Will Hay

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William Thomson Hay FRAS (6 December 1888 – 18 April 1949) was an English comedian, who first became well known for his theatrical sketch as a joke-schoolmaster, which he took on world tours. He moved on to films, some of them continuing the schoolmaster theme, in which he also featured as a writer and director. In The Goose Steps Out (1942), his brand of humour was adapted for war propaganda. Hay was also a keen amateur astronomer, who built his own observatory.

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.[1][2]

Stage and film 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]

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.

Having returned to England, Hay worked at Elstree Studios, Gainsborough Pictures, and Ealing Studios; 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. Hay decided to break up the partnership with Moffatt and Marriott due to his concern that their act was becoming repetitive.[3]

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

He subsequently established a successful working relationship with Claude Hulbert, who played his side-kick in The Ghost of St Michael's (1941). The Goose Steps Out (1942) for Ealing was an effective piece of anti-Nazi slapstick. The following year he appeared in the black comedy My Learned Friend (1943) once again with Hulbert acting as his sidekick, which was his final film due to ailing health.[4]

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]

Private life[edit]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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. When Hay died, a few items of his equipment were bequeathed to the British Astronomical Association.[citation needed]

He married Gladys Perkins (1889–1982) in 1907,[7] whom he had known since he was 15,[8] but legally separated on 18 November 1935. They had two daughters and a son: Gladys Elspeth Hay (b. 12 February 1909),[9] William Edward Hay (1913-1995),[10] and Joan A. Hay (1917–1975).[11]

In 1947, Hay suffered a stroke which left him physically disabled. He died at his flat in Chelsea, London after a further stroke in 1949 and is buried in Streatham Park Cemetery, London SW16.[12]


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. [13]


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[14]
  • 1937 – 4th
  • 1938 – 3rd[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 1891 UK census: RG12/1494 f.56 p.47 & p.48 – 192 Clapham Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk
  2. ^ GRO Register of Births: MAR 1889 10a 49 STOCKTON – William Thomson Hay
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ [2]
  5. ^ "=Music Hall Guild". Retrieved 16 July 2012. 
  6. ^ MNRAS 94 (1933) 85
  7. ^ GRO Register of Marriages: DEC 1907 8d 287 SALFORD – William Thomson Hay = Gladys Perkins
  8. ^ Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved 22 August 2012. 
  9. ^ GRO Register of Births: MAR 1909 8d 83 – Gladys Elspeth Hay
  10. ^ GRO Register of Births: SEP 1913 8d 120 SALFORD – William E. Hay
  11. ^ GRO Register of Births: SEP 1917 8d 64 SALFORD – Joan A. Hay
  12. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: JUN 1949 5c 251 CHELSEA – William T. Hay, aged 60
  13. ^ [3]
  14. ^ "PICTURES and PERSONALITIES.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954). Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 10 April 1937. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012. 
  15. ^ "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]