George Formby, Sr.
|Birth name||James Booth|
4 October 1875|
Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, England
|Died||8 February 1921
Stockton Heath, Cheshire, England
|Spouse||Eliza Hoy (m. 1899–1921) (his death)|
George Formby (4 October 1875 – 8 February 1921), born James Lawler Booth, was an English comedian and musician. He was a star in Edwardian music halls, singing and clowning in a sardonic style that influenced the young Charlie Chaplin. Formby was plagued by ill-health and suffered from tuberculosis, but despite this was one of the highest paid entertainers of his day. His son was the popular comedian and ukulele player who also used the stage name George Formby.
George Formby was the stage name of James Lawler Booth, who was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire. His mother, Sarah Jane Booth, was a poor working class woman who was eighteen years old and unmarried at the time of his birth. She married James's father, Francis Lawler, a few months after the birth. The marriage was turbulent, and young James was often beaten and malnourished. His mother sang at public houses for alcoholic drinks and was often taken to the police station to sober up. Because his mother was so often absent from home, young Booth had to sleep outside the house, in the doorway, or in the lavatory. Because of this, he started to develop asthma, became very susceptible to bronchitis and later developed tuberculosis.
Later on in his life, Formby recalled, "My childhood was the most miserable that could have happened to any human being." According to some biographers, Formby ran away from home when he was seven and worked in a steel foundry near Wigan. Official census records, however, show that in 1891 he was still living with his mother, his father having died the previous year. At about thirteen, he made a partnership with another boy, and together they formed the Brothers Glenray, "the songbirds of the music halls". They travelled around the ale houses in Wigan singing sentimental songs to earn a basic living.
A few years later the Brothers Glenray were singing in proper music halls and doing quite well. However, they lost appeal as singers when their voices started to break. They found that they were getting more laughter than applause for their efforts, so James decided to take advantage of this, and he started singing comic songs on his own to the tunes of Methodist hymns.
Booth adopted the name George Formby in the 1890s, reportedly because, when he was sitting on the platform waiting for a train, he saw a goods train on its way to Formby, a seaside town north of Liverpool. He decided that the name George would go well with this, because it was a common name at the time. By 1897 he was a popular supporting act in Lancashire, described in the theatrical newspaper, The Era as "the favourite vocalist, Mr George Formby, eccentric character comedian". By 1899 he was topping the bills in some theatres, though not yet in the largest ones. In 1899, he met and married Eliza Hoy. They had twelve children, of whom seven survived: four daughters and three sons. The eldest, George Hoy Booth, went on to achieve fame on stage and screen also using the stage name George Formby.
Formby's comedy act was based on a comic stereotype of a working class Lancashire man, dour and down to earth. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states, "He created the character of John Willie, the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad in baggy trousers, tight jacket, and bowler hat, slow-talking, hen-pecked, accident-prone, but muddling through." His performance had elements of a clown act: as well as the baggy clothes, his costume included large boots worn on the wrong feet, a trademark for which Charlie Chaplin later became famous. In between acts and songs, Formby would jump down off the stage, and chat with people in the audience, as though he was having a drink with them.
In 1900 comedian George Robey recommended Formby to the owner of the London Pavilion music hall. He was immediately successful, became "an idol of the town" and topped the bill for the rest of his life, both in music hall and pantomime. His act was very simple; he would introduce himself by saying things like "Good evening, I'm Formby fra' Wiggin, I've not been in England long", making fun of the cultural divide between the North and the South of England. The Times said of him, "His humour was often crude, and always simple, but it was always true humour, and, what is more, it was invariably clean." The Manchester Guardian called him "Lancashire's accredited representative on the London variety stage ... clown-satirist of genius".
When he started working in London he was earning about £3 per week, equivalent to about £180 per week in 2009. Later, he was earning as much as any comic in London. With this wealth, Formby bought a string of racehorses, and it was because of this that his son, George, starred in his first film (which concerned horse racing), By the Shortest of Heads. Towards the end of his career, Formby planned to retire from the music hall and open a racehorse training school with him and his son George as instructors. Formby was proud that King George and Queen Mary commanded him to perform for them privately. The Times reported, "His broad humour succeeded with unexpected ease, and their Majesties praised him very highly after the performance."
Like many music hall stars, Formby was active in the recruiting campaign for the British Army at the beginning of the First World War, and spoke at recruitment rallies.
Recordings and film
Formby made his first recordings in 1906 and went on to make around 180 records, which was relatively prolific for that period. In 1921 The Times commented, "There cannot be many people who have not heard at some time in their lives either the words or the refrain of 'John Willie – Come On', 'One of the Boys', 'I was Standing on the Corner of the Street', or 'Playing the Game in the West'." Formby was one of the few performers who had no problems in the business of recording, performing in a relaxed fashion for an invisible audience. He would sing his song, and then go on to talk to the listener, saying things like "Y'know, that fella be'ind that's, err, recordin' this now, y'know they call 'im Syncopation George. I think it's ragtime, I don't know what to call 'im, I think I'll call 'im a parasite! Oh, no... come on, say that's an insect, I don't know but I'll enquire it about it". The only film in which Formby is known to have appeared in was No Fool Like An Old Fool (1914), in which he played John Willie. No copies of the film are known to survive.
Illness and death
Formby had, over his career, struggled with chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis, which sometimes caused violent coughing fits while on stage. Although it was very painful for him, and would eventually be the cause of his death, he joked about it, with lines like, "That was a good cough, best one I've done this year. I'll cough anybody 'ere for five shillin's. And I'll give'm five coughs up to start with. Nobody accept me challenge? Right". This was something to which his audiences could relate, because a number of them would be suffering from the same condition. In 1916 he was too ill to appear on the first night of a Drury Lane revue, Razzle Dazzle in which he had star billing.
In 1917, in a court action against Formby for failing to fulfil a theatrical engagement as contracted, his lawyer said that Formby was dying of consumption and was working for the short time left to him for the benefit of his large family. His health was further damaged in the influenza pandemic of 1918, when he contracted the disease. He was taken ill during runs of pantomimes in both 1918 and 1919, and at a performance in Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1920–21 pantomime season, he collapsed on stage. He died on 8 February 1921, aged 45, leaving over £21,000 in his will (equivalent to at least £667,686 in 2007 value) and a diary booked solidly for the next five years. His wife Eliza died at 102 years old, having outlived both her husband and their son, George, who died in 1961. He is buried in a family plot in Warrington Cemetery, Cheshire, England.
- In adult life he found it convenient for professional reasons to maintain that he had been born in Wigan: see the Manchester Guardian obituary, 9 February 1921, p. 4
- George Formby Senior on the George Formby website
- Daly, Kevin. A Biography of George Formby Senior, accessed 5 December 2009
- 1891 Census: Citation: Class: RG12; Piece: 3277; Folio 127; Page 13; GSU roll: 6098387
- Tuson, Mark. Biography of George Formby Senior, accessed 5 December 2009
- The Era, 17 July 1897, p. 18
- The Era, 15 July 1899, p 19; and 17 February 1900, p. 18
- "That Lad Will Go Far", The Guardian (online edition), 6 December 2002.
- Richards, Jeffrey. "Formby, George (1904–1961)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edition, accessed 6 Dec 2009
- The Times obituary, 9 February 1921, p. 8
- The Manchester Guardian obituary, 9 February 1921, p. 4
- Quigley, Joseph. The Slogan – Sidelights on recruiting with Harry Lauder’s Band, London: Simpkin, 1916, p.100
- The Observer, 25 June 1916, p. 7; and 2 July 1916, p. 7
- The Manchester Guardian, 4 April 1917, p. 2. Formby lost the case: his plea of ill-health was compromised by his accepting an engagement elsewhere at the same time.
- The Manchester Guardian, 4 July 1918, p. 8
- Tuson. See measuringworth.com Measuringworth.com
- The Guardian, 8 March 1961, p. 6
- Formby family grave, Warrington Borough Council - Warrington Cemetery, accessed 16 December 2011