It’s simple: play one of his songs on a remastered CD – one with a great ukulele solo – and whack up the volume when the solo comes in; it is still, seventy years later, an electrifying experience. The sheer drive and life-force which surges from the speakers is unique and magical, you’re swept almost hypnotically along by the ukulele-banjo’s biting sound, syncopated to perfection, backed by the best musicians in the country. The exhilaration as the final chord ends demands only one response: again!
George Formby is unique. There was never anyone else like him, and there never will be. He was a northern entertainer but became universal, not by rejecting his roots (he never had elocution lessons like his wife and manager, Beryl), but by making it cool to be an artist from Wigan. He was always immaculately turned out, had the most beautiful cars (have you seen that Packard Coupé?) was the best rhythm ukulele player in the world, and was paid a fortune to seemingly just “be himself”, that “easy going chap” with the winning grin, the seemingly gormless simpleton (he wasn’t) who still managed to get the posh girls with the cut-glass accents in his films. “Look at me”, he seemed to be saying to ordinary people, “Look at me, I can do it, and I’m just like you.” His audience, at least in the north, found it easy to identify with him; but his apparent naturalness, his artlessness, concealed a steely determination to succeed, and it cost him a lot to achieve his superstardom. He worked hard to make it look effortless, harder than anyone – anyone except Beryl and his mother – could possibly have realised. George and Beryl’s courage during the war, as they literally risked life and limb entertaining three million troops in actual combat zones, certainly showed them to be very brave entertainers; but the warmth and caring they felt and showed to ‘the boys’ reveals them as incredibly special people too. They just knew how to be, what to do, what to say.
George was never meant to be a star. Unlike his famous father, he never had a driving urge to be on the stage; he was supposed to have run a stables, owned by his dad, and would have got to know the old man after ten years living away from home. But as he himself put it,
“Fate stepped in, and it wasn’t to be.” 
This is the story of how a teenage jockey with no confidence became the greatest star this country has ever seen.
Coughing Better Tonight!
Our story starts with the real George Formby. The original, George Formby ‘Senior’, as he’s now annoyingly known, was one of the greatest stars of the music hall. He was plagued by chronic ill-health throughout his life, eventually even working his bronchial cough into his stage act. He was born James Booth, in Ashton-under-Lyne in 1875, and endured a turbulent childhood. Much of his early years were spent roaming the streets in gangs; later, he formed a singing duo with another boy, performing on the streets and in pubs, scraping together just enough to survive. After his voice broke, at seventeen, he began to work as a solo act, and worked his way up, touring the northern music halls, and by the mid-nineties was writing and performing his own material. In August 1899 he bigamously married the 21-year-old Eliza Hoy, daughter of a Wigan horse trainer. I have evidence which shows had married a fellow singer on the Halls two years previously, and was still married to her at the time of his marriage to Eliza. It is clear, however, that despite this, George and Eliza were absolutely devoted to each other, with Eliza sharing every facet of his life, until Formby Senior’s tragic death in 1921. Eliza would bear George Senior fourteen children, of whom only seven would live beyond childhood.
George’s Early Years
Their first child to survive, and the one destined to become an even more famous George Formby than his father, was born George Hoy Booth, named after Eliza’s father, on 26th May 1904, in one of the poorer areas of Wigan. The young Georgie shared none of the squalor, terror and hardship of his father’s upbringing. “Georgie was born with a golden spoon in his mouth”, is how his mother Eliza succinctly puts it. He didn’t open his eyes after he was born for three months – his mother Eliza vividly recalls the moment:
“People said the sea air would do his eyes good, so I thought I would take him over to New Brighton, Wallasey (in those days you could get a two-shillings return from Wigan to Liverpool). We got off at Lime Street station, and got the tram to the pier head. There was no boat for New Brighton, so went to Hoylake instead. I looked at Georgie, and stroked his face two or three times, and all of a sudden – he opened his eyes! Just then his little nose started to bleed, but I wiped it off and it soon stopped. We got to Hoylake, and there was an old-fashioned iron band-stand, and the band was playing one of my husband’s songs, ‘Walker Walked Away’.”
In late 1910, George was sent to Wigan’s prestigious Catholic Notre Dame school. Soon afterwards, in January 1911, proudly dressed in his best clothes and a red sash, he had his first communion at St. Joseph’s, Hindley. He was conscientious on his big day:
“I’m doing all right, mother, I’ve got to be a very good boy today. I’ve not got to swear and I’ve not got to do anything I shouldn’t do, cause I’ve had my first Holy Communion this morning!”
He had a pint pot tied to the end of his sash, for a ‘little do’ the family were planning afterwards. His pride and excitement were short-lived however; his short time at Notre Dame was not happy, he did not respond well to the stern regime, and begged his parents to remove him from the school. It was decided to send the young Georgie away to start a new life as a stable-boy, to train as a jockey. This pleased Eliza, who came from a racing family; her father had been a former jockey and horse-breaker, as was her uncle, and her sixteen-year-old cousin Jimmy Sharples had won the Cesarewitch at Newmarket. Now George Senior and Eliza had ambitions for Georgie to carry on the Hoy family tradition. Later that year, the seven-year-old boy was sent to Bishops Cannings in Wiltshire to be a stable boy.
He was moved not long afterwards to the stables at Middleham in North Yorkshire to work for George Drake, a big bookmaker, and then to Epsom in Surrey, where he had his first mount in a race at the age of ten. George Senior had arranged for a private tutor to teach his son for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Sometimes Georgie went and sometimes he didn’t. So long the tutor got paid, he didn’t mind whether Georgie showed up or not. This lack of even a basic education would haunt him throughout his life, crippling his ability to deal with his own business affairs, and making him totally dependent on his future wife Beryl to have control and run his career. He blamed only himself for his lack of education, adding,
“It was a great handicap, because I never learned to write properly you see. And the only bit of reading and writing I can do is what I picked up myself later on.” 
His illiteracy only served to increase his loneliness away from his family, as he was unable to write letters home or read any he could have received. In 1915, George, through his father, was given a role in an early British film drama made by Will Barker, entitled ‘By The Shortest Of Heads’, in which George played the part of a stable lad who outwits a gang of kidnappers; the film is most notable for the inclusion of Moore Marriott who would go on to achieve comic fame as old ‘Harbottle’ in the Will Hay comedies. George Senior had already appeared in a film himself, ‘No Fool Like An Old Fool‘ in which he played an ‘old Lancashire man’ (though quite how he conveyed his Lancastrianism in a silent film is puzzling). With the first world war in progress, most racing in England was stopped, so Georgie was sent to race at the Curragh, near Kildare in Ireland, where he stayed for five seasons, returning to England in 1918. He became apprentice jockey for Lord Derby, following a deal the Lord and Formby Senior had made at the Royal Command Performance, back in July, 1913. In 1920, he returned to the Curragh, for what would be his final months as a jockey. He was a good horseman, but a mediocre racing jockey, partly due to his increasing weight and height. This wasn’t a great calamity, as his father, constantly ill, was intending to retire from the Halls, open a stable of his own, and put Georgie in day to day charge of it when he became eighteen, training horses. It would have been a great start for the young Georgie, and would have given him the opportunity to work with, and get to know his father, who he rarely saw. Sadly, this was never to be. On Wednesday 2nd February, while appearing in pantomime at the Empire, Newcastle, he had a severe coughing fit which caused a haemorrhage in his larynx. Georgie was immediately brought back from Ireland to Newcastle, and on the Friday George was put on a stretcher and taken home by train to Warrington, accompanied by Eliza and her mother, Georgie and his two-year-old brother Teddy. The following week, on the morning of February 8th 1921 – Shrove Tuesday – George Formby died. He was forty-five.
Eliza was distraught; she had nursed George for many years, and been at his side throughout his career from 1899 onwards, sharing everything with him. She had helped him on stage, with his props and clothes, even providing oxygen tents in the theatres for when George had serious coughing episodes and couldn’t breathe. She had been integral in allowing him to develop, by giving him the love and stability he’d never known. She had done all this, in all probability knowing that at the time of their marriage, he was already legally married to someone else. Despite the awareness that her husband’s illness was a permanent death sentence, when the end came, it was devastating.
George Formby Senior’s Fortune
Towards the end of his life, Formby Senior had been earning up to £350 a week – that’s about £14,000 a week in today’s terms. He left a colossal amount of money in his will, which was made on the 25th August 1906. The net sum was £25,508 18 shillings and 8 pence. (£840,000). The sole beneficiary of the proven will was ‘Eliza Ann Hoy of Hill Crest aforesaid Spinster the sole executrix’ (not Eliza Ann Booth, as they were not legally married). In fact the 1906 will several times refers to ‘my reputed wife Eliza Ann Booth otherwise Eliza Ann Hoy’. So now Eliza was a widow, and she had seven children ranging in age from 2 to 16, but at least she was comfortably looked after by the immense sum left to her. She and her family would never have to work again – indeed as we’ve seen, Formby Senior was himself planning to retire within a few years, he could easily have lived off his fortune for the foreseeable future.
But Eliza wasn’t the only widow. People close to the family at the time have suggested that his first wife – who I can now reveal was Martha Maria Salter, but since her marriage was calling herself Martha Lawler – got the money. I have to say immediately that I have found no evidence so far to support this claim. Formby Senior was legally Martha’s husband, and I have evidence that during his time with Eliza, he was also financially supporting her as well, and that by 1911 he was paying her £1 a week allowance (nearly £80 a week in today’s money) – her only source of income.
After Formby Senior’s death, the family seem to be – apparently – short of cash: Eliza says she put Georgie on the stage as he was the only one old enough to earn a living. He himself says that later that year, “I nearly starved.”  Georgie would soon be giving Eliza small amounts of money from theatre engagements, saying “That’ll help you mother.”
As Martha was Formby Senior’s legal wife, did she get any of the money? If so, how did she ‘persuade’ Eliza to give it up? (Eliza wasn’t a woman who would be easily persuaded to give up a fortune.) If, as sole beneficiary, Eliza kept the money, why were the Formbys in such apparently difficult financial circumstances? And why are there comments from those who knew them at the time stating categorically that his first wife got the lot? There are too many things which simply don’t add up.
1. The Friday Show, BBC Television, 16 December 1960