Honouring revolutionary 'man of vision' John Bowes Morrell who shaped York's heritage and future

Few can be credited with shaping a city as significant as York, or in leaving a legacy as profound as the man who shied from acclaim for its future.

York Civic Trust blue plaque unveiling at Fairfax House, to JB Morrell, a visionary and major influencer on the cultural landscape of York in the 20th century. Great grandson James Morrell with the plaque in the Saloon of Fairfax house.. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
York Civic Trust blue plaque unveiling at Fairfax House, to JB Morrell, a visionary and major influencer on the cultural landscape of York in the 20th century. Great grandson James Morrell with the plaque in the Saloon of Fairfax house.. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

The impact of John Bowes Morrell is evident in the civic heritage he preserved and, as a great benefactor, politician and newspaperman, who fought for funding to launch the University of York.

Now York Civic Trust, which he helped create alongside York Conservation Trust, is honouring its founding father who reportedly turned down both a parliamentary seat and a knighthood in his conviction for local gain.

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"Had JB Morrell had never been born, York would be very much poorer for it," said Dr Duncan Marks, trust society manager, as a commemorative blue plaque is revealed in his honour.

York Civic Trust blue plaque unveiling at Fairfax House, to JB Morrell. Dr Katherine Webb, who wrote the book ' City of our dreams: J.B. Morrell and the shaping of modern York, talks at the unveiling. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

"He was a driven man, a man of action, who had a vision for what York could and should be, as a provincial capital rather than a provincial city.

"With all the prowess and skill to be a major player in national politics, he chose to focus his realm at a local level."

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JB Morrell, born in Selby in 1873, would play a distinguished role in the region's history, saving dozens of historic buildings and serving as "linchpin" in funding the University of York.

A signature of JB Morrell. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

His impact began as a director of Rowntree & Co, at the tender age of 24, before a move into politics as the city's 'chancellor', seen as a "safe pair of hands" for financial control.

Chairman of Westminster Press and twice Lord Mayor of York, he also played a vital role in the preservation of York’s cultural heritage, co-founding York Civic Trust and York Conservation Trust.

But there was than roles of stately power, said Dr Marks. His ideas for the Castle Museum created what was then quite a cultural revolution, replicated worldwide.

"He was a man of vision," said Dr Marks. "That idea, of a dedicated historic space, really blew people's minds, and the queues wrapped around Clifford's Tower.

York Civic Trust blue plaque unveiling at Fairfax House, to JB Morrell, a visionary and major influencer on the cultural landscape of York in the 20th century. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

"He was interested in heritage conservation, with a real passion that York should be preserved. There was a sense that it was important to serve the past, in how it served today."

"This is about legacy, and what he founded in the city which is now so cherished."

Plaque unveiled

As 2021 marks York Civic Trust's 75th anniversary, a plaque was unveiled at Fairfax House, and it will in time move to Morrell's former home on Burton Stone Lane.

"There is something very fitting about a plaque to commemorate one of our own, someone who was so focused on the history and heritage of York," added Dr Marks.

"I do get the sense it was done for conviction. York is very fortunate to have had JB Morrell."

The plaque unveiling is the first in the trust’s free event programme as part of Heritage Opens Days 2021, which runs until September 19.

The full programme will feature two other plaque unveilings, creative hidden history tours, and a ‘Pitch for Plaques’ grand finale.

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