DAME Helen Mirren has paid a heartfelt and very public tribute to the English teacher who set her on her path to stardom.

Dame Helen received the British Academy Fellowship prize from Prince William at the glittering ceremony in the Royal Opera House, in London, on Sunday night.

During her acceptance speech, the 68-year-old actress thanked her former teacher at St Bernard’s School, in Westcliff.

She told the glittering assembly: “My journey to this place began with a great teacher, Alice Welding, who died just two weeks ago at age 102.

“She alone was the person who encouraged me to become an actor, and I’d like to thank all those teachers now.

“My teachers in film, of course, included directors, several of whom are here today.”

Dame Helen was born in Hammersmith but brought up in Leigh. She attended St Bernard’s School, Westcliff, and acted in school productions.

She added: “This is the greatest professional honour I can imagine, certainly one I never dreamed of as a schoolgirl in Westcliff-on- Sea.”

She went on to enjoy a long career in TV and film, her most notable roles including the lead in the TV thriller series, Prime Suspect, and the title role in the the feature film, the Queen, in 2006.

Mrs Welding, who died on January 30, was an English teacher at St Bernard’s, in Milton Road, Westcliff. She lived in Leigh Park Road, Leigh.

Maureen Ollett, a friend of Mrs Welding for 30 years, met her through the Southend branch of the National Council of Women and described her as “extremely lively”.

Mrs Ollett, chairman of the Southend organisation, said: “I was gobsmacked to be watching the Baftas, and for Helen Mirren to mention Alice.

“It was wonderful for her to acknowledge the influence she had on her and her life like that.

“Helen visited Alice the last time she came to Southend and they had kept in touch.”

Mrs Ollett added: “Although she was 102, she had the outlook and forward-thinking of someone much younger.

“She was extremely lively and in full mind right to the end. In her nineties she still attended our national meetings, and continued locally until she had a fall last summer.

“She was always interested in education and making sure we did whatever we could to further the interests of women.”

In the death notice published in the Echo, Mrs Welding’s family described her as “Beloved wife of the late Frederick Welding. Inspirational English teacher to many generations at St.Bernard’s School.”

Her funeral will be at Southend Crematorium on Monday, at 11.20am. Flowers should not be sent, though the family welcomes donations to either Friends of Essex Churches or the RSPB c/o S Stibbards & Sons undertakers, in Leigh.