1921 Census: The Two George Formbys
1921 was a dramatic year for the family of George Formby. George Formby Senior (1875-1921) was a singer and comedian and one of the great acts of the British music hall. Born James Lawler Booth in Ashton-under-Lyne, he had an unhappy and poverty-stricken childhood. James started singing in public in his teens and soon made this his career. In 1897 he took on the stage name of George Formby and developed a character called “John Willie” described by Jeffrey Richards as “the archetypal gormless Lancashire lad”. Formby became very successful, appearing at venues all over the country. He was also a recording artist and, happily, some of Formby's wax cylinder recordings have been saved and can be heard on YouTube. Check out his performance of “Plink Plonk” a Spanish pastiche with wonderful lyrics which uses the tune “Funiculi, Funicula”. The song is delivered in a tuneful Northern style that clearly influenced the next generation.
In 1904 Formby's first son, George was born. The father had no wish for his son to enter show business and the young George worked as a stable boy from the age of seven, later becoming a jockey.
Formby never had good health, even making his bronchial cough part of his stage act, exclaiming, “Coughin' well tonight!” Later, he suffered from tuberculosis. The influenza epidemic of 1918 did not help; Formby contracted 'flu while appearing at Manchester Hippodrome. Over the next three years he was taken ill repeatedly, but carried on working. Formby died on February 8th 1921 of pulmonary tuberculosis at his home near Warrington having previously collapsed after a performance of Jack And Jill at the Newcastle Empire. He was just 45 years old.
After Formby's death, his widow, Eliza and eldest son George attended a performance by Tommy Dixon at London's Victoria Palace Theatre. Not only was Dixon's act a straight copy of Formby Senior's, but he was even billed as “The New George Formby”! This incensed Eliza so much, that she resolved to teach her late husband's stage act to her son (who had never seen his father perform on stage). Eliza used her husband's recordings, as well as her own first hand memories of his stage act. On March 21st 1921 – less than six weeks after his father's death – George Junior made his first professional appearance at Earlestown Hippodrome, just outside Warrington. At first he used his mother's maiden name and was billed as George Hoy, but later used the surname Formby. It appears that he toured the country for two years without success.
George in his early stage days, probably while still billed as George Hoy - probably c. 1921–23
In October 1922 a large memorial was unveiled at George Formby Senior's grave in Warrington cemetery. Pathe News filmed the event and a few minutes of footage can be seen on-line. We see a young, grief-stricken George Formby Junior looking more serious than we will perhaps ever see again. The following two years would be equally significant for him. In 1923 George Formby started playing the ukulele – a popular and affordable musical instrument at the time. He also met Beryl Ingham, an actress and champion clog dancer. Within a year, the couple were married and Beryl became George's manager. It was a winning partnership that led to a series of immensely popular films and recordings. The rest of the story will be familiar to many of you but it falls outside the remit of this blog. The subject of window cleaning comes in later on!