Beachcomber (J B Morton): Born In Tooting

Picture of Beachcomber from National Portrait Gallery
J B Morton (“Beachcomber”), born in Tooting 1893 (Photo licensed from National Portrait Gallery)

“Beachcomber” was a long-running 20th Century newspaper columnist born in Tooting. Local resident Jesse Honey has written for us about his life and achievements.

John Cameron Andrieu Bingham Michael Morton, better known as J B Morton, and even better known by his pen-name of Beachcomber, was born at Park Lodge, Mitcham Road, Tooting on 7th June 1893. The house where he was born, now demolished, was on the site of what is now the Morley’s store on the corner of Franciscan Road.

The son of a journalist and drama critic, it must be admitted that Morton didn’t stay long in Tooting. Though his father appears at Park Lodge in the 1891 Census, two years before J B’s birth, the family are no longer Tooting residents by 1901 and seem never to have returned. The young John attended prep school in Bromley and then went on to Harrow, which he hated and later satirised as ‘Narkover’. He fought in World War I, gradually drifting into journalism afterwards. Ironically, he neither invented the name Beachcomber, nor was he the first to use it. Rather, he took over the eponymous column in the Daily Express from a colleague in 1924; the reason it is now Morton who is remembered as Beachcomber is because he wrote under the name for another 51 years, only being dropped in 1975.

Why was Beachcomber so important and why does he deserve to be remembered? It’s because his column was pioneering in terms of comedy and satire. He was among the first to employ genuinely surreal humour, long before the Goons and Monty Python. Spike Milligan named Morton as one of his heroes. He also influenced Raymond Briggs, author of Fungus the Bogeyman and The Snowman, who chose Morton’s complete works as his Desert Island Discs book. Evelyn Waugh, no mean humourist himself, described Morton as having ‘the greatest comic fertility of any Englishman’.

Beachcomber’s satire was ground-breaking and daring. He was the first columnist to poke fun at the very paper he was writing in (though this would be easy today, the Express was at the time a far more serious paper). Morton’s taste for parodying press pomposity was a major inspiration for Richard Ingrams when he helped set up Private Eye, showing you can trace a direct link between Beachcomber and humour of the present day.

Among the recurring characters he invented in his column were Mister Justice Cocklecarrot, Captain Foulenough and Doctor Jan van Strabismus of Utrecht. Famed in Fleet Street as a practical joker, Morton used to speak loudly into pillar boxes, pretending a friend was trapped inside- once a concerned crowd had gathered, he quietly slipped away. He was also known for laughing uproariously and dancing after finishing each paragraph he wrote, explaining this behaviour to startled colleagues by asking ‘if I don’t find it funny, who will’?

After marrying Mary O’Leary, an Irish doctor, in 1927, he moved out of London and, after the Second World War, settled in Worthing, from where he continued to post his column into London. He died in a nursing home there in 1979 and is buried at Windlesham in Surrey.

Tooting…Out Of This World

Picture of Tooting Crater on March
Tooting Crater, Mars (Photo: Dr Peter Mouginis-Mark)

Janet Smith (Vice-Chair, Tooting History Group) has written for us about how Tooting has been put on the map again…on Mars.

Yes, it really is!  Tooting is not only in south London, but also on Mars!

This is entirely thanks to Dr Peter Mouginis-Mark, who grew up in Tooting in the Fifties and Sixties and is now Professor of Geology at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

His special interest is the geology of the Red Planet and because of his analytical work on a new meteorite crater, he was invited to give it a name. All suggestions have to go before the International Astronomical Union and they gave the thumbs up to naming the crater after Peter’s home town.

Map of part of Mars Surface showing Tooting Crater
Map of Mars Surface Showing Tooting Crater (Photo: Dr Peter Mouginis-Mark)

Tooting Crater is about 28 km in diameter and is located to the west of the Olympus Mons volcano – thought to be the largest volcano on Mars. Peter estimates it was formed 3-5 million years ago making it one of the planet’s newest craters.

Picture of Dr Peter Mouginis Mark At Tooting Bec Station
Dr Peter Mouginis-Mark on a trip to Tooting (July 2006)

Many thanks to Peter’s brother David for alerting us to this wonderful story!

You can find out more about Tooting Crater here.

Locally Listed In Tooting: Our June Meeting

Poster For June 2019 meeting "Locally Listed In Tooting"
Poster For June 2019 THG Meeting

What are the buildings, objects, features that make Tooting important to you? What does being “locally listed” mean? What do you want to protect and improve in Tooting? Come to our June meeting and find out about local listing and Tooting History Group’s role in drawing it up.

The meeting is at our usual venue – The United Reformed Church in Rookstone Road – details here

Tooting Common Story Book Launched

The newly published “Common Story” history of Tooting Commons was successfully launched on Saturday 25th May. Over 80 people crammed into the Pavillion building at Tooting Bec lido to hear presentations about the book and buy copies.

The book is the result of a four year Heritage Lottery funded project which has involved volunteer researchers, a professional historian, Enable and Wandsworth Council, together with other local history groups.

The Common Story is available in hard copy for £10 from The Tooting History Group. Alternatively, you can download a pdf copy (7 mb) by clicking the link below.

Philip Bradley, Chair of Tooting History Group said “We’re very pleased to have been able to contribute to the Common Story History Of Tooting Common. Tooting Graveney and Tooting Bec Commons are highly valued green spaces for local people. We hope that the research undertaken by THG members will add to everyone’s enjoyment of Tooting Common and give them a greater understanding of how it has become the much-loved open space it is today.”

Tooting History Group Members Get A Free Copy Of The Common Story

Pioneering Tooting – The Totterdown Estate Walk: Wednesday 29th May 2019

Totterdown Estate Opening (Copyright London Metropolitan Archives)

Have you ever wondered where the first public housing in Tooting was built? Do you know why The Totterdown Estate has been designated a Conservation Area? As part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, Tooting History Group has organised a walk around the Totterdown Estate. The walk will be led by local historian and Tooting History Group member Janet Smith.


The building of the LCC’s first ‘village estate’ in the early years of the 20th century marked the start of a new era in social housing.
• Meet at Edward VII statue, Tooting Broadway tube station
• £5 for non-Tooting History Group members
• No booking required

Tooting Common History Book Launch Opens Wandsworth Heritage Festival

Poster Advertising TCHP Book Launch
Poster Advertising TCHP Book Launch May 2019

Over the last three years, volunteers from Tooting History Group together with Enable and Wandsworth Council have been researching a history of Tooting Common in a Heritage Lottery funded project. The research included the coming of the railways to the common, the refreshment cafe, the Commons during the Second World War and how the commons came into public ownership. The research has been edited together into a book by historian Katy Layton-Jones and will be launched at the opening event of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.

Philip Bradley, Chair of Tooting History Group said “We’re very pleased to have been able to contribute to the Common Story History Of Tooting Common. Tooting Graveney and Tooting Bec Commons are highly valued green spaces for local people. We hope that the research undertaken by THG members will add to everyone’s enjoyment of Tooting Common and give them a greater understanding of how it has become the much-loved open space it is today.”

The free launch event is taking place in the Tooting Bec Lido Pavilion on Saturday 25th May at 2pm. Entrance is from the Lido Car Park.

Copies of the book will be available for sale or free to Tooting History Group members.

For more details of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival and the programme of events, see here.

Stars of The Music Hall-May 2019 Monthly Meeting

Tooting has connections with several figures from the Victorian and Edwardian music hall. For our May monthly meeting, you can here about these stars and what their connections were. We are also promised some recordings for your delectation and delight! Peter Charlton from The British Music hall Society will be addressing us.

We meet at 7.30 on Tuesday 14th May in The United Reform Church, Rookstone Road, Tooting – details here

Poster for May 2019 THG Monthly Meeting
Stars of The Music Hall-May 2019 Monthly Meeting