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.

The Anglo-Boer War Memorial In St. Nicholas Church, Tooting

The latest edition of The Wandsworth Historian has an excellent article by Neil Robson about the Boer War memorial which you can find in St. Nicholas Church, Tooting. The memorial records the names of thirteen soldiers from Tooting who died in the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. Neil has traced the origins of the memorial, the events surrounding it’s unveiling on 23rd August 1903 and details of the 13 men commemorated on the memorial.

The article is not available online but you can find details of how to join The Wandsworth Historical Society and get a copy of the Wandsworth Historian here. Neil Robson spoke at our November 2017 meeting about Ted Foster ,VC. You can see his talk on You Tube here.

“Early Tooting Bec And Its Reputed Priory”

Graham Gower spoke at our AGM earlier this week about The Manor House Of Tooting.  He has previously published an article in The London Archaeologist about “Early Tooting Bec And Its Reputed Priory”.  You can read the article from 2012 online by clicking here , together with some photos.

Tooting Graveney 1826

Extract from: “Summary of The Poor Rate Minute-Book For 1825-1834”

1826 Resolved “that four men in the poor-house be appointed to perambulate the roads from half-past eight o’clock in the morning to sunset, to prevent all gambling, remove all vagrants, and to sweep the following crossings daily when necessary, to take the duty alternately two by two per week according to the following regulations: The man who takes the south end of the parish, the crossing opposite Mr. Proctor’s, Wm. Strachan’s, the ‘Rising Sun’, Mr Clark’s, Mr Durst’s, and Mr Lord’s; the other man opposite Mr Stevenson’s, Mr C Chapman’s, Mr Winder’s to the Merton Road, Garratt Lane and any other places where necessary.” The following persons were directed to perform the duty: Thos Gunter, Robt Elmore, Edmd Best, Wm Tyrell.  “Church Lane as far as the church to be swept every Saturday afternoon.”

Source: “The History of Tooting Graveney, Surrey. Compiled from original documents”. William Edward Morden p274.

Originally published 1897, reprinted by the BiblioLife Network.