The Original George Formby
A Comic Genius
Of all the great stars of the Music Hall, none was greater, more distinguished, and certainly none was as courageous as George Formby (1875-1921). Today, the phrase ‘comic genius’ is bandied about to describe just about anyone vaguely funny; George Formby really was a comic genius, with a subtle and delicate act, full of perception – sympathetic and gentle – of human frailty, which he himself represented. Severely ill throughout his life with chronic tuberculosis, his painful coughing would ultimately be introduced into his stage act as a comic device. He was famous for his patter with the audience, sometimes chatting away during half of the song, while the orchestra gamely kept going; his chat, of an often startlingly surreal nature, would continue even once the song had ended. His stage persona was an unassuming Lancashire lad whose puzzled reaction to the situations in which he found himself created ample opportunities for observation and comic inventiveness. The Manchester Guardian’s obituary of Formby said,
“His conception of the comic undoubtedly had its roots deep in Lancashire. No other comedian perhaps has remained faithful for so many years on end to a single part and succeeded in putting into it such a body of sheer humanity.” 
He was born on 4th October, 1875 at 26 Hodgson Street, Ashton-under-Lyne, near Manchester. He was named James, after Sarah’s father, though he was known as ‘Jim’. His mother was the diminutive eighteen-year-old Sarah Jane Booth, who makes only a cross mark in the signature box of the certificate (a typical, and fairly obvious indication of illiteracy). There are no details of a father. The illegitimate Jim was, as customary, given his mother’s surname, though as we shall see, it wasn’t always to be that straightforward. The following April, in St. Peter’s Church in Ashton, Sarah married Frank Lawler, a collier, who is likely to have been his father, and from then, James took the surname ‘Lawler’.
Sarah was known to have had many men, and is likely to have been a prostitute following her husband’s early death (she herself died in her fifties, of cancer of the cervix and uterus). She was also a troublesome alcoholic, and was in occasional trouble with the authorities. Frank shared Sarah’s love of booze, which seems to have been their only form of non-sexual recreation. There were constant drunken arguments between them, and as Jim grew up in this terrifying environment, he became a target for their alcohol-induced tempers alternating with periods of total neglect. In his own words:
“Without having to think very hard, I can remember as miserable a childhood as ever fell to the lot of a human creature. Unfortunately, my parents allowed me to go my own way and in a manner I was absolutely uncared for.”
At the age of four, he and his parents were still living in Hodgson Street, where Sarah and Frank were perpetually drunk. Jim would hear them at night coming home from the pub, screaming at the world, and each other, and the frightened young boy would run and hide in the top of the kitchen cupboard until morning; they never missed him. He occasionally went to school when very young, when he could be ‘persuaded’, but stopped going altogether at the age of nine. He now became a permanent truant, roaming the streets, searching for sustenance and excitement; he joined a gang and soon became their ringleader, thinking of himself romantically as a kind of Jack Sheppard or Sweeney Todd. (His widow would remember that even as a grown man, “He always had romantic ideas in his brain.” He later remembered it not so romantically, but as,
“A terrible experience for a boy, and bitterly hard.”
The results of Jim’s young childhood, much of which was spent wandering the streets, living rough in all weather, and having little food, were severe: not only did he feel alone and unloved, he was under-nourished and weak, and the chest problems that would cause him such agonies and eventually cut short his life had already taken hold. At the age of twelve, he was ‘taken in hand’ and apprenticed to a ‘moulding’ in an iron foundry. The shock of long hours of hard work in harsh conditions proved a terrible strain on the weak boy, and the noxious sulphur fumes only exacerbated his chest condition. Soon after his introduction to honest work, Jim walked out.
For a while, he stayed with any relations living in Ashton who would have him – “Left to the mercy of the world, he went from aunt to aunt, cousin to cousin” as Eliza remembered. He led a kind of nocturnal existence: his day began at five in the afternoon, when he would sneak into the music hall and hide in the gallery – more often than not he’d be found and thrown out. In the early hours of the morning, the bakers would start firing up their open fireplaces, and Jim got friendly with one of them, who took pity on the boy, inviting him in out of the cold. He remembered sitting, soaked after tramping through the pouring rain, and drying himself in front of that huge fire. He lived on the left-over bits of bread, and whatever else he could scrounge. At about six in the morning, the bread was ready, and it would be time for the bakers to get off to make deliveries. Jim would then make the short walk to his cousins Sarah and Clara, who would just be leaving for their factory shift. They let him stay in the house while they were at work. He would sleep a while, and then his day would begin again that afternoon.
Jim said he would always remember the kindness of that baker. Many years later, the man, now very old, visited Jim (or George Formby as he was by then) when he was topping the bill at the Ardwick Empire. He was met with a warm welcome, as Eliza touchingly remembers:
“George always met all comers – anyone who had met him in years in his poor days, in his middle days, or when he got to be a big star – he never passed anybody over. He always used to meet them on friendly grounds, and bring them in his dressing room.”
Sing For Your Supper
“I don’t think I’ll care to tell of all the ways and means that I used in order to gain a livelihood, so – to put it mildly – I’ll confess to joining another lad in the busking business.”
Inspired by the music hall acts he used to watch, Jim began singing himself, realising he could make a bit of money on the streets with his sweet, high soprano voice. He soon hooked up with another boy who had a pretty good lower, tenor voice, as a singing and dancing child duo.
“Amongst other things, we sang at public houses, sometimes managing to get in at the ‘free and easies’, and so earned a doubtful sort of sum, trusting to luck and the generosity of patrons for our daily bread.”
They were soon spotted by a Mr Brown, who took them under his wing and ‘managed’ their careers, and christened them ‘The Brothers Glenray’. He paid Jim threepence a week, and the other boy, on account of his ‘superior’ tenor voice, sixpence. At this point, it was not comedy which came naturally to Jim:
“I did my best in sentimental songs. One was ‘Remember, I’m His Mother’, a real tear-jerker!”
The irony of the song title was, I’m sure, not lost on the young Jim, who by now had lost touch with his own mother altogether. There would be no more contact between them for twenty years. The Brothers Glenray now began to expand their horizons, touring the provinces. To save money on train fares, Jim was transported in the clothes basket, and dumped in the luggage compartment! They would bribe the attendant to keep a look out, so Jim could get out for some fresh air. The attendant would give them the nod one station before their destination, and Jim would get back in the basket, to be carried out by the other boy and Mr Brown.
After a while, Jim began to tire of the act; he claims he was punished by Brown, and as he grew older it no doubt rankled with him that he still earned half the other boy’s share. At seventeen Jim’s voice broke and he left the act. He was compelled to return to work, which he didn’t like, getting a factory job at first, then working at a bakehouse in Nelson, where he had to turn up at four in the morning. At the time, he was living in Burnley, three miles away, and so had a long walk early every morning. Jim could only take this for so long; he decided to have a go at being a solo act. He couldn’t sing his soprano ballads any more, but he knew all the dance routines from the Glenray act. Slowly, he began to put together an act of his own, drawing on his old sentimental repertoire, but with what would now be termed ‘a comic twist’. A new style of song eventually came about: slower, melodic, with witty words and an often surreal character.
1. The Manchester Guardian, Obituary, 9th February 1921