Mr Will Hay, the comedian, died at his home in London
yesterday at the age of 60. He had been ill for long time, but recently
had appeared to be recovering. William Thomson Hay was born on December
6, 1888, the son of the late W. R. Hay of Aberdeen. He was originally apprenticed
as an engineer, but in 1909 went on the stage.It was not till after the
war of 1914 -18 that he amused millions of people in his role of a a comic
schoolmaster, with an incongruous band of scholars of all ages, in such
sketches as " The Fourth Form at St Michael's." With these he toured the
United States, South Africa, and other parts of the world at various times
during the twenties. He was also very successful on the wireless not only
as a comedian but also as a frequent member of the Brains Trust--for he
was happier than most comedians in that he was sometimes allowed to be
serious. This was particularly so in connection with astronomy, to the
study of which he had been devoted since boyhood. As an amateur astronomer
he achieved a considerable reputation and on August 8, 1933, his discovery
of a big white spot on Saturn attracted wide attention. He was also much
interested in flying and was one of the first private aeroplane owners
in this country. In 1942 he became a sub-lieutenant, R.N.V.R., Special
Branch, as an instructor in astronomy and navigation to the Sea Cadet Corps.
He married in 1907 Miss Gladys Perkins and had one son (who has followed
him on the music hall stage) and two daughters. In his music hall work
Hay remained faithful to his role of " The Schoolmaster Comedian." The
mortar-board set at a rakish angle on the head, the tattered gown, the
glasses sliding down an alcoholic nose, and the general air of shabby and
defiant gentility -- here were the trappings of the headmaster of St. Michael's
and a rich vein of comic and peculiarly English characterization The pedagogue
was never more typically himself than at the moment his essential ignorance
was about to be exposed, but there was a saving pugnacity about the man,
and fortune, relenting at the last moment, would save his face and launch
him into yet further adventures which would try to the utmost that mixture
of blustering effrontery and threadbare incapacity of which his character
was composed. On the screen he was also sometimes the school master, but
acted also other characters, such as the captain of a woefully incompetent
The Daily Telegraph.
Will Hay whose full name was William Thomson Hay died at Chelsea at the age of 60. He amused millions of people in his role of a slightly bewildered schoolmaster with a tilted mortarboard, and pincenez perched precariously on his nose. His music-hall sketches of public school life, particularly " College of St.Michael's" and "Narkover College."were repeated in numerous films and radio performances He was a native of Aberdeen and gave up engineering to join a Derbyshire concert party, and later a minstrel troupe in the Isle of Man. He appeared in several Royal Command performances. He was an enthusiastic astronomer and was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a member of the British Astronomy Association. He was also interested in flying and piloted his own aircraft for three or four years. In 1946 he was one of the many well-known actors who appeared in a special performance of "1066--and All That " that was sponsored by The Daily Telegraph. A few weeks later he had a serious illness from which he never fully recovered.
WILL HAY died so suddenly at his Chelsea flat that friends with whom he had a luncheon date at the Savoy waited for an hour and then went in by themselves, disconsolately, thinking the comedian had forgotten. It was mid-afternoon when Jack Train gave them the news. Will Hay, most-loved comic of the theatre, had been a sick man for years.
In 1947 his doctor told him that only six months in South Africa would give him a chance of recovery. Yet it took a story in the Daily Express (followed by hundreds of letters, telephone calls and personal visits offering berths) to persuade the shipping people to change their minds and give him a priority passage. Six months of South African air, sunshine and food revived him and gave him another two years of life. He was 60.
Will Hay was a 25s-a-week clerk in Manchester before he started on the halls at 21 as a juggler. He became a comedian after he had seen W.C.Fields juggle, and he never looked round till he was a £600-a-weeker. Then he went into films and radio and made a fortune out of the bumbling, fumbling schoolmaster he had created on the halls. His only straight stage show was a flop.
But up to 1947, when a stroke affected his speech and one arm and leg, he was one of the most popular comedians in the country. He made ten films in four years, films like "Boys Will Be Boys," "Good Morning Boys," "Where There's A Will," "Oh,Mr Porter!". He was one of the few vaudeville men to make good in films. He brought Beachcomber's Dr.Smart Allick to life on the screen. However fascinating he was in his films and his St.Michael's public school burlesque on the halls, Will Hay was equally fascinating away from it all. His native wit was ready and sharp. He walked into a West End restaurant one night and saw a number of his friends celebrating with girls who were not their wives. He joined them for a moment and, in a lull, called to the band-leader "Play 'Come All Ye Faithful.'"
His great, serious hobby was astronomy- he has a place in history for his discovery of a spot on Saturn- but he was intensely serious about his sailing. He kept a launch on Oslo fiord in Norway. His lifelong friend and adviser, Jack Harding used to do an impersonation of Will at the wheel "as if he was in charge of the Queen Mary," bawling orders to the crew, who was his non-nautical chauffeur. Will Hay had boxed in Canada and America. He worked incessantly for the younger and needier members of his profession. He addressed M.P.s at the House on music-hall matters.
He took a commission in the R.N.V.R. so that he could lecture cadets (who always wanted a turn and not a lecture) and was proud of his 1939-43 Star. He wrote a book on astronomy. He even walked out on the B.B.C.-and the B.B.C. apologised. He held a pilot's certificate and flew his own aircraft.
Among the small-time players... (from 23/04/49)
Will Hay, top-of-the bill comedian for a quarter of a century was buried yesterday close to 200 music-hall artists. In a corner of Streatham Park cemetery there is a memorial to these players - men and women of the lesser principal halls for whom top billing was always just around the corner. Some of them played a week on the same bill as "The Head of St.Michael's." To a grave beside theirs Will Hay's flower covered coffin was borne, attended by stars of today and yesterday. There were Georgie Wood and Jack Train, Dave O'Toole, Ted Ray, Jack Hylton, George Jackley and Albert Whelan, Nat Mills, Fred Russell, Chesney Allen and Reginald Purdell. With Mrs Gladys Hay, the widow, were her daughter Gladys ("Ignorance is Bliss") Hay and her son Will Hay junior. The other side of Will Hay's life - he was a serious and noted astronomer - was not forgotten. At the graveside was Dr. W.H. Steavenson, an old friend, representing the Royal Astronomical Society.
Photo courtesy of Ashley Jones