The Gorilla Who Was Brought up as a Boy in an English Village

June 15, 2021 People's Tonight 155 views

This is the incredible true story of John Daniel, who was no ordinary gorilla

Jason Ward
Feb 6 · 5 min read

Gorilla1John Daniel with his school mates. Photo Credit: SWNS:South West News Service
John Daniel was a young gorilla who was adopted by an English family in 1918 and brought up as a human boy in the village of Uley. He had his own room, went to school, and was fond of tea and cider.

His remarkable story came to prominence when Uley archivist, Margaret Groom, published John’s pictures in a recent book about the village.

But how exactly did this come about? And was he really just like another kid? (Spoiler for the latter question — obviously not, but more so than you would think.)

How did John Daniel end up in an English village?

The gorilla was bought from a London department store called Derry & Toms by a wealthy British major called Rupert Penny in 1917. Shops were very different a century ago. The ape cost £300, about £25,000 in today’s money (or about $34,000USD).

Its parents had been shot by French soldiers in what is now Gabon and the infant gorilla had been captured and taken to England. Major Penny named it John Daniel.

Like many people buying animals on a whim, the major realized he couldn’t look after it. So, in 1918, he sent the infant ape to his sister, Alyce Cunningham, who lived in a small village called Uley, in Gloucester.

Understandably, neither Alyce nor the other village residents had any idea how to look after a baby gorilla. So they decided to just treat John Daniel as a particularly hairy child.

The ape was raised as a small boy

Alyce Cunningham adopted John, and the ape found himself very much at home in the village. She gave him the nickname ‘Sultan’ and raised him like a child.

AlyceAlyce Cunningham and John Daniel. Photo Credit: SWNS:South West News Service
Like a lot of toddlers, John had his own bedroom, could use a light switch, and even knew how to go to the bathroom. Unlike most toddlers, he also developed a liking for cider.

The gorilla was popular around the village. John would regularly play and go on walks with the children of Uley junior school. He also enjoyed trips in the Cunningham family’s convertible car and was often seen out and about.

As the archivist Margaret Groom told the Gloucester Live website:

“Until recently, we had people that remembered him walking around the village with the children. He used to go into gardens and eat the roses.

“The children used to push him around in a wheelbarrow. He knew which house was good for cider, and would often go to that house to draw a mug of cider.

“He was also fascinated by the village cobbler, and would watch him repairing shoes. He had his own bedroom, he could use the light switch and toilet, he made his own bed and helped with the washing up.”

John Daniel was not confined to Uley either. Alyce Cunningham regularly took him to London, where she had a home in upmarket Sloane Street. When there, he would join Alyce’s dinner parties and drink lots of tea.

The young gorilla spent a happy three years in the village from 1918 to 1921. Sadly, it had to come to an end.

John Daniel is sold to the circus

By 1921, what had been a cute and fun 32-pound infant, was now a huge 210-pound gorilla. And John was still growing.

Sad, but realistic, Alyce Cunningham realized she needed to find someone else to care for John. It was unlikely he would survive on his own in Africa, and in 1921 there were no safe sanctuaries for him. Happily, she found an American buyer who loved animals and promised to take him to Florida.

The buyer bought the gorilla for 1000 guineas and duly shipped him to the United States. But John wasn’t destined for the care and happy life the purchaser had promised Alyce. The ape was instead sold to the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Eventually, John ended up in the Madison Square Garden Zoo in New York. Sadly, he soon fell ill, and his health rapidly deteriorated. The zoo-keepers, believing that he was pining for his ‘mother’, contacted Alyce.

Upon hearing what had happened to her beloved ‘Sultan’, Alyce Cunningham immediately set sail for America.

Tragically, John Daniel died of pneumonia before she got there.

His memory lives on

The young gorilla’s body was donated to the American Museum of Natural History. He was preserved and put on display in the New York museum in 1922. John is still there today.

In Uley, he is remembered fondly, but there are none left in the village who actually met him. In 2017, the archivist Margaret Groom published a book with photos of him with his mother, playing with the children, and being looked after by the Gloucester locals.

Recently, the people of Uley have gotten together to create a memorial to John. The artist Sebastian Rach has designed and sculpted an engraving in Portland stone.

SculpturePhoto credit: Uley Society

The relief depicts John Daniel flanked by numerous schoolchildren and is based on a photo from his time in Uley.

Dr. Rod White, the Uley Society treasurer, said:

“We would like to commemorate the centenary of John Daniel’s life in Uley.

“A lot of young people in the village had never heard the story before it went viral in January 2017. Since then, there has been a lot of interest. It is one of the more romantic stories of Uley.” — Dr Rod White in the Sun newspaper.

Written by

Jason Ward


Freelance Writer, Author. Lives in Asia. www.jasonwardwriter.com Or email: thewordofward@gmail.com Top writer in History and Culture.