Obituary: Capt Kenneth Douglas-Morris
Monday 12 July 1993
KENNETH DOUGLAS-MORRIS was a classic example of the distinctively colourful type of engineer officer produced by the Royal Navy in the middle years of this century; he was also a naval medal expert of world stature and an important benefactor and architect of the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth.
After his beloved family, the Navy was Douglas-Morris's abiding passion. He viewed most questions through naval spectacles; he spoke blunt and colourful navalese and he was known in most of the circles in which he moved simply as 'The Captain'. But he was far from being an identikit naval officer. To the end of his life, he remained a 'plumber', as he himself always put it: proud of the practicality that his engineering training had given him and impatient with those less endowed with common sense. He had a sharp and incisive mind and an earthy sense of humour that age, and his cruel final illness, were unable to dim.
Joining the Royal Navy in 1937, he served throughout the Second World War in battleships and cruisers. He was lent to the Royal New Zealand Navy between 1946 and 1949, saw active service again in Korea as squadron engineer officer, 8th Destroyer Squadron, and then began a series of staff appointments, culminating in 1965-67 with the command of the artificers' training establishment HMS Caledonia, a period on which he always looked back with affectionate pride. After further service at the Ministry of Defence, he retired with the rank of Captain in 1972.
Then came the turning-point. He had an instinctive financial flair, which made him a wealthy man, and a shrewd feel for trends in the market. In 1974, he sold his gold coin collection for a stunning pounds 569,000 that broke all records. Inspired by his son Christopher, he had become interested in campaign medals and so the money raised by the sale was diverted into creating a naval medal collection. His aim, which he came remarkably close to achieving, was to collect an example of every medal awarded to naval personnel and, where possible, a medal for each ship involved in every naval action. The collection, which now consists of over 3,000 medals, is generally agreed to be the finest in the world and is complemented by an excellent supporting collection of books, photographs, documents, ceramics and other memorabilia.
But Douglas-Morris was not simply a collector. He realised that medals are not just decorative, lifeless lumps of metal: each has been awarded to an individual, and so each is unique. He began to spend long hours of research in the Public Record Office, putting flesh on the metal by piecing together the recipients' stories from Muster Books, Ship's Logs and other documents. He became not only a medal expert but also an authority on naval social history - and he took sly and delighted pleasure in the fact that a 'mere' plumber should be so courted by numismatists and historians the world over.
He was very generous with his knowledge: letters requesting assistance with medal research were always answered at length and he published, largely at his own expense, four massive books on naval medals - including Naval Medals 1793-1856 (1987) and The Naval General Service Medal Role 1783-1840 - that are likely to prove the definitive works on their subject for many years to come.
It was this desire to share his collection and his knowledge with others that led to his involvement with the Royal Naval Museum. In 1974, he offered to loan a significant part of his collection, just at a time when the museum was seeking to broaden its coverage out of the narrowly Nelsonian channels in which it had been confined and into the broader reaches of naval history. A series of striking new exhibitions resulted, demonstrating, really for the first time in any museum, that medals can be interesting when they are used as individual display items in their own right and not just arranged in boring rows.
Not content to be a distant benefactor, he was soon managing the museum's finances with the same skill he gave to his own, as well as assisting the curators by researching in the PRO. He was made a trustee in 1982; and this role too was adapted to suit his character. Not for him the occasional call on the director for a glass of sherry and a chat: he was far more often to be found in the galleries, the archives or the library (largely stocked by books he had himself donated), talking to staff, asking questions and giving advice.
The strand that links all his activities and gives the key to his special quality is a love of people. A wealthy man who numbered admirals and leading financiers among his friends, a researcher and author of internatonal renown, he none the less never lost touch with ordinary folk. He has gone, but that quality remains: enshrined in his writings, in his wonderful collection of naval memorabilia, and in the displays of the Royal Naval Museum.
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