The strange tale of the gorilla who went to an English country school

A baby gorilla sold in a London shop during the First World War lived the life of a young English boy. Katherine MacInnes tells the tale of Johnny Gorilla, with pictures from the Uley Society archives.

As the snow fell on Kensington High Street on December 24, 1917, an RAF officer named Major Rupert Cunningham-Penny 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. It was a huge sum: at the time, the average car cost £250, a house was £200, and the average worker’s annual salary was £100.

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!’

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Johnny Gorilla

Major Rupert Cunningham-Penny with Johnny

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.

Johnny Gorilla

Esme Penny, Alyce’s niece, with Johnny in 1918


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