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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Above: The tool cupboard that Lord Nuffield kept in his bedroom for passing the time during bouts of insomnia
Photographs courtesy of Peter McGill