Features Muse

There's More to Morrell than the Library

As we become library-bound this term, Jodie Sheehan delves into the extraordinary life of our library’s name-sake

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Image Credit: Image: Jay Dyer

1455Now that summer term is kicking in, you’re probably beginning to spend a little more time in the library than you’d necessarily like to be. We’re all well-accustomed to the different sections of the library by now, with each of us adopting a favourite haunt, whether you’re a Morrell kind of person, needing that pin-drop silence to concentrate, or more suited to Fairhurst, preferring a bit of buzz around you and maybe the comfort of a sofa. Or even, God forbid, a Burton fan, notorious for its more-than-deathly silence. Endless disputes have ensued among us over where the optimal study spot resides, but have you ever wondered who John Bowes Morrell, Harry Fairhurst and Raymond Burton actually are? The same goes for the person your seminar building is named after, or your college. We say their names so often and so flippantly around campus that they lose their meanings. But needless to say, all these names belonged to historical figures who have impacted and left their traces on our university.

Harry Fairhurst was the fourth person to be employed by the University of York; he was the very first librarian in 1962, starting this job before the library had actually been built. Meanwhile, Raymond Burton was a philanthropist and businessman, with the Raymond Burton Charitable Trust funding a generous amount of his namesake’s library, which was officially opened in September 2003. But perhaps the most interesting and impactful life, especially in terms of its influence on the city of York and our university, is that of J.B. Morrell.

Have you ever noticed the bronze Buddha statue that sits in the lotus position between Vanbrugh and Derwent? The chances are you have probably missed it, well-concealed as it is among the foliage in a hidden nook of campus. Even if you have seen it, you probably didn’t know that this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of its gifting to the University in 1989 by none other than the daughter of J.B. Morrell, Elizabeth Cooper. It came from the art collection owned by Morrell himself, a little piece of him back on the grounds of the university he contributed so much to.

John Bowes Morrell lived a varied and impactful life, touching many aspects of our beloved city of York, including the University. As you will know if you have completed the York Chocolate Story guided tour, York is steeped in a rich chocolate heritage, home to Rowntree & Co, which incidentally was the company that Morrell entered into when he first left school. In fact, by the age of 24, he had gained a place on the company’s board as the only non-family director in 1897, and eventually became finance director in the early 1920s.

Indebted as we are to our library’s name-sake for his contributions to the chocolate industry, his influence doesn’t stop there. He and two others went on to form the North of England Newspaper Company in 1903, and bought the Yorkshire Gazette to provide an outlet for liberal opinions throughout York. Fittingly, our own student publication, Nouse, prides itself in being the oldest society at the University, and has won many awards and commendations over the years.

Morrell is also largely responsible for the development of York’s cultural amenities, and its advancement as a tourist and industrial centre. As the first Progressive elected to York City Council in 1905, he made huge contributions to the development of, among other things, York Library, Art Gallery and Castle Museum. Of the latter, Morrell himself
later commented, “I suppose the best work I did was in getting the Castle Museum established.” He spotted an opportunity when the old Castle Prison site was being taken over by the York City Council, envisaging a museum situated in the historic building. His campaign was eventually successful and on 23 April 1938 the York Castle Museum was formally opened, attracting visitors ever since. So we’ve got Morrell to thank for many of our
best-loved tourist attractions.

Can you get any more quintessentially York than the Shambles? This famous medieval street has long been considered the heart of the city’s charm, but by 1938 it was living up to its name, with the buildings becoming a bit of a shambles themselves, in need of serious repair. Morrell chaired the Shambles Area Committee from 1939 to 1945, and directed the restoration. He is also responsible for the renovation of many other historic York properties, and the York Conservation Trust, formerly the Ings Property Company, is still run by the Morrell family today, looking after many historic buildings in central York.

His fascination with and devotion to the city of York led him to write several books on its architecture and history over the years, including his most influential book The City of Our Dreams (1940, expanded 1955) which explored the past, present and future of York, and presented his ideas about how the city could be modernised and beautified.

Last but certainly not least, Morrell was a key figure in the campaign for the establishment of our university. The initial request to start up a university in York dates back all the way to 1641, with renewed unsuccessful petitions cropping up periodically through the centuries, until at last, a bid for a university in 1958 was successful. Heslington Hall and its grounds, partly acquired by Morrell, were able to serve as the nucleus of the university site. Rowntree & Co. and the C. and J.B. Morrell Trust provided indispensable financial backing for the founding of the university, and consequently, upon its opening in October 1963, the library was named after J.B. Morrell. Morrell died in April 1963, just a few months before the first students began arriving on campus.

During his life, Morrell served as Lord Mayor of York twice, in 1914 and 1949, became alderman in 1916, was made an honorary freeman of the city, and was offered a seat in Parliament in 1912 as well as a knighthood in 1937, both of which he turned down. With a pretty impressive repertoire attached to his name, Morrell certainly made his mark on his beloved city. His commitment to our beautiful city contributed so much to making it what it is today, and not only do people continue to flock here from far and wide to visit it, but our thriving university continues to flourish.

So next time you tell your course-mate that you’re off to Morrell to settle down begrudgingly to some overdue revision, or when you next see his name while perusing YorSearch for inspiration for your next essay, you’ll be able to put a life to the name. Or, if you are lucky enough to stumble upon that inconspicuous Buddha statue, you’ll have some fun trivia to tell those around you who are none the wiser. So now you know: there really was more to Morrell’s life than the library.

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