Born in Wigan, Lancashire, he was the son of George Formby Sr, from whom he later took his stage name. After an early career as a stable boy and jockey, Formby took to the music hall stage after the early death of his father in 1921. His early performances were taken exclusively from his father's act, including the same songs, jokes and characters. In 1923 he made two career-changing decisions – he purchased a ukulele, and married Beryl Ingham, a fellow performer who became his manager and transformed his act. She insisted that he appear on stage formally dressed, and introduced the ukulele to his performance. He started his recording career in 1926 and, from 1934, he increasingly worked in film to develop into a major star by the late 1930s and 1940s, and became the UK's most popular entertainer during those decades. The media historian Brian McFarlane writes that on film, Formby portrayed gormless Lancastrian innocents who would win through against some form of villainy, gaining the affection of an attractive middle-class girl in the process.
During the Second World War Formby worked extensively for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), and entertained civilians and troops, and by 1946 it was estimated that he had performed in front of three million service personnel. After the war his career declined, although he toured the Commonwealth, and continued to appear in variety and pantomime. His last television appearance was in December 1960, two weeks before the death of Beryl. He surprised people by announcing his engagement to a school teacher seven weeks after Beryl's funeral, but died in Preston three weeks later, at the age of 56; he was buried in Warrington, alongside his father.
Formby's biographer, Jeffrey Richards, considers that the actor "had been able to embody simultaneously Lancashire, the working classes, the people, and the nation". Formby was considered Britain's first properly home-grown screen comedian. He was an influence on future comedians—particularly Charlie Drake and Norman Wisdom—and, culturally, on entertainers such as the Beatles, who referred to him in their music. Since his death Formby has been the subject of five biographies, two television specials and two works of public sculpture.
George Formby was born George Hoy Booth at 3 Westminster Street, Wigan, Lancashire, on 26 May 1904. He was the eldest of seven surviving children born to James Lawler Booth and his wife Eliza, née Hoy, although this marriage was bigamous because Formby Sr was still married to his first wife, Martha Maria Salter, a twenty-year-old music hall performer. Booth was a successful music hall comedian and singer who performed under the name George Formby (he is now known as George Formby Sr). Formby Sr suffered from a chest ailment, identified variously as bronchitis, asthma or tuberculosis, and would use the cough as part of the humour in his act, saying to the audience, "Bronchitis, I'm a bit tight tonight", or "coughing better tonight". One of his main characters was that of John Willie, an "archetypal Lancashire lad". In 1906 Formby Sr was earning £35 a week at the music halls, which rose to £325 a week by 1920, and Formby grew up in an affluent home. Formby Sr was so popular that Marie Lloyd, the influential music hall singer and actress, would only watch two acts: his and that of Dan Leno.
Formby was born blind owing to an obstructive caul, although his sight was restored during a violent coughing fit or sneeze when he was a few months old. After briefly attending school—at which he did not prosper, and did not learn to read or write—Formby was removed from formal education at the age of seven and sent to become a stable boy, briefly in Wiltshire and then in Middleham, Yorkshire. Formby Sr sent his son away to work as he was worried Formby would watch him on stage; he was against Formby following in his footsteps, saying "one fool in the family is enough". After a year working at Middleham, he was apprenticed to Thomas Scourfield at Epsom, where he ran his first professional races at the age of 10, when he weighed less than 4 stone (56 lb; 25 kg).