Coronation Street favourite Betty Driver, who played the role of the Rovers Return barmaid for 42 years, has died aged 91.

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An ITV spokesman said Driver "died peacefully in hospital" in the early hours of Saturday morning.

The actress had been in hospital for six weeks. She had also been unwell earlier in the year and was treated for a chest infection in 2010.

Barbara Knox, who plays Rita Sullivan in Coronation Street, said: "I have lost a very dear friend and the Street has lost a very great character, a professional to her fingertips - she will be greatly missed."

Julie Goodyear, fellow barmaid Bet Lynch in the soap, said: "It was an honour and a privilege to work with Betty Driver for 25 years.

She will be missed and remembered by millions. Julie Goodyear

"We laughed together, we cried together and never once had a cross word. She was a totally professional actress. A true icon and legend and a very dear friend."

Ms Goodyear said Driver was "the very foundation of the Rovers Return" and added: "She will be missed and remembered by millions."

Driver had originally auditioned for the role of Hilda Ogden in 1964 after a 36-year-career in radio, television and the stage. She was then persuaded to come out of retirement in 1969 to audition for the role of Betty instead.

Her character became known for her famous hotpot - but Driver herself never tasted the dish as she did not eat meat.

Last year, when the soap celebrated its 50th anniversary, Driver insisted she would never retire from the show.

She said at the time: "I love working. I can't retire, I won't retire - I never ever will."

Betty Driver of Coronation Street dies aged 91 (Image: Getty)

Life before Corrie

Driver was already a household name in the 1940s as a leading vocalist with some of the top dance bands in the country.

She was persuaded out of retirement in 1969 and since, as Betty Williams, became the longest-serving barmaid in the history of the Rovers Return.

Before she became a full-time actress she sang with such bands as Henry Hall's and became a major recording artist in her own right.

Like Vera Lynn, she entertained the troops during the Second World War with the Ensa organisation (Entertainment National Service Association).

The elder of two daughters, Driver was pushed into a life on the boards by her star-struck mother, Nell. She joined the Terence Byron Repertory Company at the age of nine, and turned professional aged ten in a touring production of Mixed Bathing. At 14 she landed her first film role and trod the London stage.

Like Vera Lynn, she entertained the troops during the Second World War

While still in her teens she appeared in a number of films and was making her name as a vocalist. During the war she teamed up with band-leader Henry Hall and for seven years became a regular and popular feature on his top radio show Henry Hall's Guest Night. She also had her own show, A Date With Betty.

By now she had become a major recording star with such hits as The Sailor With The Navy Blue Eyes, Macnamara's Band, Pick The Petals Of A Daisy, Jubilee Baby and September In The Rain.

Soon she was to travel to Australia, where she performed in her own show, and her career took her to Cyprus, Malta and the Middle East. On her return home, she appeared in various Ealing comedies.

Aged 32, Driver married South African singer Wally Peterson. They returned to South Africa, but she came back home after a few months and ended the marriage after seven years.

In 1964, she auditioned for the role of Hilda Ogden in Coronation Street, but the producers wanted someone more slender. Two years later she was given the role of canteen manageress in the first of two Coronation Street spin-off series, Pardon the Expression.

However, in one scene, in which she had to throw actor Arthur Lowe, she dislocated her hip and injured her back and decided to retire from showbusiness.

In 1969, Harry Kershaw, the Coronation Street producer, asked if she would be interested in appearing in the show. She agreed and started out as Betty Turpin becoming, after "marriage", Betty Williams. Driver was awarded the MBE in the Queen's New Year Honours List of 2000.