Biography of George Formby Senior
Second Revision, 03/12/2006
by Mark Tuson
Also see the Kevin Daly version.
George Formby Senior was born to the name James Booth in 1875, in Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester.
His mother, Sarah Jane Booth, was a poor, working class woman who was unmarried. She eventualy married James' father, a few months after his birth; however, the marriage was very turbulent, and James was often beaten up and deprived of food.
Sarah Jane used to sing in the local pub for alcohol, and as such she often ended up being taken off to the police station to sober up. Because his mother was so often absent from home, young James Booth had to sleep outside the house; in the doorway, or in the lavatory. Because of this, he started to develop asthma, and became very suceptible to bronchitis and tuberculosis.
Later on in his life, James reflected on his life as a child; “My childhood was the most miserable that could have happened to any Human being.” At the age of seven years, James ran away from home and started work in a steel foundry around Wigan. At about thirteen, he ran away and made a partnership with another boy of about the same age, and together, they formed the Brothers Glenray, “the songbirds of the music halls,” of which James was the soprano. They traveled around the ale-houses in Wigan singing sentimental tear-jerkers to earn a basic living.
By the time a few years had passed, the Brothers Glenray were singing in proper music halls and doing quite well. However, it all seemed to fall apart when their voices started to break. They found that they were getting more laughter than applause for their efforts, ad so they decided to break the partnership. James decided to take advantage of this, and so started singing comic songs to the tunes of Methodist hymns.
According to legend, James adopted the name George Formby in the late 1890s, when he was waiting for a train. He was sat on the platform, when he saw a goods train on its way to Formby, a small town near Southport, still in Lancahire. He decided that the name George would go well with this, because it was a common name at the time, and so George Formby he became until his death in 1921.
In 1899, he met and married Eliza Hoy, who supported and encouraged him in all that he did, and gave their home a more pleasant atmosphere. She would also make dresses when George's bookings were low, and they had twelve children, of which seven survived. The oldest, George Hoy Booth, went on to become somewhat famous himself for playing the ukulele.
George's comedy act was pretty much that of a clown; he would dress up in baggy clothes and large boots worn on the wrong feet, a trademark for which Charlie Chaplin became famous later. In between acts and songs, George would simply jump down off the stage, and chat with people in the audience, as though he was having a drink with them.
In 1900, George Robey recommended him to the owner of a hall in London, and after this, George topped the bill until after his death. 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,” which emphasised the fact that he was not one of the high-class performers that people were used to. People didn't care – they loved his act and his songs, and he became one of the biggest music hall stars of all time, along with others such as Harry Champion.
George was one of the first people to be invited to make records, but he spent the entire duration of the recorduing time talking to the phonograph, trying to decide what to perform. Nontheless, he went on to make around 180 records, which was very prolific for that period. Also, of the few people of that time who made records, he was one of very few who had no problems performing 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...”
George had, over his career, developed chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis, because of how ill-treated and malnourished he had been as a child, and it became unavoidable that he would have a violent coughing fit while on stage. Although it was very painful for him, and would eventually be what kiled him, he just explained it away, while getting out a 'strengthenin' bottle,' or a jar of ZamBuk, another thing for which he was famous, and would joke about it, saying things like “That was a good cough, Best one I've done this year. I'll cough anybod 'ere for five shillin's, And I'll give'm five coughs up to start with.
Nobody accept me challenge? Right...” This was one of the things that his audiences could relate to, because a lot of them were of the lower classes themselves, and a number of them would go on to die of the same conditions that he would.
When he started working in London in around 1900, he was earning aound £3 per week, which would be equivalent to about £1500 per week today. By the time he died, he was earning nearly one-hundred-and-seventeen times that.
George owned a string of horses, and it was because of this that his son, George Formby Junior, starred in his first film, 'By the Shortest of Heads,' of which, sadly, there are no copies that exist as far as anybody is aware. Also, toward the end of George's carreer, he had intended to retire from music-hall performing, and settle down, starting a horse training school, with George Junior and himself as instructors. However, as I will explain in the next paragraph, this wasn't to be.
George also played in pantomime, and it was while doing pantomime in Newcastle that he suddenly fell very ill with his chest complaint, and he collapsed on stage. He was taken home and carefully nursed by Eliza, but it couldn't help. George died in late December, 1920, leaving over £21,000 in his will (equivalent to about £900,000 as of 2006), and a date book which had been booked solidly for the next five years. It was because of this that his son, George Hoy Booth, decided to take to the stage himself.
First Revision, 06/11/2006
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