Henry Morris: The private life of the Digswell Arts Trust Pioneer

Hannah Dingwall Bae

Nares Craig (architect), Henry Morris (in the middle) and Graeme Shankland (town planner)
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (Ref: DE/X1053/Ph4/1)

Henry Morris, C.B.E. (1889-1961), is remembered as the pioneer of the Digswell Art Trust in Hertfordshire and the inventor of the Village Colleges in Cambridgeshire. At Digswell, Morris built a community where artists and craftspeople would have somewhere to live and work in order to create their art and share it with the community. It’s still a flourishing community today, and is a testimony to Morris and his life’s work of transforming the community through education, particularly of the arts. He was a private man, and took great care to keep his personal and public lives separate.

It has been suggested that Morris threw himself into his work in order to avoid or suppress his feelings of attraction towards men, and his love of art held later in life helped him find happiness in other areas. He was uneasy in the presence of women, although the few female friends he had in his lifetime he held in high regard. He was reportedly embarrassed by overtly homosexual men, and did not like anything that could be considered effeminate. It was partly because of these reasons that Harry Rée, author of the biography of Henry Morris Educator Extraordinary, reports that many of Morris’s friends didn’t know he was attracted to men.

One of the great loves of Morris’s life was an unrequited one. Morris first met Charles Fenn in November 1929 when they were both aboard the ship Aquitania travelling to America. Fenn says they spoke one evening and that Morris recommended he read a book from the ship’s library, ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism’. Sceptical at first, and determined to be polite to a passenger (Fenn was aboard the Aquitania for work as the Chief Steward of the Tourist Class), Fenn briefly skimmed through the book but soon became absorbed. It was through this book they began a friendship that would last, on and off, throughout Morris’s lifetime. There was, however, a deeper feeling from Morris to Fenn that was returned only in warm friendship.

Morris understood Fenn was heterosexual, and the two had certain boundaries in place for the sake of their friendship, and Fenn would later describe this one-sided attraction as if it were a cloud that they had to accept would sometimes come into their sky. Their friendship did fracture at a few points over the 30 years they were acquainted – there was a squabble on a Spanish holiday, an upset when Fenn cancelled a trip to visit Morris in Cambridge in favour of spending time with his girlfriend, and then a spell of ignoring letters when Fenn had a sample of Morris’s handwriting analysed, much to the latter’s anger – but Morris always held onto his affection for Fenn. He would often longingly wait for months for letters from Fenn, and would tell him in his replies how much he missed him. They last spoke in December 1959, when Fenn wrote Morris a letter (the last he would send to him) after hearing Morris had been ill. In this, Fenn expressed his appreciation for Morris and their friendship, and thanked him for the influence he had on his life.

Other relationships Morris may have been involved in have not been as widely reported or written about, but he did express his loneliness to those close to him. He once used a quote from the autobiography of Archbishop Lang to explain to his assistant at the time how lonely he felt, and how he wished to love.

Morris moved to Hertfordshire towards the end of his life; in 1958, he moved to Homestead Court in Welwyn Garden City (although he complained he wanted to be in Digswell), and eventually was moved to the geriatric ward in a hospital near St Albans in March 1961. He died on the 10th December 1961.

Sources

The Guardian. ‘Bridging the Gap: Richard Carr Visits Digswell House, a Centre for Artists and a Living Testimony to Educator Henry Morris’, 22 November 1973, p. 15.

Rée, Harry. Educator Extraordinary: The Life and Achievement of Henry Morris. Longman Group Limited, 1973.

University of Wales Trinity Saint David. ‘200 Biographies Celebrating Lampeter’s Bicentenary’. Henry Morris (blog). Accessed 3 January 2023. https://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/library/special-collections/200-biographies-celebrating-lampeters-bicentenary/education/henry-morris/.

 

This page was added on 31/01/2023.

Add your comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!