Will Hay

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Will Hay
Birth name William Thomson Hay
Born (1888-12-06)6 December 1888
Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, England
Died 18 April 1949(1949-04-18) (aged 60)
Chelsea, London, England
Resting place Streatham Park Cemetery, London
Spouse Gladys Perkins (1907–35) (separated)
Children Gladys Elspeth Hay (b. 1909)
William E. Hay (b. 1913)
Joan A. Hay (b. 1917)

William Thomson Hay FRAS (6 December 1888 – 18 April 1949) was an English comedian, actor, author, film director and amateur astronomer who first became well known for his theatrical sketch as a joke-schoolmaster which were known as The Fourth Form at St. Michael's, which he toured in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa.[1] From 1934 to 1943, he was a prolific film star in Britain, and was ranked the third highest grossing star at the British Box Office in 1938, behind George Formby and Gracie Fields.[2] He worked with Gainsborough Pictures from 1935 to 1940, during which time he developed a partnership with Graham Moffatt, an insolent overweight schoolboy and Moore Marriott, a toothless old man. His 1937 film, with Moffatt and Marriott, Oh, Mr. Porter! has often been cited as one of the greatest British comedy films, with The Times referring to it as "a comic masterpiece of the British cinema"[3] and Jimmy Perry cited the film as an influence for developing the key characters in Dad's Army.[4]

He was also a distinguished amateur astronomer, and in 1933 gained fame for discovering a Great White Spot on Saturn. He built his own observatory, and was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Early life[edit]

Hay was born at 23 Durham Street in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, England, to William Robert Hay (1851–1920) and his wife Elizabeth (1859-1910) (née Ebden) who married on 31 May 1883. Hay had one brother, Harold Gordon and three sisters, Evelyn Jane, Lizzie and Annie. When Hay was less than a year old the family moved to Suffolk.[5][6] Due to his father's successful career as an engineer, the family moved to Hemel Hempstead, then London and finally to Manchester, were his father established his own engineering firm.[7]

By his late teens, Hay was fluent in Italian, French and German to such an extent that he was able to leave his engineering career and become an interpreter.[8]

Early career[edit]

Hay joined a firm of engineers, before becoming an actor at age 21. He appeared in Manchester as a juggler after seeing W.C. Fields perform. Hay had a brief screen career; by the time he made his first film he was in his mid-40s. Between 1934 and 1943 he was a popular comedy actor and was credited in several films as a writer.[citation needed] In his early career, Hay had worked with Fred Karno, this helped him to develop his trademark schoolmaster character.[9]

Prior to Hay's career in film he was popular in the 1920s, with his famous "The fourth form at St Michaels" sketches, because of his famous Schoolmaster gimmick he toured in various countries all over the world, including South Africa, Canada and the USA. His wife, Gladys, often portrayed the part of the schoolboy or the character Harbottle in his sketches.[10]

Hay was chosen to perform his famous St. Michael's sketch at the 1925 Royal Command Performance before King George V and Queen Mary.[11] Hay's inspiration for his schoolmaster gimmick came from his sister who was a full-time teacher.[12] He initially began his "The fourth form of St. Michael's sketches" as a schoolmistress.[13]

Elstree Studios[edit]

Having returned to England, Hay worked at Elstree Studios, Gainsborough Pictures, and Ealing Studios.

His first feature film was Those Were the Days for Elstree Studios. The film's plot was based of Arthur Wing Pinero's play, The Magistrate. His third film, Dandy Dick in 1935, was a film adaption of an 1887 play of the same name which was also the work of Pinero.[14] Prior to Those Were the Days, Hay had starred in two short films, Playmates (Around the Town) in 1922, and Know Your Apples in 1933 which is now a lost film.

Gainsborough pictures[edit]

(Left to right) Graham Moffatt as Albert, Moore Marriott as Harbottle, and Hay as William Porter in Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

His time spent at Gainsborough was his most successful period. his first film for the film studio was Boys Will Be Boys. During his tenure with Gainsborough he worked with Marcel Varnel, Val Guest, Charles Hawtrey, Marriott Edgar as well as Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt who acted as Hay's straight men in a number of his films, Moffatt portrayed an overweight, insolent schoolboy reminiscent of Billy Bunter who was cast as Albert Brown and Moore, a toothless old man cast as Harbottle, Harbottle was originally a character in Hay's St. Michael's sketches. Together, the trio appeared in six films together between 1936 and 1940, Windbag the Sailor, Oh, Mr. Porter!, Convict 99, Old Bones of the River, Ask a Policeman and Where's That Fire?. Both Moffatt and Marriott were absent from Hay's 1938 film, Hey! Hey! USA with American comedy actor Edgar Kennedy being cast as Hay's sidekick instead, the film was a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to crack the American market.[15]

Hay decided to break up the partnership with Moffatt and Marriott after their 1940 film Where's That Fire? due to his concern that their act was becoming repetitive.[16] In many of his films, Hay wore a wig, which made it appear as if he was balding.[17] Hay was known to dislike working with Moffatt and Marriott, describing his partnership with them as "a three legged stool." [18] He had also expressed concern that Moore Marriott who portrayed Harbottle gained a bigger reaction from audiences than he did.[19] He had been seeking to break up their partnership in the years prior, it was only due to his film Hey! Hey! USA being somewhat unsuccessful that the writers and producers successfully talked him into bringing Moffatt and Marriott back.[20]

Ealing Studios[edit]

He subsequently established a successful working relationship with Claude Hulbert, who played his side-kick in The Ghost of St Michael's (1941) and returned to act as Hay's sidekick in his final film, My Learned Friend in 1943. John Mills, who had appeared in Hay's first film, Those Were the Days returned to act as his sidekick in The Black Sheep of Whitehall. The Goose Steps Out (1942) for Ealing was an effective piece of anti-Nazi slapstick.

His final film was My Learned Friend in 1943 has been described as a masterpiece of black comedy and has been cited as paving the way for the future Ealing comedy films Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955).[21] Due to ailing health, My Learned Friend was Hay's final film.[22]

Radio career[edit]

The half-hour weekly Will Hay Programme began in August 1944, and was broadcast live from the BBC Paris Theatre on lower Regent Street. The series lasted for four months, and was prematurely cancelled, owing to a dispute with the BBC over scripting. The show later transferred to the Victoria Palace in London. The cast later reformed on 4 May 1945 for the Royal Family and many military notables at a private function at the Life Guards barracks in Windsor.[citation needed]


Aside from his day job as a comedian, Hay was a dedicated and respected amateur astronomer. He constructed a personal observatory in his garden in Mill Hill and built a glider in 1909.[23] He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1932 and is noted for having discovered a Great White Spot on the planet Saturn in 1933.[24] The spot lasted for a few months and then faded away. He also measured the positions of comets with a micrometer he built himself, and designed and built a blink comparator. He wrote the book Through My Telescope in 1935, which had a foreword by Sir Richard Gregory, formerly Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Queen's College, London. Hay kept his career in astronomy separate from his comedy career, he published his school Through My Telescope under the name of W.T. Hay and used the same title when giving lectures on astronomy.[25] Hay was an advocate for education on astronomy and considered those who had an interest in astronomy "the only men who see life in its true proportion." In a 1933 interview with the Daily Mail he stated "If we were all astronomers, there'd be no more war." [26] When Hay died, a few items of his equipment were bequeathed to the British Astronomical Association.[citation needed]

Personal life, health issues and death[edit]

He married Gladys Perkins (1889–1982) in 1907,[27] whom he had known since he was 15,[28] but legally separated on 18 November 1935, however, they never divorced, Gladys cited the reason for this as she was a Roman Catholic.[29] They had two daughters and a son: Gladys Elspeth Hay (b. 12 February 1909),[30] William Edward Hay (1913-1995),[31] and Joan A. Hay (1917–1975).[32] Following his separation from Gladys in 1935, he was in a long-term relationship with Randi Kopstadt, a native of Norway.[33]

Hay was an atheist.[34]

In 1944, Hay was diagnosed with cancer which lead to the postponement of his film career, however he made a successful recovery.[35]

In 1946 while on holiday,[36] Hay suffered a stroke which left him physically disabled. However, his health had improved slightly by the following year when Hay had plans to become a film producer, however in 1947 his friend, Marcel Varnel who had directed many of Hay's films died in a car accident and he postponed his plans.[37]

He died at his flat in Chelsea, London after a further stroke on April 18, 1949 and is buried in Streatham Park Cemetery, London SW16.[38] He had made his last public appearance on Good Friday 1949, just three days earlier, those who were present at Hay's final appearance described him as showing no sign of illness and said he discussed his plans for the future.[39]

Hay's headstone in Streatham Park Cemetery


Hay's 1937 film, Oh, Mr. Porter! in which he worked with Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott was cited as an influence by Dad's Army creator Jimmy Perry on devising the series' key characters.[40]

Roy Hudd defined Hay as the "supreme master" of sketch comedy.[41]


Box office ranking[edit]

For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted him among the top ten British stars at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.

  • 1936 – 8th[42]
  • 1937 – 4th
  • 1938 – 3rd[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ The Times, 16 May 2006
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^ 1891 UK census: RG12/1494 f.56 p.47 & p.48 – 192 Clapham Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk
  6. ^ GRO Register of Births: MAR 1889 10a 49 STOCKTON – William Thomson Hay
  7. ^ [Due to his father's successful career as an engineer, the family moved to Hemel Hempstead, then London and finally]
  8. ^ [4]
  9. ^ [5]
  10. ^ [6]
  11. ^ [7]
  12. ^ [8]
  13. ^ [9]
  14. ^ [10]
  15. ^ [11]
  16. ^ [12]
  17. ^ [13]
  18. ^ [14]
  19. ^ [15]
  20. ^ [16]
  21. ^ [17]
  22. ^ [18]
  23. ^ "Music Hall Guild". Retrieved 16 July 2012. 
  24. ^ MNRAS 94 (1933) 85
  25. ^ [19]
  26. ^ [20]
  27. ^ GRO Register of Marriages: DEC 1907 8d 287 SALFORD – William Thomson Hay = Gladys Perkins
  28. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  29. ^ [21]
  30. ^ GRO Register of Births: MAR 1909 8d 83 – Gladys Elspeth Hay
  31. ^ GRO Register of Births: SEP 1913 8d 120 SALFORD – William E. Hay
  32. ^ GRO Register of Births: SEP 1917 8d 64 SALFORD – Joan A. Hay
  33. ^ [22]
  34. ^ [23]
  35. ^ [24]
  36. ^ [25]
  37. ^ [26]
  38. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: JUN 1949 5c 251 CHELSEA – William T. Hay, aged 60
  39. ^ [ https://www.stockton.gov.uk/arts-culture-and-leisure/heritage/stockton-hall-of-fame/will-hay/]
  40. ^ [27]
  41. ^ [28]
  42. ^ "PICTURES and PERSONALITIES.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954). Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 10 April 1937. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
  43. ^ "FORMBY IS POPULAR ACTOR.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954). Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 25 February 1939. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Will Hay by Graham Rinaldi with foreword by Ken Dodd, Tomahawk Press, 2009

Other References[edit]

  • Will Hay is mentioned in the song 'Jibber and Twitch' on British band Cardiacs' 1984 album 'The Seaside'.

External links[edit]