William Morris, owner of the Morris Motor Company, was at one time Britain's richest self-made man and greatest philanthropist. Peter McGill looks back at his extraordinary generosity to Oxford while he lived a life of great modesty himself. 

Nuffield with Morris Minor.

Above: Lord Nuffield with his Morris Minor

by Peter McGill

St. Peter’s today is a thriving Oxford college on New Inn Hall Street but back in the 1930s, when it was still a hall of residence, it was on its uppers. The Great Crash nearly wiped out its Church of England patron, the Martyrs’ Memorial Trust, which was unable to meet payments on a £70,000 mortgage secured against the buildings. Morris motorcyle group

Above: Morris motorcyle workers' group portrait

Providentially, Lord Nuffield dug into his pockets in 1934 with a donation of £10,000, in gratitude for the master of St. Peter’s conducting a funeral for his mother, Emily Morris, that January. Twelve months later Nuffield unveiled her bronze effigy, in the presence of the vice-chancellor, in the entrance hall of the ‘Emily Morris Building’ at St. Peter’s. “In beauty of design and execution it is equal to any of its kind in Oxford,” trilled St. Peter’s annual report, “and the Public Orator most kindly composed the Latin epitaph.”

St Peter's

Above: St Peter's was kept going in 1934 thanks to a donation of £10,000 from Lord Nuffield

In 1936 the Council of St. Peter’s gave thanks to God for a miracle that Midsummer Day. It was at the annual Encaenia party to honour founders and benefactors, in the gardens of St. John’s. Nuffield informed Rev. Christopher Chavasse, master of St. Peter’s and son of its founder, that he would give a further £50,000. This “completely and gloriously altered the whole prospect as when the midsummer sun suddenly shines forth from out of a grey sky,” waxed Chavasse.

Punch ran a cartoon on 2 December 1936 about Nuffield’s munificence towards the university. Drawn by ‘Winnie the Pooh’ illustrator E.H. Shepard, it shows Nuffield in business suit being mobbed on Magdalen Bridge by ecstatic dons in academic gowns. Mortarboards are being filled with gold from a giant car horn held aloft by Nuffield. On the ground is a sack marked ‘£1,250,000.’ The caption reads “"With Mr. Punch’s congratulations to Lord Nuffield, who has increased his enormous gift to Oxford University for Medical Research by another £750,000."

Nuffield’s £2 million established an Oxford medical school that bears his name, together with six chairs he endowed – in medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynaecology, anaesthesia, pathology and radiology. He insisted on the one in anaesthesia, the first in the British Empire, after a painful operation to remove his appendix. Cash-strapped Pembroke and Worcester colleges each received £50,000 from Nuffield in 1937.Nuffield

Above: Nuffield College was created on derelict land using more donations from Lord Nuffield

Nuffield’s biggest bequest was in 1943, of £10 million in shares of Morris Motors to endow the Nuffield Foundation, which still gives grants to science and health, ‘care and comfort of the aged poor,’ social research, law and science education. By the 1950s the shares were worth £30 million, or about £1.8 billion today. (My uncle started the Nuffield project for teaching physics in 1962 but died five months before Nuffield the following year.) Nuffield was also a major benefactor to British hospitals, and built places of recreation for members of the military. 

The one act of charity he always had mixed feelings about was the creation of Nuffield College, built on derelict canal land he had acquired below St. Peter’s. Nuffield’s original wish was that his initial £900,000 should endow an undergraduate college of engineering, and he needed hard persuading by the university that it should instead be a graduate college for social sciences.


Above: Lord Nuffield's childhood home in Cowley, east Oxford

William Richard Morris achieved all of this - colossus of the British motor industry, philanthropist to rival Carnegie or Rockefeller, elevation to the House of Lords - within a few decades of leaving school aged fifteen, and repairing and assembling bicycles in his parents’ garden shed in Cowley.  

There is a blue plaque, almost hidden by clematis, on the front of the family house at 16 James Street where the ‘carmaker and philanthropist’ lived from 1896 to 1903. A young St. Peter’s undergraduate was living at number 14 when I visited. He had “no idea” of the illustrious former inhabitant next door, who had saved his own college from ruin.

In 1901 Morris set up as a cycle maker at 48 High Street in Oxford (now a shoe shop), and one year later began making motorcycles in stables behind a corner of Holywell Street and Longwall Street.  A contemporary photograph of the ‘Morris Works’ shows a group of men and boys in dungarees with a disassembled bike. Standing at the back with cigarette dangling from mouth is WR Morris, with knowing smile and confident gaze, on the brink of success. First he had to taste failure, when a business to hire motorcycles and cars went bust, thanks to the spendthrift ways of his partner, a wealthy undergraduate.


Above: Lord Nuffield's garage on Longwall Street, where he designed his first Morris Oxford car

Soon he was back on his feet, with financial help from the bank and his new wife who worked in an Oxford department store. Morris was a champion cyclist, winning more than 100 races, and they met through one of the city’s many cycling clubs. 

Merton College built a garage for Morris on Longwall Street where he designed his first Morris Oxford car. He sold 400 from blueprints at the 1912 Motor Show and in order to build them was able to borrow £4,000 from the earl of Macclesfield, who as an Oxford undergraduate had hired a car from Morris in 1905. ‘WRM Motors’ produced 1,300 cars in 1913.  A year later, Morris rented a former army college in Cowley as the site for a new factory. By 1924 Morris had overtaken Ford to become Britain’s biggest car manufacturer, transforming sleepy academic Oxford into an industrial city.


Above: A cutting from 1938 reporting a kidnap attempt on Lord Nuffield

He took the title Nuffield from a hamlet near Henley where he played golf and bought a house there in the 1930s. Nuffield Place, now owned by the National Trust, has hardly changed since his death. Lacking any aristocratic pretension its bourgeois interiors belong to the pages of Agatha Christie. On a wall in the billiard room is a yellowing front page of the Daily Herald on 15 May 1938 reporting a thwarted attempt to kidnap Nuffield from his office.

Above: One of Lord Nuffield's personal items in his bedroom, his own appendix, at Nuffield Place in Oxfordshire

‘The Horn of Plenty’ certainly never spilled into Nuffield’s own modest bedroom. The floor is laid with squares of car carpeting from the Cowley works, and the simple bed has a fireplace mantle as its headboard. Two wardrobes flank the window. One stores Nuffield’s regalia: ermine for the Lords, gowns of an honorary fellow, etc. The other has been converted into a tool cupboard, for Nuffield, an insomniac, liked nothing better than to take apart clocks in the middle of the night. Among all the tools is a memento mori, a glass jar containing his pickled appendix.Tool cupboard

Above: The tool cupboard that Lord Nuffield kept in his bedroom for passing the time during bouts of insomnia

Photographs courtesy of Peter McGill


By David Bevir

As a graduate of Worcester College and a driver of several Morris cars in the past, I found this article fascinating. What an amazing amount of continuing good Lord Nuffield did in his lifetime. I must visit Nuffield Place.

By michael andrews

When I was at Pembroke (1948-51) one of our Fellows was the New Zealander Robert Mackintosh, Professor of Anaesthetics. The story we heard (though I never checked it with Mackintosh himself) was that Nuffield, at the Radcliffe after one of his many operations, found that he was, for once, blissfully free of the usual ghastly after-effects of the anaesthetic. He asked to see the anaesthetist and had a chat with the young Mackintosh who had administered it. Nuffield was so impressed that he founded the Chair of Anaesthetics with Mackintosh as the first incumbent. Is this a verifiable story or simply a Pembroke legend?

By Ed Macalister-Smith

Lord Nuffield also funded in 1930 and further in the early 50's the building of the Oxford Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre on Windmill Road as the Wingfield Morris Hospital, which became probably the UK's top specialist orthopaedic hospital, both for musculo-skeletal treatments and for research. Prof Girdlestone became the first Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery in the UK in 1937.

It also later included the Mary Marlborough House and the Rivermead rehabilitation units and I was privileged to have been the CEO there from 2000 and oversaw the re-building of the original wards, theatres and diagnostics facilities. This is the only NHS hospital with Nuffield in the title, all others are part of the independent Nuffield Group, although as the article mentions there are many NHS Nuffield clinical departments in different part of the country, not least in Oxford.

St Cross

By Timothy Keates

From what I have read (not here) of Nuffield, he sounds to have been a rather miserable person. But it is good to recall what generous gifts he made to Oxford. Ford, at some point, attempted to absorb his firm, but he successfully resisted. As an ex-alumnus of Worcester College, I am grateful to WRM.

By Nigel Lovett

Another example of Nuffield's generosity relates to Huntercombe Golf Club. He applied for membership but was rejected as an artisan! A year later the club went bust. Nuffield bought it but allowed all previous members to remain as such.

By Andrew Whittaker

When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s there was a story that a rather morose porter at Trinity had been in partnership in the bicycle business with Lord Nuffield, but when Nuffield had decided to build cars, he had decided that college portering was more secure.

By John Lush

As an alumnus (never an ex-alumnus, as below) of Worcester College (1957-60) I was the beneficiary of Nuffield’s philanthropy since I had a room in the then modern Nuffield building, which was then the height of student luxury. Now when I visit Oxford I often pass his garage on Longwall Street, and I was interested to learn more of its history. What a fantastically generous man, the like of whom Oxford still needs!

By John Boyce

I was born and went to primary and junior school in Cowley. I remember going to a Morris Motors annual sports day in a road just off Holloway where Lord Nuffield presented prizes and spent some time walking round the field talking to people.

I understand that my godmother, Evelyn Butler (her married surname was Preston, was secretary to Miles Thomas in the old building Morris owned in the main road at the bottom of Holloway.

By Paul Feeny

I will be forever grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for awarding me, in 1961, a 2-year Graduate Scholarship for transfer from a physical science to a biological science. After receiving my Chemistry degree that year, I was able to stay on at Merton College to study for a second undergraduate degree, this time in Zoology. The combination has proved to be an outstanding foundation for my subsequent academic career in Chemical Ecology.

By M V Merrick

As an SHO at Cowley Road Hospital in the 1960's (then the geriatric Unit of the United Oxford Hospitals) I recall an elderly lady who informed me that, as a young woman, she had rejected an offer of marriage from "young Billy Morris" How different might Oxford have been?

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