George Formby Snr breached contract to appear on stage

Local historian looks back at a comedy legends's legal dispute in yesteryear...

By Henry Widdas, Communities Content Page Manager
Thursday, 19th August 2021, 3:30 pm
Mr Justice Ridley heard the case
Mr Justice Ridley heard the case

Early in 1917 George Formby, Senior, appeared at the Empire Theatre in Preston and earned a rave review from the local theatre critic describing his performance thus: “George Formby, quaint as ever, roused almost uncontrollable mirth rendering his characteristic songs and was so droll in his chat in his crude Lancashire manner as to obtain irresistible appeal.”

He was a comedian at the top of his profession and just weeks later in early April 1917 he appeared before Mr. Justice Ridley in the King’s Bench Division facing an action brought by the Southport Palladium company.

They were claiming damages for breach of contract for his failure to appear for a week-long performance at the venue in September 1916.

Mr. Formby’s fee was to be £175 and the agreement signed included a clause of £175 damages if he did not appear. He had failed to appear claiming underlying health issues but the Southport Palladium discovered later that he had during that week been appearing for the Moss Empire at the Empire in London.

Mr. Patrick Hastings appearing for the defendant said that Formby was undergoing a special course of inoculations at the time, and was only appearing on stage for a short period each evening and even that was a grave risk. Going on to explain that Formby was suffering from consumption and his health was in a bad state, a collapse whilst rehearsing in London had left doctors believing he would die.

Mr. Formby, aged 41, then gave evidence stating that his state of health varied but as a married man with seven children he had to keep working. Saying that if it was not for the treatment he was undergoing in London at the time he would have happily fulfilled his engagement at Southport, and that he had requested appearing on an alternative date, but the Southport Palladium had dismissed that offer.

His Lordship concluded the hearing by stating that if the defendant was well enough to perform at one theatre where he was paid £250 per week then he could have performed at another and that he had broken his agreement. He then informed the plaintiffs that they were entitled to judgment for £175 with costs.

Unhappy at the verdict George Formby took the case to the Court of Appeal in November 1917, but once again the verdict went against him. Despite his ill health he continued to perform in the years ahead and both the Royal Hippodrome and the Empire Theatre in Preston had the pleasure of his performances.

Sadly, his health issues gradually got worse and he died in early February 1921 at his Stockton Heath home near Warrington. Respectful crowds lined the streets of Warrington as his funeral cortege passed by on the way to the cemetery. In the years ahead his son George Formby Junior would follow in his father’s footsteps and became a legend of stage and screen.