George Formby senior, was born in to poverty, hardship and depravation in the Ashton-under-Lyne of 1875. Despite suffering bronchial problems since early childhood, sheer hard work and determination saw his star ascend... Right to the very top.
He developed into one of the biggest names and highest earners in British music hall and twice performed before the King and Queen at their request.
At the time of his death in 1921 he left behind a diary with enough advanced bookings to take him through 1926. He also left a staggering £26,000 which, like the man himself, and despite what anyone would try to have us believe, was unique for the time, and as far as I’m concerned was pretty outstanding too. [crowd cheer]
At the peak of his career George Formby senior was, in all probability, even more illustrious than his ukulele playing film star son was to become during the 1940s and 50s.
With his character creation of ‘John Willie’, dressed in a clown-like baggy suit, George Formby senior captivated audiences everywhere.
He was the first to talk of ‘Wigan Pier’, implying that the land locked industrial Lancashire town had its own seaside style pier. In reality this was just a small wharf on the Leeds and Liverpool canal, similar in fact to Ashton’s Portland Basin.
He also coined the popular adage, still quoted by many today, and one that I truly love…“It’s not the cough that carries you off, it’s the coffin they carries you off in”. This, together with another catchphrase “I’m coughin’ better tonight” and his real bronchial cough were to became his trademarks.
In fact, though he was beloved by audiences the country over, few realised just how much he suffered in order to entertain them. He never let it be known how truly ill he was.
The man we know as George Formby Senior was actually born James Booth - here on Hodgson Street at number 26 in 1875. The house outside which we are standing today is on the spot where the Music Hall Inn once stood and where in his teenage years the young ‘Jim’ Booth performed.
It is well known that Formby had a very miserable childhood. He was the illegitimate son of a teenage Sarah Jane Booth. When he was just about 6 months old, his mother married Frank Lawler at St. Peter’s Church – just across the way. It is believed that Frank was actually the boy’s father and shortly after the marriage young ‘Jim’ was to take the Lawler surname.
As parents the Lawler’s failed on a grand scale, their love of alcohol seemingly deeper than the love for their son. The marriage was a stormy and violent affair and for young Jim the family home was one filled with endless drunken quarrels and fights and where he was often half-starved and continually ill-treated. He developed severe asthmatic and bronchial problems from the age of seven, a condition which remained with him throughout his life.
His suffering was not helped by the fact that he was forced to endure many nights sleeping on the doorstep of his terraced home or on the cold stone floor of the communal lavatory. This neglection meant that he was often reduced to singing in the streets of Ashton in the hope of earning a few pennies to buy food. Much of the money earned by his mother was being squandered to feed her drinking habit. After a stint working in Cryer’s Iron Works, which he left due to the affects on his health, and a brief spell on a market garden he soon found that he could earn enough money to survive by singing in the ‘free and easies’ at the local public houses.
It was in 1892 at the Spread Eagle pub, where the Lidl supermarket now stands, that theatrical agent Mr Brown first took him under his wing, teaming him up with another youngster to create the Brothers Glenray. Travelling the north of England as one of this singing duo became the escape route from his mother. He once said, that he could remember as miserable a childhood as ever fell to the lot of a human creature, with parents that allowed him to go his own way and of being absolutely uncared for.
Yet, leaving Ashton was no reflection on the town itself. It was simply a means of severing his family ties. He would never forget the town of his birth and returned on many occasions to play the inns and music halls on his way to stardom. He would also return later in his career, to play Ashton’s theatres as George – George Formby one of the biggest and best-loved stars in the country. And he always referred to the townsfolk of Ashton as “my people”. 95 years ago this month [June 2012] during the First World War, Ashton was rocked by a huge explosion in a local munitions factory. Forty-six people lost their lives in the explosion, over 100 more were hospitalised with many more made homeless. If you look behind you [from the position on Hodgson Street where everyone was standing] you will be able to see the Memorial Sculpture by Paul Margetts, which marks the event. Formby’s affinity with Ashton and its people came to the fore in the wake of this disaster when a relief fund was established to raise money for the victims and families of the bereaved. Formby offered to perform a matinee at the Theatre Royal with all proceeds going to the fund. He was unwell at the time and his management desperately tried to dissuade him but he wouldn't be deterred and performed his act in front of a full house and even auctioned off a signed playbill and a bag of sugar… which Ladies and Gentlemen was very scarce at the time.
From 1918 onwards his health became progressively worse and he eventually succumbed to the tuberculosis that had plagued him for years. He died on February 8th 1921.
It gives me great pleasure to be here today, remembering a man who was always so quick to remember the people of his hometown, Ashton-under-Lyne.
Of course the placing of this plaque wouldn’t have been possible without the help of several people, who I’d like to thank today…
Please join me in thanking these people which include Trevor Rowley who first had the idea for the Blue Plaque. [APPLAUSE] Also to local authors Philip & David Williams. [APPLAUSE] I’d like to thank Councillor Joyce Bowerman for joining us here this morning. Peter Marland, Nicola Woods and Clare Leader at Ashton Pioneer Homes – who own this property. [APPLAUSE] Also our sincere thanks to Donna Flanagan and her daughters Leah and Natalie for allowing the plaque to be affixed to their home, [APPLAUSE] and of course to the many people who contributed to the fund especially Gerry Mawdsley and members of the George Formby Society many of whom we’ve seen already today"… Thank you… thank you all… and thank you for joining us here today”. [APPLAUSE]