Morritt, John Bacon Sawrey (DNB00)


MORRITT, JOHN BACON SAWREY (1772?–1843), traveller and classical scholar, born about 1772, was son and heir of John Sawrey Morritt, who died at Rokeby Park, Yorkshire, on 3 Aug. 1791, by his wife Anne (d. 1809), daughter of Henry Peirse of Bedale, M.P. for Northallerton. Both parents were buried in a vault in Rokeby Church, where their son erected to their memory a monument with a poetic inscription. Morritt, who had previously been in Paris during 1789, was educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. 1794 and M.A. 1798. Early in 1794 he proceeded to the East, and spent two years in travelling, mainly in Greece and Asia Minor. He arrived, with the Rev. James Dallaway [q. v.] and a few other Englishmen, from Lesbos on 6 Nov. 1794, landing about twenty miles below Lectum, in the Sinus Adramyttenus, and proceeded to make a careful survey of the scene of the ‘Iliad.’ When Jacob Bryant published some works with the desire of proving that no such city as Troy had existed, Morritt’s knowledge of the country led him to undertake Homer’s defence, and he published at York in 1798 ‘A Vindication of Homer and of the Ancient Poets and Historians who have recorded the Siege and Fall of Troy.’ This produced from Bryant ‘Some Observations’ in 1799, and when Dean Vincent reviewed Morritt’s work in the ‘British Critic’ for 1 Jan. and 1 March 1799, and issued the criticisms in a separate form, Bryant rushed into print with an angry ‘Expostulation addressed to the “British Critic,”’ 1799, whereupon Morritt retaliated with ‘Additional Remarks on the Topography of Troy, in answer to Mr. Bryant’s last Publications,’ 1800. Some account of his expedition to Troy is given by Dallaway in ‘Constantinople, with Excursions to the Shores and Islands of the Archipelago, and to the Troad,’ 1797, and his opinions are corroborated in ‘Remarks and Observations on the Plain of Troy, made during an Excursion in June 1799,’ by William Francklin [q. v.] Morritt inherited a large fortune, including the estate of Rokeby, which his father had purchased from the ‘long’ Sir Thomas Robinson [q. v.] in 1769, and in 1806 he served as high sheriff of Yorkshire. A conservative in politics, he was returned to parliament by the borough of Beverley at a by-election in 1799, but was defeated at the dissolution in 1802. In 1814 he was elected on a by vacancy for the constituency of Northallerton in Yorkshire, which he represented until 1818, and he sat. for Shaftesbury, Dorset, from 1818 to 1820. ln 1810 he published a pamphlet on the state of parties, entitled ‘Advice to the Whigs, by an Englishman,’ and in 1826 he gave Sir Walter Scott a copy of a printed ‘Letter to R. Bethell,’ in iiavour of the claims of the catholics, whereupon Scott noted in his diary that twenty years previously Morritt had entertained other views on that subject. A reply to this letter was published by the Rev. W. Metcalfe, perpetual curate of Kirk Hammerton. In 1807 he made an ‘excellent speech’ at the nomination of Wilberforce for Yorkshire. Morritt paid Scott a visit in the summer of 1808, and was again his guest in 1816 and January 1829. Their friendship was never broken. Scott, on his return from London in 1809, spent a fortnight at Rokeby, and described it as one of the most enviable places that he had ever seen. In December 1811 he communicated to Morritt his intention of making it the scene of a poem, and received in reply a very long communication on its history and beauties. A second stay was made in the autumn of 1812, with the result that his poem of ‘Rokeby,’ although falling short of complete success, was lauded for the ‘admirable, perhaps the unique fidelity of the local descriptions.' It was dedicated to Morritt 'in token of sincere friendship,' and with the public intimation that the scene had been laid in his 'beautiful demesne.' A further proof of this friendship was shown when Morritt was entrusted with the secret of the authorship of 'Waverley.' Scott's visits were renewed in 1815, 1826, 1828, and in September 1831, on his last journey to London and Italy. Many letters which passed between them are included in Lockhart's 'Life of Scott,' which contained particulars by Morritt of his visit to Scott in 1808 and of the manner in which Scott was lionised by London society in 1809. Many more of their letters are contained in the 'Familiar Letters of Sir Walter Scott,' 1894. Morritt was also acquainted with Stewart Rose, Payne Knight, Sir Humphry Davy, and Southey, the latter of whom stopped at Rokeby in July 1812, and made a short call there in November 1829 (Southey, Life and Correspondence, iii. 345-8, iv. 8, vi. 77).

Morritt, on Scott's invitation, became an occasional contributor to the 'Quarterly Review,' and his poem on 'The Curse of Moy, a Highland Tale,' appeared in the 'Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border' (5th edit. iii. 451). He was elected a member of the Dilettanti Society on 2 June 1799, and his portrait as 'arch-master' of its ceremonies, in the long crimson taffety-tasselled robe of office, was painted by Sir Martin Archer Shee for the society in 1831-2. An essay by him on the 'History and Principles of Antient Sculpture' forms the introduction to the second volume of 'Specimens of Antient Sculpture preserved in Great Britain,' which was issued by the society in 1835. The minutes of the council on its selection and printing are inserted in the 'Historical Notices of the Society of Dilettanti,' pp. 56-9. A volume of 'Miscellaneous Translations and Imitations of the Minor Greek Poets' was published by him in 1802. He composed the poetical inscription on the monument in York Minster to William Burgh [q. v.], whose widow left him the fine miniature of Milton which had been painted by Cooper.

Morritt died at Rokeby Park, 12 July 1843, aged 71. He married, by special license, at the house of Colonel Stanley, M.P., in Pall Mall, on 19 Nov. 1803, Katharine (d. 1815), second daughter of the Rev. Thomas Stanley, rector of Winwick in Lancashire. He was buried by his wife's side in a vault under Rokeby Church, where a marble tablet, surmounted by a bust of him, was placed in their memory.

Morritt was one of the founders and a member of the first committee of the Travellers' Club in 1819. Scott calls him 'a man unequalled in the mixture of sound good sense, high literary cultivation, and the kindest and sweetest temper that ever graced a human bosom.' Wilberforce described him as 'full of anecdote,' and Sir William Fraser mentions him as a brilliant raconteur.

[Gent. Mag. 1791 pt. ii. pp. 780, 1156, 1803 pt. ii. p. 108-5, 1815 pt. ii. p. 637, 1843 pt. ii. pp. 547-8; Annual Keg. 1843, p. 281; Burke's Landed Gentry, 4th ed.. sub 'Peirse' and 'Stanley;' Foster's York Pedigrees, sub 'Peirse;' Whitaker's Richmondshire; Park's Parl. Rep. of Yorkshire, pp. 151, 246; Lockhart's Scott, passim; Scott's Journal, i. 270-2, ii. 162-4, 195-7, 215; Sir W. Fraser's Hic et Ubique, pp. 238-43; Smiles's John Murray, ii. 453; Davies's York Press, pp. 300-1; Wilberforce's Life, iii. 318, iv. 392, v. 241-3; Portraits of Dilettanti Soc. p. 7; Hist. Notices, Dilettanti Soc. pp. 77-8.]

W. P. C.