George Formby was born George Hoy Booth on 26th May 1904 at 3 Westminster Street, Wigan. Though he was later to become one of Britain’s most famous entertainers, horses were in his blood.
|Pictured above: Jockey Jimmy Sharples was the cousin of George’s mother.|
His mother’s father was a horsebreaker originating from the Newmarket area, and in the same year as George’s birth her cousin (father’s nephew) Jimmy Sharples rode Wargrave to victory in the Cesarewich.
By the age of six, George was already riding show ponies – pictured below at Upholland Agricultural Show 1910 with his pony John Willie, which was also his father’s stage alter-ego and the name of his uncle pictured with him.
His father George Formby Snr was a top-of-the-bill Music Hall artiste – a celebrity of his time – but he was determined George Jnr would not follow him onto the stage, saying “One fool in the family is enough”. (George was the eldest of seven children; in the end there was only Ted the youngest who didn’t end up as a performer.)
Instead, when George was nine, he spent some 10 weeks with a trainer De Mistre at Bishops Canning. Quite why a career in racing was selected is unknown (to me) however George Formby Snr may have had connections with the sport through George Drake who owned the Warwick House yard at Middleham and who I believe was a gambler/bookmaker and also theatre entrepreneur in Leeds.
George Formby Jnr was then apprenticed to Tom Scholfield at Epsom, aged ten, at the start of the 1915 flat season. His education was rather neglected during this period because the private tutor his father engaged was more interested in finding out from young George what horses from his stable were likely to win.
An article on the back page of the Daily Mirror dated 19th April 1915 featured “The little jockey son of George Formby who weighs 3st 13lbs”, George having had his first ride in public on 6th April 1915 at Lingfield Park. He recalled it was cold and, even though his face was still swollen as he was recovering from mumps, “The show had to go on”; his mount Eliza – named after his mother – dwelt at the off and he finished down the field.
The newspaper reported: “The Trainer, Mr Scholfield, has only one complaint to make about him. George, like most small boys, has a fondness for sweets and pastry, but such a diet has a tendency to make fat, the jockey’s greatest enemy.”
Because racing in England was seriously curtailed during World War I George’s father sent George over to trainer Johnny Burns who trained at the Naas in Ireland and Ayr in Scotland. He also sent five horses to be trained by Johnny Burns so that George would get some rides. Besides Eliza he sent Father Creeper, Iron Orb, Philander and Skookem Joe. George was nicknamed “Cloggy” at this time because he was from Lancashire. Johnny’s son Tommy was also an apprentice at this time, he later went on to be Irish champion jockey with the nickname of “The Scotsman”.
George did come second on Philander at Phoenix Park in April 1918 and at Baldoyle in May 1918. When any of his father’s horses won, however, it was usually Tommy Burns who rode them, Philander being the most successful of George Formby Snr’s horses.
|Pictured right: George wearing his father’s colours. His father changed his colours (see above) to purple body with cerise sleeves and buttons and a black cap – the George Formby Society has those silks in its archives.|
|Pictured top and above: George riding work. Location and date unknown.|
NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE & ACCUSED OF ARSON
Because he was homesick George was always running away from the stables. On 10th of October 1918 when he ran away again and got to Dublin, George went to get something to eat and missed the ferry to England… 10 miles off the coast of Ireland the ferry Leinster was torpedoed and sunk with great loss of life. His father received a telegram saying he had run away again, and until he received another telegram saying he was safe his father thought he had perished on the ferry.
George was third on Lady Doreen at the Curragh in September, then on his last ride in Ireland he was unplaced on Midton, also at the Curragh, in November. Realising how unhappy he was in Ireland George’s father sent him to George Drake’s yard in Middleham where private trainer Ned McCormack was in charge. A fellow apprentice here was future champion flat jockey Tommy Weston who mentions George in his autobiography.
At the beginning of the 1919 flat season George was apprenticed to Lord Derby’s trainer Hon George Lambton at Stanley House, Newmarket. Lord Derby’s eldest son was Lord Stanley, owner of Devonport, who George rode into second place at Newmarket on the 1st of July 1919 (see right), but his spell here was short-lived. The apprentices, when they got back from town, used to roll up their fish and chip papers and throw them into a corner of their sleeping quarters. One night someone set fire to them – fortunately no-one was hurt but George got the blame and ended back at Middleham, this time at Dobson Peacock’s yard.
MUSIC MAKES AN ENTRANCE
|He was befriended by local shoemaker Herbert Poulter and sisters Jane and Violet Parish, and Mr Poulter gave him his first musical instrument: a mouth organ. This photo (right) shows Mr Poulter and Violet with George at the 1920 Whit Fair in Middleham: George played the mouth organ under the cover while being wheeled around in the wheelbarrow.|
He did go back to Ireland for short spell, riding at Leopardstown on 25th August 1919. However, George started to put on some weight through this period, and his mounts consequently became fewer. He had a couple of mounts at Chester on 4th May 1920, and his last ride on the flat was in the same season when he rode Old Chris on 31st July at Catterick Bridge.
It has been suggested he rode over the sticks in the 1920/21 National Hunt season, but I don’t have any further information on this part of George’s career (this picture, right, of George jumping a hurdle was obviously taken after his racing career).
CURTAIN UP – BUT CONNECTIONS CONTINUE
At the beginning of 1921 he was at Botterill’s yard at Malton when in February he received a telegram to come home at once to Warrington. His father had been taken ill while appearing in panto at Newcastle-upon-Tyne and brought home to Warrington where he passed away on 8th February 1921 aged 45; George was 16. At that time George Formby Snr had been earning £350 a week, and left £26,000 in his will. George’s mother Eliza urged George Jnr to take up his father’s mantle and his career as an entertainer was born, with George making his stage debut at Kemp’s Hippodrome, Earlestown on 21st March 1921.
George never went back to Malton but he did keep in touch with his racing connections such as Johnny Dines, who he originally met when they raced against each other as apprentices in Ireland – Steve Donoghue (see below) also competed against them in those races.
Instead, he went on to forge a music and film career, following on from both his father and from his own introduction to movies in 1915, when he enjoyed his debut film role in playing a jockey in a silent movie called By the Shortest of Heads (there were no stunt doubles in those days) – filmed at Epsom while George was an apprentice jockey.
I believe Steve Donoghue – Champion Jockey 10 times consecutively between 1914 and 1923, and to date the only jockey ever to have won the Triple Crown twice – was his mentor for that role. To this day, George’s family grave and Steve Donoghue’s grave lie in Warrington Cemetery about 20 lengths apart.
Pictured above right: the theatre Bill for George’s first film By the Shortest of Heads in which he featured as a jockey – possibly mentored by top jockey Steve Donoghue (right).
George made one other horseracing film, Come On George, which included the songs “I’m Making Headway Now” and “I Couldn’t Let The Stable Down”; and in 1952 he owned a two-year-old called Percy Piggott, named after his character in the musical Zip Goes A Million.
This year (2011) is the Golden Jubilee year of the George Formby Society and as part of the celebrations a race at Haydock Park on 13th September will be named ‘The George Formby Society Golden Jubilee’.
Gerry and Vivien Mawdsley, President and Secretary of the GFS will be making the presentations to the winning connections of the race.
All are welcome to attend – to book tickets please see www.haydock-park.co.uk
Until I became involved with the George Formby Society I wasn’t aware of George actually being an apprentice jockey. When I became the archivist for the GFS being a horseracing fan (and since retiring I work at Haydock Park on racedays), I was determined to find out more about this important part of his life. I went to Newmarket library and spent two days locked in a room with the racing calendars to trace George’s racing career.
If anyone would like to share further information about this part of George’s life, please contact me through firstname.lastname@example.org . You can find out more about the George Formby Society at www.georgeformby.co.uk
I joined Elite Racing some four years ago it is an excellent way to be involved with horseracing. You receive an very informative newsletter every week plus up to date e mails about runners, stable visits and racecourse offers. Thanks to being a member of Elite I was in the parade ring at Haydock Park in August 2009 with other members and jockey Neil Callan when he was riding Harlech Castle for Elite (pictured). Then on the 10th of July this year I went on a stable visit to Mark Johnston’s yard at Middleham: Warwick House, the same yard George had been in all those years ago. It was a most enjoyable experience thanks to Mark and his staff’s friendliness. When I spoke to Mark he was aware that George had been an apprentice there and I gave him some of the photos of George at Middleham.
We have a lovely two-year-old chestnut filly called To The Sea with Mark which we now look forward to seeing run later this season.
For more information about Elite please see Eliteracingclub.co.uk
Allison is the Publisher of Eclipse Magazine. She loves going to the Races and is learning to bet (despite being officially the worst bettor in the History of the Universe), there’s a lot more to learn…