MORRISON, James (1789-1857), of Balham Hill, Surr. and The Pavilion, Fonthill, nr. Hindon, Wilts.
Available from Cambridge University Press
Family and Educationbap. 6 Sept. 1789, 2nd s. of Joseph Morrison (d. 1804), innkeeper of The George, Middle Wallop, Wilts., and Sarah, da. of Thomas Barnard, yeoman, of Shapwick, Som. m. 6 Aug. 1814, Mary Ann, da. of Joseph Todd, haberdasher, of Fore Street, Cripplegate, London, 7s. (1 d.v.p.) 4da. (1 d.v.p.). d. 30 Oct. 1857.
Sir John Bowring†, a fellow liberal and merchant, recalled how Morrison, who at his death was almost certainly the nineteenth century’s richest commoner
told me that he owed all his prosperity to the discovery that the great art of mercantile traffic was to find out sellers rather than buyers; that if you bought cheap, and satisfied yourself with only a fair profit, buyers - the best sort of buyers, those who have money to buy - would come of themselves. He said he found houses engaged with a most expensive machinery, sending travellers about in all directions to seek orders and to effect sales, while he employed travellers to buy instead of to sell, and, if they bought well, there was no fear of his effecting advantageous sales. So, uniting this theory with another, that small profits and quick returns are more profitable in the long run than long credits with great gains, he established one of the largest and most lucrative concerns that has ever existed in London, and was entitled to a name which I have often heard applied to him, ‘the Napoleon of shopkeepers’.1
Morrison grew up in Middle Wallop, where his paternal grandfather, a Scot by origin, had settled in the early eighteenth century. His mother died in 1803 and his father, then aged 73, the following year, leaving personal estate valued at under £400 for his four children. The family remained in Middle Wallop but James is said to have been sent to his mother’s kin in Somerset before being apprenticed to a watchmaker and moving to ‘his relatives the Flints’, ready-money haberdashers in London.2 There, according to John Louis Mallet, he
remodelled the whole system of the shop in a way so advantageous in its results that he naturally expected to become a partner. The Flints would not, however, do it, so he quitted them and went into a house of the same description, the Todds in Fore Street, Cripplegate. There, being a handsome as well as a clever man, he soon made himself necessary, and captivated Miss Todd, whom he married, and was taken in partnership.3
In 1817 he travelled in France, where he made useful contacts in the glove and silk trades; and in 1818, when Todd, Morrison and Company’s annual turnover was over £650,000, he became the sole managing partner.4 He bought and made Balham Hill his home in 1821; and following a legal battle with John Todd in 1824 he bought out his father-in-law ‘by instalments’, re-establishing the firm as James Morrison and Company in partnership (until 1829) with George Crow, John Dillon and Richard Pearson.5 Although largely self-taught, he made time to read and to associate with other radicals and liberals in the City and at the Charing Cross tailor Francis Place’s library, and he subscribed to and gave advice on the Greek loans.6 When the poet Robert Southey*, who described him as the ‘most interesting stranger who has found his way here’, met him in the Lake District in 1823, he was on his way to New Lanark, ‘with the intention of investing £5,000 in [Robert] Owen’s experiment’. Southey noted that he had already ‘realised some £150,000 in trade’ and was
well acquainted with the principal men among the free thinking Christians. He likes the men, but sees reason to doubt their doctrine. He seems to be searching for truth in such a temper of mind that there is good reason for thinking he will find it.7
He remained a lifelong member of the Church of England.8
He first became a parliamentary candidate in September 1825, when the radical Joseph Hume*, who turned it down, recommended him and another liberal merchant, Charles Poulett Thomson*, for Dover.9 They canvassed avidly, paying particular attention to the London voters, to whom Morrison was introduced as ‘a man of business like themselves, who by mere force of talent and intellect had raised and directed one of the most extensive businesses which this kingdom or perhaps the world could produce’.10 In a joint address, he and Poulett Thomson promised that ‘our public conduct will be guided by the endeavour to produce the greatest sum of happiness to our fellow men’, by promoting civil and religious freedom, reform of abuses and retrenchment. They praised liberal Toryism and the president of the board of trade Huskisson’s commercial policy.11 Morrison’s withdrawal from Dover in April 1826 was attributed to illness from pressure of work compounded by the 1825-6 banking crisis (which his business interests survived), the appearance of new candidates and a growing awareness that the return of two liberals was unlikely. His announcement specified ill health.12 Nothing came of invitations to stand for Canterbury and Worcester and, declining Norwich, on 6 June 1826 he made a state entry to Great Marlow, where Thomas Wooler, editor of the Black Dwarf, had spotted a late opportunity to undermine the Williams interest.13 He hoped that his business connections with Barclay, Gurney and Young would procure him votes through their influence on Marlow’s local brewers Wethered; but, branded an atheist because he supported religious liberty, and denied access to the Crown inn, he came bottom of the poll.14 He supported Waithman’s candidature for the City and continued to cultivate an interest at Marlow, where he denounced the ‘monopoly of local power’ exercised by the Williamses ‘to the prejudice of the electors’.15
Combining mercantile interests with the pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement, Morrison took his family to Naples in January 1827 and Carlsbad in 1828, paid £16,500 that year for a 400-acre estate and oyster bed at Wallasea, Essex and rented The Pavilion at Fonthill from George Mortimer for the summer of 1829.16 He had recently been appointed to the council and the buildings, library and hospital committees of University College, London, and he also joined the Society of Useful Knowledge’s publications committee.17 Anticipating a dissolution, he canvassed Marlow in May and June 1830, but ‘his principles as a radical and a reformer’ were ‘fighting a losing battle with his political enthusiasms and his political ambitions’, and he withdrew when consultations with the London constituency broker Isaac Sewell revealed a better prospect at St. Ives, where William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley* had purchased Sir Christopher Hawkins’s* properties with a view to returning himself and a candidate able to advance most of the purchase price as a mortgage.18 The precise cost of Morrison’s election is not known, but after legal action had been taken against Hawkins (because there was a contest), he held mortgages ‘for some £50,000 on various Wellesley estates’.19 He had toyed with Sudbury, where he could rely on the support of the silk merchant Alexander Duff, but appears to have offered his influence there to the Tory Sir John Benn Walsh*, whose pamphlet on Irish poverty he admired.20 On 17 Aug. 1830, he attended the meeting at the London Tavern and made a donation to the revolutionary party in France.21 He negotiated the purchase of the Fonthill Pavilion that autumn, and bought a 1,912-acre estate at Cholsey, near Wallingford for £50,400.22
The Wellington ministry counted Morrison, who sat close to but did not vote slavishly with Hume, among their ‘foes’, and he divided against them when they were brought down on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830. He spoke infrequently and tended to overburden his speeches with financial detail, but he was respected from the outset as an expert on trade, manufacturing and finance, attended policy meetings in the chancellor of the exchequer Lord Althorp’s private rooms and was appointed to the public accounts select committee, 17 Feb. 1831.23 In his maiden speech, on the barilla duties, 7 Feb. 1831, he defended free trade, described the improvements in the glove and silk trades since restrictions had been lifted under the 1824 Act and referred to the current absence of weavers in Spitalfields workhouse among its benefits. He criticized Waithman’s trade resolutions, which assumed that government figures on imports and exports, 1799-1830, did not represent the real value of manufactured goods, 15 Feb. Countering them, he attributed current difficulties to the ‘present impolitic system of corn laws’, complained that Members consistently failed to distinguish between articles of commerce and manufacture and said that too little attention had been paid to the seasonality of distress and inevitable fluctuations in trade. He also maintained that the manufacturing districts were doing better than at any time since the Napoleonic wars, that there was less insolvency among the middle classes and that ‘the return to cash payments was one of the most stupendous undertakings ever devised’. ‘The proper question,’ he added, ‘is not whether the people can pay the taxes, but whether the ministers can do without them’. He condemned the prohibition of machinery exports as ‘a bounty on the manufacture of foreign machinery’; argued that domestic manufacture had not been harmed by the importation of quality silks from Lyons and that lower taxes on wine would not help the poor while tea and sugar were ‘taxed heavily in every cottage in England’, and called for a penny in the pound reduction in the sugar duties to assist the poor. The Member for London William Ward and Poulett Thomson praised the speech, but the radical Henry Hunt, while admitting that Morrison’s ‘experience in commerce is very great’, ridiculed his claim that there was less distress. Morrison replied: ‘My observations were not general, but merely directed to certain great branches of trade’.24 He favoured paying wages in cash, but stressed that while he was no apologist for the truck system, he doubted whether it was ‘practicable or politic to put an end to ... [it] by legislative enactment’, 12 Apr. His votes for the Grey ministry’s reform bill at its second reading, 22 Mar., and against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831, were criticized in the Cornish press and encouraged opposition to him at St. Ives, which was set to lose a Member by it.25 Accordingly, after consulting Sewell, who arranged the appropriate introduction to the Quaker banker Henry Alexander, he stood at Ipswich at the general election in May as ‘an independent reformer’, and came in at a cost of only £1,395, paid through his firm by Dillon, with the barrister Peter Rigby Wason.26 Mary Ann Morrison had recently complained: ‘I shall tire of the House of Commons, it is a great drawback on domestic comforts. With a home in town it might be rather less objectionable’. The only property Morrison purchased that year was the 645-acre Ton Mawr estate near Neath, for £7,740, but early in 1832 he bought a long lease of 95 Upper Harley Street.27
He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, against adjournment, 12 July 1831, and divided steadily for its details. He voted for the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., and Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. 1831. Unlike Wason, one of its chief advocates, he voted in the minority against suspending the Liverpool writ, 5 Sept. He divided for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, its details and its third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. He voted for the address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would pass the bill unimpaired, 10 May, and celebrated its enactment with a reform festival at Fonthill.28 He voted against a Conservative amendment to the Scottish reform bill, 1 June, but in a minority of 23 for amending the boundary bill to neutralize Lord Lonsdale’s influence in Whitehaven, 22 June. He was in the government majority on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., for which he also paired, 12 July, but voted against them on the malt drawback bill, 29 Feb., and paired against their amendment to Buxton’s motion for a select committee on colonial slavery, 24 May. He voted against Baring’s privileges of Parliament bill, 6 June. On the coroners’ bill, he was in a minority of 11 for Hume’s amendment requiring coroners to be medically qualified, 20 June 1832, and voted the same day for inquests to be made public.
Morrison was appointed to select committees on the East India Company, 27 Jan., the silk trade, 5 Mar., and renewal of the Bank of England’s charter, 23 May 1832. His contributions to debate again reflected his trading interests and mercantile expertise. He repeated his support for fixed duties on corn when Lord Milton called for a report on foreign prices, 24 June. He spoke for inquiry into distress in the glove trade, which he attributed to the change in fashion from beaver to kid, lower exports to America and greater use of cotton gloves, 31 Jan. According to Thomas Raikes, when later that evening he asked the Tory whip William Homes for a ‘pair’, the latter quipped, ‘Of what ... gloves or stockings?’29 He did not vote for inquiry into the effect of smuggling on the glove trade, which Hume advocated and Poulett Thomson opposed, 3 Apr., but he said that he considered the trade a ‘good market for the manufacturer’ as payments could be expected at the end of each month, saw little advantage for smugglers as stock levels were satisfactory and that the problem lay in the duty imposed on French dressed leather: if this was removed, ‘we should fairly be able to compete with the foreign glover; and yet, strange enough, this is a thing that our manufacturers have never asked for’. Hume agreed, but Waithman sought to belittle his remarks by recalling how he had been advised by Morrison to buy French gloves at 12s.6d. or 13s. a dozen and sell them at a shilling a pair as a means of advertising; this Morrison naturally denied.30 He spoke briefly in praise of the Scottish practice when the House considered the regulation of child labour, 1 Feb., and briefly backed Wason’s proposal for a bill giving Ipswich the right to hold the Suffolk assizes alternately with Bury St. Edmunds, 3 July 1832.
Standing as a Liberal, Morrison topped the poll at Ipswich in 1832, and he was returned there again at a by-election in 1835 after the poll at the general election was voided.31 Nominated by James Ramsay McCulloch, he joined the Political Economy Club in March 1834, and became a founder committee member in 1836 of the Reform Club with William Ewart*, whose commitment to establishing a school of industrial design and a national gallery he shared.32 He decided against contesting Ipswich and Hull in 1837, was defeated at the Sudbury by-election in December that year, but returned to the House in 1840 as Member for Inverness Burghs, where he stood at the invitation of Edward Ellice*.33 Now a spokesman for railway regulation, Morrison published Observations Illustrative of the Defects of the English System of Railway Legislation (1846) and The Influence of English Railway Legislation on Trade and Industry (1848).34 He had established the merchant bank Morrison, Cryder and Company in 1836 and the family partnership of Morrison, Sons and Company in 1841, with his eldest son Charles Morrison (1817-1909), the senior partner in their American business ventures. In 1850 he made over the Fonthill estate to his second son Alfred Morrison (1821-97).35 He died in October 1857 at Basildon Park, his 2,500-acre estate near Reading, purchased for £76,000 (plus £21,000 for the timber) in 1838, having provided generously for his widow, large family and McCulloch.36 Contemporaries and historians have estimated Morrison’s wealth at death at between £4,000,000 and £6,000,000. In addition to personalty of £942,106 bequeathed to Charles Morrison, London property, a valuable art collection and over £800,000 in American securities, he owned over 100,000 acres in estates in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Glamorgan, Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Sussex, Wiltshire, Yorkshire and Scotland.37 According to his obituary in The Times:
His great merit was that he made the fortunes of many other City men ... There was no trade of which he did not find out the trickery and guard himself against its consequences.38
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Margaret Escott
- 1. W.D. Rubinstein, ‘British Millionaires, 1809-1949’, BIHR, xlvii (1974), 207 and ‘Victorian Middle Classes’ EcHR (ser. 2), xxx (1977), 610-11; M.J. Daunton, ‘Gentlemanly Capitalism and British Industry, 1820-1914’, P and P, cxxii (1989), 138-40; Bowring, Autobiog. Recollections, 58.
- 2. R. Gatty, Portrait of a Merchant Prince, James Morrison, 1790-1857, pp. 1-9, 16.
- 3. Pol. Economy Club (1921), 255.
- 4. Ibid. 9-20; Dict. Business Biog. iv. 341-5 (Charles Morrison).
- 5. Gatty, 20, 28-30; The Gazette, 18 Dec. 1829.
- 6. Gatty, 55.
- 7. Southey’s Life and Corresp. (1849), v. 144-5.
- 8. Oxford DNB.
- 9. Kentish Chron. 9, 23, 30 Sept.; Kentish Gazette, 20 Sept. 1825.
- 10. The Times, 27, 29 Sept.; Morning Chron. 29 Sept.; Kent Herald, 29 Sept. 1825.
- 11. Kent Herald, 22 Sept. 1825.
- 12. Ibid. 20, 27 Apr. 1826
- 13. Kentish. Chron. 4 Apr.; Norwich Mercury, 3, 10 June; Bucks. Beds. and Herts. Chron. 10 June 1826; Add. 40387, ff. 78, 88, 90.
- 14. The Times, 12, 13, 20, 22 June; Bucks. Beds. and Herts. Chron. 17 June, 1 July 1826; Gatty, 66-70.
- 15. The Times, 12 May; Bucks. Beds. and Herts. Chron. 4 Aug. 1827.
- 16. Gatty, 88-101, 307.
- 17. Univ. Coll. London Archives, College corresp. 915 (28 Dec. 1828); Add. 38758, f. 52.
- 18. Gatty, 70, 104-5; West Briton, 23, 30 July, 13 Aug.; R. Cornw. Gazette