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John Bowes (‘J.B.’) Morrell was born in 1873, the son of William Wilberforce Morrell, a bank manager in York and author of ‘The History of Selby,’ and Lydia Hutchinson, a Quaker. He attended Bootham School, a Quaker establishment, in the 1880s, and joined Rowntree’s Cocoa Works at the age of 17, going on to become the company's Finance Director by the age of 25. In 1902 he married Bertha Spence-Watson at the Friends Meeting House in Newcastle upon Tyne. They had three children.
A lifelong Liberal, Morrell was a passionate advocate of the importance of the Liberal and provincial press and of effective municipal government. In 1906 he became a director of the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, which financed many Liberal newspaper and publishing companies. Morrell served on their boards, and became chairman of Westminster Press in 1933. He was also twice Lord Mayor of York and chaired the City’s finance committee for 25 years. In 1940 he published The City of our Dreams, outlining a vision of York’s future which greatly influenced post war planning.
J.B. Morrell was a leading benefactor of York. In 1938 he helped Dr John L. Kirk found the York Castle Museum on the site of the old female prison. In 1945 he co-founded the Ings Property Company Ltd, later the York Conservation Trust, with his brother Cuthbert Morrell and in 1948 he co-founded the York Civic Trust with Oliver Sheldon, Dean of York, Eric Milner White, and Noel Terry.
He was also instrumental in the movement to establish a university in York through the Civic Trust’s creation of the Academic Development Committee, succeeded in 1956 by the York Academic Trust. The Committee and Trust ran a programme of academic activities with the intention of establishing York as a candidate for a new university, including the foundation of the Borthwick Institute for Archives in St Anthony’s Hall in 1953. The Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust, which he chaired, was the major financial sponsor of the new university and the academic activities which preceded it. In 1955 Morrell persuaded the Trust to buy Heslington Hall and its grounds and later gave them as the nucleus of the University site. The University of York opened in 1963 and the university library was named in his honour.
J.B. Morrell died 26 April 1963 at the age of 90.