PERCY FRENCH AND HIS LINKS WITH FORMBY
‘One of Ireland’s greatest songwriters and entertainers’
Over a century since the world lost Percy French, he still manages to inspire love, affection, inspiration and to encourage us all to see our world with a smile and understanding. However, to recognise him at the height of his popularity we need to go back further. Today his name is known to fewer people, the enduring fate of those who were entertainers and commentators on their own time on Earth; yet, be assured that his name endures. Indeed, being such richly talented person, we still possess the beauty of his watercolours even if Father Time has stolen the context of his personal presentations.
‘Willie’ Percy French was an Irishman and belonged to Ireland, though ‘loaned out’ to the UK and other countries for our enjoyment and entertainment. However, in our small community of Formby we feel that he is part of our own history too. After all, he is buried here and inspires visits from people from near and far each year to celebrate his life and remember his passing. In Percy French’s day, Formby numbered between 5 and 6 thousand people and had only grown to that amount after the railway line between Liverpool and Southport in 1848 had somehow beckoned it towards the wider world from its rural slumbers. Today, visitors to Formby are reminded that the churchyard of St. Luke’s contains his gravestone; in the summer you may catch a group nearby performing some of his songs; and since 2021 there is a Blue Plaque to commemorate where and when he died. It is almost as if he was ‘one of ours’, and he is treasured for that.
What, then, is the link between the famous Percy French of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th century and Formby? How is it that he died here and not somewhere in his home country? Well, as always, there is a tale to tell – so let us start.
The link between Formby and French involves another person, someone we need to now learn more about: his cousin, Johnny. Percy French was born in Cloonyquin House in Co. Roscommon, the third of nine children. His mother had a sister called Mary Anne French who married John Richardson QC in Dublin and began her married life there, although she returned to Cloonyquin for the birth of her first child and always remained close to her family. Mary Anne is said to have been Percy’s favourite Aunt, and her son Johnny became a lifelong friend. This was John Brooke Richardson, later to be the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Formby and Honorary Canon of Liverpool Cathedral. Both boys went to Trinity College, Dublin: there is a fine photograph of the pair of them as young men, Johnny with a tennis racquet and ‘Willie’ with his banjo.
JBR moved to Lancashire to pursue his career and by 1892 he had become the first Vicar of the newly-built Holy Trinity Church in Formby, living in a house he purchased out of his own pocket nearby in College Avenue. The story ran that while he was working at a church in nearby Crosby he took a train to Formby and, walking up Brows Lane from the Station, he came across an official Village event. When he asked what it was he was told that it was the laying of the foundation stone for the new Holy Trinity Church that was due to be built there. Little did he know that within two years he would be appointed the first Vicar of the Church and would remain in post until 1928.
His father having died in 1893, JBR’s mother joined him in Formby, living close to the village centre at Mulrea House in Halsall Lane, just one house before it became Gores Lane and only four houses away from Fred Norburn’s Pie and Confectioner’s Store. She remained there until she passed away aged 97 in 1920, at the end of the same year in which Percy French died.
In 1894 French married Helen Sheldon, who he had met while she was a singer in the chorus of one of his comic operas. He became well-known for his comic songs, sketches, caricatures and amusing stories. They had two daughters while living in Dublin and his career began to develop. They were persuaded to give London ‘a try’ and so he came to appear in Music Halls and Theatres all over Britain. He worked closely with his lyricist Dr.Collisson and even accepted the offers to tour the USA, Canada and the West Indies in 1910.He was always known as ‘Willie’ to family and friends but it was about this time in his career that he began to be known professionally as ‘Percy’ French. There can be no doubt that during his travels he also visited his cousin Johnny and family in Formby, but our first written evidence of a visit is through the Parish Magazines of Holy Trinity Church.
Let us now track that link with Formby further by turning to cousin John Brooke Richardson.JBR had made a great impact on the community and was very ’hands-on’ in working for his flock. For example, he had begun a very successful Bible Class for men with attendances of sixty-plus. This became the ‘Village Club’ with a selection of games including snooker available after the Class and open to all regardless of religion or class. By 1905 money was being raised to provide tennis courts and a bowling green. Of course, there were other demands for funding in the life of a newly-opened church, including the repayment of various debts. This is something an established Music Hall entertainer could help with and led to ‘Cousin Willie’ coming to Formby whenever his help was needed. We have descriptions of some of his early visits of support from a contemporary parishioner and historian, William Marshallsay, an early member of the Formby Society. For example, in Spring 1898 he wrote that “much anticipatory satisfaction was felt when it became known that the Vicar’s cousin, Percy French, the renowned playwright poet, artist, musician and entertainer was coming to help at the forthcoming Village Fair. This was an attraction indeed for Mr. French had recently been honoured by inclusion in a Command Performance at Sandringham. Best known of his songs are “The Mountains of Mourne”, “Phil, the Fluter’s Ball “and of his poems”.
Another example was of the 3rd Village Fair in 1898. “This entertaining four day effort to wipe off the Church Building Debt of £1,200 was duly held at the end of June on the Poverty Field near Freshfield Station. Much preliminary organisation had been done, and the provision and erection of Marquees, Tents, Boundary Canvas etc. was a formidable task. There were seven stalls in the big marquee; a Refreshment marquee, a Café Chantant tent, a Rifle Shooting gallery; and various sideshows etc. Mr. Percy French’s sessions in the Café Chantant were very popular and keenly enjoyed. He made lightning sketches with coloured crayons to illustrate his accompanying witty tales and talks; sometimes when these sketches were turned upside down an entirely different picture was revealed. He held china plates or saucers over a lit candle until the surface was smoky black, then with matchsticks for brushes, etched beautiful pictures in black and white. He would burst into songs or monologues accompanying himself on his banjo.
Of his own verses and parodies he had an apparently inexhaustible store: his watercolour paintings of Irish bogs, lakes, coast scenery and skies together with his delightful pictures of corners of the rose garden. There were many other visits here [to Formby]”. In December 1898 there was the ‘Christmas Tree Sale of Work’: “There having been a surplus of articles left unsold at the Summer Village Fair it was decided to have smaller Sale in the Parish Room in the month of December. Gentlemen were permitted to smoke during the music and drama provided they bought their tobacco at the Christmas Tree Stall.
Mr. Percy French came again and delighted his audiences with his artistic skill, songs and wit. There was an excellent financial result – £120 cleared leaving only about £50 left owing on the Building Debt.“
In January 1899 he returned, this time to support St. Luke’s Day School – in 1920 he was buried in the churchyard of St. Luke’s. William Marshallsay wrote, “A special effort was organised in aid of St. Luke’s Day School, where, pending the opening of our own school, a proportion of Holy Trinity’s children were receiving education. This was another attractive entertainment by the Vicar’s renowned cousin, Mr. Percy French. A full audience packed the Parish Room and greatly enjoyed Mr. French’s freely given items of sketching, reciting, singing and humorous stories”.
In June 1901 he supported the Fourth Village fair. “Following much preparatory work this important four day effort towards liquidation of School building debt was held on Poverty Field alongside Freshfield Station. The Grand Marquee contained eight stalls and in the spacious grounds were the Refreshment Tent, the Café Chantant, the Variety Tent, the Shooting Gallery and Rifle Range; the various Side Shows, Swings etc. Outdoor music was shared by the Formby Prize Band, Leadbetter’s Band and the Lancashire Artillery Band.
Operations hummed briskly throughout the four days. The stalls in the main marquee did gratifying business. Mrs. Earle and her helpers catered admirably in the Refreshment Tent.
The clever and genial Mr. Percy French was in great form in the Variety Tent; and Mrs. Ainsworth triumphed in the Café Chantant with the distinguished help of Mr. Paul Rubens the famous light opera composer and some of his artiste friends.” This suggests that occasional he brought friends from the Theatre to support his fundraising efforts. For example, Paul Rubens(1876-1910)was a librettist and composer who produced a good number of works that appeared on the London stage, particularly in the Edwardian years. The ‘Mrs. Ainsworth’ mentioned was probably Mrs. Annie Ainsworth who lived in ‘Elleray’ on Victoria Road.
These examples of help given by Percy French to the Formby community cover only the years 1898 and 1901. There were many others over the ensuing years, probably until the start of WWI, with support given across the community. There is no mention of any visits to raise money during the War years though it is likely he would have found time to see his cousin Johnny and Aunt Mary Anne. However, for Percy French 1916 onwards was a time in the decline of his health and a period when he suffered some unfortunate accidents. One, when he tried to board a moving train but was pulled along the platform, was something it is said from which he never fully recovered.
Percy French fell ill with pneumonia in January 1920 whilst in Glasgow on a tour of the UK, and went directly to Johnny’s home in Formby. It was in JBR’s house by the Liverpool-Southport railway line that French spent his last days from the 16th to the 24th of January in this house, called variously ‘Greenlea’ or ‘Green Lea’ (even the 1911 Census shows both spellings of the name!). If you visit the house to view the Blue Plaque erected in 2021, look directly over the wall and you will see the bedroom in which he was staying.
Canon Richardson’s church had no burial grounds and burials were held either at St. Luke’s Church or St. Peter’s Church. Johnny’s house fell in the parish of St. Luke’s and so that is where he was buried. Mary Ann Richardson’s home was nearer to St. Peter’s and she was buried there.
In 1928, Johnny Richardson himself passed away, aged 71,after suffering failing health for a number of years. He too was buried in the same churchyard, just four plots to the right of the front gate, still close after two lifetimes. Two cousins. Two friends. Through life.
The plaque to Percy French was raised on 9th November 2021. The funding for this Plaque came through Formby Parish Council with the Civic Society providing the cost of having it fixed to the wall at the property.
We work with people of all ages across the community and are always open to fresh ideas and imaginative projects in order to preserve our culture and our heritage whilst also recording it both digitally and in print forms for the benefit of our community members in the future. We continue to seek ways of making local people more aware of the information we hold and ways of developing our bank of information in text to add to and support these images.