Joseph William Morris

John and Sarah Morris already had four daughters when Joseph William was born in 1830. Morris’s family lived at 4 Belvedere, Bath in the house that his grandfather built. His father, who was forty years old at the time, earned his living by teaching music, classics and languages. He was reputed to have had one of the finest scholarly minds in Bath. Accomplished in Old English, Greek and Hebrew, he used this knowledge to reappraise the translation of the Old Testament into English. He was active in Bath Sunday School’s Union and for a period of time was the Secretary. Being a skilled musician he played several instruments and excelled at the organ. He also took an interest in geology, lecturing widely on the subject and was a highly proficient chess player.

Joseph Morris’s mother died on the 19th February 1832 and was buried at Timsbury. His father remarried on the 28th October 1834 at Weston to the twenty eight year old Mary Lewter. The 1841 census reveals them all to be living at Belvedere. Ten years later the twenty one year old Joseph Morris was still single, living at home and teaching classics.

Morris married Emily Phipps on the 20th December 1954 at Walcot Church. She was three years his senior. Their initial home was at 40 Rivers Street where their first daughter, Emily, was born in 1856. Unfortunately, she only lived for a few minutes. Ada Morris was born the following year, also at Rivers Street. Their other children were all born at 16 Belmont: John (1858), Arthur (1861), Minnie (1863), Harry (1864), Rhodes (1866) and Seton (1869). Both Arthur and Harry died in infancy.

Morris’s first literary lecture was given in a committee room in Argyle Street on the 18th April 1855. The subject matter was the writings of Horace and James Smith, Keats and Shelley; ‘the numerous and discriminating auditory listened to the lecturer with deep attention, and evinced their gratification by considerable applause’. The following November he gave a dissertation to the Corsham Mechanics Institute on William Shakespeare. 1856 saw him participating in the Bath City Lectures and as President of the Microscopic Society he began lecturing on the life sciences. Theology and education were two other subjects on which he spoke extensively; the text of a lecture he gave to the Bath Sunday School Conference in 1857 entitled “ The Best Method of Teaching, and the Teacher’s Responsibility” is still worth reading today.

By 1858 Morris had acquired two academic qualifications: a Fellow of the Linnean Society (F.L.S.) and a Professor of English Literature. The Linnean Society was founded in London in 1788 to cater for those interested in the life sciences; admission was by subscription. He was awarded his Professorship for teaching English Literature at Belmont College, a boys school next door to where he lived. 

1870 brought in the Elementary Education (1870) Act, commonly called Forster’s Education Act after its Liberal sponsor. Hitherto children between five and twelve had been educated in a combination of church, private and state assisted schools. However, it was estimated that out of 4.3 million children of primary school age, no less than 2.0 million had no education at all. The Act compelled local authorities to compare data gleaned from the census with records submitted by the schools themselves. If there was a discrepancy they were mandated to establish a School Board. On the 29th December 1870 the Town Clerk announced that “the Education Department had given him notice that a requisition for the election of a School Board for the borough of Bath will shortly be sent to the Mayor”. In January 1871 a list of prospective board members was drawn up; Morris’s name was amongst them. In early February the ratepayers voted on the eleven posts; Morris polled 3,257 votes putting him in sixth place. He was to serve as a committee member until 1877 when he resigned. He was reappointed in the mid 1890’s, this time as Chairman.

Morris’s public exposure increased further in September 1874 when, having already been pledged £1,000 from his friend Mr. C. W. Mackillop, he announced plans for a free public library. By mid January 1875 a committee had been formed and Morris was unanimously elected its President. The plan was for a reading and lending room to be open for twelve hours each day at premises adjacent to the Abbey Yard. At midday on the 18th of February the doors were opened; ‘the number of persons who went over the premises during the day was very large, many passing high commendations on the excellent arrangements and the superior character of many of the books to be found on its shelves’. A public meeting was held that evening to review the day’s proceedings; it was universally acclaimed to have been a success.

On the 29th March 1877 Morris addressed a full Council meeting for the first time. Hitherto the Free Library had been funded by voluntary contributions but the Public Libraries Act allowed for the running costs of £220/ year to be transferred onto the general rate. The Mayor thought that this would be welcome even though it would increase the rates by a halfpenny in the pound. He was wrong. A proportion of Bath’s semi- literate population regarded a public funded library as no more than an extravagance for which they had no use and were expected to pay. On the 28th April a meeting was held to debate the issue:

The majority of the large audience appeared to be composed of working men. The proceedings were of a very uproarious character, a considerable body of persons present having evidently come to the meeting with the intention of preventing, if possible, anything being said in favour of the scheme. Care was taken to prevent non-burgesses entering the room and several police constables were scattered about in readiness for any serious disturbance. The Mayor’s opening speech was interrupted for some moments by cries of “no free library” and he made an ineffectual attempt to resume, but the noise became greater. A temporary lull taking place the Mayor said “ I beg to say that I am bound to have order kept in this meeting (loud cheers), and I shall order the police to eject any man who disturbs this meeting (renewed cheers). I think it a most disgraceful thing that men, who call themselves citizens, as burgesses, instead of listening calmly and fairly to the speakers, should try to drown out their voices with clamour (immense cheers), and, gentlemen, I am here to say I will not have it done (renewed applause and “bravo”). I will require a certain number of police to be at the end of the room, and I will require them to eject any man who disturbs the meeting (cheers).”

Morris was the first to rise in support of the Mayor but his speech was continually interrupted. Eventually Morris brought it to a close by saying “well Gentlemen, you have stopped me, you won’t now hear what is to be said”, at which point a voice was loudly heard to say “the rates and taxes are high enough, without having any more”.

The meeting lasted no more than three quarter’s of an hour and concluded with an announcement that a poll to be held the following week to decide the issue. Morris and the Mayor lost. In August Morris held a meeting of the library’s trustees where it was revealed that they had received private funding for a further three years. The controversy rumbled on in the hands of the Council’s own ‘Library Committee’ until after Morris’s death.

Away from public gaze Morris continued with his lectures to the Bath Literary and Philosophical Institution and the Penny Readings Foundation amongst others. He began teaching history and literature at Mrs. Wastell’s School for Young Ladies in May 1877 and the Somersetshire College for boys in April 1878. He left 16 Belmont, his home for twenty years, in 1877 and moved to “Woodlands” at the top of Bathwick Hill. He accepted the role of Walcot Parish Warden in 1878 and was instrumental in creating the Walcot Penny Bank in July 1880, taking the view that “the wealthy had places to save their pounds, but that the poor had nowhere to save their pennies.” He moved his home for the final time in 1887, this time to 27 Green Park.

February 1888 found Morris involved with another high profile project; that of transferring the late Christopher Broome’s collection of plants to Victoria park. Broome, who had died in 1886, was also a member of the Linnean Society and excelled as a mycologist. In February 1887 his widow bequeathed his botanical collection to the City. The Chairman of the Victoria Park Committee, Alderman Bartrum, accepted it provided the Council contributed £100 towards its safe keeping. By July the concept of a Broome Botanical Garden had gained favour and Bartrum began to receive offers of further plants. August saw the clearing of the site, laying out of footpaths and the creation of a large rockery made from Claverton stone.

In February 1888 the Park Committee announced that Morris had agreed to be the garden’s curator, the planting scheme to be left entirely to his discretion. In June Morris was elected onto the Park’s Committee, the Chronicle noting that ‘the charming appearance of the Broome Botanical Garden is due to the taste and skill of Mr. J. W. Morris, F.L.S., who undertook the post of honorary curator.’ His work done, Morris retired from the Committee in July 1891.

In 1889 Morris became a Governor of King Edwards School and a Town Councillor, being elected unopposed to the Kingsmead Ward. He volunteered for the Surveying Committee and in 1893 was appointed Chairman of the River Pollution and Technical Education Committees. In October 1897, with his health declining, he resigned. The Chairmanship of the Bath School Board followed in May 1900, the Committee “gladly recorded their admiration of the marked ability with which he had discharged the duties of his important office, and their gratitude for his unvarying courtesy, kindness and impartiality. They testify to Mr Morris’s brilliant service to the cause of education in the City”.

Joseph William Morris died on Saturday 17th August 1901 at his home, 27 Green Park, aged 71. Of his work as a botanist the Chronicle wrote:

Mr. Morris was a well known and highly skilled botanist, and his knowledge in this respect was at the service of the public in many ways. For instance, the Broome Botanical Garden, a place that is of the greatest interest to visitors, was entirely laid out by the deceased, whilst he also identified himself with the treatment of the Royal Victoria Park. When Henrietta Park was handed over to the city, Mr. Morris was asked to lay out the grounds for a park. This task he accepted most willingly, and Henrietta Park, as it is now, will forever remain as a testimony of the great skill of the man who has now passed away.’ 

Morris’s funeral service took place in Bath Abbey on the 22nd August 1901. The cortège was led by four of his five surviving children, Rhodes having already emigrated to Canada. Despite the family asking for no official representations, no fewer than sixty mourners attended in a private capacity. He was interred at Locksbrook Cemetery in the same grave as his wife who had predeceased him by five months.

The house and its contents, the coach house and stables at the rear were all advertised for sale by auction on the 22nd October 1901. Included in the catalogue were over 2000 volumes from Morris’s own personal library. They were purchased in advance by a consortium who presented them to the City, each volume being inscribed:

This book formed part of the Library of the late J. W. Morris, Esq, F.L.S. It was presented to the Bath Public reference Library by a committee of citizens as a memorial of his valuable services to Education, Literature and Art in the City.”

Created with Visual Composer