“At a music hall in the provinces I noticed a couple of workmen looking at my poster. “What do you think of him, Bill?” asked one. “Not much! He’s got a voice like a crow and he’s so knock-kneed and flat-footed that he can’t lift his foot from the ground. And he calls himself the Wigan Sprinter. Crikey! He couldn’t race a funeral carriage!”
The end for George came in 1921. He was appearing in pantomime at the Empire, Newcastle. His condition had been worsening for some time, and on Wednesday 2nd February he had a severe coughing fit which had caused a severe haemorrhage in his larynx. He was taken back to their hotel, the Turks Head, and Eliza wired for Georgie to return immediately from Ireland. During the Thursday, George’s condition stabilised, and the doctor suggested he should immediately be admitted to a nursing home, for a long rest and proper care, but George refused, insisting on going home. Eliza felt able to cope; she had seen George this ill many times before and nursed him through it, and though unbearably distressing, it didn’t occur to her at this point that he was already fatally ill. With Georgie on his way back from Ireland, and her mother and youngest son Edward now on their way to Newcastle to offer moral support, Eliza chartered a private train carriage for the journey back to Warrington, booked for the following afternoon. The next day, Friday, George was dressed, and made as comfortable as possible on a stretcher. The Turks Head Hotel arranged transport to Newcastle station, and George began his final journey. It was a horrendous experience. George, on a stretcher, Eliza, her mother and two sons found themselves in a crowded station, asking in vain for their private carriage. The railway company had forgotten to attach it to the train; the departure was delayed, while a carriage was hurriedly found, but instead of being at the front end of the train, behind the engine, it now had to be coupled onto the last carriage, at the back. The result of this was that instead of there being a communicating door with the rest of the train, George and his family found themselves stuck in a freezing cold carriage alone, “All locked up” as Eliza remembered:
“We couldn’t even get out for a cup of tea until we got to Manchester. No rugs or blankets. I took my fur coat off, wrapped it round George and travelled with just my frock on in the carriage till we got home. He was on a stretcher, and there was Georgie, Edward and my mother with me. I was frantic, he was being rattled and shook. He was rocked here and there, and I was tucked up at the side of him, wiping his face.”
They arrived back at Hillcrest House at 10pm. The next day, Eliza travelled to Birkenhead to see their own doctor, Dr. Wilson, and begged him to visit George. Wilson refused, perhaps not realising how seriously ill George was this time. Instead, he gave her two bottles of ‘medicine’, “I’ll give it stronger than anyone else would venture to do.” Disappointed, Eliza returned home, and gave him the medicine. They managed to get a local doctor, a Scottish man called Andrews. He was concerned that on top of everything else, George could have a heart attack, and brought in a ‘heart nurse’ just in case. She was worse than useless, turning up when she felt like it, and being generally difficult and demanding special treatment. A desperate Eliza sacked her, and as so often before, took charge herself. On Monday, she hired an oxygen tent for £17 (£560), and administered it to George herself:
“I stood on my tip-toes myself and fed him oxygen for an hour and a half at a time, and never moved, and it was an exertion for me to do it. They had him propped up with a drying thing, an airing thing, a round one, and they put his arms over it.”
That evening, they had their final conversation, which Eliza vividly remembered:
“George said, ‘There’s nobody ever nursed me but you.’ He must have been gravely ill, only I didn’t know. He said, ‘How do you think I am, Liza?’ I said, ‘I don’t think you’re as bad this time as you’ve been other times, do you?’ He said, ‘Don’t you think so?’ I said, ‘How do you feel?’, because he seemed quiet. Then he said, ‘Well, I’ve left you comfortable enough, Liza. Mind you, you’d whip the hair off your head to have me back after I go.’ I said, ‘I don’t want you to go, George.’ I didn’t think he was going to go.”
Also during those last intimate exchanges, Eliza remembered one last poignant, tragi-comic moment:
“George said, ‘Liza, tomorrow’s pancake Tuesday, will you make me one?’ I said I will that. He said, ‘Make it yourself, don’t let any of the servants make it!’ Well he died the next morning, pancake Tuesday, I’ve never eaten a pancake on pancake Tuesday since then because that was the last thing he asked me would I make him. He was very fond of them.”
A solemn mass was sung at Our Lady’s Church, Latchford, near to Stockton Heath, and was conducted by the Rev Father Tallon. A large crowd had assembled near the church to pay their last respects. After the mass, as the funeral procession made its way towards Warrington, tens of thousands of people lined the streets, with men removing their hats as the hearse passed by; as it arrived in the town, it passed through Marketgate, where more people had gathered, then along Buttermarket Street, lined with children, and from there the short journey east along Manchester Road to the cemetery which bears its name. The graveside ceremony was attended by Eliza and her children, her mother, and George’s loyal agent, E.H. Granville, and was considered important enough to have been filmed for a newsreel, which has survived. The grave was soon marked by a large marble stone, inscribed with a typical gravestone inanity, made even more irritating by its clumsy alliteration: ‘After Life’s Fitful Fever – He Sleeps Well’. For a man who’d spent his life delighting in words and their effect, and one who had battled so heroically against illness and poverty, it is a pathetic epitaph. The size and emotion of the crowd at George’s funeral would be repeated on an even greater scale forty years later, when another George Formby would be brought to the cemetery, and laid to rest with his father.
George Formby had made his will on the 25th August 1906. At his death in February 1921, he left the staggering net sum of £25,508 18 shillings and 8 pence (£840,000). The will several times refers to ‘my reputed wife Eliza Ann Booth otherwise Eliza Ann Hoy’.
The will was proven in May 1921, and the beneficiary, written large and clear, was ‘Eliza Ann Hoy, Spinster’. But what actually happened to the money? Some people interviewed who knew George Senior and his family have suggested that the bulk of the money did not go to Eliza, but I can find no evidence for this; if Eliza was left such a colossal sum of money, why was she in such – apparent – financial difficulty, to the extent of desperately putting Georgie on stage to earn a bit of money? Formby Junior, unable to secure any work, himself says that later that year, he almost starved. Within a few years, Eliza would be living in a modest house in Liverpool’s Menlove Avenue. When George did earn money, he’d give it to Eliza, ‘to help her out’. Surely none of this makes sense if they were so comfortably off?
George Senior had probably been paying Martha an allowance throughout his married life; by 1911, according to the census, it was £1 a week, her only source of income, as she states ‘no occupation’ in the relevant box. That’s about £80 a week in today’s money. Was she waiting, almost literally, in the wings, for the day when she could claim her wife’s inheritance?
In August 1981, Eliza herself was buried with the two George Formbys in her life, having outlived her husband by sixty years. When she’d started in the music business, helping her struggling husband, it was the nineteenth century; they worked in dingy music halls and ‘free and easies’, and recorded sound had barely been invented; yet she lived through the Swinging Sixties, Glam Rock and Punk, and the month she died, Ghost Town by the Specials was top of the British charts. She’d borne George fourteen children, of whom half had died in infancy; she battled furiously to protect those who’d survived. She nursed and supported her husband constantly for the twenty-one years they had together – and gave him the love and strength he needed to succeed. She put young Georgie on the stage, and created ‘George Formby Junior.’ But for her, neither of these two giants of British showbusiness would have achieved the stardom they did – in fact it’s unlikely that the great ukulele-playing George Formby would even have existed. She was an incredible woman, now almost completely sidelined and maligned by parts of the Formby industry. This website will, I hope, go some way to restoring her reputation.