Plaque at 111, Walmgate YO1 9UA

John Bowes Morrell was born in Selby in 1873, the second son of William Wilberforce Morrell and his wife Lydia. The family came to live in York in 1875 after William Wilberforce’s appointment as General Manager of the York City & County Bank. William Wilberforce was an exceptionally able man who contributed largely to its transformation into one of the largest joint stock banks in England. He was a Wesleyan Methodist, very active in many Methodist, temperance and cultural causes, while Lydia was a Quaker. Their sons grew up in an environment suffused with liberal, nonconformist and Quaker values.

John Bowes (known as Bowes) and his brother Cuthbert were educated at Bootham School, and their future careers were arranged by their father. In 1890 Bowes entered the chocolate and confectionery business of H.I. Rowntree & Co which was then being expanded and developed by Joseph Rowntree. William Wilberforce Morrell lent the firm £10,000 of his own money and this financial stake resulted in J.B. Morrell becoming, at the age of 24, the only non-family director on the board of the new limited company of Rowntree & Co in 1897. Morrell inherited his father’s financial ability and he became one of the most significant figures in the company, becoming finance director after its reorganisation in the early 1920s.

Politics and the press

Morrell soon became active in Liberal politics. After leaving school, he became secretary of the Micklegate Ward Committee of the York Liberal Association, later becoming treasurer and president. This led to other things. At that time York was without a Liberal newspaper so in 1903 he, with Arnold Rowntree and Charles Starmer, the manager of the Northern Echo, formed the North of England Newspaper Company and bought the Yorkshire Gazette to disseminate Liberal opinions in York. This was the beginning of Morrell’s newspaper interests which increased after 1906 when he was appointed a director of the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, one of the three trusts founded by Joseph Rowntree in 1904 which gave funding and support to the Liberal press. As Trust directors, Morrell and Arnold Rowntree headed the boards of an increasing number of press and publishing companies and, in 1933, Morrell became chairman of Westminster Press. As his newspaper interests steadily grew, Morrell’s career came to be divided equally between Rowntree & Co and newspapers.

Public servant

In 1902, J.B. Morrell married Bertha Spence Watson. They had two daughters and a son and, in 1907, moved to Burton Croft in Clifton, York.

Morrell was one of a group of York liberals who as “Liberal Progressives” advocated the municipalisation of public utilities using profits to pay for an array of social reforms. In 1905 Morrell was the first Progressive elected to York City Council; he was re-elected in 1908 and in 1911. He soon achieved a reputation as an able councillor, keen to increase amenities for citizens and advance the city as a tourist and industrial centre. The high regard in which he was held led to his appointment as Lord Mayor in 1914 – an honour not usually granted to a non-alderman. He became alderman in 1916, a position he retained until 1945.

J B Morrell as Lord Mayor during his second term, 1949/50, with his sheriff, Arthur Sykes Rymer. (photo Northern Echo)

Morrell’s 40 years on York City Council saw a great expansion in the statutory duties of the council in education, public health, planning and housing, rating and public assistance. Expansion took place in difficult times and had to be allied with good financial management. In 1920 Morrell was elected chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, a role in which he achieved tremendous standing and popular support as York’s skilled “Chancellor of the Exchequer”. His extensive business experience led him to advocate and achieve reforms in the council’s organisation and structure to increase efficiency. His great interest in the workings of municipal government led to the publication of his Councillors at Work (1932), a superb guide to the mechanics of local government. He coedited two larger books with A.G. Watson: How York Governs Itself (1928), and Whitehall at York (1933), which are important resources for historians of 20th-century York.

York Library, Art Gallery and Castle Museum

Morrell made an enormous contribution to the development of York’s cultural amenities. He chaired the City’s Public Library Committee 1905-20 and led the negotiations with the Carnegie Trustees for the replacement of the old public library in Clifford Street with a new building in Museum Street, designed by Walter Brierley.

He also chaired the Museums and Art Gallery Committee 1912-52. In 1912 the City owned only a few uninspiring art works, badly housed in the Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial exhibition building of 1879. With little available funding, the development of a serious art gallery was a slow process but Morrell patiently took opportunities. Pictures by William Etty were steadily acquired and, in 1930-1, Morrell chaired a successful public appeal to acquire Dr W.A. Evelyn’s important collection of “Old York Views”. Not until the 1940s was the art gallery building refurbished and the first professional curator appointed. These developments attracted significant gifts: the Lycett-Green collection of old masters and later the Milner-White collection of 20th-century studio pottery transformed the art gallery into a top-notch institution.

Morrell saw another opportunity in 1932 when Dr John Kirk, a retired Pickering general practitioner, put his collection of “bygones” up for sale. At that time York City Council was negotiating the takeover of the old Castle Prison site and Morrell immediately envisaged a folk museum housed in the historic setting of the old prison buildings. This plan was beset by problems not least its high cost and the need to convince councillors and citizens of its worth. Morrell conducted a sustained and ultimately successful campaign. The York Castle Museum was formally opened on 23 April 1938. Its most famous feature, the street “Kirkgate”, brought in huge numbers of visitors and it gained worldwide fame. Morrell later commented: ‘I suppose the best work I did was in getting the Castle Museum established.’

Preservation, planning and York Civic Trust

Morrell also played a vital role in the preservation of York’s heritage. The Shambles had long been York’s most famous medieval street but, by 1938, its buildings were in serious disrepair. The council set up a Shambles Area Committee in 1939 which was chaired by Morrell up to 1945. He oversaw the crucial first phase of work, facilitating funding for the purchase of properties from private owners before restoration could begin.

Morrell provided a vision of York’s future in The City of our Dreams, his most important book (1940, expanded 1955) which analysed York past, present and future and set out his ideas of how York could be beautified and modernised. His vision of a “Dream City” became very influential. In 1942 the Corporation set up a short-lived Civic Committee, chaired by Morrell, to gather ideas for post-war planning. Its cultural subcommittee became a forum for those who were interested in the preservation of the city and one of its recommendations was that a co-ordinating committee of bodies interested in preservation should be founded. In 1944, Morrell, with Oliver Sheldon, Dean Eric Milner-White and Noel Terry began to plan such a body. This was launched in 1946 as York Civic Trust Association, later York Civic Trust, with Morrell as chairman. Its aims were to deal with both the preservation of the past and design for the future, ambitions which reflected Morrell’s vision in The City of our Dreams.

As chairman of the Civic Committee, Morrell was involved in the genesis of York’s planning document: York, A Plan for Progress and Preservation by S.D. Adshead, C.J. Minter and C.W.C. Needham (1948). This plan was heavily influenced by Morrell’s vision not only in its balancing of the old and new but also in proposals such as new open spaces and an inner ring road outside the walls.

York Conservation Trust

In the 1940s Morrell began to acquire historic York properties to preserve them, following the example of his brother Cuthbert, who had bought and restored nearly 20 historic properties in the City. In 1945 J.B. Morrell set up the Ings Property Company which gradually took over all the historic properties acquired by the two brothers. In 1976, this became York Conservation Trust which is still run by members of the Morrell family and now manages a large number of historic buildings in central York as a fitting legacy to both brothers.

Bowes Morrell House at 111, Walmgate

Later years

Morrell was an unassuming man, turning down a seat in Parliament in 1912 and a knighthood in 1937. In 1945 he lost his position as an alderman after Labour’s victory in the local elections but he continued as a co-opted member of several council committees. In 1949, at the age of 77, he became Lord Mayor for a second time. In an eventful year, he and his Sheriff flew to the USA and Canada to publicise the impending York Festival of 1951.

In the 1940s Morrell produced two lavishly illustrated books: York Monuments (1944), and Woodwork in York (1949). In 1954 he became chairman of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, then in financial trouble and increasingly unable to manage the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens. Morrell skilfully negotiated the transfer of the gardens and museum to York City Council in 1960.

University of York

Morrell enthusiastically backed the campaign for a university which had been initiated by Oliver Sheldon in 1946. Although the University Grants Committee turned down York’s application in 1947, it suggested that a record of academic activity might make a future bid successful. A programme of courses and summer schools was developed by York Civic Trust’s Academic Development Committee and later by York Academic Trust. One outcome was the foundation of the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in 1953.

Morrell played an important role, facilitating much of the financing through the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust which he then chaired and ensuring that momentum continued after Sheldon’s early death in 1951. When a second, successful bid for a university was made in 1958, the Social Service Trust was able to offer Heslington Hall and its grounds – which Morrell had persuaded it to buy in 1955 – as the nucleus of the university site. Huge financial backing for the new university was provided by all three Rowntree trusts and by Rowntree & Co, as well as by the C. and J.B. Morrell Trust (which today supports the Morrell Centre for Toleration in the Department of Politics). The University of York opened in October 1963 and the library was named the J.B. Morrell Library.

Morrell died in April 1963, eight days after a public celebration of his 90th birthday.

He was cremated on 30 April 1963 at York Crematorium.


Katherine A. Webb, ‘City of our Dreams: J.B. Morrell and the shaping of modern York’. Sheldon Memorial Trust Lecture, April 2011

Anne Vernon, Three Generations, The Fortunes of a Yorkshire Family, (London, 1966)

John Bowes Morrell, The City of Our Dreams (London, 1940)

For more information on York Conservation Trust, visit The site contains a history of the trust and a street by street list of its historic properties with individual descriptions. The YCT has also published a Historical Properties Walking Guide.

© Pat Hill and Katherine Webb