All our yesterdays for Irene and Lesley

Lesley Woolhouse pictured in her belly dancing costume and dressed in period costume with Irene Hood.
Lesley Woolhouse pictured in her belly dancing costume and dressed in period costume with Irene Hood.

“Elegance and grandeur” – Lesley Woolhouse and Irene Hood both use these words when describing what they love about Victorian-style costumes.

Both women are members of Hartlepool’s Victorian and Yesteryear Society, which was founded by Irene three years ago.

Irene, who turns 72 next Friday, is a dead ringer for Queen Victoria when she dons her grand black gown, gloves, sash, parasol and crown.

She recalled a recent trip to the pub by members after they had appeared at a launch event at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, where they had tea with Mayor of Sunderland, Councillor Norma Wright.

She said: “I went to the bar in this packed pub in my Queen Victoria outfit and there was a table of gentlemen who stepped out and said ‘oh ma’am’ and bowed to me.

“A lot of the public react as if I was the queen.”

Irene, a mother-of-three from the Burn Valley area of Hartlepool, often appears at events with David Bell, who dresses as John Brown, Queen Victoria’s confidante.

Members of the group attend various venues throughout the North East, including Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience, last year’s Tall Ships Races, the Headland Heritage Festival, Preston Park, in Stockton and Teddy Bear’s picnics in parks.

They are due to feature at events at Rossmere Park and in Burn Valley Gardens.

Irene used to be a member of a similar group called Nostalgia Unlimited. But it was based in Wolverhampton and travelling to events was expensive so she set up the town-based group which has 18 members.

She has the perfect background to lead a yesteryear group.

She used to be a costumier and made costumes for various groups, including Hartlepool Stage Society, local operatic societies and others based in Newton Aycliffe, Bishop Auckland and Seaham.

“I was always interested in fancy dress and theatrical costumes,” said Irene, who holds group meetings at her home.

She added: “We have got two Queen Victorias – myself and Val Wood. “If she can’t make it then I will go as Queen Victoria.

Yet despite the finery, life as a Victorian had its drawbacks.

“You have got a lot of petticoats and knickerbockers and when it’s a warm day it gets really hot, said Irene. “It’s easy to be Queen Victoria - when you are dressed up elegantly, you can’t help but act the part.

“But I love it because the public are always interested.

“They say ‘my goodness, it’s like stepping back in time’ and they love taking photographs of us.”

The group also re-enacts other eras including medieval times, 1920s, 1940s, 1950s and the Edwardian period.

Irene said the only down side to the group’s work is that this year they have been asked to so many events they have had to decline a few.

Lesley, 56, from the marina area of Hartlepool, likes to dress as a Victorian lady in her silk skirt suit, hat and parasol and likes to go all out with her petticoats and corsets.

She became involved with the group after meeting Irene who was holding a stall during an event at the Headland.

Lesley said: “Irene had a stall with parasols and hats and she was all dressed up, she looked stunning. “I told her I was in Hartlepool Stage Society and I was interested in period dress and history and Irene asked if she set something up would I be interested.”

Lesley, who is grandmother to Kyle, 13, Ellie, 11, Shannon, eight and six-year-old Adele, described what she loves about donning her Victorian garb.

She said: “It’s all very grand. A lady wasn’t dressed without her hat and her gloves and would act accordingly.

“You couldn’t go lifting your skirt up and shouting from one of the room to the other.

“It’s very elegant, very feminine, and people seem to like it as well.”

Lesley said it can take up to an hour for her to get dressed up in her outfit, which can have up to seven layers, including corsets, bodices and shirts.

She ties her long hair back into a bun and applies simple makeup which consists of blusher and pale lipstick, like “an English rose”, says Lesley.

In contrast to her English rose persona, Lesley is also a belly dancer and a member of an eight-strong group called The Arab Babes, which meets at Belle Vue Sports and Community Centre, in Kendal Road.

She took up the hobby five years ago.

Lesley said: “It was just something I wanted to do, we do venues all over.”

When asked if she had to choose between her yesteryear hobby and her belly-dancing, she said: “I would have to say my belly dancing.

“It’s just very feminine getting dressed up and it’s all the sparkles and jewels and it’s also really good toning and exercise.”

Anyone who would like to find out more about the Victorian and Yesteryear Society can call (01429) 865438.