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How a Nineteenth Century Professional Conveyancer Took His Craft So Seriously, He Established a New Line of Insurance

If you are a title geek, you may know the name Joshua H. Morris. As the lore goes, he was part of a group of conveyancers who met in Philadelphia and formed the very first title insurance company. With that – he helped both to sow the seeds of the modern industry in which we work today and facilitate the growth of homeownership in the United States.

Joshua Husband Morris was born almost 200 years ago on September 12, 1822. He was the 2nd of 7 children and was born to Anthony P. and Anna (Husband) Morris (1850 US Census).

At the time of his birth, the United States had been in existence for less than 50 years. In his lifetime he lived through the Civil War, the assassination of two Presidents (Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield), reconstruction, and the invention of the telephone to name a few.

Born into the Quaker religion (US Quaker Meeting Records, 1681-1935), and what was considered a prominent family of the time, Joshua was educated at Haverford College (Biographical catalogue of the matriculated of Haverford College). The New York Times reported on July 5, 1853, that a Joshua H. Morris received a Degree of Bachelor of Laws from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Given that the 1870 census described his occupation as a lawyer, the reference appears to have referred to him.

In 1847, he married Ann(a) M. Wistar (US Quaker Meetings). They appear to have had just one child, Elizabeth, who survived to adulthood. Fourteen years after they were married, Ann passed away, and Morris would later marry Elizabeth Stokes – with whom he would have two children (John and Anne). By the 1850 census, he and his father were both reporting their professions as that of a conveyancer. In 1865, Joshua served as a director for The Provident Life and Trust Company of Philadelphia (Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/15/1865).

However, things were about to change in the insurance business, and Joshua seemed poised for the transformation.

The impetus was the 1868 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case of Watson v Muirhead (57 Pa. 161 (1868), the case in which, “(Mark) Watson lost his investment in a real estate transaction as the result of a prior lien on the property. (Charles L.) Muirhead, a conveyancer, had discovered a lien prior to the sale but told Watson the title was clear after his lawyer had erroneously determined that the lien was not valid. The courts ruled the conveyancer was not liable for mistakes based on professional opinions.” (Philadelphia Fact: The Birthplace of Title Insurance, ALTA.org)

The court opinion reads in part, “The business of a conveyancer is one of great importance and responsibility. It requires an acquaintance with the general principles of the law of real property and a large amount of practical knowledge, which can only be derived from experience. The rule of liability for errors of judgment as applied to them ought to be the same as in the case of gentlemen in the practice of law or medicine. It is not mere art, but a science and like an attorney or a physician should not be held legally responsible should it be in error.” (Pennsylvania State Reports Containing Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Vol 57, p. 161-168)

While the decision was reasonable, it left Mark Watson, and others like him, with no recourse from assuming broad liability exposure on their property investments. Both homeowners and those who lent them money had no protections available to them. Surely, this would prohibit many buyers from taking on the risk of purchasing a home or property. How could homeownership thrive?

A group of enterprising conveyancers in Philadelphia had an idea. Possibly realizing the importance of developing a set of standards to ensure the professionalism of their vocation continued, they formed an association. In 1870, we once again see the name Joshua H. Morris when he helped form the Philadelphia Conveyancers' Association. The January 28, 1870 issue of The Legal Gazette provided context to the new organization’s purpose: “Though Conveyancing … has for years past been slowly developing from the occasional employment of lawyers and the labor of scriveners, into a special profession or branch of legal practice, yet persons more or less unqualified have at time undertaken it, perceiving the absence of consolidation in its membership and no established standard of proficiency; and its property elevated rank has consequently failed to receive general recognition. To remedy these disadvantages, an association has at last been organized, comprised not only the few who may be said most fitting to represent the profession here, but also almost every competent conveyancer without exception, so long, and so decidedly, has the want of associative action been felt.”

It appears that conveyancing may have been a very lucrative profession. In the 1870 census, Joshua’s income and real estate valued $85,000 – adjusting for inflation, that would equate to more than $1.5 million.

In 1872, he was elected Treasurer of the new association. It was reported that at that meeting “a discussion ensued in regard to the practice of the profession. Attention was called to the dilapidated records in the various municipal offices. The question in regard to custom of the insurance companies protecting mortgagees and ground rent holders in holding policies of insurance as collateral for loans, was also discussed at length, but no action of a definite character was taken.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 4/16/1872) However, in 1874, the push for further change arose when “…the Pennsylvania legislature passed an act allowing for the incorporation of title insurance companies.” (Wikipedia)

This led to the founding of “The Real Estate Title Insurance Company of Philadelphia” and Joshua’s role as its president. The company was described as one that “…insures purchasers of Real Estate and Mortgage against loss from defective title, liens and encumbrances.” Further, “It has at its command the knowledge and experience of most of the leading conveyancers of this city, as well as the information relating to real estate title accumulated by them during their years past. … Insurances are effected only after thorough examination of title, and search as to incumbrances(sic).” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/29/1876) Many of these “leading conveyancers” joined Joshua in this new venture. (Wikipedia).

In June of 1876, the company’s very first title insurance policy was issued to Joshua’s aunt, Martha (Times Herald, 1938). And, the rest, as they say, is history.

As for that conveyancing association, “According to the first edition of Ladner's Conveyancing in Pennsylvania [presumably a precursor to the widely used, Ladner Pennsylvania Real Estate Law], the ‘old time conveyancers’ had ‘practically disappeared (by 1875)’ due to the advent of title insurance companies.” (Wikipedia) Joshua died in 1885 at the age of 64. Upon his death, the Philadelphia Inquirer stated, “Mr. Morris… was a conveyancer and was highly respected in business circles.” (12/24/1885)

Joshua H. Morris – part of that special group of conveyancers, who, as the lore goes, met in Philadelphia and founded the first title insurance company. With that, they created an industry that continues to thrive today, with conveyancers, abstracters, and title producers all proudly protecting property owners so they can achieve the American dream of owning a home.

 

 

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By: Patrick T. Roe, General Manager, Charles Jones LLC

Research assistance by: Linda L. Martin, Marketing & Customer Experience Manager

A version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the New Jersey Land Title Association’s Advocate.

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