Johnny be good

Katherine Macinnes re­counts the tale of Johnny Go­rilla, who at­tended school in the Glouces­ter­shire vil­lage of Uley 100 years ago

Country Life Every Week - - Advertising Promotion -

AS the snow fell on Kens­ing­ton High Street on De­cem­ber 24, 1917, RAF Maj Ru­pert Cun­ning­hamPenny was home on leave from France. Nav­i­gat­ing his way through the rub­ble of the Gotha bomb­ing raids to­wards Derry & Toms, he no­ticed a crowd around the grand main en­trance. Then he saw it— there in the win­dow was a baby go­rilla in a cage, with a price tag of £300. To the Ma­jor, the ape ap­peared to be in a rick­ety con­di­tion. He’d seen men like that.

Shoul­der­ing the re­volv­ing door, he asked a shop walker for more in­for­ma­tion and learnt that John Daniel, named af­ter the an­i­mal dealer who sold him to Derry’s, was an or­phaned male low­land go­rilla from Gabon, weigh­ing 32lb. Ask­ing the shop to charge the cost to his ac­count and to send ‘Johnny Go­rilla’ round to 15, Sloane Street, the Ma­jor scrib­bled a note: ‘Happy Christ­mas Alyce!’

Not every­one would wel­come the ar­rival of a baby go­rilla on the doorstep on Christ­mas Eve, but Alyce Cun­ning­ham, the Ma­jor’s 36-year-old spin­ster aunt, wasn’t every­one. She ‘adopted’ Johnny, rais­ing him in the only way she knew—to live the life of the up­per classes at the end of the Bri­tish Em­pire. She taught him how to use the light switch and the loo, how to make his bed and to eat with a knife and fork. He be­came par­tial to kip­pered her­rings, choco­late, Port, sherry and brandy and was soon the star at­trac­tion at her Sloane Street drinks par­ties.

Al­though Alyce resided in Knights­bridge through the win­ter, sum­mers were spent in Uley, Glouces­ter­shire. Here, Johnny played with the chil­dren from the vil­lage school, pos­ing for the class pho­to­graph and rid­ing around the vil­lage green in a toy wheel­bar­row. He un­der­stood a great va­ri­ety of phrases, such as ‘pick up that piece of paper’ and ‘don’t be rough’ and, in gen­eral, seemed to have the in­tel­li­gence of a three-year-old child.

The ape was a phe­nom­e­non at a time when cap­tive go­ril­las were ex­tremely rare and the London Zoo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety com­mis­sioned a film of him in ac­tion, which showed Johnny hav­ing 5pm tea and work­ing a soda foun­tain. When he went for a walk, he shook hands solemnly with every­one he met and ex­pected them to do the same. How­ever, his man­ners could be er­ratic and he was par­tial to roses, much to the con­ster­na­tion of Uley’s hor­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety.

Reg Bee­ston, who was 15 when Johnny came to the vil­lage, re­mem­bered the ape jump­ing on his shoul­ders for a ride. How­ever, by the time the go­rilla was four, this be­came im­pos­si­ble—he’d grown to 4ft 4in, with a spread across the arms of 5ft 6in, and weighed more than 13 stone.

In 1921, ei­ther be­cause she was strug­gling to man­age him or be­cause she saw a com­mer­cial

‘He be­came par­tial to kip­pered her­rings, choco­late, Port, sherry and brandy

op­por­tu­nity, Alyce sold Johnny to John Ben­son, a well-es­tab­lished an­i­mal trader, un­der the im­pres­sion that Johnny would be placed in an an­i­mal park in Florida. In­stead, Ben­son sold him on to the Rin­gling Bros and Bar­num & Bai­ley cir­cus in Madi­son Square Gar­den, New York. Soon af­ter he ar­rived, the ape’s health be­gan to de­cline and the de­ci­sion was made to tele­gram Alyce: ‘John Daniel pin­ing and grieving for you. Can you not come at once? Need­less to say we will deem it a priv­i­lege to pay all your ex­pense. An­swer at once.’

Alyce set sail im­me­di­ately, but she was too late. Johnny’s death, ul­ti­mately caused by pneu­mo­nia, was re­ported in the New York Times with grav­i­tas, as be­fit­ted an ‘al­most hu­man’ go­rilla: ‘While the North Amer­i­can cli­mate is the im­me­di­ate cause of John Daniel’s death, his con­sti­tu­tion was weak­ened by long ab­sti­nence from food and by gen­eral de­pres­sion oc­ca­sioned, the keep­ers say, by home­sick­ness.’

To cel­e­brate his cen­te­nary, a se­ries of il­lus­trated chil­dren’s books will be pub­lished later this year, plac­ing Johnny firmly back in his hal­cyon days—the go­rilla will surf the Sev­ern Bore wave, roll the cheese down Cooper’s Hill, race horses at Chel­tenham and en­joy a long over­due Uley Christ­mas. The ‘Johnny Go­rilla’ books, writ­ten by Katherine and Clau­dia Macinnes and il­lus­trated by Rosie Brooks, will be pub­lished by English Rose this De­cem­ber

Top: An il­lus­tra­tion of John Daniel pos­ing for the Uley school pho­to­graph. Above: John with Maj Cun­ning­ham-penny, who pur­chased him for his 36-year-old aunt, Alyce

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.