"A man of any parts"
Walter’s father, James Morrison, represented St Ives as a Liberal in 1830, Ipswich in 1832 and Inverness Burghs from 1840 – 47, so the precedence for Walter to enter Parliament was set. When he was 25 in 1861 Walter contested Plymouth as a Liberal and won, retaining the seat until 1874 when he was defeated by the Conservative candidate. He stood for the City of London in 1880 as a Liberal but was unsuccessful again.
By 1886 Morrison was firmly established at Malham and when Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule for Ireland Bill and went to the country over, it Morrison disagreed strongly and broke with Gladstone. He became a Unionist and was persuaded to stand for Skipton in the 1886 election when he defeated Sir Mathew Wilson by 134 votes – considered a remarkable victory. Six years later in 1892 he was defeated by CS Roundell by 92 votes. The main issue was still Home Rule and Morrison was still strongly against it.
It was in June of 1892 that problems arose for Walter Morrison which finally ended when he went to court in 1894. The background to the case began on June 24th 1892 when the West Yorkshire Pioneer of Skipton, a paper which supported the Liberals, had published a letter signed ‘Ribblehead’, making a serious charge that by his investments in railways etc in South America, Morrison was helping to lower the value of grain and meat by aiding imports of these products to the UK from South American farmers, who did not have to pay high rents and high taxes, and was thereby helping to impoverish his own tenants. The letter went on to cite the case of Christopher Metcalfe of Middle House, Malham Moor, who ‘Ribblehead’ alleged had been forced to sell all he possessed and forced out of his home by Morrison, and was now reduced to working as a hind in order to support his family instead of being a yeoman farmer.
This allegation had been strenuously denied by Morrison supported by a letter from Mr Metcalfe saying Morrison had had nothing to do with his being forced to sell up. He owed no money to him and it was the bank who forced the situation. He was in fact still living at Middle House with the permission of Morrison.
Many letters from Morrison, the Editor of the Pioneer, and supporters for both causes were published, but the Pioneer refused to make adequate apology and to identify ‘Ribblehead’. The implication was that the letter had been written ‘in house’ by the paper to damage the reputation of Morrison.
The other allegation about Morrison which had precipitated the case, was that the following year on October 27th 1893, Dawson, the Editor of the Pioneer, falsely and maliciously wrote an article in the Farmers’ Column of the paper stating that at the rent audit of his tenants, despite there being only a slight improvement in the agricultural situation, Morrison had announced a rent remission of only 5% for the coming year saying that he had regularly returned a remission of 25% while holding the position of MP, but when he ceased to be an MP this was reduced to 10% and now only 5%. The implication of this was that the high rebate had been given in order to bribe votes from his tenants and to show himself as a good landlord to his constituents. This was at a time when rent remissions were given by many landlords because of the poor state of British agriculture.
Again Morrison argued that these facts were untrue. The figure was 10% not 5% and this was in addition to remissions given in previous years and was therefore totally misleading. For example the rent for Middle House had been £618 before Christopher Metcalfe had taken the tenancy. This had been reduced to £400 when Mr Metcalfe took over and by the time he sold up, it was reduced to £270. The Editor, it was alleged knew of the error of 10% not 5% before going to press, but published the article anyway with an insignificant correction tucked in small print inside the paper. When the issues failed to be cleared by a suitable apology from Dawson, Morrison finally decided to bring the matter to court to clear his name.
The case for the plaintiff was that his reputation as a landowner and landlord had been damaged by items printed in the paper and claimed damages of £1000 against Dawson and £500 against Edmondson and Co. the printers.
The case was heard at the High Court in London from May 29th to 31st 1894. The jury found for the plaintiff with damages of £500, £250 against Dawson and £250 against Edmondson plus costs.
It is easy to see how much these allegations would have upset and frustrated Morrison. He had been brought up in the old school to be totally honourable and would find it absolutely necessary to clear his name.
The following year 1895, Morrison stood again for Skipton as a Unionist and this time he won by 139 votes defeating JA Farrer of Ingleborough. In the Election of 1900 Morrison was the sitting member and expected to win. His opponent was Fredrick Whitley Thomson of Halifax, a comparative stranger to the town. Thomson managed to charm the people of Skipton and won the seat by 132 votes. But it had been a clean fight and Morrison was the first to congratulate him on his victory as he himself prepared to retire from political life. However he remained a champion of the Union cause and a loyal supporter of the Unionist party in Skipton.
Morrison was never an ambitious politician and never held any high office, but he had certain political principles which he kept to and in his younger, more radical days he had been a staunch supporter of the Co-operative movement which worked for improving working class housing. He was also a supporter of votes for women.
Although he gave many speeches during election campaigns he was not helped by his public speaking which was considered to be rather tedious. But he was a man of steadfast principles who fought honourably.
It is often mentioned that he turned from Liberal to Conservative with age and wealth, but really he stuck to his principles over the years and supported the party he felt would best further them whatever their colour. Although it was said that as he leaned more from the Liberals to the Conservatives he changed all the household crockery from yellow to blue!