(Reprinted from the" National Review," February 1922)
"Let us now praise famous men . . . rich men, furnished with . ability, living peaceably in their habitations."
The ancient catalogue of the lives best worth praising seems far removed from modern standards of publicity. When WaIter Morrison died in the closing days of 1921 he was known to the public, so far as he was known at all, as an uninteresting and unambitious millionaire. He had held no public office, bore no title to his name, had never posed in the newspapers as a popular figure or even as a mysterious recluse. He had succeeded perfectly, in fact (as he succeeded in most things that he cared about), in steering that difficult course between self-advertisement and mystery which gives no opportunity to the personal paragraph. Yet he was a man who had profoundly influenced great causes during the whole of a long life, and had done so, moreover, by a very rare combination of great wealth, high character and supreme independence of judgement. That he was also a man of extensive and peculiar learning is an additional reason why his name should be had in remembrance beyond the neighbourhood where he lived and will not soon be forgotten.
He was born in 1836 - just before the Victorian Age and in the period of great fortunes made during the Napoleonic Wars and the industrial revival which followed them. His father, James Morrison, had married the heiress of the business in Fore Street where the Morrison affairs are still conducted, had become head of the firm, possessor of broad acres in different parts of England and Scotland, possessor also of a notable collection of pictures, and for some years a Member of Parliament. Walter, like his brothers, went to Eton and Balliol and set the family tradition by becoming a redoubtable oar. Less celebrated on the river than George and Allan, each of whom rowed three times for Oxford, he was chosen for Trials and did yeoman service to his College as stroke of the Balliol boat which went head of the river in 1853. He was the hero, too, of a remarkable episode - an instance of his extraordinary persistence - in which, rowing by stages down the river to Eton for a match against his old school, he fell a victim to sunstroke on the way and insisted in spite of it on taking his place in the race soon after his arrival. It is interesting to recall that the feats of these stout Morrisons of the older generation were reproduced in later years by their nephews, one of whom, Harold Moffatt, rowed in Trials, while another, James Archibald Morrison, represented Oxford twice against Cambridge in the ‘nineties. Three Blues and two Trials make no bad record for five members of a family who were all alive together.
Not much else is remembered in these days of Walter Morrison's school and College days, for he can have left few contemporaries behind him. Goodford, afterwards Head Master and Provost, was his tutor at Eton, and Jenkins his Master at Balliol. The story goes that he won Jenkins's approval in the entrance examination by his abuse of St. Peter, whose character the Master was known to detest. He got his First in "Greats" on no more than nine months' reading - another remarkable feat of pertinacity to which he is said to have been stimulated by Jowett in the course of a walk-and so emerged into the world with as good proofs of mental and physical strength as any young man of his day. For Eton and Oxford he preserved a lifelong affection. His benefactions, especially to Oxford, were constant, and latterly magnificent. He was always a lonely man, with few intimates; but the friends of his youth remained friends to the end of his days, and the devoted attendants of his declining years were the daughters of the country clergyman who had steered him head of the river nearly seventy years ago.
Morrison went down from Oxford in 1858 and entered the House of Commons for the first time in 1861 at the age of twenty-five. The intervening years had been spent in the grand tour, which was still part of the education of a gentleman of means and leisure. In Morrison's case it included not only Europe but Egypt, Syria and the United States, and led in particular to a permanent and very practical interest in historical research in Egypt and the Holy Land. He was one of the pioneers of the Palestine Exploration Fund and the founder, many years later, of a readership in Egyptology at Oxford. Incidentally he was the earliest "discoverer" of Kitchener - in the sense that he personally picked him out as a young subaltern of Engineers for the work of an explorer in the countries where his fame was made. Thus equipped, Morrison stood for Parliament in the Liberal interest, was duly returned for Plymouth, and retained that seat till the great Liberal debacle of 1874. His father had been a Liberal Member before him, and he himself was a Liberal by conviction, as the term was understood in those days. But he can never from the first have been what is called a "good party man." In the tangled history of the Reform Movement, which dominated the politics of the ‘sixties, Morrison was a steady supporter of the extension of the franchise and cared very little which side took the credit for it. It was inevitable, therefore, that he should form one of the celebrated "tea-room party" which insisted on supporting the Tory Reform Bill of 1867 from the Opposition Benches, and his allegiance to Mr. Gladstone on other occasions was always of the most impersonal and discriminating kind. Much of his time and energy were devoted from the outset to the new co-operative movement for improving working class dwellings, known as the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company - an enterprise in which he was first associated with Mr. Goschen. This had its sphere mainly in London; but he was also an early co-operator in Yorkshire and at Plymouth, where the hostility of the shopkeepers probably cost him his constituency. If he had any special attraction at that time towards any party leader, it was probably to John Bright, a neighbour in the North for whose eloquence and character he always retained the warmest admiration.
In any case, the loss of the Plymouth seat in 1874 and an unsuccessful contest for the City of London in 1880 marked the end of Morrison's connection with the old Liberal Party. When he next stood for Parliament in 1886, it was as a vehement and wholehearted opponent of Mr. Gladstone's failure in Egypt and of his policy of Home Rule for Ireland. Like Bright and Goschen, he had no hesitation in declaring himself. Unlike many of his old colleagues in the House of Commons, he had no strong personal ties to sunder in making his declaration. It would probably be true to say that for the House of Commons as a profession he had no great liking at any time. Certainly at this time he had become so deeply immersed in other interests that he needed an overwhelming cause to bring him back to it. But such a cause he saw at once in the maintenance of the Union, and from the moment that the Government Bills were introduced, the Unionist alliance of Conservatives and dissenting Liberals had no more enthusiastic supporter. He flung himself into the fight in the North of England, and succeeded by a narrow margin in wresting the Skipton constituency, where he lived, from a member who had come to be regarded as invincible. He got into personal touch with the Irish landlords just as they were beginning to feel the horrors of the boycott and the assassin, poured out money like water to support them, did everything in his power to encourage them to organise resistance for themselves. All the strong individualism, the love of peace and hatred of tyranny, which had first attracted him in the Liberal creed, were stirred to boiling-point by the Plan of Campaign. No one in these days can even begin to reckon what Morrison spent in the struggle for law and order which went on during the next few years. It was an uphill fight, and he was apt to complain in later life that the Irish landlords were difficult people to help. But the very fact that in many cases he was playing a solitary hand was an additional incentive at the time, for the personal character and capacity of his protégés was always a matter of comparative indifference to him. What did matter intensely was that they represented a cause which his own unfettered judgement pronounced to be right.
In the House of Commons itself Morrison never became, or attempted to become, a conspicuous figure. He was a rare and rather tedious speaker; he disliked the restrictions on his freedom; the waste of time entailed on an ambitious politician was frankly intolerable to him. Once established as Member for his own division he continued, as a matter of course, to stand at each successive election, was again returned in 1895, and was twice defeated (in 1892 and 1900) by different opponents and approximately the same narrow majority. After 1900 he finally retired from candidature, but his wealth and experience and unflagging energy remained at the service of his younger successor, whose ultimate success three years ago was very largely due to them.
Morrison is constantly quoted as a typical instance of the ardent young Liberal who becomes a crusted Conservative with increasing years and wealth, and it is true that at different times in his life he backed both parties with equal enthusiasm and sincerity. He himself would have preferred to say that the parties changed their convictions too fast for him, and that there was nothing inconsistent between his early support of a workingman candidate and . the vehement anti-Socialism of his later days. He always hated Socialism and the bureaucratic spirit, just as he always hated want of patriotism and believed intensely in the future of the British race and Empire. These simple principles of his political faith underwent no variation at any time, and they explained the active part which he took, for example, when the Marconi controversy seemed to him to suggest a lowering of the traditional standards of English public life. No party label quite fitted him at any period, but he was too sensible to suppose that it was possible to dispense with political parties altogether, and threw his weight wherever he thought it most likely to further the causes which to him were always the same.
Morrison's disinclination to return to the House· of Commons after his first defeat at Plymouth was partly explained by his sudden absorption in business. His family had acquired a large stake in the Central Argentine Railway and he had been nominated in 1874 as their representative on the Board. He became Chairman in 1887, and soon afterwards paid a protracted visit to the Argentine, which resulted in an elaborate report and the eventual absorption of the Buenos Ayres and Rosario Railway Company. The combination remained under his chairmanship for more than twenty years and became exceedingly prosperous as the result of his reorganisation. It was his main preoccupation of the kind, though he was director also of a large number of local concerns in which he was· interested - the Craven Bank, for instance, the Yorkshire Dales Railway and various Land Corporations. Morrison took his duties as a director very seriously, made interminable journeys between London and Yorkshire to fulfil them, and impressed his colleagues with his amazing memory for detail and robust common sense. That he largely increased his own fortune in his lifetime is a matter of common knowledge, but no one was ever more completely free from the desire to make more money than he had. He always, in fact, possessed far more than he needed for himself, and used sometimes to complain rather whimsically of the difficulty of getting rid of it. Quite apart from his vast inheritances - not only from his father, but from a brother and sister who died before him - his fortune grew just because he managed it with great prudence and had the simplest personal tastes. Many a miser, it may be said, has done as much, for the combination of frugality with avarice is common enough in human nature. But in Morrison's case the motive for the trouble which he took over his business affairs was precisely the same acute sense of responsibility which drove him into politics. He disliked waste and bad management, and having come, almost by accident, into a position of trusteeship for various enterprises, felt it his duty to remain there. His still keener dislike of hoarding is sufficiently proved by his benefactions, which were colossal even when judged by the comparatively small proportion known to the public. All of them were considered and bestowed with exactly the same scrupulous care. It would be untrue to say that he husbanded his resources for the sake of, being able to give them away, but he certainly enjoyed the power to do it. In spite of his protestations, there can very seldom have been a millionaire who succeeded in getting so much genuine satisfaction out of his wealth.
It is necessary to set out these facts and dates of Walter Morrison's public life - he would hardly have understood you if you had called it a career - but the best part of his days was spent amid scenes which seem equally remote from business and from politics. The Malham Tarn Estate, which was made over to him by his father when he came of age, turned out to be just the setting which fitted him best. It was at that time, and indeed still is, one of the most remote and inaccessible places in Yorkshire. Perched high on the hills of Craven, midway between the Wharfe and the Ribble valleys, its streams descending into both seas, it lies near the highest point of the very backbone of England. The great uplands of moor and rough pasture which stretch for miles on every side of it form a wide green amphitheatre round the tarn itself, and on the shore of the tarn, backed by woods and limestone crags, stands the house which was Morrison's home for more than sixty years. He had other houses - a peculiarly gloomy one in London and in later years a villa rented for the winter in Devonshire; but Malham was always his one real home, and, considering its difficulties and his own innumerable interests, he contrived to spend an astonishing amount of his time there. Judged by any modern standard the house was bare and comfortless - he never seemed to notice or care for comforts. But it was solid and substantial, like himself, with big rooms, big windows and a big outlook. And the Craven country, which mattered more to him than the inside of any house, was exactly suited to his habits of mind and body. He was a great walker all his life, and attributed his length of days to the fact that he never for choice used any other means of conveyance. His nearest railway station was a good six miles away down a precipitous hill which even in these days is the terror of the motorist. His village church and nearest neighbours were only to be reached by an equally precipitous descent in the opposite direction. Up and down these hills Morrison tramped incessantly long after he had passed the allotted span, and it was common enough of an autumn evening, when his guests were leaving his moors in car and dogcart, to see him setting off afoot for home across the hills after a day that was quite enough for younger men. He had an old-fashioned dislike of motors, though he came to recognise their practical use in the last few years of his life.
Here, then, at Malham, you found Morrison at his best - living alone (for he never married) with a few old retainers who had either been on the place as long as himself or were born there to a still older generation. Solitude never worried him. He was an omnivorous and rapid reader, with an astonishingly catholic taste in books. Hardly anything came amiss to him, from the deepest treatises on Babylonian inscriptions to the trashiest of modern novels, which he bought literally by the hundred at railway bookstalls. If anything that he read made a special appeal to him - such, for instance, as a volume of local antiquities, or a political pamphlet, or in one case a new History of America - he would send at once for a score of copies and distribute them to his neighbours wherever he happened to meet them. His favourite subject, if a man of such universal interests can be said to have had one, was the study of military campaigns. He knew Napoleon's battles by heart and had walked over most of the critical fields of the Peninsular and Franco-Prussian Wars, besides reading everything that was written about them. Like his friend Edmond Warre, with whom he shared this taste, he was one of the earliest and most ardent Volunteers, and his consistent advocacy of national military training was based upon his own independent interpretation of the lessons of history.
Morrison must have spent many a solitary evening at Malham with his books and his pipes, which were very nearly as numerous as his books, but at the same time he was the most gregarious and talkative of men. His hospitality was boundless, and, like everything else about him, of the most miscellaneous and indiscriminate kind. What he liked most was the single guest - for choice a stranger to Craven, so that he might be shown all the sights of the neighbourhood and be told the local tales, a good walker if possible, certainly a good listener. The guests of this sort who came to Malham at one time or another were innumerable, and their names seem in these days to carry one back into a very dim Victorian Age. Hughes of Tom Brown's Schooldays was one of them; Henry Fawcett, the blind economist, another; John Ruskin, Lord Avebury, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Sir William Harcourt were other "eminent Victorians" among Morrison's visitors. Best remembered of all, for he has left a monument of the place more enduring than brass, was Charles Kingsley, who conceived of the perilous slither of the little chimney sweep into the valley of the Water babies as he lay on the hillside watching the black smudge on the limestone face of Malham Cove.
In the autumn there were bachelor parties for grouse shooting, which Morrison professed to regard as a tiresome duty, to be carried out and finished as soon as possible. He possessed, as it happened, three of the finest potential moors in the British Isles, besides an infinity of rough shooting; but he was never interested in keeping them up to the mark, and was entirely indifferent to the quality of the guns invited to shoot them. He himself always shot till within two or three years of his death; considering that he made a point of occupying an outside butt, that he never took the slightest trouble to conceal himself, and was generally immersed in a newspaper when the birds appeared, he shot, on the whole, with remarkable accuracy. He was happier, no doubt, in the days when grouse in Yorkshire would still lie to the pointer and he could indulge his love of walking; but he accepted driving as an inevitable development and extracted some consolation for his loss of exercise from the larger number of guests (it was sometimes very large) who formed his audience at his shooting luncheons. And, apart from recurrent entertainments of this kind, there seemed to be a never ending procession of parties to Malham Tarn - parties of Boy Scouts, of fishermen, of archaeological societies, of political associations, of children's fetes, of holidaymakers and bean feasters of every description. Morrison welcomed them all alike, and entertained them after his manner with such provisions as happened to be forthcoming and a ceaseless flow of information and anecdote. Seeing how good a companion he was in private, it must be admitted that his speeches on these and other occasions were apt to be a little prolix and incongruous. He was quite incapable of talking down to the level of his audience, which was always assumed to possess his own encyclopaedic knowledge. Nothing was less surprising, for instance, than to hear him hold forth on the latest discoveries at Luxor to a gathering of politicians or discuss at a farmers' ordinary the precise character of the wines which found favour with Alcibiades. It was all done with complete simplicity. There was not the slightest suspicion of a parade of learning. But the effect was rather bewildering, and produced an entirely false impression of aloofness and inhumanity.
When visitors failed, Morrison could always fall back on his own people. He remembered every farmer in the countryside, and loved a crack with them over a pipe in a farm kitchen or village inn. Folklore and dialect had an attraction for him which amounted to a passion. He had his own erudite theory about the origin of every placename in Craven and was a perfect goldmine to the antiquaries and historians of the district. His strong local patriotism and sociability made him an ideal landlord, in the sense that he knew his tenants and their families from the cradle to the grave, supplied their needs and fought their battles, and encouraged stock-breeding among them by considerable prizes. Whether he would have passed muster as a landlord in these days of scientific costings is another matter. Certainly he never regarded his estate as a business proposition, and his easygoing generosity had the effect of setting an impossible standard for less fortunate neighbours.
But his neighbours had no reason to complain of his benefactions in general. Something has been said already of the support which he gave to political causes, but it is quite impossible to estimate his contributions in recent years to the local Unionist Association in one form or another. They were probably larger when he ceased to be a candidate himself, for one of his idiosyncrasies (and the despair of his agent) was a dislike of making any donation which was calculated to bring him votes and popularity. Otherwise every, sound movement in the district could reckon on finding him high in the list of subscribers. He was one of the mainstays of hospitals, district nurses, Territorials and cadets, above all of education, which he would have regarded as embracing most of the others and especially military training. His practical assistance in the development of higher education in the North of England is just as incalculable as his political subscriptions, for he practised strictly the Christian doctrine of secrecy in almsgiving. Some few of these benefactions are beginning to be revealed since his death - as, for instance, a single anonymous gift of £10,000 to the new Agricultural School at Leeds, where he was a member of the University Court till his death. And Leeds was by no means the only modern University which owes gratitude to his memory; but he took a more direct personal interest in it than in the others, and it was the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds who was chosen to pay a final tribute over his grave.
Only in one case, which was still nearer to his home and therefore to his heart, has Morrison left a visible memorial behind him. In the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and as his own contribution to its celebration, he offered a "Chapel with a Dome" to the ancient grammar school of Giggleswick, of which he had long been a Governor, and much of the next four years was devoted with characteristic enthusiasm to elaborating his scheme in the minutest detail. No expense and no trouble was spared. The building accounts, even in those cheaper days, approximated to £50,000, and were swollen by a good many extras. The best experts that Morrison knew - architects, sculptors, workers in mosaic and glass-were pressed into the service of his "Heathen Temple." Cedar wood was specially imported from the Argentine. Nothing was left to be completed by future generations. Morrison was determined that his offering should be entirely his own, and that it should be fashioned entirely according to his own ideas. The result is an edifice like nothing else in the world, as travellers by the Midland Railway may see for themselves - a Gothic chapel with a copper dome, standing high above the school buildings on a spur of rock, with an amazing view from every side of it up and down the Ribble Valley, a singular and incongruous experiment in architecture, yet in curious harmony with its surroundings and justifying more and more as time goes on the original taste of its creator.
Morrison always did what he considered his duty to his neighbours before turning further afield, though in truth there was enough and to spare for all his fancies. His methods of general benefaction were peculiar to himself and were deliberately calculated to produce surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Not only did he prefer to do good works in secret, but he was adamant in selecting them for himself. Petitioners many and meritorious climbed to Malham Tarn for help in unimpeachable objects, sometimes the very objects in which Morrison was known to take a special interest, and returned empty-handed just because they were petitioners. On the other hand, it would suddenly dawn upon him, through something that he had heard or read in a newspaper, that such and such a person or movement or public institution was in need of funds; and the result would be a substantial cheque from an unexpected quarter, often accompanied by a characteristic letter in explanation of its motive. Thus it occurred to him at one time that the Colonial contingents coming to London for some celebration would need money for their entertainment beyond the scope of Government allowances. At the beginning of the South African War he came to the conclusion that the first strain would fall on the Natal Volunteers, who must certainly be helped. A little later it was the tide of refugees pouring into Cape Town, or the City of London (his birthplace) raising a regiment. The fact that his country was at war stirred him at once to the depths of his soul, and in the greatest of all wars, which clouded his last years, he was indefatigable in working and giving. He contributed largely to the Belgian and other Relief Funds, bore much of the burden of recruiting in his own neighbourhood, and made the last public appearances of his life in distributing his own particular "War Memorial" - an elaborately illustrated record, compiled with infinite labour at his expense, of all the men of Craven who had gone forth to fight. How much he gave away in individual cases of distress can never possibly be told. These, of course, were with him all his life and were merely increased in number by the conditions of the last few years. He was not an easy man to deceive, and took endless pains to explain his refusals - sometimes conveying them by postcard in the hope that they would be read by other beggars, and sometimes using them as a vehicle (to the exasperation of his correspondents) for expounding his whole doctrine of patriotism, education, or whatever the subject might be.
Now and again his benevolent inspirations missed fire - as, for example, when he offered to rebuild the new Chapel at Balliol on the lines of the old Chapel, which he greatly preferred. The Fellows not unreasonably rejected this proposal, and Morrison, nothing daunted, proceeded within three weeks to contribute £30,000 to the University for the three purposes of a readership in Egyptology, a professorial pensions fund, and the study of agriculture. His last and best-known gift to Oxford was a single payment in 1920 of £50,000 to the Bodleian Library, where he takes rank henceforth with Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and Sir Thomas Bodley himself as one of the three chief benefactors of that famous foundation. That was the climax of Morrison's acknowledged munificence, and beside it the fact that he had for some time given a trifle of, £10,000 a year to King Edward's Hospital Fund and £1,000 a year to the Navy League (to say nothing of countless smaller Subscriptions to other bodies of the kind) is almost forgotten, if it was ever known.
There is enough, perhaps, in this brief record, which is a true account of Walter Morrison as he appeared to his friends, to justify his public reputation as a sort of eccentric cornucopia. But it will have failed of its purpose if it does not also suggest great qualities of head and heart, such as are very seldom united with so much power to use them with effect. Curious as Morrison himself would have thought it, the usual question about him at his death was why, with all his wealth and opportunities, he never "got on" in the world. Why did he never force his way into a Government? How did he fail to die a peer-or at least a baronet? The answer to people who ask these questions is not that Morrison disputed the interest of office or despised hereditary titles, but simply that he could not conceive of anyone regarding them as objects of pursuit. On the subject of "Honours," indeed, he held some of his most vigourous opinions. No man had a greater respect for family traditions of public service; but the notion that these could be enhanced by a new title would have seemed to him the very height of absurdity, while the suspicion that "Honours" could be sought, and even bought, was one of his most cherished grievances against recent Administrations. In particular he disliked the modern practice of "Honours" for journalists as a fertile source of corruption, and poured unmitigated scorn on, the whole army of Knights and Viscounts who won their spurs in peaceful security during the war. Morrison might, presumably, have had any title that he chose if he had lent himself to the customary process. The only one that he did accept in fact was the honorary D.C.L. of his old University, which remains almost unique among British distinctions in being altogether beyond the reach of the importunate and the plutocrat.
In this and other respects his deepest quality was that sort of humble simplicity which so often goes with great stature, and Morrison was a big man in body as well as in mind and estate. It was the same with his religious beliefs, of which he never spoke, though he was a regular churchgoer and a constant benefactor of the beautiful church of Kirkby Malham, which he restored and where he is buried. Bible history interested him more than theology, about which he was very tolerant. The probability is that he accepted without question the truths that had been taught to him in his childhood, just as he accepted as beyond discussion his simple principles of patriotism and justice and individual responsibility.
Giggleswick Chapel, his one visible memorial, is after all as good a monument of his character as anyone could wish to raise. There you have the wide, breezy outlook of the site which he chose and the independence of judgement which refused to be bound by precedents in building. The Oriental dome is there to recall his abiding interest in the East and his conviction of the resemblance between Eastern lands and the rocks and desolation and great spaces of his own country. The inscription on the foundation-stone bears testimony to his fervent love of England. The men whom he chose to lay the stone and to inaugurate the chapel were big Englishmen after his own heart - the late Duke of Devonshire, his neighbour and political leader, and Edward Warre, then Head Master of Eton, who had once rowed three to his stroke for Balliol. And, ranged in the windows, carefully designed to admit as much of the sunlight as possible, stand the figures of those Englishmen of the past whom in his simple way he would most wish English boys to remember - King Edmund and Sir Thomas More the Martyrs; Bunyan, Wycliffe and Wesley; King Alfred and Sir Philip Sidney; William of Wykeham and Arnold among schoolmasters; Columba, Henry Martin and Livingstone among missionaries; Milton and Tennyson for the poets - and, in an inconspicuous corner of the Founder's Window, tucked away beside the original village schoolmaster, Walter Morrison himself, with the model of his chapel beneath his arm. It was his first and last piece of self advertisement.