Remember, I’m Your Mother
In the summer of 1912, Eliza received a letter from the Union Hospital attached to the Ashton-under-Lyne workhouse, requesting a meeting with either her or George about a private matter. She arranged a meeting with the hospital representative, and met him for tea at the Continental restauarant. He confided to Eliza that George’s mother, Sarah, was in the workhouse hospital with cancer, with very little time left to live, and she was asking to see her son before the end came. Eliza, frightened of upsetting George, and causing him any stress (which would often lead to coughing fits and haemorrhages) arranged to visit Sarah herself. Dressed in her “nice little grey costume, with a scarlet hat with a blue feather at the side” she travelled by bus to Manchester, and then to Ashton, and made her way to the workhouse. She was led into a crowded ward, and Sarah pointed out to her. Without revealing her identity, Eliza sat down and began chatting with her. She told Eliza,
“I belong to Ashton. My husband died very, very young, and I haven’t got a family. Well, I have one, a son, he doesn’t know me, he doesn’t come here, he’s a big man, he wouldn’t come to see me.”
Eliza stayed for a while, and promised to come back and visit her again soon:
“And I bent over to her and I put my arms around her and I kissed her, and she was very, very undone. She looked me up and down and her hand trembled and I covered her clothes over, and made gestures of homeliness towards her.”
The following month, Eliza returned, this time with her six-year old daughter, Louie. They brought sweets, chocolate biscuits, and dutifully as instructed, Louie put her half-crown pocket money on the cupboard next to her bed. Eliza, still not revealing who she was, told her she would try and arrange for her son to visit her. Sarah asked Louie about her schooling, and shook hands with her as they left.
“As I was coming down the stairs, child’s curiosity all over, she said, “Who is that, mother?” I said, “That is your grandmother.” “No! My grandmother’s at home.” I said, “This is your father’s mother Louie, but I want you to tell nobody that we have seen her.”
A few weeks before Christmas, George wasn’t feeling well, and desperately needed some time off. He decided to write to Moss Empires, telling them he needed that week off to rest and help him get ready for pantomime,
“I’ll play the same date later – same fee, no problem.”
Eliza told him that she had a big favour to ask; she needed him to go to Ashton with her that Wednesday.
“Ashton-under-Lyne? Where my people are? Well that wasn’t hard to ask – why shouldn’t I go?”
Eliza then explained what she’d been up to, and asked him to come with her and visit his mother, who was by now close to death. He initially refused, understandably shocked by news of the mother he’d not seen for twenty years, and angry that Eliza had been going behind his back. After much arguing, he agreed to go with Liza, but under protest,
“Well you please yourself what you do, don’t you Liza? I don’t want to go you know, I’m going to suit you.”
A few days later, in their new car, they made the trip to Ashton Workhouse.
Shortly afterwards, at 2.30 in the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1912, Sarah Jane Lawler died in the Union Hospital, Ashton. Her tiny, exhibition coffin – the only one that could be found at short notice over Christmas – was brought to George and Eliza’s home, Hindley House, and four altar-boys carried it into their lounge, where it was opened, and left for the hour before the funeral. George spent ten minutes alone with his mother’s body, before the coffin was sealed, and removed for the midday burial. She was laid to rest near to the graves of George and Eliza’s three young daughters, the service carried out by their good friend, the Catholic priest Father Almond. It was a fitting, dignified end to a sad, wasted life. There was some comfort for them both in the late reconciliation, and an unspoken regret and forgiveness. From the cold churchyard, a sad Jim Booth made his way to the station and rushed down to London to become George Formby at the Tivoli Music Hall in the Strand.