Historically a part of Lancashire, three manors are recorded in the Domesday book under "Fornebei" as Halsall, Walton and Poynton. The town's early recorded industry points to cockle raking, and shrimp fishing (in addition to arable ventures) last through into the 19th century. By 1872 the township and sub-district as of 1872 was made up of two chapelries (St. Peter and St. Luke), and contained Birkdale township, the hamlets of Ainsdale and Raven-Meols and Altcar parish. Formby was built on the plain adjoining the Irish Sea coast a few miles north of the Crosby channel where the sands afford shelter to the towns.
The greater area is a popular tourist destination during the summer months, with day trippers attracted to its beaches, sand dunes and wildlife - most particularly the red squirrels. and Natterjack toads. The area is a conserved by the National Trust, and designated a site of Specific Scientific Interest.
Erosion of sand on the beach at Formby is revealing layers of mud and sediment, laid down and covered in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age, approximately 3,500 - 4,000 years ago. These sediments often contain the footprints of humans and animals (most commonly aurochs) from that period.
The common place-name ending -by is from the Scandinavian byr meaning "homestead", "settlement" or "village". The village of Formby was originally spelt Fornebei and means "village belonging to Forni". At that time Fornibiyum was a well-known Norse family name. He could have been the leader of the invading expedition which took possession of this coast. Until its closure in 1998, Oslo Airport in Norway was situated in a town called Fornebu.
It was from Ireland in about 960 AD that these Norsemen or Vikings first came to the west coast of Lancashire, first trading or raiding and then settling. Tradition says that the Viking invaders failed to defeat the native Anglo-Saxons on the coast of Formby, so they sailed inland, up the River Alt, and attacked from the rear. Dangus Lane, on the east side of the village, is sometimes called Danesgate Land, being connected by local traditions with this incursion.
Formby Beach is the location of the first lifeboat station in the UK. Established as early as 1776 by William Hutchinson, Dock Master for the Liverpool Common Council. It was the first lifeboat station in the United Kingdom, and possibly the world. One night, two years previous, eighteen ships were stranded at the mouth of the Mersey drowning 75 people. The foundations of the last of the lifeboat station buildings remain on the beach. The last launch took place in 1916. Remarkably a film survives of this event.
Formby is home to RAF Woodvale, a small RAF station on the outskirts of the town. The airfield opened in 1941 and is a ex World War II fighter station with three active runways, the main runway being a mile in length. Today it is used by RAF for light aircraft and fighter training, as well as a few civilian aircraft. The station was also home to Merseyside Police's helicopter, known as 'Mike One'. The RAF station was also home to the last ever operational service of the British legend, the Spitfire. In 1957 the last Spitfire was to fly with military markings in British took off from RAF Woodvale on an operational mission. Woodvale is also home to the Woodvale Rally, one of the biggest shows on an active MOD station in the North West.
Holy Trinity Church is believed to be the only church in the country which holds a special service in which seasonal greenery collected by the menfolk of the parish and then twined into wreaths by the ladies is lifted into place as part of a service of worship in the run-up to Christmas.