My birth name is Lesley Simpkins but Mummy always called me Precious Poppet.
My mother said that she knew I was special the moment I was born. She said that I was the smallest, loveliest, sweetest thing she had ever lain eyes on. My father had come and gone before I was born and I was all my mother had left in the world. I was born prematurely and the doctors told my mother that there was little hope for me. In my first year I was a frail and sickly baby but Mummy said that she made be better with her love and kisses and the goodness of the breast. I was mollycoddled by my mother. Everyone said that I was more like a babydoll than a baby boy.
My mother’s name was Mary Simpkins. Mummy was a full figured lady and carried an enormous bosom. When Mummy put me to the breast to suckle and comfort, the nipple completely filled my mouth like a rubber dummy teat and her ample flesh enveloped me. My mother described her looks as ‘plain’ but I thought she was magnificent. Mummy wore her long brown hair in a plait coiled in a bun like a little hat on her head. She always dressed smartly in her day dress of a tweed skirt suit and sensible shoes and for outings a mackintosh and a printed headscarf. At night she wore a chiffon peignoir in the summer and a cotton and lace nightdress in the winter. My mother’s scent was a combination of Pears soap, cold cream and eau de cologne.
My mother was devoted to me and I adored her and depended on her for my every need. Mummy was so proud of her ‘precious little poppet’. She said that I was a ‘little beauty’ and that I had been blessed by the angels with my porcelain complexion, rosebud lips and golden curls. Mummy tended my ringlet curls like prize roses and dressed them in satin and velvet ribbons. She made all my clothes to traditional baby clothes patterns that she cut from the women’s magazines. Each evening as I played with my ragdoll at her feet, Mummy would knit, crochet and sew new outfits for me and measure me up for bits and bobs.
I spent the best part of my childhood at my mother’s breast and if truth be told I was never actually weaned. Mummy said I had a delicate constitution. I was also prone to ‘upsets’ and ‘accidents’ and so I never properly completed toilet training either. It was common knowledge that I did not develop like the other boys and girls. The ladies in the village were protective of their ‘special little beauty’ and the children treated me more like a toy than a playmate. For the most part though, I was kept at home with Mummy and she educated me in arts and crafts, cookery, dressmaking, and health and beauty.
Our lovely home was the cottage that Mummy grew up in that was left to her when her mother died. There were pink roses climbing over the door and a jar of wild flowers at every window. The house was decorated in chintz from top to bottom. My mother did ladies’ hair in the back parlour so she could earn a living and stay at home with me. Mummy showed me how to style the hair on my dollies and she said that I was her little ‘salon apprentice’. The ladies would come to have their hair done for special occasions and chat over a cup of tea and biscuits. Mummy could do what they called ‘updos’, which I learnt meant to put the hair up nicely to go to a bit of a do in town. The lady visitors who were all my ‘aunties’ would bring me sweeties and pass me around from lap to lap for kisses and cuddles while my mother fussed with their hair.
Over the fireplace in the parlour there was a collection of silver framed photographs of me on the mantelpiece. The visitors would study the photographs like they were works of art. They congratulated Mummy on how well she looked after me and how well she dressed me like a ‘little princess’.
The first photograph was of me as a newborn in the crib and dressed in a knitted baby dress and matinee jacket with mittens and bootees and a bonnet all in white with blue and pink trimmings. The next photograph was of me at the seaside when I was a toddler held in Mummy’s arms and dressed in a yellow gingham cotton sun frock and bonnet. The third photograph was of me at about four years old on Christmas morning opening presents under the tree and wearing just my lace petticoat and panties. The fourth photograph was of me at about five years of age standing outside the village church and dressed in my Sunday best of a red velvet dress and coat with white lacy ankle socks and red patent Mary Jane shoes. The next photograph was of me on a visit to the infant school in town and dressed in a Peter Pan collared blouse and a blue pinafore dress with white knee socks and black patent Mary Jane shoes.
And that brings us to the sixth and final photograph and the main point of my story – my mother’s dream that I would win the Miss Pears title…
In my mother’s bedroom on the wall opposite her bed set in a gilded frame there was a print of a painting by Sir John Everett Millais entitled ‘Bubbles’. It was a portrait of a cherubic young boy with a head of golden curls and dressed in a ruffled blouse and a velvet coat. The boy was Willie James, the grandson of the artist, and in the painting he is blowing bubbles hence the title of the painting. The painting is famous for its use by the Pears soap company in romantic images of children with the unblemished ‘Pears complexion’ in its advertising campaigns.
Bubbles was with Mummy throughout her life from her nursery onwards and that little boy’s beautiful face was what she saw last thing at night and first thing each morning. My mother prayed and dreamt that the beautiful boy in the painting would come to life and be hers. She said that the day I was born her prayers has been answered and the dream came true. Mummy told me that Pears soap was a gift from the beauty gods and so was I. Mummy used Pears soap every day of her life as her mother had before her and as Mummy used on me from the day I was born. On the Pears soap carton it was written that ‘This golden bar of soap is pure and simple, refined and renowned, in its beautifying properties’.
So, you see, what Mummy said was all true and not just a fairytale.
The Miss Pears contest started in 1958 to find the Miss Pears Princess to be the ‘face’ of Pears soap for a year. The contest was open to all little princesses between the ages of 3 and 9. There were lots of lovely prizes for the winner of the crown, including spending money, a holiday, a new dress and toys, but the main prize was that Miss Pears would have her portrait painted (just like little Willie Bubbles) and her face would be printed on the carton of Pears soap for the whole world to look at for a whole year. The Miss Pears Princess was held as the ‘epitome of beauty’ and her portrait would capture her beauty forever. And this is what my mother wanted for me, her Precious Poppet and Miss Pears Princess, 1969.
From the time I could walk, I was groomed to be a ‘princess’ and Mummy schooled me in hair and beauty, dress and deportment, presence and performance. It was part of my daily routine – as fundamental as washing my face with Pears soap and brushing my hair 100 times until it shone. Mummy did all of this for me so it was just right. She wanted me to be perfect so it was not until the morning of my 7th birthday while she was styling my ringlets that Mummy announced that I was ready for the Miss Pears contest. She said that I was ‘in my prime’ and it was time for me to pose for Pears.
Mummy dressed my hair and body, primped and primed me, oohed and aahed and cooed over me. She positioned me on a wooden stool in the parlour with a floral papered folding screen for a background. Mummy put a white lace parasol in my one hand and a pink rose bloom in my other and she took photographs of me from every angle possible. It took ever such a long time but I sat as still as I could, tilted my head a little, brought the rose to my cheek, and smiled a soft, sweet smile throughout as Mummy directed me to.
I was dressed in a new dress set that Mummy had spent months making for me. It was in the Edwardian style of a white lawn dress and apron lavishly adorned in the finest white lace with a matching petticoat and bloomer style knickers. My ringlets were tied into bunches with pink satin ribbons and my over the knee white stockings were trimmed in the same.
Mummy said that I was the picture of purity, innocence and beauty and she was delighted with me and the photographic results. She smothered me in kisses and said that whatever happened I would always be her little princess.
As a special treat, Mummy invited two of the children from the village, the twins Sally and Jenny, to a picnic tea in the garden. We three ‘playmate princesses’ sat in our best frocks and shared home made lemonade, tiny triangles of cucumber sandwiches (no crusts, of course) and slices of angel cake with our favourite dollies. Then we played clapping and skipping games, hopscotch and blindman’s bluff, and performed a little fairy dance for Mummy. The sun shone until bedtime and it was a splendid day.
Tucked up in bed that night with my ragdoll, I wished upon a star…
We had to wait a week for the photographs to be processed at a store in town and my mother could barely contain herself with the anticipation.
To keep her mind occupied, each evening she would set me in the salon chair, cover me in a pink floral plastic cape, and spend a few hours experimenting on me with the latest fashions from the women’s hairstyling magazines. She would give me a shampoo and set, a head full of curlers and a plastic bonnet, and then she would position me under the hairdryer ‘pod’. I was kept there for such a long and hot time that I would think that Mummy had forgotten about me and that my hair might catch fire but then just at the moment I started to snivel Mummy would return to free me and set me back in the styling chair. There with her brushes and combs, clips and spray, she fluffed and teased at me until my hair was set like a powdered wig and it was time for bed.
The morning my photographs were ready for collection, my mother was anxious to get off early to collect them. She was rather impatient with me and scolded me and smacked the back of my legs when I fidgeted as she tried to fasten up my pink plastic raincoat and tie my matching bonnet. I was sulky when we caught the bus into town but I was soon full of smiles when the ladies at the store fussed over me as if I were already Miss Pears Princess. The lady at the till said that she had never seen a more beautiful child and she gave me lots of kisses and and handfed me sweeties throughout our visit. My mother, meanwhile, studied the batch of photographs, and after about 20 minutes of debate, the ladies came to an agreement about ‘The One’ and the carefully selected photograph was gently popped into a reinforced envelope with my mother’s handwritten application to Pears. Mummy personally handed the freshly stamped and clearly addressed envelope (kissed good luck by Mummy and me) to the postmaster and told him to take good care of it ‘or else’.
While we waited for the result of the application, I had to endure the same nightly salon torment but this time hair conditioning treatments interspersed with facial beauty treatments, for a whole month until one morning the postman knocked urgently on the door and hand delivered a letter with a very smart typeface and a London postmark. Mummy propped it up against the teapot on the breakfast table and stared at it for a long as I tried to silently eat my toast and jam, and only after she had drunk 2 cups of strong sweet tea to calm her nerves, did she carefully slit open the envelope and unfold the letter to receive the news from Pears. She scanned the page quickly and then lifted her eyes up to look directly at me across the table. Mummy announced rather gravely, “Precious, we have work to do” and then the biggest smile ever filled her face and she threw out her arms for me to come to her.
Preparations for the Miss Pears contest began in earnest from that very moment and Mummy organised it with the efficiency of a military operation. She and her lady friends held regular meetings at the salon – discussed strategies, took notes and ordered supplies. Mummy had long since designed the dress sets but had waited until this time to make them so that the fit would be perfect for me. The salon was closed to customers during this month so that Mummy could fully devote herself to the Miss Pears contest but we still had a flow of visitors to the house with good wishes and gifts and a hope for an opportunity of a glimpse of what had become known as ‘The Precious Princess Dress Sets’. Mummy, however, was polite but firm in her conviction that the dress sets would be kept under wraps, indeed lock and key, so that word could not get out and perhaps travel to the mummies of the other contestants. Mummy took this contest very seriously, indeed and it took over our lives for this period – morning, noon and night.
The Miss Pears contest was to be held at The Savoy Hotel, London, in 6 weeks’ time, and we would be staying there for 3 days. Mummy said that it was the most posh and expensive hotel in the world. Our travel and accommodation expenses would all be met by Pears but Mummy was responsible for the cost of 3 outfits and accessories required for the 3 stages of the contest – the quarter, semi and final. The salon ladies helped with a ‘whip round’, which paid for 3 pairs of new shoes and a pair of satin and lace gloves.
I, Lesley Simpkins, aged 7, was set to be one of a parade of beautiful little girls – each dreaming that she would be the one crowned Miss Pears Princess. The judging panel was made up of professional photographers and the editors of leading women’s magazines and the final decision was in their hands and eyes. Mummy said whatever the result of the judges, that in her eyes I was born to be Miss Pears Princess and that whenever I was in front of the judges, I should think of that, stand up straight, and smile just for her.