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William Wilberforce Morrell

Scrap book of English and European architecture


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Why does the William Wilberforce Morrell Scrapbook interest me?

A couple or so years ago I gave one of the series of Sheldon Memorial Lectures, at the York Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, in which I explored the life and significance of the man after whom the University Library is named – John Bowes Morrell. More recently, I have been doing a little more research, with the aim of extending the lecture text and having it published as a monograph in the series of ‘Borthwick Papers’. I should also explain that I am an archivist at the Borthwick Institute for Archives here at the University of York, so when I examine the William Morrell Scrapbook, in Library Special Collections, I am really wearing two hats: that of an archivist, and that of a historian.

As an archivist, I find this scrapbook interesting for a few reasons. First, I recognise it as being absolutely typical of the sort of thing that upper or middle class Victorians commonly created, and which you might now find in a library or archive. In many ways scrapbooks like this are rather more opaque, as archival records, than say, personal writings like diaries or correspondence. In many ways scrapbooks like this are more like artefacts than archives. They may contain only a few clues about the creator of the book, at least without other supporting evidence. If you can find this evidence then the true significance of the book might be unravelled, though even then, possibly not. On the other hand, one can deduce a certain basic amount merely from a consideration of the particular contents and from imagining the context in which such books were made. Just as we would take snaps of people and places on our mobile phones today, so scrapbooks like this are often a collection of images of places visited or of particular personal interest. Many of the images are prints or commercially produced photographs, no doubt sold to tourists wanting a visual reminder of their visits. When you look at this particular scrapbook, one might, without even knowing to whom it belonged, easily surmise that its creator was interested in historic Yorkshire buildings and that he liked to travel abroad. Of course since we know it belonged to WW Morrell, we know this to be true. Morrell was very interested in history and published a history of Selby in 1867. He and his sister took part in the travel agent Thomas Cook’s first tour of Switzerland in 1863 and he travelled abroad regularly throughout his life.

As a historian researching JB Morrell’s life, and his significance as a major figure in the history of twentieth century York, I was particularly interested in finding that this scrapbook actually contains other items, including some family photographs – the title ‘Scrapbook of English and European Architecture’ is to that extent a bit misleading. In fact, having originally seen the entry in the JB Morrell Library Catalogue, I decided that it was rather tangential to my study, so I didn’t actually look at it until much later, when I was alerted to its contents during the project to digitise its contents. I was then absolutely delighted to discover photographs of the young JB Morrell, his brother Cuthbert, and their parents William Wilberforce and Lydia Morrell. They are pictured in the garden of their home, Holgate House, on Holgate Road (views of the house itself are on pages 56 and 78 of the scrapbook). As it happens, Holgate House is just round the corner from where I live – it is now divided into flats and its once extensive garden is built over, but the summer house, in front of which the two young Morrell brothers are pictured (pages 48 and 52) – still survives, because it was later moved to the grounds of The Mount School. This was because the American Quaker grammarian Lindley Murray (pictured on page 72) was a previous resident of Holgate House, and the summer house had been built for him – it has thus always had historic significance for Quakers, as it no doubt did for the Morrell family too, since Lydia was a Quaker, and though WW Morrell was a Methodist he was buried in the York Friends Cemetery at the Retreat.

We know, from a book that JB Morrell commissioned about his family: Anne Vernon, Three Generations: The Fortunes of a Yorkshire Family (1966), something about the character of his mother and father. Lydia Morrell was a woman of firm and strict views, and this character seems to be reflected in her photograph in the scrapbook. And despite William Wilberforce Morrell’s position of immense authority as the Manager of the head branch of the York and County Bank in Parliament Street, York, he was said to be a gentle man with a sense of humour. This too might be deduced from the photographs of him in the scrapbook. A particularly good photograph of WW and Lydia together is on page 78, he rather tenderly resting his hand on her shoulder. An equally good picture of the two schoolboys, John Bowes and Cuthbert, appears on page 52. They were a very tight knit, happy family. The two brothers remained close all their lives – like their father they loved history and architecture and it was out of their combined efforts to save and preserve medieval buildings in the City that the York Conservation Trust – responsible for so many of York’s historic buildings today – came into being.

If I may be allowed to digress a little at this point, I would like to mention that WW Morrell is, as I write this, gazing down at me from my office wall! This particular photograph of him is one I ‘rescued’ about 18 months ago from a local second hand shop. What were the chances that someone would walk in and recognise the subject of the filthy large framed photograph propped up on the floor of the shop!

As a historian and as an archivist I know that the archival sources really can make people come alive again. But seeing images of what people actually looked like is truly the icing on the cake.

Two final thoughts. First, the fact that the scrapbook is among the Library Special Collections reflects the generosity of JB Morrell who was not only a major campaigner for a university in York but also, in the early days, a great benefactor to the library. Secondly, whenever I have looked at the scrapbook I have pondered on the Morrell family, and the time when the two brothers were small, happy schoolboys. The fact that the prints and photographs in the scrapbook are in some ways almost in a random, arbitrary order makes me think that although the items represent WW Morrell’s collection, he allowed his two young sons to stick them into a scrapbook. I imagine this as an activity which would have occupied and absorbed them through many long and contented evenings, and which they would have enjoyed immensely. Fanciful? Maybe, but this would certainly be in keeping with how their happy childhood is described.

Kath Webb, Archivist