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.