Alfie Johnson - in his own words
Alfie Johnson passed away on 7 May 2019 aged 88.
In 2016 we put together a small exhibition on the history of the town during the past 90 years to celebrate HM The Queen's 90th birthday as the theme for the town's annual Civic Service held at St Mary's Church. Former Town Cryer and well-loved local resident Alfie Johnson was a few years off his own 90th birthday, having only recently handed over his bell to another well-known member of our community - former Special Constable Mike Tupman. We asked Alfie if he would be prepared to share his memories of the last "nearly-90" years with us to form part of that exhibition, and he kindly invited Dawn Whitehall (a member of our team who was helping put the exhibition together), round to his house to look through his carefully recorded archive of photographs, diaries and news clippings. As he said himself, some of the facts and dates may not be quite right but we hope you'll overlook that.
For those of you who didn't see the exhibition, and as a lasting tribute to Alfie, we thought it would be appropriate to share this record of some of his memories with you. Click any of the images to enlarge them.
On 20 December 1930 Alfred William Johnson was born by gaslight in the front bedroom at 23 Kingsbury Street to Beatrice Alice & Ernest Alfred Johnson. He was their first child and would turn out to be their only child.
Ernest, Alfie's father, received a back injury in The Great War and in 1935 he caught pneumonia. These were the days before antibiotics so this was a serious illness, and sadly he passed away at Savernake Hospital when Alfie was 4 years old. Alfie and his mother moved next door to 24 Kingsbury Street soon after.
Alfie went to infant school in Herd Street before moving up to St Peter's Boys School in the High Street. Alfie chuckled as he remembered that you wore short trousers until you left school in those days, and in the last few years he had to carry his gas mask to school with him too. If there was a bombing raid it was straight across to the air raid shelter in St Peter's church.
While a young boy Alfie's mother took him to listen to the St Mary's Church Choir, and his lifelong love of music was born. He joined the choir and attended many festivals with them and while a member someone suggested he might like to learn to play the euphonium.
1940s and 1950s
In 1944 Alfie left school at age 14. He got his first job working part time at Redwood Brothers, a gentleman's outfitters in Kingsbury Street - where Henry George is today. Walking down town one day Alfie noticed a sign in the window of Mundy & Son advertising for a trainee shoe repairer. You didn't have CVs in those days (he laughed a lot when saying this). He asked about the position and a week Monday started work as an apprentice - he still had his apprenticeship papers in his archive. Although Mundy's is long gone there's a lasting reminder in mosaic on the doorstep as you walk into what is now Costa Coffee.
Alfie's first official appearance with the church band was at the Royal British Legion Church Parade on Remembrance Day, 11 November 1946. He only played a dozen notes and didn't even have his uniform yet, although he did have his hat! It was good experience to help him get used to marching with the band.
On 24 April 1947 Alfie paid the sum of five shillings to become the 24th member of Marlborough Town Band. He needed to be on his toes though - there was a fine of threepence if he missed practice without permission.
The Remembrance Parade was a bit different in those days. It formed up for inspection outside the Post Office in the High Street (now ASK restaurant). They would then march to the church for the service, afterwards forming up in Silverless Street and leading the Councillors and the rest of the parade to the war memorial to lay wreaths at around 12.30 pm.
National Service and the 1960s
In May 1940 Alfie joined the 1st Battalion Royal Hampshire Regiment. As an only child with a widowed mother in poor health, he was given a compassionate posting. He did his army training at Bulford and then remained there while the rest of the men he trained with were posted overseas to Jamaica. This allowed him to travel back to Marlborough to help his mother, who needed to go to Oxford for treatment for breast cancer. The last part of his service was spent at the barracks at Plymouth until 1951 when Private Johnson was discharged. He said "I may not have risen through the ranks but I learned a lot, especially discipline. You don't argue with the Sgt Major!". He played clarinet at weekend camps (avoiding miltary training!) with the Territorial Army Band of the 4th Wiltshire Regiment.
Returning to Civvy Street, Alfie returned to Mundy & Son where he completed his apprenticeship, staying with the firm for a few more years.
Alfie played his euphonium with the Marlborough Town Band in the High Street on HM Elizabeth II's coronation day, 6 June 1953, where there was a party in the street for the town's children.
When the houses in Kingsbury Street were sold, the landlord gave Alfie and his mother notice to move out. Alfie bought a house in London Road for £1,000 - lot of money. They moved in and over the years he added an extension as the family grew... Persuaded to go on a blind date, Alfie was introduced to Ann. She lived opposite the pub in Ogbourne St Andrew and worked at Pelham Puppets. He was smitten: they married on 16 September at Ogbourne St Andrew parish church and his best man was Ron Gilbert. He couldn't remember the exact year but he remembered the day itself very well indeed. Mrs Dunn had to pedal away on the organ and the bell ringing team was there too - of which Alfie was a member.
1970s and 1980s
Diane Rose Johnson was born 15 December 1970. She was premature, weighing just 2.5 lb and wouldn't be allowed to go home until she weighed 5 lb. Alfie visited the Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon on Christmas Day 1970 to spend time with Ann and the baby. He remembers a tiny pair of knitted booties and a soft hairbrush laying on the incubator. The nurse handed him a scrap of a baby weighing less than 2 bags of sugar - and Diane was his pride and joy from that moment on for the rest of his life. Like his mother, Alfie's wife Ann suffered from poor health throughout her life. He remembers pushing Diane's pushchair up the hill to see her mum in Savernake Hospital.
Alfie remained with Mundy & Co for about 20 years before moving to Chandlers in London Road (now an estate agent). Chandlers was a saddler so the skills, tools and materials were similar to his previous job. His first job was to make a miniature saddle - he pointed to the replica cowboy saddle still on display in his house. The firm did a lot of work for stables in Newmarket so Alfie got to travel there on occasion. The firm, and his boss Jessie Chandler in particular, looked after the staff very well. Jessie was interested in boats and owned one which was moored in Weymouth harbour. Each member of staff was invited down for boating trips and very happy weekends. He also had a lot of model boats and had written a book about Captain Bligh of the Bounty, travelling abroad to give talks about it. Alfie had 10 good years at Chandlers, which he believed to be one of the best saddlers in the country.
Sadly times change, and although Alfie loved his job at Chandlers he felt he needed to get out, so he became a postman as well as working as a driver for Haydons Bakery for 8-10 years until he retired at the age of 65. He wasn't a pensioner for long though! Two weeks later Alfie was working at Somerfield Supermarket in the High Street five days a week, going in early in the morning as a cleaner, dusting shelves and helping customers. He got staff discount and better pay than he ever had before and always regretted that the store closed. After work he would then pop down to the Jubilee Centre a couple of mornings a week to do voluntary work.
Alfie became Marlborough's Town Cryer in 1994 after someone suggested he should put in for the role. His first engagement was on 9 May 1994 at Mayor Making for Cllr. Ian Perryman. A highlight for Alfie was meeting Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at the town's 800th anniversary celebrations. He met Camilla again when she opened the new St John's school building. He found her the easiest person to get on with and they discovered a connection with Ann's family as Camilla's family had moved to Ogbourne St Andrew where Ann grew up.
Looking through his list of brass band and military engagements, he noted 20 December 1995 as a Kennet Vale band engagement - "my 65th birthday surprise in my garden!".
In May 1996 Alfie donned his Town Cryer uniform for several events to commemorate the Freedom of HMS Marlborough, and visited the ship in Plymouth in March 1997.
On the eve of the millenium, Ann and Alfie were invited to a Rotary gathering in Barton Park for a slap-up meal. Afterwards they were brought by car into town just prior to midnight, where he stood at the bottom of the Town Hall steps with everyone looking at their watches and clocks and wondering what the exact time was - with drinks all round. The Gazette & Herald had given out cameras for people to take pictures on the night and Alfie was there until two in the morning with everyone wanting to pose with him.
Alfie's last band engagement was on 7 May 2005 where he was compere for Kennet Vale band at a concert at St Peter's Church.
Ann's health deteriorated and after stays in hospital she eventually moved to Coombe End Court, a care home in London Road. Alfie was a devoted and attentive carer throughout. Sadly Ann passed away on 7 December 2014, just before his and Diane's birthdays.
A month earlier in November 2014 Alfie was voted Marlborough's Citizen of the Year.
In March 2016 Alfie gave up his duties as Town Cryer and handed over his bell to Mike Tupman.
Even after Ann's passing Alfie was a regular visitor at Coombe End, assuming Father Christmas duties one year. Trips to the High Street on his scooter always took longer than planned as he stopped to chat with people on his travels. He told me the sign outside his house that announced it was the home of the Town Cryer was being refurbished - soon to say "Town Cryer (Retired)".
Alfie Johnson - in loving memory