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William Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield, gave almost £30 million to good causes

Posted in Cars, Education, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Medicine, Philanthropy on Wednesday, 31 July 2013

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This edited article about William Morris, later Lord Nuffield originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 356 published on 9 November 1968.

William Richard Morris, picture, image, illustration

William Richard Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield, British motor manufacturer and philanthropist.

In the parlour of a simple middle-class home in Oxford in 1894, a youth of seventeen faced his father and said, with simple directness: “Dad, I’ve thrown the job in. I’m going to start on my own.”

Frederick Morris put down his newspaper and stared at his son in amazement and dismay.

“Thrown it in! It’s only a few months ago that you started your apprenticeship. Bicycles are all the thing now – they’re smart and fashionable, and anyway cheaper than horses to get around. Your job had a good future . . .”

Mr. Morris didn’t add, as he could have done, that the family was poor, and that despite the facade of respectability every penny counted. But young William Morris, who had hoped to become a surgeon and had gone instead to work in a cycle workshop to oblige his father, explained it all.

“My boss is making out of my work about five times what I really earn,” he said. “I want to be my own boss. I’ve saved four pounds, so I’ve got some capital. I’m going to set up in business on my own.”

The shy and confident way in which he said this dispelled his father’s worry and surprise. Frederick Morris liked the lad’s quiet confidence. He admired the self-discipline by which young William had denied himself every pleasure in order to save from his meagre earnings. He knew the lad worked hard, and that when he was at Church School in Cowley he had proved himself mechanically minded, always tinkering with machines.

“All right, my boy, you’ve got my blessing,” he said, and settled once more to his pipe and the evening paper. After all, hadn’t he chanced his arm earlier in life, in Canada and America, taking the mail by stage coach through territory riddled with Red Indians?

And so, at seventeen, William Morris started making bicycles in an old shed. He had just enough money to buy a few simple tools, and the bicycles he made were so sound and good that his business was a success from the start. Soon he had a bigger demand for them than he could satisfy in so small a workshop, and he moved to larger premises in the High Street.

Much of his money came from repairs – patching punctured tyres, straightening out spokes, repainting and fixing new chains. But he still made bicycles, and he had the right idea about letting the world know how good and reliable they were. He rode them himself in races, so that hundreds soon got used to the sight of the earnest young man pedalling like mad and whizzing past his competitors.

In fact, William Morris became a cycling champion, which was not only good for his business but for his health as well. It kept him as fit as any athlete. He had two types of cycle – a sturdy job for everyday use by anybody, and a sleek, lightweight beauty designed for racing. Both became popular.

Soon he switched to motor-cycles, and by 1910 he was designing his own car. He realised that the majority of motor cars on the road were of American manufacture. Furthermore, they were too expensive. They tried to copy the showiness and heaviness of the old coaches, which had, of course, only been owned by the rich.

But the car, he knew, need not be a luxury. It was going to prove one of the most important features of twentieth century life, and almost everybody would want to have one. So, having built up a substantial business with his bicycles and motor-cycles, he started making motor cars to his own design. They were reliable, long-wearing and moderately priced and were an instant success. The first true Morris car appeared in 1912. It had a “bull-nosed” radiator, and an 8.9 h.p. engine.

At that time Henry Ford, the great American pioneer of mass-produced cars, was flooding Britain with his “Tin Lizzies”. Some called Morris’s two-seaters “A Ford with an Oxford accent”.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the Government used Morris’s factory to make munitions, and when it was returned to him after the war the machinery was worn out, the place in a shambles, and he had to start all over again. But in 1920 there was a slump in car buying, and other manufacturers responded by cutting staff and production. Morris did the opposite – he cut his prices and increased production, and his courage paid off.

He lived for his work. He had married Miss Elizabeth Anstey, of Oxford, in 1904 and lived a simple life without luxuries or show. He was a genuinely shy man. But one use of money (as he got richer and richer) he really loved – and that was giving it away. He became the greatest philanthropist, as well as one of the greatest self-made industrialists, of the twentieth century. By 1932 his works at Cowley covered eighty-two acres and had a capacity of 100,000 cars a year. When in 1926, a big American concern offered him a cheque for £11,000,000 for his business, he had just said, “No, thanks”.

He wanted the profits of his company, after he had given bonuses to his devoted staff, to be spent on doing good. Being modest in tastes (he was little interested in books, plays or gardening) and with sea voyages as his main relaxation, he found ways constantly for using his millions.

By 1936 he had already given away £7,500,000. His benefactions then included £2,000,000 to the University of Oxford for the development of a post-graduate medical school with a staff of full-time professors, £200,000 to the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, £125,000 to Guy’s Hospital in London, and great sums to other hospitals in London, Birmingham and Oxford. He gave £50,000 for crippled children in New Zealand, £50,000 for crippled children in Australia, £30,000 to a scheme near Wigan to provide work for the unemployed, money for the blind, for church building and to help the Jewish victims of Hitler’s persecution in Germany.

He saved the Welsh village of Abercrave, Swansea Valley, in 1938 which was threatened with ruin through the closing down of its local collieries, giving £30,000 to help develop the deeper layers of coal, and so keeping 700 men in work who would have had to go on the dole. That same year he said, at a luncheon: “I can only promise you this, that for the rest of my life I will do my best for mankind.”

He was always finding new ways to help humanity. He spent £500,000 in distributing iron lungs to hospitals and £1,500,000 to provide better recreational facilities for the Territorial Army. Some of his gifts never figured in any official return. One day he popped a cheque for £100,000 into a Red Cross collecting box.

Even between 1936 and 1939 he gave away the astonishing sum of £9,000,000 to good causes.

Of course, giving all that money away made him one of the most persecuted men in Britain. Every crank, cadger and impostor imaginable wrote asking for money, and six secretaries were kept busy answering 2,000 begging letters a week. But, in case he should miss a worthwhile cause, he insisted on seeing each one.

One of his greatest gifts to humanity was his creation of the Nuffield Foundation in 1943 with a gift of £10,000,000 to be used for social welfare, the care of old people and many similar objects. The Foundation still exists and does valuable work in many fields of public welfare and research. He gave immense sums to Oxford University.

By the time he died in 1963 Billy Morris, by then Lord Nuffield, had made more money and given away more than any other British industrialist, certainly over £27,000,000.

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