Will Hay

William Thomson "Will" Hay (6 December 1888 – 18 April 1949) was an English comedian, who first became well known for his theatrical sketch as a joke-schoolmaster, which he took on world tours. He moved on to films, some of them continuing the schoolmaster theme, in which he also featured as a writer and director. In The Goose Steps Out (1942), his brand of humour was adapted for war propaganda. Hay was also a keen amateur astronomer, who built his own observatory..

Early life

Hay was born William Thomson Hay at 23 Durham Street in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, England, to William Robert Hay (1851–1920) and his wife Elizabeth (1859-1910) (née Ebden) who married on 31 May 1883. Hay had one brother, Harold Gordon and three sisters, Evelyn Jane, Lizzie and Annie. When Hay was less than a year old the family moved to Suffolk.[1][2]

Stage and film career

Hay joined a firm of engineers, before becoming an actor at age 21. He appeared in Manchester as a juggler after seeing W.C. Fields perform. Hay had a brief screen career; by the time he made his first film he was in his mid-40s. Between 1934 and 1943 he was a popular comedy actor and was credited in several films as a writer.

Prior to Hay's career in film he was popular in the 1920s, with his famous "The fourth form at St Michaels" sketches, because of his famous Schoolmaster gimmick he toured in various countries all over the world, including South Africa, Canada and the USA.

Having returned to England, Hay worked at Elstree Studios, Gainsborough Pictures, and Ealing Studios; his time spent at Gainsborough was his most successful period where he worked with Marcel Varnel, Val Guest, Marriott Edgar, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt. Hay decided to break up the partnership with Moffatt and Marriott and established a successful working relationship with Claude Hulbert, who played his side-kick in The Ghost of St Michael's (1941). The Goose Steps Out (1942) for Ealing was an effective piece of anti-Nazi slapstick. The following year he appeared in the black comedy My Learned Friend (1943) with Hulbert, which was his final film.

Radio career

The half-hour weekly Will Hay Programme began in August 1944, and was broadcast live from the BBC Paris Theatre on lower Regent Street. The series lasted for four months, and was prematurely cancelled, owing to a dispute with the BBC over scripting. The show later transferred to the Victoria Palace in London. The cast later reformed on 4 May 1945 for the Royal Family and many military notables at a private function at the Life Guards barracks in Windsor.

Private life

Aside from his day job as a comedian, Hay was a dedicated and respected amateur astronomer. He constructed a personal observatory in his garden in Mill Hill and built a glider in 1909.[3] He became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1932 and is noted for having discovered a Great White Spot on the planet Saturn in 1933.[4] The spot lasted for a few months and then faded away. He also measured the positions of comets with a micrometer he built himself, and designed and built a blink comparator. He wrote the book Through My Telescope in 1935, which had a foreword by Sir Richard Gregory, formerly Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Queen's College, London. When Hay died, a few items of his equipment were bequeathed to the British Astronomical Association.

He married Gladys Perkins (1889–1982) in 1907,[5] whom he had known since he was 15,[6] but legally separated on 18 November 1935. They had two daughters and a son: Gladys Elspeth Hay (b. 12 February 1909),[7] William E. Hay (b. 1913),[8] and Joan A. Hay (1917–1975).[9]

In 1947, Hay suffered a stroke which left him physically disabled. He died at his flat in Chelsea, London after a further stroke in 1949 and is buried in Streatham Park Cemetery, London SW16.[10]


Box office ranking

For a number of years, British film exhibitors voted him among the top ten British stars at the box office via an annual poll in the Motion Picture Herald.

See also


  1. 1891 UK census: RG12/1494 f.56 p.47 & p.48 – 192 Clapham Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk
  2. GRO Register of Births: MAR 1889 10a 49 STOCKTON – William Thomson Hay
  3. "=Music Hall Guild". Retrieved 16 July 2012.
  4. MNRAS 94 (1933) 85
  5. GRO Register of Marriages: DEC 1907 8d 287 SALFORD – William Thomson Hay = Gladys Perkins
  6. Hockey, Thomas (2009). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer Publishing. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0. Retrieved 22 August 2012.
  7. GRO Register of Births: MAR 1909 8d 83 – Gladys Elspeth Hay
  8. GRO Register of Births: SEP 1913 8d 120 SALFORD – William E. Hay
  9. GRO Register of Births: SEP 1917 8d 64 SALFORD – Joan A. Hay
  10. GRO Register of Deaths: JUN 1949 5c 251 CHELSEA – William T. Hay, aged 60
  11. "PICTURES and PERSONALITIES.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954). Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 10 April 1937. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  12. "FORMBY IS POPULAR ACTOR.". The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954). Hobart, Tas.: National Library of Australia. 25 February 1939. p. 5. Retrieved 27 April 2012.

Further reading

Other References

External links

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