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The Charles Morris Story according to Ian Holt
Page last updated at 15:30 on Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Below is the story of Charles Morris as told by Ian Holt.

Charles Morris was a successful business man who acquired Highfield Hall and the surrounding estate becoming a benefactor to the local communities of London Colney and Colney Heath.

Born in 1855 his early life was spent on a tenanted farm in rural Somerset, near Bishops Lydeard. Surveyed and planned by the master engineer of the time, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and executed by his assistant James Burke, the West Somerset Railway, from Taunton via Bishops Lydeard to Watchet, had been constructed in the 1860's. The proximity of the railway and the steam driven locomotives may well have caught his imagination for Charles decided to train as an engineer. In 1872 an apprenticeship of four years began with Mr.Edward Hayes at Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, building steampowered launches. At some stage whilst in that area Charles would have made his first acquaintance with teenage, Edith Hollick Sanders, who was born, in 1858, at the hamlet of Gobion Yardley, South Northamptonshire. The 1861 census records her there aged 2, the youngest member of the family of William and Martha, who ran a draper’s and grocer’s business.

Once the apprenticeship was completed Charles needed to gain more experience as a mechanical engineer and accepted posts at various workshops in London and Leeds. Then, in 1878, he became draughtsman and assistant engineer with J. & H. McClaren of Leeds moving to John Fowler & Company of Hunslet, Leeds, in 1883 where he was to work in India as their 'superintending engineer'. Admitted the Institute of Mechanical Engineers' in 1888, the following year Charles Morris was appointed a partner with Jessop & Co of Calcutta, a large constructional engineering business. Then in 1892 he was elevated to become 'Chairman and Managing Director', the position he held until 1926. His rise had been relatively meteoric, beginning as he had, from 'apprentice level'.

In his private life, Charles was re-united with Edith in 1886 and they were married in November at Potterspury, South Northamptonshire, adjacent to the hamlet of Gobion Yardley, her birthplace. The wedding banns having been read at Bishops Lydeard and Stony Stratford in the latter half of October 1886. Edith has not been traced in the 1891 census and it is quite possible that she may have accompanied Charles on one of his long stays in India. The promotion to Chairman allowed him to work mainly from their London office, however, he was clearly not a city dweller, and he and Edith chose to buy Highfield Hall, in 1899, with visits to India continuing until 1914.

A 'sale notice' for the Hall advertised stabling for 150 horses, hence a range of staff and skills were present and the farmland grounds comprised 210 acres from Cell Barnes to White Horse Lane and a long tree-lined driveway to the London Road, approximating the London Colney roundabout. In 1901 the house was extended to include a billiard room. Each year local children were invited to a Christmas party in the 'coach house, some compensation perhaps as the couple did not have children of their own. At the time of the 1911 census the household comprised a cook, lady’s maid, 3 parlour maids, house maid, kitchen maid and houseboy.

In India Charles would have either experienced or witnessed the sporting activities involving Army regiments and other team and club events. At Highfield Hall he and Edith had gatherings for similar social occasions including croquet, cricket and horse events, and a 'point to point course'. My late step-mother, Kathleen, told me of seeing Edward, the Prince of Wales racing there, in the 1920's.

In 1913 Charles Morris was to have the great satisfaction of purchasing the tenanted farm where he had grown up at East Lydeard and which in his will he was to leave to the family of his brother, John. In 2007 it was still in 'Morris' family hands. At both the Somerset farm and Highfield Hall he developed trophy winning herds of Red Devon cattle which gained national recognition which were known as the ‘Highfield strain’. In addition he reared Dorset horn sheep and bred Shire horses with each horse bearing the prefix ‘Colney’. The couple clearly aimed for top Edwardian quality and enthused over their garden too, especially their display of standard roses.

During World War 1 the Hall incorporated a nurses’ home, which may have afforded some comfort to Edith, who sadly became ill and did not recover, passing in June 1916, aged 58. In 1917 a group of wounded New Zealand soldiers were invited to visit the Hall and although not well enough to address them personally Charles had prepared a speech to be read to them.... I welcome you, especially for having come across the seas to fight with the 'mother country' against the common enemy. What an enemy| If we had umpires in war he would have been turned out in the first round for hitting below the belt.' He then went on at some length about the virtues of the Red Devon breed before concluding.... 'I hope you all will get safely through and return home, to find all those near and dear to you well. I sympathise with those of you who have left dear comrades behind'.

It is reasonable to assume that he embraced the theme of 'a better land fit for the returning heroes,' for in 1920 he provided two recreation fields one for the villagers’ use in nearby Tyttenhanger and the other, a much larger area, off White Horse Lane, for London Colney; thus enabling the village cricket team of that time to move from a farm field, 'Playmouth', which was adjacent to Halsey's woodyard; and the village football team who won Mid Herts League Division Two in the Spring of that year, from a farm field off Lowbell Lane; the new London Colney ground was nurtured and tended by the players and later a large timber Scouts’ Hut was funded by Charles Morris on the site of the present car park of Morris Playing Field. The playing field was adopted by the Parish in 1935. In 1922 Charles made another gesture by giving a plot of land, this time, in order that a 'social club' could be established and hence the village club evolved.

His health worsened although in 1924 Charles Morris insisted on visiting the 'war graves' of two of his nephews, and others, in France, despite by then, being confined to a wheelchair, due to crippling arthritis. Although recovering from double pneumonia in 1925 he contacted influenza and succumbed in March 1926, aged 71, and he humorously mused.. 'listen, I can hear the bugle calling to assemble the runners and riders for the next race'.

The probate value of his estate was £111,000 (worth six million pounds today) and amongst the many bequests the will left the sum of £250 to the ‘Vicar and Churchwardens for the time being of the Parish of London Colney’ for the establishment of a charitable trust with the income distributed ‘amongst such amongst such poor inhabitants of the Parish ...as they shall think deserving for the purpose of enabling such persons to buy warm clothing and fuel’. It became known as the ‘Coal Charity’ and In 1930 the legacy was invested in the purchase of £257 5s 7d 5% War Stock.

By the later 20th century the funds had merged with two other small church charities but Inflation and social changes, had rendered the charities, with a total annual income of less than £25, obsolete. The position of such small charities, repeated countless times nationally, was addressed by the Charities Act of 1985 which enabled the original objectives of a charity to be modified. At St Peter’s Church, London Colney, advantage of the Act was taken to wind up the charities and realise the assets which were allocated to upkeep of the church fabric.

The memory of Charles Morris continues to survive in the names of the Morris Playing Fields and the residential road, Morris Way.



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