Saturday 1 April 2023

(541) Morrison-Bell of Highgreen Manor and Otterburn Hall, baronets

Morrison-Bell baronets
This family is said to have been settled in Weardale (Co. Durham) for several hundred years, but their rise to the landed gentry began with William Bell (1779-1856), who was a successful coal fitter and later colliery proprietor, based at Bishopwearmouth (now Sunderland) in the early 19th century. He married the daughter of a naval officer, and his two surviving sons were brought up as gentlemen, with the elder being sent to Cambridge and both of them serving in the army, although both of them became partners in the family businesses of coal and lead mining. The elder son, Charles William Bell (1833-1914), had a short army career but soon after his father's death took over the management of the family businesses. By the 1870s he had evidently put in managers to undertake the day-to-day running of his companies, and was able to move away from the north-east and live in a succession of homes in the south of England. The frequent moves between properties suggests a rather restless spirit, but they do all seem all to have been rented and his moves may have simply been the result of fixed-term tenancies ending. In the 1880s he purchased a remote moorland farm called Highgreen near Tarset (Northumberland), and replaced the farmhouse with a country house, the round towers of which give it something of the character of a French ch√Ęteau. This house, extended in 1894, remains the family seat today, but in 1896 he also bought Otterburn Hall, not far away, which he altered in 1905, and he had a house at Poole (Dorset) which seems to have been a summer holiday place, as well as a town house in London. All this property was a reflection of burgeoning wealth, and in 1905 (apparently as a result of a legacy from his mother's family) he obtained a licence to add his mother's maiden name (Morrison) to his patronymic, and a few weeks' later he was raised to a baronetcy. Sir Charles Morrison-Bell, 1st bt., as he became, left an estate worth nearly half a million pounds when he died in 1914, and even his bachelor younger brother, who died in 1900, left nearly a quarter of a million. Such were the profits of coal and lead mining in the late 19th century.

Sir Charles and his wife had four sons and two daughters, who all lived to adulthood and married. The eldest son, and principal heir, was Sir Claude Morrison-Bell (1867-1943), 2nd bt., who, after a short career in the army, became deputy chairman of the family businesses after his father's death, although he does not seem to have been actively engaged in their management. He sold Otterburn Hall in 1922, after his mother's death, and although he retained Highgreen he seems to have lived chiefly in the south of England, at Balcombe Tower, Poole (Dorset) and from 1936 at Glendon, Corfe Mullen (Dorset). His younger brothers all sought careers in the army and later in politics, with Sir Arthur Clive Morrison-Bell (1871-1956), 1st bt., being MP for Honiton, 1910-31 and climbing the junior ranks of the ministerial ladder in the early 1920s, while Lt-Col Ernest Fitzroy Morrison-Bell (1871-1960) was MP for Ashburton, 1908-10, 1910-18, and Eustace Widdrington Morrison-Bell (1874-1947) was a member of the London County Council.

Sir Claude Morrison-Bell left one son and three daughters at his death in 1943, and while Highgreen descended to his son, Sir Charles Reginald Francis Morrison-Bell (1915-67), 3rd bt., his home at Glendon (which had been requisitioned for military use during the Second World War) was left to his daughter Veronica (1911-2001) and her Austrian-American husband, Maj. John Jerome Stonborough. Sadly, Sir Charles died when his two sons were young, and Highgreen was let during the minority of his successor, Sir William Hollin Dayrell Morrison-Bell (b. 1956), 4th bt., who took over the management of the estate in 1977. He became a qualified solicitor and lived chiefly in London until he retired, since when he has invested in the development of Highgreen Manor as a centre for artistic endeavours of various kinds, while part of the building has become a holiday let.

Highgreen Manor, Tarset, Northumberland

A stone house of relatively modest size that gives the impression of being much larger than it is because of an agglomeration of cottages and outbuildings set around an informal courtyard at the rear. It was built on the site of an earlier farmhouse, parts of which may be incorporated in the outbuildings, and one source says there was a medieval pele tower on the site, although the evidence for this is unclear. 

Highgreen Manor: the site in 1896, from the OS 25" map
Highgreen Manor: the site in 1862 from the OS 6" map

The present house was built in about 1885 and extended to the right in 1894 by William James Ancell (1853-1913), who may also have been the original architect, for Sir Charles Morrison-Bell (1833-1914), 1st bt. The earlier part consists of a three-bay two-storey centre, with a central gabled porch and paired sash windows to each bay, with stepped and castellated gables set over each bay. To either side of this are corner towers rising half a storey higher than the centre, with tall conical roofs, which give it a chateau air. 

Highgreen Manor: the principal front, with the addition of 1894 on the right. Image: Oliver Dixon. Some rights reserved.
The addition of 1894 is L-shaped, and stands on slightly higher ground than the earlier building, so that its one and a half storeys are the same height as the original block. The recessed section has five small casement windows in raised moulded surrounds on the upper floor and a garden door below. The projecting section to the right has a first-floor canted oriel window carried on a moulded corbel with shield dated 1894, and flanking the window two carved panels in foliage frames, with the family crest, and a bell rebus. Above the oriel there is a gable flanked by chimneys with a pronounced batter. Inside, there is a stone fireplace with another depiction of the family arms on the overmantel, set in an aedicule with pilasters and a modillion cornice. The house is now the home of the family's Highgreen Arts organisation, which runs residential art, yoga and writing courses at the house.

Descent: built for Sir Charles William Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1833-1914), 1st bt.; to son, Sir Claude William Hedley Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1867-1943), 2nd bt.; to son, Sir Charles Reginald Francis Morrison-Bell (1915-67), 3rd bt. ; to son, Sir William Hollin Dayrell Morrison-Bell (b. 1956), 4th bt.

Otterburn Hall, Northumberland

An earlier house of the same name, which belonged to the Hall family in the early 18th century and later to the Ellisons, was described in 1782 as 'an elegant and modern-built... mansion house... pleasantly and desirably situated... near the Conflux of the Rivers Reed and Otterburn'. It was probably on or close to the site of the present Otterburn Tower, and had either disappeared or been renamed by 1863. 

The present Otterburn Hall is a neo-Elizabethan building of brick with stone dressings, built on a greenfield site for Lord James Murray in 1868: the land is said to have been given to him in recompense for the death of his ancestor, the 2nd Earl of Douglas, at the battle of Otterburn in 1388, but I have been unable to find the source of this story or to identify the benefactor with an uneasy conscience. In 1882 it was to let and was described as containing a library, drawing, dining, and other reception rooms, ten principal bed rooms, two dressing rooms, as well as service accommodation. The east front was altered in 1905 for Sir Charles Morrison-Bell by Henry Thomas Wright of Newcastle, who worked in the original style but with rather more freedom than the unidentified first architect. The alterations of this time, which included the addition of the porch, can be distinguished by their use of a rather bright orange brick, which contrasts with the soft red of the earlier work. 

Otterburn Hall: the sadly neglected east front today. 
The east facing entrance front is of two storeys, with a taller projecting cross-wing on the right. The large two-storey porch has a pointed-arched doorway flanked by diagonal buttresses with offsets. Above the doorway is a carved wreath enclosing the Bell family's crest of a falcon with wings furled, and above that is a four-light mullioned window lighting the porch room, and a cornice decorated with grotesque carvings, Tudor roses, and gargoyles at the angles. The rest of the elevation is irregularly fenestrated with large mullioned-and-transomed windows, and there is a (probably later) extruded single-storey bay window in the angle with the cross-wing. 

Otterburn Hall: the south front from an early 20th century postcard.
Round the corner to the south is a more regular five-bay elevation dating from the 1870 period, with a central two-storey canted bay window and broad projecting end bays. This side is crenellated, but the very plain parapet on the east front has lost the finials which survive only on the gable end on the cross-wing. In 1929 the building was reduced to a shell, with a complete loss of the original interiors, by a fire started by an electrical fault during its conversion to a hotel and 'hydro'. The interior was reconstructed and a new billiard room was added, and the hotel finally opened in 1931. 

The house was requisitioned for wartime use as a military hospital and sold in 1948 for conversion to a Christian educational centre. It was acquired by the YMCA in 1980 and later became an hotel and wedding venue. This business closed suddenly in 2012 and the house has been empty and decaying ever since, despite having changed hands several times; there are now new plans for it to reopen as an hotel.

Descent: built 1868 for Lord James Murray; sold 1896 to Sir Charles William Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1833-1914), 1st bt.; to widow, Dame Louisa Maria Morrison-Bell (d. 1920) for life; sold after her death, 1922, to a Newcastle syndicate, which sold 1925 to a Scottish hotel syndicate, which converted it into an hotel; requisitioned for military use during Second World War; sold 1947 to Border Conference Estate Ltd., a Christian educational body; sold c.1980 to YMCA; sold 2002 to Angel Group, which closed the hotel in 2012 and sold 2015; sold 2021.

Bell (later Morrison-Bell) family of Highgreen Manor and Otterburn Hall, baronets

Bell, William (1779-1856). Second son of William Bell (1744-1818) of Anfield House, Lanchester (Co. Durham) and his wife Jane (d. 1823), daughter of John Kirsopp of Conside, Meadowsley (Co. Durham), born 11 April 1779. Coal fitter and owner in County Durham; senior partner of William Bell & Partners and partner in the Belmont Coal Co. In the 1840s he became an active railway promoter. JP for County Durham and Vice-Admiral of County Durham. Paymaster of the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert, 1843-56. He married, 20 May 1828, Mary Wilhelmina (1793-1850), second daughter of John Morrison RN of Stamfordham (Northbld) and Alston (Cumbld), and had issue:
(1) Sir Charles William Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1833-1914), 1st bt.;
(2) William Morrison Bell (1834-1900), born 1 July and baptised at Bishopwearmouth (Co. Durham), 30 July 1834; an officer in the 3rd Light Dragoons (Cornet, 1854; Lt., 1857; Capt., 1858; Maj., 1864; retired, 1869); a partner with his brother in the family colliery and lead mining business, though he was probably never an active partner; after leaving the army he made a trip round the world with friends in 1869-70, documented in his handwritten diaries and in his two-volume book, Other Countries (1872); lived at Birchington (Kent) and Bonchurch (IoW); died unmarried at Bonchurch, 6 April 1900, and was buried there, where he is commemorated by a wall plaque; will proved 15 May 1900 (estate £236,317);
(3) James Hampson Bell (b. & d. 1836), baptised at Bishopwearmouth (Co. Durham), 26 August 1836; died in infancy, 1836.
He lived at Field House, Bishopwearmouth in the 1830s and then rented Ford Hall near Sunderland (Co. Durham) from about 1839 to 1849, leaving after the freehold of the property was sold at auction in 1848.
He died in Newcastle, 16 December 1856. His wife died at Edinburgh 'after a long and tedious illness', 26 May 1850 and was buried in the Dean Cemetery there, where she and her husband are commemorated by a monument.

Bell (later Morrison-Bell), Sir Charles William (1833-1914), 1st bt. Eldest son of William Bell (1779-1856) and his wife Mary Wilhelmina, second daughter of John Morrison RN of Stamfordham (Northbld) and Alston (Cumbld), born 18 March and baptised at Bishopwearmouth (Co. Durham), 19 April 1833. Educated at St. John's College, Cambridge (matriculated 1854). An officer in Durham Artillery Militia (2nd Lt., 1853; Lt. 1854), and then in the army (Cornet, 1855; Lt., 1856; retired, 1860) and later in the Lancashire Hussars Yeomanry Cavalry (Cornet, 1860), and the Durham Rifle Volunteers (Maj., 1864). JP for County Durham, Northumberland (from 1892), Sussex and Wiltshire and DL for County Durham. He was an important coal owner in County Durham, and a Fellow of the Geological Society. He took the additional surname Morrison for himself and his descendants (on inheriting property from his mother's family) by royal licence, 15 October 1905, and was created a baronet, 18 December 1905. He married, 1 September 1863 at Moseley (Worcs), Louisa Maria (1844-1920), second daughter of William Henry Dawes of Moseley Hall and The Hall, Kenilworth (Warks), and had issue:
(1) Sir Claude William Hedley Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1867-1943), 2nd bt. (q.v.);
(2) Evelyn Beatrice Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1869-1927), born 18 October 1869; married, 10 December 1924 at St Margaret, Westminster, Henry Dixon, son of John Dixon, barrister-at-law; died without issue, 24 July 1927; will proved 15 December 1927 (estate £228,949);
(3) twin, Sir Arthur Clive Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1871-1956), 1st bt., of Harpford House (Devon), born 19 April 1871; educated at Eton and RMA Sandhurst; an officer in the Scots Guards (2nd Lt., 1890; Maj., 1908; retired 1908 but returned to colours 1914 and retired 1918) who served in the Boer War and First World War (prisoner of war, 1915-18); Conservative MP for Honiton (Devon), 1910-31; Parliamentary Private Secretary to First Lord of the Admiralty, 1920-23, to the Lord Privy Seal, 1923, and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1924-26; noted for his use of cartographic visualisations of political issues, such as the Tariff Walls Map; created a baronet, 18 July 1923; married, 21 November 1912 at St Margaret, Westminster, Hon. Lilah Katherine Julia (1888-1981), daughter of Mervyn Wingfield (1836-1904), 7th Viscount Powerscourt, and had issue three daughters; died 16 April 1956, when his baronetcy became extinct; his will was proved 8 August 1956 (estate £46,708);
(4) twin, Ernest Fitzroy Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1871-1960), born 19 April 1871; educated at Eton; an officer in the 9th Lancers (2nd Lt., 1891; Lt., 1894; Capt., 1901; Maj., 1914; Lt-Col., 1917; retired 1919), who served in the Boer War (mentioned in despatches) and First World War; appointed OBE, 1919; JP and DL for Gloucestershire; MP for Ashburton (Devon), 1908-10, 1910-18; married, 12 November 1902 at St Paul, Knightsbridge (Middx), Maud Evelyn (1871-1960), daughter of Lt-Col. Frank Henry of Elmestree House, Tetbury (Glos), and had issue four daughters; lived latterly at The Close, Long St., Tetbury; died 20 October 1960; will proved 30 January 1961 (estate £74,707);
(5) Muriel Blanche Gwendoline Bell (1872-1919), born 30 June and baptised at Winterslow (Wilts), 2 August 1872; one of the founders of the Christian Scientist Church, Sevenoaks; married, 10 May 1899 at St Paul, Knightsbridge (Middx), Col. John Middleton Rogers DSO (1864-1945) of Riverhill House, Sevenoaks (Kent) (who m2, 1921, Hilda Rudd Stevenson (1871-1945)), and had issue three sons and two daughters; died 25 December 1919 and was buried at Sevenoaks; will proved 30 March 1920 (estate £77,753).
(6) Eustace Widdrington Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1874-1947), born 10 February and baptised at Winterslow, 18 March 1874; an officer in the Rifle Brigade (2nd Lt., 1894; Lt., 1897; Capt., 1900; retired 1907) who served on the NW Frontier in India, and the Boer War; from 1908 in the 2nd County of London Yeomanry (Capt., 1908; Maj. by 1914; Lt-Col. by 1919), and served in the First World War; member of London County Council for West Marylebone district, 1914-22?; polo player and yachtsman; married, 4 August 1914 at Holy Trinity, Brompton (Middx), Hon. Harriet Margaret (1891-1975), sixth and youngest daughter of Charles Henry Rolle Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis (1834-1904), 20th Baron Clinton, and had issue one son and two daughters; lived latterly on the Isle of Wight; died 13 December 1947; will proved 1 April 1948 (estate £226,800).
He lived at Lorbottle House (Northbld) and later Newbus Grange near Darlington (Co. Durham) in the 1860s, at Roche Court, Winterslow (Wilts) in the 1870s, and at Yewhurst, East Grinstead in the 1880s. He built Highgreen Manor about 1885 and extended it ten years later; and bought Otterburn Hall in 1896 and enlarged it in 1905. He also owned a house called Manor Heath in Manor Road, Bournemouth.
He died 21 October 1914; his will was proved 18 March 1915 (estate £495,849). His widow died 15 December 1920; her will was proved 1921 (estate £186,300).

Bell (later Morrison-Bell), Sir Claude William Hedley (1867-1943), 2nd bt. Eldest son of Sir Charles William Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1833-1914), 1st bt., and his wife Louisa Maria, second daughter of William Henry Dawes of The Hall, Kenilworth (Warks), born 5 May 1867. Educated at Eton. An officer in the 93rd Foot (2nd Lt., 1888; Lt., 1892; Capt., 1898; retired 1902; returned to colours 1915), who served on the North-West Frontier in India, 1897-98 and in the First World War. JP for County Durham (from 1902). In March 1903 he was cited as co-respondent in the divorce of Maj. Philip Cecil Harcourt Gordon and admitted adultery with Mrs Gordon. He took the additional surname Morrison from 1905 and succeeded his father as 2nd baronet, 21 October 1914. Deputy Chairman of Wearmouth Coal Co. Ltd. and South Moor Colliery Co. Ltd. He married, 11 November 1903 at Christ Church, Down St., Westminster (Middx), Frances Isabel (1881-1966), daughter of Lt-Col. Charles Atkinson Logan of Kennedy House, St. Andrews (Fife), and had issue:
(1) Kathleen Frances Morrison-Bell (1906-2001), born 12 December 1906; an officer in the Women's Royal Army Corps (Maj.) in Second World War; County Councillor for Northumberland, 1952-57, 1974-80 (County Alderman, 1957-74); JP for Northumberland from 1957; died unmarried aged 94 on 10 March 2001; will proved 3 September 2001;
(2) Daphne Frances Morrison-Bell (1908-83), born 24 April 1908; married, 12 May 1950, as his second wife, Brig. Brian Mortimer Archibald CBE DSO (1906-93), eldest son of Dr Thomas Dickson Archibald (1876-1951) of Toronto (Canada), and had issue one daughter; died 19 March 1983; will proved 23 June 1983 (estate £146,257);
(3) Veronica Frances Morrison-Bell (1911-2001), born 27 February 1911; married, 17 July 1942 at Brockville, Ontario (Canada), Maj. John Jerome Stonborough (1912-2002)*, an intelligence officer in the Canadian army, younger son of Jerome Stonborough of New York (USA), and had issue two sons and one daughter; inherited Glendon from her parents and divided her time between England and Austria; died 28 January 2001;
(4) Sir Charles Reginald Francis Morrison-Bell (1915-67), 3rd bt. (q.v.).
He inherited Highgreen Manor and Otterburn Hall from his father in 1914, but sold the latter in 1922. In the early 1920s he was living at Balcombe Tower, Poole (Dorset), and in 1936 he bought Glendon, Corfe Mullen (Dorset), which was requisitioned in the Second World War to house US army officers.
He died 22 November 1943 and was buried at Otterburn, where he and his wife are commemorated by a headstone; his will was proved 1 May 1944 (estate £350,437). His widow died 12 March 1966 and was also buried at Otterburn; her will was proved 24 May 1966 (estate £42,243).
* His parents were American and Austrian, his mother, Margarethe, being the sister of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the pianist Paul Wittgenstein.

Morrison-Bell, Sir Charles Reginald Francis (1915-67), 3rd bt. Only son of Sir Claude William Hedley Bell (later Morrison-Bell) (1867-1943), and his wife Frances Isabel, daughter of Lt-Col. Charles Atkinson Logan, born 26 June 1915. Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. Described as a retired hotelier in 1939, he served as an officer in the 12th Lancers (Capt.) in the Second World War (wounded). High Sheriff of Northumberland, 1955-56. He married, 18 June 1955, Prudence Caroline (1936-2020), only daughter of Lt-Col. Wyndham Dayrell Davies (1901-70), and had issue:
(1) Sir William Hollin Dayrell Morrison-Bell (b. 1956), 4th bt. (q.v.);
(2) Julian Francis Tarret Morrison-Bell (b. 1959), born 14 February 1959; photographer, apprenticed to Gordon Bishop, and later farmer on the Highgreen estate; DL for Northumberland, 2021; director of Kielder Water and Forest Park Development Trust, 2000-22; Chairman of Northumberland National Park Development Committee, 2022-date; married 1st, 28 November 1984 (div.), Penelope Josephine (b. 1953), of Chipchase Castle (Northbld) (who m3, 1991, Paul Laszlo Torday (1946-2013), businessman and novelist), daughter of Lt-Col. Richard Ian Griffith Taylor DSO MC (d. 1984), of Chipchase Castle, and formerly wife of Robert John Elkington (b. 1949), and had issue one son; he married 2nd, 11 July 1991, Karenina A., daughter of Nigel O'Flaherty of Dublin, and had further issue one son and one daughter; now living.
He inherited Highgreen Manor from his father in 1943.
He died 23 December 1967 and was buried at Otterburn (Northbld); his will was proved 27 February 1968 (estate £196,985). His widow married 2nd, 19 September 1969 (div. 1979), Peter Gillbanks; after her divorce she reverted to her first married name; she died 20 March 2020.

Morrison-Bell, Sir William Hollin Dayrell (b. 1956), 4th bt. Elder son of Sir Charles Reginald Francis Morrison-Bell (1915-67), 3rd bt., and his wife Prudence Caroline (fl. 2003), only daughter of Lt-Col. Wyndham Dayrell Davies, born 21 June 1956. He succeeded his father as 4th baronet, 22 December 1967. Educated at Eton, St Edmund Hall, Oxford (BA 1978) and Kings College, London (LLM, 1996). Qualified solicitor; in-house solicitor for Air Products plc and associated companies, 1992-2017; landowner and farmer; now involved with several arts-related initiatives including Highgreen Arts and Bloodaxe Books, 2020-date; an amateur artist; Chairman of ManKind Project, 2009-14. He married, 6 October 1984, Cynthia Helene Marie MA (b. 1959), director and curator of Art Circuit Touring Exhibitions, 1996-date, younger daughter of Teddy White of Kensington (Middx) and Switzerland, and had issue:
(1) Thomas Charles Edward Morrison-Bell (b. 1985), born 13 February 1985; educated at Westminster School, Trinity College, Dublin (matriculated 2004; BA 2008) and University College, Dublin (MSc 2012); public affairs manager; heir apparent to the baronetcy;
(2) Emily Prudence Collette Morrison-Bell (b. 1996), born 12 December 1996.
He inherited Highgreen Manor from his father in 1967 and came of age in 1974. The house was leased to Balfour Beatty during the construction of Kielder Water reservoir.
Now living. His wife is now living.

Principal sources

Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, 2003, pp. 2783-84; Sir N. Pevsner, I. Richmond et al., The buildings of England: Northumberland, 2nd edn, 1992, pp. 287, 537;

Location of archives

No significant accumulation of family papers appears to be in a public repository and the family may retain records at Highgreen or elsewhere; some family papers have surfaced at auction in recent years, including the travel diaries of William Morrison Bell (1834-1900).
Morrison-Bell, Sir Arthur Clive (1871-1956), 1st bt.: diaries, autobiography and press cuttings, 1903-56 [Parliamentary Archives, MOR]

Coat of arms

Quarterly, 1st and 4th, sable on a fess ermine between three bells argent a falcon close between two crescents of the field; 2nd and 3rd, argent on a fess azure between three moors' heads couped at the neck proper, the turbans vert doubled argent, three roses or.

Can you help?

  • Does anyone know the source of the story that the site of Otterburn Hall was gifted to Lord James Murray by way of reparation for the death of his ancestor five hundred years earlier?
  • Can anyone provide portraits of the people whose names appear in bold above, for whom no image is currently shown?
  • If anyone can offer further information or corrections to any part of this article I should be most grateful. I am always particularly pleased to hear from current owners or the descendants of families associated with a property who can supply information from their own research or personal knowledge for inclusion.

Revision and acknowledgements

This post was first published 1 April 2023.

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