George Robey wrote in his autobiography 'Looking Back on Life':
‘I was sent to Cambridge till some of my father's speculations went wrong, and I
had to face the facts of life and carve out a career for myself.'
He was born George Edward Wade on 20 September 1869. Unlike many of his contemporaries
on the boards George Robey's upbringing was solidly middle-class. His father, also
George was a civil engineer whose profession involved much overseas travel, and as
a result he first studied at the University of Leipzig where he learned to speak
excellent German and get involved in a duel which fortunately did not prove fatal.
On their return to England it was his fathers intention to send him to Cambridge
but this was not to be and Robey found a clerical post with the constructors of the
Birmingham tramway. In order to appease his family he took his stage name from a
firm of Birmingham builders - at first Roby. He later formally adopted the name Robey
by deed poll.He already had many interests in the theatre, in music and song but
once on stage discovered his natural talent for comedy. He was soon earning small
fees but his big break came as an assistant to 'Professor' Kennedy, a stage hypnotist.
The 'Professor' was a popular act at the Royal Aquarium which by then had discarded
its association with fish. Robey pretended to be hypnotised and sang as one 'under
the influence'. He began to attract attention in his own right and was booked to
play the Oxford music hall in June 1891, still only 21.
He was soon promoted from 'an extra' to star billing and adopted his own stage persona.
In common with his contemporaries the red-nose was de riguer; but Robey added strongly
blackened eyebrows and black frock coat and top hat, later discarded for a squashed
bowler. Although he could have been mistaken for a funeral director George Robey
dispensed not grief but laughter.
'Kindly temper your hilarity with a modicum of reserve', he begged his audiences;
and as the laughter continued urged them to 'Desist !!'
From the moment he appeared on stage he had the audience in his grip, demanding that
they stop laughing in a manner still echoed in such comedians as Frankie Howerd and
Tony Hancock. Not for nothing was he later billed as the 'Prime Minister of Mirth'.
He had many stage costumes to counter the grimness of the funeral parlour; his pantomime
dame was a particular favourite - 'bonnetted and bridling, at once grotesque and
genial, creating out of a termagants tantrums a fountain of geniality'.