Thursday 1 June 2017

110 Robert Morris

110 Robert Morris
Morriston takes its name from Robert Morris and his second son Sir John Morris,   who confusingly named his own son John (and he was also knighted).  At least it stopped there - unlike Calvert Richard Jones, whose son and grandson both bore the same names, as did three successive keepers of Mumbles lighthouse, each named Abraham Ace. 
Robert Morris came from Shropshire but was married in Swansea at St John’s Church (now St Matthew’s in High Street).  A colliery owner, he developed the Llangyfelach Copper Works in Landore and established the Forest Copper Works.  Near the present-day DVLA his son Sir John Morris built at Pengwern the Palladian-style mansion of Clasemont, where Nelson and the Hamiltons dined in 1802.  He erected what is called Morris Castle, originally a block of workmen’s dwellings at Cnap Lwyd, probably Europe’s first attempt at multi-storey workers’ accommodation.  Sir John engaged the architect William Edwards to create Morris Town, one of Europe's first purpose-built villages, laid out in a gridiron pattern, with each cottage having sufficient garden to grow vegetables.
After Sir John died in 1819, his son (also Sir John Morris) removed the mansion of Clasemont to Sketty, to become Sketty Park mansion, designed by William Jernegan, “the architect of Regency Swansea”.  Following its later purchase by Swansea Corporation, it housed Belgian refugees, and was used as the Civil Defence headquarters, before demolition in 1975, and gave its name to the housing estate.  All that remains is a ruined gothic belvedere, after a design of Margam Park's Chapter House, on a tree-covered mound in Saunders Way.
But even the Morris family had a “black sheep” - in this case Robert Morris’s elder son, also named Robert, elder brother of the first Sir John.  He was born in 1743, and through the advantages of his father’s business acumen was educated at Charterhouse School and Oriel College, Oxford, before being called to the Bar in 1767.  But this Robert Morris was a very different character from his father and his brother John, for he squandered his inheritance and gained a reputation as a hedonist and a womaniser.  He was involved in 1769 with the Society of the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, he belonged to the notorious Retribution Club of the Devil’s Tavern, and he befriended the extravagant libertine and radical MP John Wilkes. 
In 1772 29-year-old Robert Morris scandalously eloped to the continent with twelve-year-old heiress Frances Harford, of whom he was a guardian.  For contempt of court Morris was sent to London’s Fleet prison, whose earlier inmates had included the Quaker founder William Penn, and the poet and clergyman John Donne, while after ten years of protracted legal proceedings the marriage was annulled. 
Morris returned to Swansea in 1785 and became involved in local politics, marrying a Llangyfelach woman, who died four years later.  Though effectively barred from the legal profession, in 1791 he sailed to India, aiming to practise law.  But the judges were aware of his unsavoury past – he had even been caught playing with loaded dice at the gaming table.  A Supreme Court of Calcutta judge, in refusing his attempt to practise law in India, referred to “the notoriety and infamy of your character, and the vile, abandoned and disgraceful life you have led for many years past”.  Morris died two years later of a liver complaint in Utah Pradesh, aged 50. 
To the end his brother Sir John remained loyal and met his bills, noting in his diary “my poor brother buried at Fattigar in East Indies 29 Nov. 1793”.  Ethel Ross, sister-in-law of artist Alfred Janes and compiler of “Letters from Swansea”, has edited some of Morris’s diaries, published as “Radical adventurer: the diaries of Robert Morris, 1772-1774”.
Describing him as a “radical adventurer” is a kindly description of one whose life stands in such marked contrast to those of his father, his brother and his nephew.              

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