Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Genius for Money

A Genius for Money

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Genius for Money
    Book Description:

    This is the spectacular rags-to-riches story of James Morrison (1789-1857), who began life humbly but through hard work and entrepreneurial brilliance acquired a fortune unequalled in nineteenth-century England. Using the extensive Morrison archive, Caroline Dakers presents the first substantial biography of the richest commoner in England, recounting the details of Morrison's personal life while also placing him in the Victorian age of enterprise that made his success possible.

    An affectionate husband and father of ten, Morrison made his first fortune in textiles, then a second in international finance. He invested in North American railways, was involved in global trade from Canton to Valparaiso, created hundreds of jobs, and relished the challenges of "the science of business". His success enabled him to acquire land, houses, and works of art on a scale to rival the grandest of aristocrats.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18459-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. The Family Tree
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    James Morrison (1789–1857) is one of the least known but most extraordinary of nineteenth-century merchant millionaires. The son of a village innkeeper, he was sent to London as apprentice to a haberdasher. There, he proved to be a genius at making money and became the kingpin of textiles and the Napoleon of shopkeepers, creating a business with a turnover in 1830 of nearly £2 million, the equivalent of £200 million today. He invested almost a million (c. £100 million) in North American railways, he was involved in global trade from Canton to Valparaiso, and acquired land, houses and works...

  7. CHAPTER ONE Middle Wallop
    (pp. 8-13)

    James Morrison was born in August 1789, most probably at his parents’ home, the Lower George Inn in Middle Wallop, a small Hampshire hamlet about ten miles from Salisbury. He was baptised on 6 September at St Peter’s Over Wallop.¹ His elder brother Samuel was born in 1787; his two sisters Maria and Martha in 1793 and 1795.²

    Over and Nether Wallop are connected by a narrow lane which now crosses the busy A343 between Andover and Salisbury at Middle Wallop. The Lower George was conveniently situated beside the crossroads, clearly visible to travellers approaching from Salisbury. Now, the renamed...

  8. CHAPTER TWO The Todds of Fore Street
    (pp. 14-25)

    Although the date of James Morrison’s birth is not recorded, he made a careful note in different documents of the day he began work as shopman (shop assistant) in the house of Joseph Todd & Co., haberdasher, at 105 Fore Street, St Giles’ Cripplegate. ‘I came to live with Mr Todd on the 6th of March 1809 at a salary of 40£ pr year.’¹ To be engaged as a shopman, Morrison would have completed an apprenticeship of between three and seven years, followed by at least one year as a journeyman (working for wages). During that time he lost his parents...

  9. CHAPTER THREE Fore Street and the Textiles Trade
    (pp. 26-36)

    James Morrison expressed his horror of war when he took his family, in 1826, to the site of the Battle of Waterloo:

    It must have been a dirty as well as bloody business, think of a lot of men literally stuck in the mud and another set chopping at their heads with large knifes or knocking out their brains with a heavy piece of Iron into their bodies – again think of Nap on one side peeping over a bank at the side of the road to watch the motions of a body of men whom he had sent forward &...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR James Morrison, ‘the Napoleon of Shopkeepers’
    (pp. 37-45)

    James Morrison’s promise to his partners was clear: ‘I will make your fortune for you if you will undertake not to interfere.’¹ The impressive success of Todd, Morrison & Co. had nothing to do with the contribution of Morrison’s brother-in-law and fellow partner John Edward Todd. It had become apparent to Morrison at the beginning of their partnership that his brother-in-law was lazy and not very bright; he revealed ‘a want of talent & bad temper, which made him worse than useless to me, he was often very ill & at last so much so as to be unable generally to remain in...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE The Education of a Gentleman (Part One)
    (pp. 46-63)

    With complete control of his father-in-law’s business, James Morrison was very rich and within the circle of London trade and businessmen he possessed considerable power and influence. He had come a long way from the Lower George at Middle Wallop.

    His father-in-law Joseph Todd followed the path of many successful tradesmen early in the nineteenth century by using some of the fortune he acquired from Fore Street to make a tour of Europe in 1823. He also began to collect and commission works of art for his two small estates in Twickenham and Molesey.¹ Morrison, however, was never the conventional...

  12. CHAPTER SIX The Education of a Gentleman (Part Two): The Grand Tour
    (pp. 64-73)

    The Morrisons were quite a party when they left London for the continent in July 1826: James and Mary Ann, their eldest and youngest children Charles and Lucy, Mary Ann’s twenty-year-old half-sister Lucy Todd, Miss Smith, daughter of a neighbouring haberdasher from Fore Street, and Maria, the Belgian maid, who ‘gets on admirably & talks french with the washer women’. Lucy was less than a year old and still being nursed; Charles, who was almost nine years old, was to be left at a school in Geneva run by Mr Tapfer for a year’s immersion in European languages. Their other children,...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN Into Parliament
    (pp. 74-81)

    On 7 July 1827, only a few days after returning from his European Tour, Morrison attended the sale at Christie’s of the collection of Sir John Leicester, 1st Baron de Tabley. He bought Turner’s paintingPope’s Villa at Twickenham. Leicester’s offer to sell his collection to the nation to form a ‘National Gallery for British Art’ had been turned down by the Prime Minister four years before, to the disappointment of many artists. William Collins wrote to David Wilkie on 9 July:

    his executors determined to sell by auction his collection of pictures in Hill-street. The artists in general, but...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT Fonthill
    (pp. 82-101)

    During the summer of 1829 Morrison rented a country house for his family. The Pavilion at Fonthill in Wiltshire was just twenty-five miles from his brother Samuel in Middle Wallop, and the extensive grounds provided his children with the opportunity not only to ride and shoot, but also to row, sail and fish on a large and picturesque lake. The holiday was such a success that Morrison decided to purchase his own country estate; with his election to Parliament in 1830 he also decided to let Balham Hill and buy a town house closer to both Fore Street and Westminster....

  15. CHAPTER NINE 57 Harley Street
    (pp. 102-112)

    Mary Ann Morrison confessed to her eldest son Charles early in 1831 that she found her husband’s responsibilities as a Member of Parliament a trial. Committee duties ‘obliged him to be in town by half past ten in the morning [and] detained him until the Speaker took the chair’. Much worse, however, were the late sittings. He always needed the carriage so that ‘it very rarely occurs to be at my disposal’, and he rarely returned to Balham before midnight, often two or three o’clock in the morning.

    This is no small trial to his health which hitherto has been...

  16. CHAPTER TEN In Parliament
    (pp. 113-124)

    Morrison launched his campaign for both a ‘national collection’ of art and a school of design from his position as member of the 1832 Select Committee on the Silk Trade.¹ He wrote to Papworth:

    We shall some day get a Gallery, and that soon, for our National Collection, and I want, and will try hard, to get also a School of Design. For this purpose I think our ‘Silk Committee’ would be a good opportunity to open the subject to Parliament. ... Would you like to give your opinion before the Committee? Our deficiency in selecting and combining colours, and...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN ‘The American Project’
    (pp. 125-145)

    In 1833 James Morrison was forty-four years old. He was an MP in the reformed Parliament, respected by the government for his knowledge of trade and finance. He and Mary Ann and their seven children moved between their luxurious town house in Harley Street and the picturesque Fonthill estate in Wiltshire. He was worth about £700,000, of which £300,000 was invested in his Fore Street business. His income for the year comprised £66,000 from Fore Street plus £19,000 made up of rentals from agricultural estates and properties in London, interest payments from mortgages and loans and a small number of...

  18. CHAPTER TWELVE Letters from America, 1841–1845
    (pp. 146-167)

    Alfred Morrison left Liverpool on 5 October 1841 on board the steam packetColumbia, reaching Boston three weeks later.¹ It was a rough crossing and Alfred compared his experience confined in the fore cabin with forty passengers, ‘all the hatches & doorways closed’, to being incarcerated in the Black Hole of Calcutta. Most of the passengers were French Canadians and Americans returning from their European travels; also agents of Liverpool cotton houses, ‘a gambling set’. Alfred’s companion was the wealthy China merchant William Shepard Wetmore, one of his father’s closest business associates. Alfred also made use of a letter of introduction...

  19. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Basildon: Papworth’s Last Commission
    (pp. 168-181)

    Shortly before Charles and Alfred left for North America to safeguard their father’s investments and ensure he had the means to repay his debts, Morrison engaged his architect and designer J.B. Papworth to turn Basildon into a comfortable family home that also displayed his increasing and significant collection of paintings and furniture. Unlike shiploads of tea, American railway stock and bales of cotton, the Basildon estate appeared to be a sure investment.

    The estate was, according to the 1829 sale particulars, ‘situated in one of the most fertile and picturesque parts of the county, and commanding, on all sides a...

  20. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Basildon: ‘What a Casket to Enclose Pictorial Gems’
    (pp. 182-194)

    In 1847 Morrison retired (or retreated) from Parliament to the splendour of Basildon and the company of those he loved the best, his wife and children. Basildon was above all a family home and Mary Ann’s last child, Allan, was still only five years old. The house was sufficiently large to accommodate in comfort all their eleven children from infants to young adults. None of the Morrisons’ children had left home; none was married. Charles, the eldest, was thirty in 1847 and the only one with a career. Since returning from North America he had followed his father’s advice ‘to...

  21. CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Final Decade
    (pp. 195-209)

    The acquisition of the Basildon estate and the Gray picture collection gave James Morrison a social position far above his rival haberdashers and many merchant bankers: the distance travelled from the Lower George Inn, Middle Wallop, was immense. However, as he entered his seventh decade, both his personal and his professional life were plagued with failures and loss: suddenly his horizons were limited. His long fruitful relationship with J.B. Papworth had ended in an acrimonious court case, his last spell as a Member of Parliament had ended in ignominy, Alfred failed to win Wallingford for the Liberals, his own health...

  22. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Charles Morrison, 1817–1909: ‘Statesman in Finance’
    (pp. 210-224)

    In his lifetime James Morrison amassed a vast fortune, country and town houses, land, stocks and shares and works of art. He was the Napoleon of shopkeepers, the richest commoner of the nineteenth century, a Leviathan of trade and commerce. After his retirement from Fore Street and his increasing ill health, Charles, his eldest son, became the central guiding power behind the family finances as well as building up his personal portfolio. Among his six surviving sons, it was Charles who went on to substantially increase the family wealth through his canny investments. When Charles died on 25 May 1909...

  23. CHAPTER SEVENTEEN Alfred Morrison, 1821–1897: ‘Victorian Maecenas’
    (pp. 225-247)

    Alfred was thirty-six years old when his father died in 1857. He had been leading a bachelor existence at Fonthill for the previous seven years, attended to by a middle-aged housekeeper and three servants, and taking responsibility for the majority of his father’s estates with the assistance of the land agents Rawlence and Squarey. He was already extending his own estate, building cottages and breeding prize-winning horses and sheep. His personal address book is littered with the names and addresses of blacksmiths, wheelwrights, dealers in animals and animal feed, gamekeepers and nurserymen, notes on North American farming techniques and the...

  24. Epilogue
    (pp. 248-251)

    James and Mary Ann Morrison had only nine grandchildren, six girls and three boys. All inherited fortunes. However, the two who bore the Morrison name, Hugh and Archie, not only benefited from the collecting addiction of their father Alfred, but also acquired most of their grandfather’s remaining properties via their uncles Charles and Walter. Hugh, as the eldest, got Fonthill, then Uncle Charles left him Islay. Archie inherited Basildon from Uncle Charles and Malham from Uncle Walter.

    Charles and Walter had followed the example of their father, scorning delights and loving ‘laborious days.’ However, neither Hugh nor Archie was remotely...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 252-303)
  26. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 304-313)
  27. Index
    (pp. 314-326)