Everybody knew and loved Alfie Johnson. If you didn’t know him you couldn’t entirely claim to be from this town because he was Marlborough through and through.
Apart from his period of National Service when he served as a bandsman with the Wiltshire Regiment, he lived here all his life – all the way from being born in Kingsbury Street on 20 December 1930.
His life epitomised the town. He was an accomplished leather-worker with Chandler’s Saddlery, which flourished in Marlborough for two centuries. From his time as a postman, he knew every little ‘drang’ (as we might call it around here).
He trod the boards with the Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society and as Tower Captain of the St Mary’s Bell Ringers he possessed an extensive knowledge of this intricate art.
Yet it was as the Town Crier for over 20 years that he was best-known – or rather as the Town Cryer as he insisted it was written – and to prove it he had it inscribed on a brass plate on his front door.
He was also the town’s official ale taster. It was a joy and a privilege to be invited to accompany him as he exercised his ancient right to test the quality of the beers served in the local hostelries – a task he squared effortlessly with the fact that he was teetotal himself.
He did not restrict his role as Town Crier (sorry ‘Cryer’) to being a mere accompaniment on civic occasions, but he revived the ancient duty of clanging his bell and proclaiming the news of forthcoming events in the High Street.
Many a child was photographed in his tricorn hat. When Prince Charles came to Marlborough as part of the celebration of the 800thAnniversary of the granting of the Borough’s Charter, appropriately it was Alfie in his role as Cryer who read out the challenge to the Cavalier Army which threatened the town in 1642.
Alfie became a local celebrity in his own right, being invited to open such events as the sponsored swim at St Peter’s School.
His favourite duty was, however, proclaiming the Mop Fair as a lifelong devotee of the event and a member of the Fairground Association of Great Britain. This was an enthusiasm he shared with his great friend, Ian Philpott, whose best man he was at his wedding.
He was fierce defender of the rights of the showmen and wrote a painstakingly researched and erudite history of the Mop Fairs for the Fairground Mercury in 1980.
Alfie’s turn-out in his ancient gear was always immaculate. For this he owed much to his beloved wife, Ann. His jabot was always starched and pressed and his bell immaculately polished.
She even doubled as his Official Photographer, making a careful record of the many events at which he invariably took centre-stage. It was with great sadness that diminishing mobility led to his retirement from centre-stage, but he continued to ring his bell with great aplomb from his mobility carriage, always supported by the loyal Ann.
Her death in December 2014, was a great blow to him. But he continued to enjoy the love and devotion of Di, his daughter – who survives him – and with the support and affection of his vast array of friends.
Alfie was the last person to ring the bells of St Peter’s when they were removed with the church’s redundancy. His death represents the end of another era – the loss of a Marlburian whose dedication to this community was without parallel. We’re blessed to have known him.
I’m grateful to David Sherratt for his assistance with this. He was the Ceremonial Officer when I was Mayor – and Alfie was the Town Cryer – what a team! David writes:
“Alfie and I shared a little in-joke when he reported for duty in the Mayor’s Parlour. I would, as an ex-National Serviceman, bark ‘Regimental Number’? He always snapped to attention and bellowed the required reply. He repeated this little ceremonial when we had both retired to show his memory was still functioning well.”