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George Robey playing in a match in 1921 when he was 52
At the start of the twentieth century, football was still in its infancy and tended to be followed by supporters who were based in the locality. Few celebrities or famous people of the time would not really be associated with what was seen as a working class sport.
One exception was George Robey, the Music Hall comedian whose sporting prowess led to him playing on the Isle of Dogs for Millwall Football Club. What was extraordinary was that he fitted in playing as well as appearing on the stage.
Robey was born in Kennington, London in 1869. His father was a civil engineer who spent much of his career on designing tramlines. In 1880 the family moved to Germany and Robey attended a school in Dresden.
At the age of 18, his intention to following his father’s profession was ditched as he became interested in a career on the stage. Gradually his career on the stage developed especially in Pantomime, where his comedy was popular with the audiences and the critics. He also developed a character known as the ‘Prime Minister of Mirth’.
Robey believed in a healthy lifestyle and was a keen amateur sportsman, he had played as an amateur against Chelsea and Fulham football clubs. He also organised and played in many charity football matches all over England. One of the charity matches in 1907 was for Chelsea’s Scottish football trainer James Miller, who had died the previous year. The match raised considerable proceeds for Miller’s widow and Robey began to make jokes about Chelsea which he became famous for over the years. He did not just play for teams in London, as he toured around the provinces he would often ask to play for a local team. In this way he played matches for Glasgow Rangers and Aston Villa.
In 1903 Robey was playing at a semi-professional level when he was signed as an inside forward by Millwall Football Club and allegedly scored many goals for them.
Just how many times he played for Millwall is difficult to ascertain due to the fact that serious matches were hard to distinguish from the charity matches. Often when organising these charity matches he would ask some of the Millwall players to participate. The period that he did play for them was before the Millwall football club decided to move from the Isle of Dogs to South London in 1910.
His memories of these matches indicated that although people thought he was a strong player, he wasn’t always taken seriously, often the crowd would shout out his catchphrases and start to laugh. In one particular incident he was knocked out cold and woke up to find hundreds of people smiling at him, thinking he was pretending and the incident was part of some comedy routine.
Robey also became associated with cricket and eventually became involved the MCC and played in a number of minor matches.
Just before the First World War, the comedian became a favourite of the Royal Family and was hired for several private Royal functions. In the First World War itself , Robey worked as a Special Constable and raised money for charity through his performances as a comedian.
After the war, Music Hall had fallen out of favour with audiences and Robey began to appear in Variety shows and Revues. One of his most famous revues was ‘The Bing Boys Are Here’ where he sang the song “If You Were the Only Girl (In the World) ” with Violet Loraine.
In the 1930s, he was successful in a series of Shakespeare roles and made his radio debut in 1936 and his television debut in August 1938. In the Second World War he would perform at hospitals, munition factories, airfields, anti-aircraft posts and troop concerts.
In the 1950s, he was in his 80s and came back to East London to opened the Lansbury Lodge home in Poplar. In 1954, he was knighted for his contribution to show business and his charity work. It was estimated he raised 2 million pounds for charities throughout his career. In late 1954, he suffered a stroke and died but was feted as one of Britain’s greatest comedians.
Although largely forgotten today, George Robey was one of those extraordinary figures that seemed to excel in almost everything he did. From playing football in muddy Millwall field to making people laugh in the local Music Hall, quite often on the same day. There is little doubt that even in the 21st century, the ‘Prime Minster of Mirth’ deserves greater recognition for all his numerous achievements.