William Parker Morrell, whose scholarly output of books and learned articles spanned more than half a century, was born at Auckland on 20 November 1899. His father, William John Morrell, from Tiverton, Devon, studied at Balliol College, Oxford, on a scholarship, then became a schoolteacher. In 1897 he married Agnes Mary Tucker and migrated to New Zealand. William junior was the eldest of their four children, and their only son.
In 1907 William Morrell senior was appointed rector of Otago Boys' High School and his son was a pupil there from 1911 to 1916; he was dux in 1915 and 1916, and first in 1916 in the New Zealand university entrance scholarship examinations. He entered the University of Otago and graduated MA in 1921 with brilliant double first-class honours in history, and in Latin and French. He was the first Ross fellow at Knox College (1921–22).
Morrell then went to Balliol College on a postgraduate scholarship. His DPhil dissertation, published as British colonial policy in the age of Peel and Russell (1930), established him as a master in the field of imperial history. A three-year appointment as Beit lecturer in colonial history at Oxford was followed by a readership in history at Birkbeck College, University of London (1930–45). In 1932 he published The provincial system in New Zealand, 1852–76. There followed New Zealand (1935), for which he revisited the country in 1933, and The gold rushes (1940).
Morrell married Ethel Margaret Evans, a London slums schoolteacher, on 3 August 1940 at Breadsall, Derbyshire. Her vitality and outspokenness contributed to their strong and outgoing partnership. She was a Welsh Calvinist Methodist, but they brought up their son and daughter as Anglicans, like their father.
From 1946 Morrell was professor of history at the University of Otago, where his father, recently deceased, had spent 12 years as chancellor. For 19 years Morrell ran his 'own show', as he put it, his department developing a political science wing and growing from two permanent staff members to eight by 1964. His teaching reflected his belief that students would find the best introduction to history through study of their own civilisation, and he led them to material rather than imposing his own values. His encyclopaedic knowledge meant that no facts were spared presentation. His room, lectures, writing and account books were all expressions of a well-ordered and tidy life. Slight of stature and trim of dress, Morrell was witty, with a high-pitched voice and a quiet, courteous manner, and had a facility for attracting close friends. He could appear somewhat otherworldly and had a deserved reputation for absent-mindedness. In fact he was a tough character, both physically and mentally. He took a daily cold bath and like his father, was a keen walker and hiker. He loved cricket – if as a spectator – and in his younger days played a passable game of tennis.
Morrell helped to revive the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and to establish the Royal Commonwealth Society's Dunedin branches; chaired the historical section of the Otago branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand; and was a contributor to 'Lookout', a weekly radio review of international affairs. He was a member of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (1956–68) and chairman of its regional committee (1970–72), a member of the Otago Boys' and Girls' High Schools Board (1955–74, chairman 1961–74), and he chaired the Dunedin Chamber Music Society for nearly 20 years.
Morrell wrote post-primary school bulletins on New Zealand history (1951–55), republished, with bulletins by D. O. W. Hall, as A history of New Zealand life (1957). In 1951 he was Hugh LeMay fellow at Rhodes University, South Africa, and in 1960 he published Britain in the Pacific islands. Later, while professorial fellow at the University of Otago (1965–68), he completed British colonial policy in the mid-Victorian age (1969), wrote The University of Otago, a centennial history (1969), and then accepted a commonwealth fellowship to Queen's University, Kingston, Canada (1968–69). His final works were The Anglican church in New Zealand (1973) and his Memoirs (1979). In the centenary celebrations of his university in 1969, Morrell received an honorary LittD. In 1973 he was honoured with a festschrift, and in 1978 was made a CBE. Judicious of judgement, meticulous in scholarship, showing a mastery of a range of documents, Morrell's works have not been superseded. He provided the best accounts available of British policies towards New Zealand in the mid nineteenth century. The provincial system was a pioneering work, never matched.
Ethel Morrell helped found the Welsh Society in Dunedin, was a member of the Dunedin Choral Society, taught at Queen's High School, was a member of the St Margaret's College Council, and helped establish St Barnabas Home. She died on 4 November 1985. William Parker Morrell died at Dunedin on 27 April 1986. The death in 1989 of his sister Katharine Anne Morrell, who for 35 years had been on the staff of Otago Girls' High School, ended over 80 years of a talented family's association with Dunedin.