York Civic Trust plaques

Frankie Howerd (1917-1992),


Plaque at 53 Hartoft Street, York YO10 4BN

TO those of a certain generation, Frankie Howerd's face - rumpled, jowly and impish - is instantly recognisable. He was a huge star of radio, TV and film thanks to his unforgettable performances in shows such as Up Pompeii and films like The Lady Killers and Carry On Doctor.

Few people, however, know that this star of radio, film and television came from fairly humble origins in a modest terraced street in York.

Howerd was born Francis Alick Howard in York on March 6, 1917. His father, also Francis, was a soldier and his mother, Edith, worked at Rowntrees. For his first two and a half years, Frankie lived in a terraced house, 53 Hartoft Street, in what he described as ‘a poorish area of the city near the River Ouse’. He later said he had only one memory of living in York: that of falling down the stairs, an experience which left him with a life-long dread of heights.

His father was posted to Woolwich and the family settled in Eltham, Greenwich. The young Frankie attended church, became a Sunday school teacher at 13, joined the Church Dramatic Society and decided he wanted to become an actor. Always nervous and shy and with a stutter, he nevertheless took part in school plays and eventually auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Overcome with nerves, he failed, and decided that his future lay in comedy instead. He took a series of clerical jobs to earn a living, while also appearing in local concert parties.

In 1940, Frankie was called up to serve in the Royal Artillery. He was spotted by Major Richard Stone, who found him a position entertaining the troops. He changed the spelling of his surname thinking that Howerd would catch the eye as a possible misspelling.

After he was demobbed in 1946, Howerd was spotted by theatrical agent Stanley ‘Scruffy’ Dale and put under contract. He auditioned for BBC radio's Variety Bandbox, making his first broadcast on the show on 3 December 1946. He quickly became one of the most popular entertainers in the country.

Howerd was untidy in appearance and his long sagging face with unkempt eyebrows, mournful eyes and pouting lips was sometimes likened to a bloodhound. He adopted an 'over-the-garden-wall gossip' style of performance - a constant banter addressed to the audience, full of risqué double entendres and catchphrases such as ‘titter ye not, missus’.

Howerd died in hospital of heart failure on 19 April 1992, still working on a series of one-man shows for Central Television, and was buried near his Somerset home.

It was not until after he died that the public became aware he was gay. His partner for 35 years was Dennis Heymer (1929–2009), a waiter who later became Frankie’s manager.

To read the story behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk