Liz Smith was born Betty Gleadle in the Crosby area of Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire in 1921. When she was two years old, her mother died in childbirth. Her father walked out of her life shortly afterwards, when his new wife did not wish him to have any contact with his previous life. She was brought up by her widowed grandmother. During the Second World War, she served in the Women's Royal Naval Service of the Royal Navy.