Formby’s Marriages and Bigamy
There’s a nice little story that crops up in the opening chapter of several biographies of George Junior,  that in 1898 his father Jim was seeing a girl supposedly called Ivy Caston, who was also supposedly a music hall dancer. The story goes that he turned up to see her while she was staying at the Hoys’ lodging house in Wigan, but the door was answered by their daughter, Eliza. Jim then promptly fell for Eliza, forgetting, apparently, all about poor Ivy. There is much anecdotal evidence that he had plenty of girlfriends, and some possibility that (before he met Eliza) he had actually fathered several children. Whatever reality there is in the fleeting Ivy Caston story, the actual truth about Jim’s romantic involvement with fellow music hall artists is far more serious. I have evidence which shows that Jim married twice, and that his marriage to Eliza Hoy was in fact bigamous.
It was while working the free and easies that Jim met his first wife – well, his only wife, legally speaking. Martha Maria Salter was a fellow performer on the halls, a twenty-one-year-old ‘vocalist’ according to their certificate of marriage, which took place at the Register Office in Halifax, apparently Martha’s home town, in August 1897. This entire episode in Jim’s early life has been successfully hidden until now, and this is the first time in 114 years that it has been made public. Jim gives his name at his marriage as ‘James Booth Lawler’, and he too is a ‘vocalist’ on the certificate. He gives as his father’s name – Francis Lawler (deceased), Iron Fitter, which is true. More on his marriage to Eliza later.
Around the time of this first marriage, Jim was still struggling.
“And so I went on drifting into combinations at different halls, writing my own stuff and getting the reputation of a Dan Leno at the ‘free and easies’.”
Denny Clarke, legendary owner of the Argyle Music Hall, Birkenhead, claimed to have discovered James Lawler while he was working at the Hen and Chickens free and easy in Manchester, and signed him for a week at the Argyle at £2 10 shillings (£200). He also pointed out the obvious – that Booth’s luck on the halls would improve if he had a more theatrical name – ‘James Lawler’ didn’t really cut it as very cool (though he was billed as ‘The Human Cornet’ for a while) so he became ‘George Formby’. It’s very tempting to try and tie in his change of name with the huge personal changes in his life. If he wanted to leave Martha behind, then a new name was a good start. Whatever the reason, it was a great career move – from now on, his bookings would increase, and his reputation grow, though it would still be years before he was topping the bill. He would soon become known by a number of soubriquet: ‘The Wigan Sparrow’, ‘The Wigan Sprinter’, ‘The Man Fra’ Wigan’ (can you spot a common thread here?), ‘The Human Cornet’, ‘That Bad Lad!’ and, most accurately perhaps, ‘A Lancashire Comedian’.
Formby’s next break came when he got a 40-week tour with Walford Bodie and his Royal Magnets Company at the Lyceum Theatre, Blackburn. ‘Dr’ Walford Bodie, as he later styled himself, became one of the most spectacular and eccentric acts ever to appear in the music hall. Billing himself as ‘The British Edison’, he and his assistant, the fabulously named ‘La Belle Electra’, would perform miraculous electrical extravaganzas, the climax of which was an act called ‘The Man They Could Not Electrocute’, when he was strapped into a replica of the first electric chair by Electra, and then apparently had 30,000 volts passed through his body, thereby illuminating light bulbs held in his hands! He also claimed to be able to heal members of the audience using his electrical ‘Bodic Force’. He was a controversial and larger than life figure. The young Charlie Chaplin did a famous imitation of Bodie as part of his music hall act when he was touring with comedian Will Murray. Chaplin was familiar with George Formby Senior’s act, some even suggesting it gave him ideas for his Little Tramp character, though if true Chaplin destroyed Formby’s delicate subtlety under a crude dollop of pathos.
Not long after this, George Formby married the great love of his life, a girl called Eliza Hoy:
“It was while working in Wigan that I met Liza, my dear wife and pal. That week I was on a ‘perhaps’ two pounds which turned out to be 10 shillings (£45), with the result that Liza’s father took pity on me, and gave me my Sunday dinner. But he had a bad opinion of ‘pros’; this wasn’t improved when at the end of the week I ran away with his daughter and got married.”
He fails to mention one crucial fact – he was still married to Martha. He and Eliza married in the Register Office in Wigan on the 11th August 1899. This time he gave his name as ‘James Booth’, his rank or profession is ‘actor’, and, to aid his deception, he invented a completely fictitious father – Frank Booth (deceased), Cotton Mill Mechanic. There never was a ‘Frank Booth’ of course, and his step-father did not work in a cotton mill. James Booth was now a bigamist, and it is unclear whether Eliza was aware of his marital status when she married him. She was a Catholic girl yet married in a register office. Subsequently, George converted to Catholicism; was this part of the deal they struck, partly to placate her parents?
It seems to me stretching credulity to suggest that Eliza knew nothing of her husband’s bigamy, in fact I suggest that she was fully aware of the entire situation. Martha would go on calling herself ‘Mrs Lawler’ for years to come. Eliza could never be Mrs Booth – instead she became the fictional ‘Mrs Formby’ – right up until her death 83 years later; George Formby Senior’s will, made in 1906, was proven in May 1921, and the sole beneficiary was: ‘Eliza Ann Hoy, Spinster’. Eliza couldn’t dare, legally speaking, claim the name of Booth in any official situation, nor could she assert herself as married.
Bigamy wasn’t all that uncommon at the time among working-class people, when divorce was both difficult and expensive. The reasons for Jim and Martha’s break-up are as mysterious (but probably just as mundane, if we could ever find out) as the reasons for their marriage. What is clear is that George and Eliza were absolutely devoted to each other until George’s tragic death in February 1921.
Life with Eliza
While his career slowly began to blossom, life was still hard for George. Eliza remembered the early days:
“When I first knew him he was earning thirty bob a week (£125) – when he worked! He used to send me ten bob (£45) home – I kept him with my dressmaking, and then I took a little shop. He worked in Oswaldtwistle one time, and we were so poor we lived in a little house, a woman took us in, comfortable, I did all her sewing for her and she charged us nothing for the room. We had a tin box [for his stage props and clothes], yellow outside, and painted royal blue inside, with a handle on the top and the two handles on the sides, we walked up all the hills in Oswaldtwistle to go and work for one night – he got six shillings!” (£25)
George continued to struggle for the next two years, in the free and easies, getting what engagements he could, with Eliza’s sewing skills keeping them going. George became so dispirited, he even thought of giving it all up:
“I would work with my brains not my hands. Anyway I’ll keep trying and if I’m not a success, I’ll come off and settle down – and not bother!”
His luck started to turn in 1902 when he was on the bill with singer Belle Elmore, fated wife of Dr Crippen, who, having been impressed with George, introduced him to the top London agent E.H. Granville, who then agreed to take him on. He secured his first London contract at the Royal Albert Music Hall at a salary of £3 (£250) per week. Granville continued to represent Formby to the end of his life, by which time he was earning 100 times that amount.
Despite his career taking an upward turn, it remained an unbearably hard period for them; during this time, they had three baby girls – all of whom died. 1904, however, would be the start of happier times. First, in May, their first child to survive was born – a boy they baptised George Hoy Booth, (named after Eliza’s father – George Hoy), known throughout his childhood as Georgie. He would of course grow up to become the George Formby most people think of when they hear the name, and ensure that the Formby brand was identified solely with the ukulele-playing superstar he would become. George was playing the Argyle, Birkenhead at the time, and a few days after Georgie’s birth, the tiny baby was brought on stage as the proud father showed him off to the punters. Jokingly, Danny Clarke said, “I’ve booked him to appear on this very stage on his twenty-first birthday!” To much laughter, Formby quipped, “No, no, no – one fool in the family’s enough!” This phrase is often quoted as if said in deadly earnest to deter Georgie from the horrors of the grim reality of life on the halls, along with the suggestion that his father ‘banned’ him from ever seeing him perform. The truth is more mundane – Georgie never had an opportunity to see his father on stage, and when he did follow him onto the boards, almost seventeen years later, it wasn’t even his decision.
Later that year, through Granville, George secured his first Moss Empires Tour, a three year contract which gave him a guaranteed £5 (£410) per week for the first year, going up to £10 (£820) per week for the third year, by which time he was beginning to top the bill.
“Then luck really came my way and after several small engagements George Robey recommended me to the management of a Newcastle pantomime, and I got my first big salary – £35 (£2,800) a week.”
1. RANDALL, Alan and SEATON, Ray: George Formby (WH Allen, 1974)
2. BRET, David: George Formby – A Troubled Genius (Robson Books, 1999)