He was called George and he loved George Formby – so much so he bought seven ukuleles – including two used by the British comedy legend.
George Johnson, who died last summer at the age of 91, amassed a huge array of Formby memorabilia over 60 years including a Keech ukulele used by the star in the film that launched his career in 1935, No Limit.
The British musical comedy, made on location at the TT motorcycle race on the Isle of Man, was the first of 11 films that Formby made with Associated Talking Pictures and is a favourite with Formby fans.
John Croft, ukulele expert and former president of the George Formby Society, who visited Hansons to see the instruments, said: “No Limit is one of George Formby's most popular films and is still shown in the Isle of Man during TT race week. It set Formby on his way to becoming the UK’s best paid entertainer.
Mike Johnson with his father's banjo-ukulele used on stage by Formby.
“In No Limit he plays the Keech style 'A' on three songs - 'Riding in the TT Races', 'Riding Around On A Rainbow' and 'In A Little Wigan Garden'. The Keech was sold to a Mrs Welch for £3 at the 1961 Beryldene auction of Formby's instruments. Mr Johnson later purchased it from Mrs Welch."
Mr Johnson also owned a Dallas model D ukulele-banjo used on stage by Formby which he bought direct from the star’s wife, Beryl Formby, in 1952 - with handwritten correspondence from her to prove it. The prototype model was made by George Houghton and Son in 1936 and given to the star to test.
Both instruments will go under the hammer at Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers on March 19. The one used on stage has an estimate of £10,000-£12,000 while the one used in films has a guide price of £5,000-£7,000 - but both could make much more. In 2017, a George Formby banjolele sold for £28,500 at Hansons Auctioneers.
Mr Johnson’s other vintage ukuleles and Formby memorabilia, including 78 records, videos, cassettes, magazines, sheet music and more, will also be sold.
Claire Howell, music memorabilia expert at Hansons, said: “This collection is extraordinary. Mr Johnson must have been one of George Formby’s biggest fans – if not the biggest. To own two of his ukuleles and correspond with his wife shows he went the extra mile to celebrate his admiration for one of Britain’s biggest stars.
“Mr Johnson was meticulous in that he kept all his paperwork and documents relating to his acquisitions. For any Formby fan this is a golden opportunity.
“The ukulele used on stage was sold to him by Beryl Formby in 1952 while the instrument used in No Limit was purchased for £8 in 1961 from Mrs Welch, who bought it at the famous Beryldene auction at St Anne’s, near Blackpool, that same year.”
Beryldene was the Formbys’ final home. Beryl died in 1960 and George passed away soon after in 1961. The auction occurred because George’s family opposed his final will. A few weeks before his death, he became engaged to school teacher Pat Howson and left the Formby fortune almost intact to her.
However, for Gateshead man George Johnson and his family it was the music, the man and the ukuleles that filled their lives with Formby memories.
His son Mike Johnson, a retired electronic engineer from Stone, Staffordshire, grew up listening to George Formby music.
He said: “The tunes are all in my head – I heard them so much at home. As well as listening to his George Formby music collection, dad would often get out his uke and play along to the music”.
“He worked as a gear maker in the ship building industry from the age of 14 to 62. After work, he’d disappear for a while and you could hear him whistling and strumming away, having ‘a quick burst on the banjo’, as he put it. It must have been how he wound down.
“He was the 29th member of the George Formby Appreciation Society – and signed me up when I was only four. He saw Formby perform live once but never met him.
“Dad collected Formby memorabilia from the 1930s to the mid-90s – a 60-year span. He didn’t tell my mum, Mary, about everything he bought in case it got him into trouble. He kept most of it under the bed and in the attic. Mum, who passed away in 2011, never realised how big the collection was.”
Mr Johnson left the George Formby treasures to his son, Mike, and daughter, Brenda Robson. Mike said: “The collection’s been gathering dust under beds and on top of wardrobes. Looking at pictures of dad playing his Formby ukuleles and seeing how much pleasure it brought him, made us realise how much we’d love to see that happen again.”
The George Formby memorabilia will be sold at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire, in a Film and Music Memorabilia Auction on March 19. To find out more, email [email protected].