S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science




Morris, Colonel William George (geodesy)

Born: 12 February 1847, Mumbai, India.
Died: 26 February 1935, Caernarvon, Wales, United Kingdom.

William George Morris, military officer, was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel William John Morris and his wife Georgiana. He was educated at Cheltenham College, Goucestershire, England, and joined the Royal Engineers in 1867. He attained the rank of captain in 1879. From 1877 to 1882 he worked as an assistant instructor in surveying at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham, south-east of London. In the latter year he was put in charge of a transit of Venus expedition to Brisbane, Australia. After his return he was directed to lead a survey party to South Africa to carry out the fieldwork for the geodetic survey of the Cape Colony and Natal, under the direction of Dr David Gill* of the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope.

Morris arrived in Durban in June 1883 with a team of Royal Engineers which included Lieutenant H.D. Laffan* and fourteen non-commissioned officers, four of whom were surveyors. The work started with the measurement of a 3 km baseline near the Umgeni River, between Greytown and Pietermaritzburg, in September and October. By the end of the year a geodetic chain had been reconnoitred between Newcastle in the north and Kokstad in the South. During 1884 angular measurements were taken, the latitude, longitude and azimuth determined at Newcastle and near the middle and southern end of the chain, the longitude at Kokstad established by means of a telegraph connection with the Royal Observatory in Cape Town, and the baseline connected to sea level at Durban by levelling via Pietermaritzburg. Morris reported on progress with the work to the Natal government in 1885.

However, the Natal government expressed itself in favour of a quicker, less costly and less accurate survey extending over a larger portion of the colony, to connect its detached cadastral surveys and serve as the basis for maps. Hence Laffan, with four non-commissioned officers, was temporarily transferred to the secondary triangulation of Natal. Meanwhile geodetic observations were carried out by Morris's party through the Transkei to join up with Captain W. Bailey's* survey near King William's Town. In March 1886 the field party was at Umtata, where latitude, longitude and azimuth were determined. Similar full astronomical determinations were made at Berlin, Cape Colony, in May and June. The staff was again reduced for financial reasons, so that only Morris and five non-commissioned officers remained. During 1886 they re-surveyed selected points of Bailey's chain between King William's Town and Port Elizabeth, where another baseline was measured and longitude determined in November 1887.

Next a chain of triangles was measured to connect the baseline at Port Elizabeth to the southern portion of Thomas Maclear's* arc of meridian near Caledon. This work was completed in June 1890. It was followed by the measurement of a chain from Port Elizabeth to Kimberley, with astronomical determinations of latitude, longitude and azimuth at Hanover. After the completion of the observations in June 1891 another baseline was measured near Kimberley. A final chain, running from Hanover to Calvinia and connecting the Port Elizabeth to Kimberley chain with Maclear's survey was then measured, and also tied with the already measured parallel chain from Port Elizabeth to Caledon. The field work was finally finished on 30 September 1892. Morris personally made almost all the astronomical observations in the field, and measured all the angles of the whole triangulation. After completion of the field work he stayed at the Royal Observatory in Cape Town as Gill's guest, where he and two members of his staff did most of the computations involved in the reduction of the observations. After completing the work he returned to England in October 1893.

An account of the survey (291 pp) was included in Gill's Report on the geodetic survey of South Africa in 1896. In the preface to this volume Gill declared that "Colonel Morris' services have been such as very few men have the combined physique and capacity to render; these services have been given by him with unstinted disregard of his own comfort, and with a thoroughness and heartiness which only love of the work and a high sense of duty could inspire"

While in South Africa Morris had been promoted to major in 1886. After his return to England he attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 1893, and colonel in 1898. During 1894-1895 he was in command of the Training Battalion at the School of Military Engineering, and for the next three years was assistant-commandant of the school. He returned to South Africa on active duty from 1898 to 1902, until the end of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

Shortly after the conclusion of the war Morris was appointed superintendent of the geodetic triangulation of the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies, with Gill acting as scientific adviser to the two colonial governments. His post was part of the civil service of the Transvaal Colony. Assuming duty in November 1902 he supervised the measurement of five baselines and eight geodetic chains, comprising 178 triangles. He personally carried out the astronomical observations, while the angular observations were made by Captain H.W. Gordon* and Mr Alexander Simms*. Mr W.B. Robinson* was involved in measuring the baselines, and then became responsible for computing the results. The fieldwork was completed in July 1906. Morris completed the reductions of the results and returned to England early in 1907. Their Reports on the geodetic survey of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony (London, 1908) was issued the next year, authored by Morris, Robinson and Gill. Morris was deeply disappointed that the secondary triangulation of the territories could not also be carried out, mainly for financial reasons. None the less his contribution to surveying in South Africa was extensive and of lasting value, and carried out with enthusiasm and devotion to duty.

Morris was honoured as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG, 1893), a Knight Commander of the same order (KCMG, 1907) and a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB, 1900). He was married twice, first to Ethel Joan Morris and later to Edith Sophia Morris, born Tireman, and had three sons and a daughter. He lived in retirement in north Wales.


List of sources:
Cape of Good Hope. Report of the Surveyor-General, 1883, 1886, 1890, 1895.

Cape of Good Hope. Report on the Geodetic Survey of South Africa..., by D. Gill. Cape Town: W.A. Richards, 1896.

Gill, D. On the origin and progress of geodetic survey in South Africa, and the African arc of meridian. Addresses and papers read at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of science held in South Africa, 1905 (Vol. 1, pp. 1-25). Johannesburg: SAAAS.

Gill, D. A history and description of the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope. London: HMSO, 1913.

Liebenberg, E.C. Die topografiese kartering van Suid-Afrika, 1879-1972; 'n histories-geografiese ontleding. MA-verhandeling in Geografie, Universiteit van Suid-Afrika, 1973.

Major, Sir William George Morris. Geni. Retrieved from https://www.geni.com/people/Major-Sir-William-Morris/6000000073635638824 on 2018-11-20.

Natal Colony. Report on the trigonometrical survey, by W.G. Morris. 1885.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Captain Morris / Major Morris / Colonel Morris / Colonel William George Morris.

Simpson, K. A history of the South African trigonometrical system. South African Journal of Surveying and Mapping, 1969, Vol. 20(3), pp. 109-119.

Transvaal civil service list, 1906.

Who was who, Vol. 3, 2nd ed., 1967.

Watermeyer, G.A. Surveying and geodesy. South African Geographical Journal, 1929, Vol. 12, pp. 5-13.

Zakiewicz, T. The African arc of the 30th meridian. South African Journal of Surveying and Mapping, 1997, Vol. 24, pp. 65-82.


Compiled by: C. Plug


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