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Sophia Morrison

Epithet: Manx cultural fieldworker, campaigner and writer (1859-1917)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Sophia Morrison was born into a well-respected family in Peel, the third of nine children of Charles Morrison and his wife Louisa. The family lived at varioud addresses in Atholl Street - numbers 7, 11 and 15 - Charles being a merchant and owner of a fleet of fishing boats. His relative wealth provided sufficient means to fund training for the professions of doctor and chemist for two of Sophia's brothers at King William's College. After attending Peel Clothworkers' School, Sophia continued music studies with her relative and friend Edmund Evans Greaves Goodwin, being the first candidate on the Island to pass a music college examination, but little else is known about her education. At the time of the 1871 census, she was lodging at Ballig, near Onchan, and it is probable that she attended a private school in that area. What is certain is that Sophia developed a keen interest in languages; she possessed a working knowledge of Italian, Spanish, Irish and Scots Gaelic, and was fluent in French. Diary entries reveal that she was already well read in European literature as a teenager.

Depsite being brought up in an English-speaking household, Sophia had become a fluent speaker in Chengey ny Mayrey (the Mother Tongue). This was partly the result of regular contact with native speakers, particularly Manx Gaelic-speaking fishermen. Together with her friends, Miss O. Joughin and William Cashen, she founded Manx classes in Peel, successors to which continue to this day. In 1899 she was among the founder members of Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh - the Manx Language Society - and through it was responsible for the establishment of the Manx classes in the Isle of Man Fine Arts and Industrial Guild (The Guild). She was invited to become honorary secretary in 1901, a position she held until her death.

Sophia was founder-editor of the society's journal, 'Mannin', which appeared between 1913-17, totalling nine volumes. Its title page was illustrated by Archibald Knox. 'Mannin's' final number was edited by Sophia's protegee, Constance Mona Douglas, and contains many articles in her memory. Sophia also acted as a facilitator, securing the publication of pioneering teaching aids such as Goodwin's 'First Lessons in Manx' in 1901. Her friend, the Welsh nationalist Alice Mallt Willliams, wrote in 'Mannin' Volume 9 that Sophia was welcomed by native Manx speakers because, 'she was of them and proud of being so'.

Sophia was in constant contact with Manx antiquarians, including Arthur William Moore, John Joseph Kneen and William Henry Gill, and she was consulted by them in relation to folklore, Manx Gaelic, dialectology and music. She contributed to the 'Celtic Review' and was author of the entry on A.W. Moore in the 'Dictionary of National Biography'.

Influenced greatly by figures of the previous generation, such as the poet the Revd Thomas Edward Brown and music collector Dr John Clague, Sophia Morrison was committed to the collection and promotion of all aspects of Manx culture. In 1912, she was elected vice-president of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Together with Alice Mallt Williams, she produced a 'T.E. Brown Calendar', and masterminded the T.E. Brown Day in schools, with each school being given a portrait of the poet.

Sophia was actively involved with the pan-Celtic movement, making contributions to journals and representing the Island at the 1901 Pan-Celtic Congress in Dublin. Together with Miss A. Corrin, she was petitioned by 'Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh' to develop ideas of national dress. Her attitude was firmly that of the pan-Celticist rather than the narrowly nationalist, recommending, for example, that non-native speakers of the Goidelic group should learn Irish Gaelic rather than Manx Gaelic. Her work as secretary to 'Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh' brought her into regular contact with leading Celticists such as Professors John Rhys (Oxford), Edmund Quiggin (Cambridge) and William Watson (Edinburgh), as well as with Douglas Hyde (Dublin).

Sophia's collection of folklore was greatly influenced by her friendship with the German folklorist Charles [Carl] Roeder (1848-1911), who was based in Manchester. Together with Roeder, she published 'Manx Proverbs and Sayings' (1905). Sophia bridged the worlds of informant and collector, of educator and educated. A list of her own publications illustrates her industry and diversity, and her concern to record and make available to her countrymen all that was best of contemporary Manx life is well exemplified by her introduction to William Cashen's 'Manx Folklore', published shortly after his death in 1912. It is a detailed and sympathetic account of his life and rise to prominence. With her sister, Louisa, she compiled 'Manx Cookery' and, with Pilcher George Ralfe, a list of Manx Gaelic names for plants. Widely accepted as the Island's authority on Manx folk and fairy lore, Sophia's research was published in journals such as 'Folk Lore'. She contributed the Manx sections to 'Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries' by Walter Evans-Wentz (1911), and her own publication, 'Manx Fairy Tales', was first published in 1911 and reprinted, with its titles beautifully illustrated by Archibald Knox, in 1929 and 1991.

In addition to her work for Manx Gaelic and folklore, Sophia was an important figure in the development of 'Anglo-Manx' dialect writing (also known as Manx English), working extensively with the theatrical company, the Peel Players, which performed both on the Island and in England. She produced many plays by Christopher Robert Shimmin and her close friend Josephine Kermode ('Cushag'). Cushag's poem in Sophia's memory is to be found in 'Mannin' No. 9 (p.504).

Joseph Wright's 'English Dialect Dictionary'. for which Sophia was an invited reader, was to prove invaluable in the preparation of 'A Vocabulary of the Anglo-Manx Dialect' (1924). The 'Vocabulary' had been instigated by A.W. Moore and was published by Louisa Morrison, after the deaths of both Moore and Sophia. It was completed with the aid of Edmund Goodwin and represents a series of snapshots of the Manx English linguistic situation of the late nineteenth century, drawing on literary and oral sources. It has remained a popular work of reference ever since its publication. At the time of her death, Sophia was collecting material for an Anglo-Manx dictionary, a task taken over from the deceased A.W. Moore.

In later life, Sophia Morrison suffered from neuralgic headaches and severe problems with her eyes, undergoing several operations in Manchester and on the Island. She died on 14th January 1917 as the result of cancer of the intestine, and is buried in the family grave in Peel Cemetery. Her funeral was conducted by the Vicar of German, Revd N.V. Scorer, and was well attended, with members of the Peel Players, J.J. Joughin, Christopher Shimmin, Caesar Cashin and Charles Henry Cowley, bearing her coffin. Philip Wilby Caine's 'In Memoriam' in 'Mannin' Volume 9 states, 'No heavier blow has ever befallen the cause of Manx nationality ...'. Obituaries and articles in her memory appeared in each of the Manx newspapers. In the year of her death, a bas-relief portrait was presented to the Ward Library in Peel and, in 1934, the library was presented with a large memorial bookcase inscribed with Sophia's name. Both memorials are now housed in the extension to the library known as the Sophia Morrison Reference Room. Sophia was also known for the high standard of her artisitc needlework, and the Peel Room at the House of Mannanan has an information panel devoted to her and Edmund Goodwin. Also on view there is her 1910 dictograph, the equivalent of today's tape recorder.

It was only Sophia's extreme sense of modesty that concealed the extent of her contribution to the so-called Celtic Revival. During a period of cultural and linguistic regeneration on the Island, she was instrumental in introducing Manx Gaelic teaching in schools, and pioneered phonograph recordings of Manx Gaelic and Manx English speech and music. The all-encompassing nature of her contribution to Manx cutlure means that Sophia Morrison was at the very centre of Manx revivalist, antiquarian and folklore circles at the beginning of the 20th century.

Biography written by J. Stowell Kenyon, Breesha Maddrell and Leslie Quilliam.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.331-3.)

Culture Vannin


Gender: Female

Date of birth: 1859

Date of death: 1917

Name Variant: Morrison, S., Miss


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