John Cameron Andrieu Bingham Michael Morton, better known as J. B. Morton and, to his friends, as Johnny Morton, was born in Tooting, south London on 7th June 1893. He was an English humorous writer noted for authoring a column called "By the Way" under the pen name 'Beachcomber' in the Daily Express from 1924 to 1975.
His father, Edward Morton, began his career as a journalist in Paris and introduced his son to two of his greatest loves, France and wine. As an only child, at the age of eight, JB went to Park House prep school in Southborough, Tunbridge Wells and in 1907 to Harrow School, where he did not distinguish himself.
Failing to win a scholarship to Oxford he gained entrance to Worcester College, changing schools three times and leaving after one year. His first job was writing revue material in the Charing Cross Road for a minor publication and in 1914 enlisted in the University and Public Schools Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, as a private, being sent to the trenches in 1915.
In 1916 the battalion was disbanded and JB who had fought at Cambrai and Vermelles was commissioned with the Suffolk Regiment, serving on the Somme, entering hospital in Etaples with shellshock. Pronounced unfit for active service, he spent the rest of the war in the Intelligence Service, branch M.I.(7B).
At the end of the war in 1918, he joined the staff of the Sunday Express, where he wrote mainly about country walks with a selection of jokes, poems and fairy tales. Three years later, he moved to the Daily Express as a feature reporter, taking over the ‘Beachcomber’ column from D.B. Wyndham-Lewis in 1924.
By 1922 he had joined the Catholic faith, becoming a friend of Hilaire Belloc and his son Peter, who were living in Shipley near West Grinstead. He bought a cottage in Rodmell near Lewes, whose best-known inhabitant was Virginia Wolff and nearby at Charleston, Firle, the Bloomsbury set. As a keen walker of the South Downs, he walked in several foreign countries including the Pyrenees, Italy, Poland, Ireland and Norway.
By 1926 he was sharing a room with Peter Belloc in Ebury Strett, London and on the 24th September 1927 married Mary Annunciata O’Leary. She was born on 15th March 1897 in Cappoquin, County Waterford and had qualified as a medical doctor.
Little is recorded of their life at this time, possibly in London, until in 1939, they appear in the Register living at Potwell in Cagefoot Lane, Henfield. During this time, while still employed by the Daily Express, Morton published a number of books:
It is reported that to escape the Labour government of the late 1940s they moved to Dublin for two years and subsequently to 16 Sea Lane in Ferring near Worthing, where they were happy until Mary’s death on 12th January 1974. After her death, Morton stopped writing his column, lived on a diet of bread and jam (he had never learned how to cook) and wandered around the house looking for her, not realising that she had died.
He subsequently entered a nursing home in the area and died there on 10th May 1979 aged 85 years. J. B. Morton is buried in Windlesham, Surrey.
Article by A. Vieler, 2021.
The information in this article has been taken from various sources including ‘Beachcomber, The Works of J.B Morton’ by Richard Ingrams. The photographs of John and Mary are taken from the Marjorie Baker Collection at Henfield Museum.
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