Morris, R. Burnett


Published in DA Transactions, 1952.

REGINALD BURNETT MORRIS, M.A., LL.B., who died at his daughter’s house Gerrard’s Cross on 24th February, 1952, should long be revered in Devon as “the great bibliographer”. Commencing in 1914, he took an overwhelming part in the work of what was called from 1915 onwards “the committee for the compilation of a bibliography of Devon”. He prepared the vast majority of the “slips” and sorted them out in the filing drawers. Year after year he added about 40,000 fresh references, which meant the writing and cross-indexing and filing of nearly 150 slips each working day. In his report for 1940 Mr. Morris stated that the bibliography includes “collections towards a manuscript unified lexicographical index of the contents of all Devon printed books and manuscripts (names in Parish Registers excepted) and will require several more million slips before it will be really representative of the County of Devon”. This was indeed an aspiration, but every student will be grateful for the single million entries which were achieved, and which are a source of information of astonishing range and value. When Mr. Morris transferred the index from his home to the Exeter City Library (where it now is[*]) he stated that the million slips were in 424 drawer boxes. The first three hundred listed persons, the next hundred places in Devon and the final 24 indexed Devon subjects.

[* Editor’s note: Since 2014 the “Burnet Morris Index” has been housed in the Devon Heritage Centre, Sowton, Exeter.]

The handicaps imposed by the war prevented the Exeter City Library from carrying forward the work without a break, but an additional and parallel index from later publications of the Record Office and from additional books and manuscripts is being built up as opportunity offers.*

* The hope of advancing a single index to several million entries must be very remote. Sectional indexes may be attempted but can only be compiled as a result of some sustained co-operative effort.

Morris was born in London on 1st April, 1859, but was of Devon extraction as his father was born in Exeter and his grandfather in South Molton. Educated at Mill Hill and at Trinity College, Cambridge, he practised as a barrister until he was 45. He then retired to devote himself to genealogical studies. During the first World War he devoted much time to the work of the Soldiers and Sailors Families’ Association, but he had already formed the idea of the great Devonshire index and worked on it from 1914 onwards. In 1918 he moved to Exmouth and five years later to Teignmouth, where “he gave his whole life to his researches” until failing eyesight caused him to discontinue them at the age of 82 (1941). His contacts with “searchers”, both by letter and in person, gave him lasting pleasure and his extraordinary memory for detail enabled him to help a great many people from all parts of the world.

His membership of the Association, to which he rendered such distinguished service, commenced in 1909.