The 1940s were a bit of a ‘golden age’ in Aldbourne for ‘characters’ who not only left their mark on the village but also on the wider world. Once of these was Ernest John Morris, better known as Johnny Morris, best known for his zoo-based ‘Animal Magic’ programmes and many other TV and radio series from the 1940s to 1990s.
Johnny was born in 1916 in South Wales, the youngest son of a Post Office worker. His was a talented and humour filled family. Straight from school aged 14 he was ‘lucky’ to get a job as a junior clerk (or dogsbody as he preferred to call it) at £2 a month in a solicitors office, but that was never to be his forte. Through a contact he got a job in London as a time-keeper opn a building site at £3 a week – quite a step up! He even applied for a job teaching English in Germany which in the 1930s seemed quite a risky career move.
However, whilst awaiting a reply he came to the village with a friend whose brother-in-law had just bought a farm in Aldbourne. Thus Johnny met Jimmy Bomford, the rich new owner of ‘Laines’ in Stock Lane. For some reason, despite the gulf in their backgrounds, they got on really well. Lacking farming experience, Jimmy needed somebody to help manage the 2000 acre farm. What better plan than to ask somebody who also lacked farming experience! Nevertheless, he asked Johnny to join him.
Jonny’s strength was his engaging character and soon Johnny was ‘in’ with the locals and benefitting from farming advice especially from one character named George. With Jimmy’s money, Johnny’s enthusiasm and George’s local know-how, the farm soon thrived. A successful farm was needed because WW2 had just broken out. Jimmy and Johnny were viewed with suspicion by ‘the authorities’ because of ‘odd goings on’ at Laines and allegedly Johnny was refused entry to the Home Guard, but later in the war Johhny did join and his ever youthful face can be seen in several Home Guard photos held in our heritage centre.
Johnny was often in the local pubs chatting and story telling with the locals, especially with his friend Pelly Barnes. It was there in about 1946 that Johnny met Desmond Hawkins, a journalist who was moving to the BBC in Bristol. By mutual agreement Johnny want to the BBC for an audition reading one of his own stories. He was soon writing and telling stories on the radio, mainly for children. He was an instant success with his ‘simple’ style of story telling and ability to present in many varied voices. In Aldbourne he courted and married Eileen who had moved from London with her two boys and so Johnny gained an instant family. He moved from Laines into a village cottage, became a fulltime freelance broadcaster on radio & TV and moved later in Pond House on The Square where he lived for many years. He is best remembered for his ‘Animal Magic’ zoo-based series but he also told strories as the ‘Hot Chestnut Man’ and travelled far and wide with ‘Johnnys Jaunts’, a TV travel programme. He eve ‘voiced over’ some of the early Aardman Animations e.g. ‘Creature Comforts’. Later still he moved to live near Hungerford. He was still active in his 80s and was even busy planning a new TV series when, as a result of a complication of his diabetes, he died in May 1999. He was buried in his own garden. His autobiography ‘There’s Lovely’, published in 1989, is a slightly ‘disorganised’ but engaging read with many references to Aldbourne.
Johnny Morris, OBE, farm manager, mimic, impersonator, writer, raconteur and traveller lived for many years in Aldbourne.