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Car manufacturer William Morris
By Jane Curran
BBC Oxford contributor

William Morris
William Morris was a champion cyclist in his youth

Of all the people in this series, William Morris is the most inherently Oxfordshire person, even though he was not actually born here.

From the age of three, when his family moved from Worcester, he never left the county for any length of time.

Through the cars he manufactured, his name would be inextricably linked to that of the city.

The name of Nuffield, too, lives on in some of the institutions that resulted from his generosity.

He gave his name to things like Nuffield College, the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre and the Nuffield Foundation.

William Richard Morris was the eldest of seven children. His father was rather a rolling stone, seeking employment where he could, until he came to work as a bailiff on his father-in-law's farm, and it was at Headington Quarry that William grew up.

He went to school in the nearby village of Church Cowley. Leaving school at 15, he went to work for a bicycle agent in St. Giles but left after a disagreement about a raise, and set up a shop at his parents' house, by then at 16 James Street, repairing and making bikes.

Bicycles were at that time a boom industry, and he had taught himself to ride a penny-farthing while still at school. He was also mechanically-minded and good with his hands, but he needed capital to buy parts and had to borrow £4 from a neighbour.

The parts usually came from Birmingham, and he would sometimes cycle there and back in a day to collect them for a special job. In 1894 he began to take part in cycle races, using his own hand-built machines as a form of advertising.

Two years later, Morris opened a shop at 48 High Street and a workshop in nearby Longwall Street. Around then he also started to build motorbikes, and investigated the mechanics of the motorcar.

Unfortunately, he let himself be persuaded by a rich undergraduate to become a partner and works manager in an automobile company, which went bankrupt after a year, leaving him with debts and having to buy back his own tools, many of which he had made himself.

He returned to his bicycles, swearing that he would never go into partnership again, and that he would always invest more heavily in production than in marketing or advertising.

His interest in the motor industry continued to grow and in 1908, realising that the future lay in cars rather than bicycles or motorbikes, he sold his cycle business, and rebuilt the Longwall site, using it to sell, garage and repair motorcars.

He named it The Morris Garage, but it was so opulent that the Oxford Times called it The Oxford Motor Palace, and it was there that he and his mechanics built the first Morris-Oxford Light Car, which sold for around £165 in 1913.

It was not the cheapest car on the market, and was aimed at the middle classes, not the wealthy, but Morris insisted that it should have as many quality features as possible supplied as standard, and that it should be reliable and inexpensive to run.

By July 1914 he was making a hundred cars a month, but when war broke out, demand dropped and he started making hand grenades to help with the war effort.

Afterwards, car production resumed in full, and during the next decade, William Morris began to dominate the car industry in Britain.

He had moved production to Cowley some years earlier, and it was here that his factory flourished.

It remained through all its later incarnations, from Morris Motors to the British Motor Corporation, Pressed Steel Fisher, British Leyland and Austin Rover, and where even now, there is a still a car factory, the German owned BMW, making the new Mini with great success.

Morris himself was honoured for his services to the car industry, first by a baronetcy and then by elevation to the peerage in 1938, when he became Viscount Nuffield, taking the name of a village some 15 miles from Oxford on the way to Henley.

William Morris
William Morris (left) brought buses to Oxford

He and his wife, Elizabeth (known as Lilian) had moved to Nuffield in 1925, after buying the Huntercombe estate, with its golf course and clubhouse, adjoining which they built a flat.

The strange thing was that she did not cook, and they were able to have meals provided by the clubhouse.

They had married in 1904 and for some years lived in a manor house close to the Cowley factory, but Morris had been advised by his doctor to move away from the unhealthy damp and winter fogs of Oxford, and also to take more exercise, so Huntercombe suited them both well.

They had no children, and she was a shy and retiring woman, who took pleasure in gardening and looking after their dogs; in fact, they grew apart as the years passed, and she was rarely seen with him in public.

By 1933 they had moved from the flat to a large house close by, which they called Nuffield Place. This is maintained as it was when he died, and has a fine 1930s garden and woodland area.

The car empire, while still successful, suffered from the economic downturn of the early 1930s, and also began to be challenged by other companies with more modern production methods and a greater insight into the desires of a changing market.

Morris made a sea voyage every winter to Australia (it was known that he had a mistress there) and even when in England was not so keenly involved in his company as before, yet at the same time he was reluctant to delegate and resentful of those who seemed to him to be assuming too much power.

He was also moving into aviation (aero-engines) and tanks, which would later be built at the Cowley plant during World War II. However, he sought advice and by 1936 sackings and reorganisation had paid off, and profits soared.

By this time Morris had begun to spend his money, not on himself (he was famously thrifty and parsimonious) but as a public benefactor, particularly in the fields of medicine and education.

Strangely for someone so down to earth, dour and practical, William Morris suffered from severe hypochondria as he grew older.

A mysterious illness shortly after World War I - maybe due to stress and exhaustion - was treated in Germany, and from then on he worried constantly about his health, even keeping his appendix in a little jar in his bedroom as a gruesome reminder of the bad experience he had had when it was removed.

At Huntercombe he got to know other members of the golf club, many of whom were doctors, and it was partly as a result of his conversations with them that he began to make donations to medical causes.

One of his earliest recorded benefactions, however, was to enable the parents of Borstal boys to visit their children while they were locked up, to maintain family links and protect them from becoming institutionalised.

That was in 1926, the year he also established a Chair of Spanish Studies at Oxford. He had been exploring business links in Spain and South America, and was shocked at how few chances there were for people to learn Spanish; he also felt the University should be modernising the range of studies offered.

He gave money to hospitals in Birmingham, Coventry and elsewhere, and donated to numerous projects for young people; this was his way of improving facilities in the local communities where his workers lived.

Despite his generosity to many deserving causes, he is chiefly remembered for his great benefactions to the University of Oxford, and to the hospitals in the city itself.

In 1930, he bought the land around the Radcliffe Observatory on the Woodstock Road to enable the Radcliffe Infirmary next door to expand, modernise, and become a full scale teaching hospital.

Many Oxford inhabitants were born in the Nuffield Maternity Home on Walton Street, before the maternity department of the JR opened in Headington in the early 1970's.

Many too will remember the Wingfield Hospital for crippled children, which he transformed from a collection of huts into a more impressive hospital, on the site of the present Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre.

In 1936 he founded the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research, mainly to promote medical research in areas where lack of funds had hampered such work before. He also set up a Department of Anaesthesia which pioneered new techniques during World War II.

This was a subject close to his heart, because when as a young man he had all his teeth taken out he had been terrified by the feeling of suffocation caused by the dentist's clumsy use of gas, and was forever after fearful of anaesthetics.

Morris founded Nuffield College as a graduate college in 1937 - possibly, it was sometimes joked, to improve the look of the city for those coming in from the west, but in reality to stimulate research in Social Sciences.

It houses the existing papers and documents left by its founder - only a small personal archive as he kept few private notebooks or diaries, and generally avoided committing his thoughts to paper.

Lord Nuffield retired as Chairman of the British Motor Corporation in 1953, but although he haunted his old office at Cowley for a long time afterwards, he chiefly devoted himself to his philanthropic concerns.

His wife died in 1959 and Morris himself on August 22 1963. His ashes were buried in Holy Trinity Church, in the village where he had lived for almost 40 years.




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