have been the same without her.
Actress Wendy Richards played the role for an impressive 21 years before deciding it was time to call it a day. An audience of 10.7 million watched as Pauline collapsed and died in the middle of the snowy Square on Christmas Day 2006.
2. Deirdre Barlow (Coronation Street)
In second place is the brilliant and much-missed Deirdre Barlow. Born and bred in Weatherfield, Deirdre moved into Coronation Street in 1973 and took up a secretarial job with local builder’s firm. Famed for her gravelly voice, trademark large specs, chain-smoking and her speciality dish of stuffed marrow, Deirdre gained a huge cult following.
She was equally well known for her long-running on/off relationship with Ken Barlow, which spanned over 40 years and saw them get married twice. Deirdre only had one daughter, her ‘Tracy Luv’, who caused her no end of heartache, but somehow, she always found in her heart to forgive her crimes – even when she committed murder.
Her down-to-earth nature made her incredibly popular was with the viewers. And in 1998, when Deirdre found herself imprisoned after being framed by her fraudulent lover Jon Lindsay, her army of fans launched a nationwide campaign called 'Free the Weatherfield one' with the case even getting a mention in parliament!
Sadly Deirdre’s time on the cobbles was cut short when actress Annie Kirkbride lost her battle to cancer in January 2015, meaning the writers had to play out the character’s death off-screen.
1. Peggy Mitchell (EastEnders)
Taking the gold has to be the late, great Peggy Mitchell. The pint-sized publican may have been small in stature, but she had a personality, and voice, bigger than Walford itself. Peg had made a brief appearance in 1991, but it wasn’t until three years later when Carry On film legend Barbara Windsor took on the role that she became a permanent fixture on the Square.
As head of the Mitchell faaamily and mum to sons Phil and Grant and daughter Sam, Queen Vic landlady Peg guarded her brood like a fierce lioness and woe betide anyone who did them – or her - wrong. As she told her ex-husband Archie in a classic showdown: “I'm not some cuddly little old lady: I'm Peggy Mitchell! I'm old East End. Real East End. Proper. You don't mess with me." And if anyone dared step foot in the Vic after crossing her, you be ejected with those iconic four words, “Get outta my pub”.
Peggy’s main sparring partner over the years was frenemy Pat Butcher, who she famously fell out with after discovering she’d been sleeping with her husband Frank. However, the brassy blondes eventually made up, and when cancer-stricken Peggy was nearing the end in 2016, Pat’s ghost reappeared to help her bow out like the queen she was.
Laura has been a journalist for over a decade, writing about soaps, TV entertainment, fashion, beauty, and food. After graduating from university, she started her career working at a national soap and TV magazine. During her seven-year stint there she joined the cast of Emmerdale for a tour around the famous village, partied with soap stars at awards bashes, interviewed her acting idol David Suchet, and sat in the front row of Strictly Come Dancing.
Her heart lies with the soaps, and her all-time favourite character has to be EastEnders' Pat Butcher - no one rocked a big earring quite like her. She's also a huge fan of detective crime dramas, particularly old school Inspector Morse, Endeavour, and adaptations of Agatha Christie's Marple and Poirot. When she's not writing, she loves a spot of second-hand shopping and going on adventures with her young son.
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