Max was born on 16 October 1922 in Swan Lane Buildings in Rotherhithe Street, which goes round the Rotherhithe peninsula and then surrounded the Surrey Commercial Docks by the Thames in south east London; he weighed a hefty 9 lbs 6 ozs. He was the second son of Henry and Lily Bygraves, and was named Walter William Bygraves. His elder bother Henry (or more typically, Harry) was 18 months older than Max, while his four younger sisters were called Lily, Patricia, Kathleen and Maureen. Max's father was a professional boxer (a 5ft 4 in flyweight known as Battling Tom Smith) and a casual dockworker who married his mother in 1919 when he was 23 and she was 18.
Max went to St. Joseph's School in Paradise Street. At age 10 he got a job as a milkman's assistant, delivering before school and collecting empty bottles at lunchtime, earning 2 shillings a week. He also started an evening paper round and sometimes picking up a little for singing songs and doing impersonations at parties; a popular request was Melancholy Baby. He was picked for the school choir and entered by his music teacher, Miss Murray, for a special concert in Westminster Cathedral, where they won, with Max singing Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring. He left school at 14 years old, hoping to get a job working in the docks.
The Labour Exchange sent him to the Savoy Hotel as a pageboy, where he was immediately rejected as being too tall. The next attempt was more successful, and he became a messenger and runner for W. S. Crawford, an advertising agency in High Holburn. This gave him to opportunity to go to the theatre (usually the cheapest seats at the Holburn Empire). He also learnt to be a shoe repairer and took evening classes in woodwork and sung at neighbours' parties. At 15 he had his first kiss with a girl called Annie Johnson.
At the start of World War II, Max's brother Harry enlisted in the Royal Engineers, though after being at Dunkirk he moved to the RAF by re-using Max's papers and name of Walter. The advertising industry collapsed and Max moved into the building trade, and joined a concert party set up by a carpenter called Albert. Rotherhithe was blitzed by German bombers, creating plenty of work for Max's skills - once while repairing the damage of a night raid, he was within 100 yards of a daytime bomb explosion. This motivated him to volunteer (being too young to be called up) and he joined the Royal Air Force as Aircraftman Second Class number 1212094 (when his brother later joined the RAF this meant two Walter Bygraves born on the same day, though with different numbers). On Max's first night , he demonstrated his skills at RAF Cardington as an entertainer by impersonating Max Miller, and was given the nickname Max, which he has used ever since.
He regularly saw a WAAF sergeant (Blossom Murray) bicycle past the camp, eventually asked her for a date, was smitten and married her on 12 September 1942. Max was being posted round Britain, and increasingly being to perform at larger and larger concerts. On 3 May 1943 their daughter Christine was born.
At the end of the war, Max went back to being a carpenter while taking every opportunity to perform in the evenings, and the new family rented rooms in Plumstead Common in London. They considered emigrating to Australia for £10, but the BBC invited Max to join an ex-servicemen's show called They're Out with other later stars such as Frankie Howerd, Benny Hill, Jimmy Edwards, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan. One of the radio listeners was the bandleader and impresario Jack Payne who signed Max up. Goodbye Australia for a time, goodbye building forever. After the tour, the family took rooms in Woolwich, and their son Anthony was born on 22 February 1947. He was later to perform in many of Max's shows.
Max was then signed up by another impresario, Jock Jacobson, and his career began to rise. By May 1951 he performed at the London Palladium, had done small parts in some films as well as being on the radio. He met Eric Sykes who then started writing scripts for Max, and this also led to Max being signed to be the tutor in the BBC radio show Educating Archie where Archie was a ventriloquist's dummy. This made Max a celebrity, and he made his first appearance in the Royal Variety Show. He continued to do theatre work, but also started to make records; his first was The Cowpuncher's Cantata. The increased income meant the family could now buy a house of their own in Barnet, where their second daughter Maxine was born. At the Palladium, Max brought him in contact with some of the giants of the commercial stage, including July Garland, who invited him to support her for a season in New York. While there, his pay rocketed and he was saving 80% of it.
From then on Max had it made. He topped the bill at the Paladium; he bought a Rolls-Royce with the number plate MB 1; he stared in films such as Charlie Moon; he produced a series of major hit records including ten under the title Singalongamax; he toured the English speaking world; his catchphrase "I wanna tell you a story" was mimicked across Britain; he was awarded the OBE; and he even made it eventually to Australia where in the 1990s he bought 84 acre property in northern New South Wales called Attunga Park where he would spend the British winter. A poor Rotherhithe tearaway, turned into a happy millionaire.
Blossom died in 2011.
Max died on 31 August 2012.
This page has been written as part of the web pages on Rotherhithe, and to rectify the lack of a decent biography of Max Bygraves on the web. The details are selected from the first quarter of the book Max Bygraves in his own words © 1997 Max Bygraves, published by The Breedon Books Publishing Company, Derby, and written in collaboration with Bernard Bale. The copy in Rotherhithe Library was signed by Max Bygraves himself. The remainder of the book is a personal diary from 1996 and 1997, and some reflections on other stars, on showbusiness and on life.
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