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date: 24 April 2024

Morris, William Richard, Viscount Nuffieldfree


Morris, William Richard, Viscount Nuffieldfree

  • R. J. Overy

William Richard Morris, Viscount Nuffield (1877–1963)

by Walter Stoneman, 1934

Morris, William Richard, Viscount Nuffield (1877–1963), motor manufacturer and benefactor, was born on 10 October 1877 in the parish of St John, Worcester, the eldest son of Frederick Morris (1849–1916) from Witney and his wife, Emily Ann (d. 1934), daughter of Richard Pether, of Wood Farm, Headington, Oxford. He was one of seven children, but only two sisters survived into adulthood. Both parents came from Oxfordshire farming stock, which Morris later traced back to the thirteenth century. When Morris was born his father worked for a draper, but in 1880 moved to his wife's farm in Headington to become bailiff. Morris was brought up there, and attended the Cowley village school until the age of fifteen. His father was forced to retire from farming because of asthma and in 1893 Morris was apprenticed for a short time to a cycle maker in St Giles', Oxford.

First enterprises

From this modest, though not impoverished, background Morris rose to become the most famous industrialist of his age. His first enterprise began at the age of sixteen, when he left his apprenticeship and set up a small cycle-repair business in his parents' house at 16 James Street, Oxford, with £4 of capital. He began to assemble his own bicycles made from parts ordered from the flourishing midlands cycle industry, and his custom-built machines developed a reputation in Oxford for reliability and good value. In 1901 he set up as a cycle maker at 48 High Street, Oxford, and in 1902 bought stables in Holywell Street to manufacture motorcycles. The following year he entered into a partnership with a wealthy undergraduate whose spendthrift ways brought bankruptcy to the Oxford Automobile and Cycle Agency, of which Morris was works manager. A small bank loan allowed him to restart in business, but his primary interest was now in motor cars. He sold the cycle business and in 1909 set up the Morris Garage, where he sold, hired, and repaired cars. Sales quadrupled in four years and by 1913 Morris was a successful and respected Oxford businessman.

Morris was an energetic and ambitious young man who made the most of the opportunities offered by the booming midlands industrial area and the dawning age of mass consumption. He had no formal training except for an evening class in engineering at the Oxford schools of technology, which he attended only twice. He disliked working for others, or depending on loans. His financial prudence and rigid individualism were bitter lessons learned from his bankruptcy, and he carried them on into later life. Most accounts show a personable but rather distant character, noted for his drive and competitiveness. He became a champion cyclist in the 1890s, winning more than a hundred events in and around Oxfordshire. Cycling introduced him to his future wife, Elizabeth Maud (Lilian) Anstey (c.1884–1959), daughter of William Jones Anstey, an Oxford farrier. She worked in a department store and shared Morris's obsession with cycle touring. They married on 9 April 1904. The couple were childless, to Morris's profound regret. Elizabeth always remained in the background and their relationship was regarded by others as not particularly happy. The surviving photographs show a handsome couple. Morris was good-looking, of medium height and athletic physique, with dark hair smoothed back from his forehead. Although his hair turned silver by the 1930s his appearance changed remarkably little over the course of a very long life.

Car manufacturer

In 1912 Morris took the predictable step of moving from the sale and hire of cars to actual manufacture. He adopted what had been until then a predominantly American practice, by buying in components from other suppliers which he assembled into a car of his own design and specification. This reduced the initial capital costs very considerably, and allowed him to buy supplies from the most competitive contractor in order to keep the costs low. His early experience with motor cars also convinced him of the importance of reliability. The car he designed in 1911–12, which became the Morris Oxford, was aimed at a broad popular market where price and easy maintenance were priorities. Delays in producing the engine forced Morris to sell his car from blueprints at the 1912 Motor Show. He sold 400, and the first was produced in April 1913. That year he produced 1300 cars, putting him at once among the top British car makers. In 1912 he founded W. R. M. Motors Ltd with himself as the sole ordinary shareholder, and £4000 borrowed from the earl of Macclesfield in the form of preference shares. Morris had met the latter in 1905, when the undergraduate was involved in a collision while at the wheel of a car hired from Morris. A motoring enthusiast, Macclesfield was prepared to support Morris in his manufacturing of cars.

Morris's business career was again the victim of circumstance when war broke out in 1914. Car production collapsed during the war, but Morris had already begun to prepare for large-scale production. In 1914 he rented a disused military training college at Temple Cowley on the outskirts of Oxford. There he began to plan production of a second car, the Morris Cowley, to be manufactured from American components, which were cheap and reliable. Instead Morris found himself producing an assortment of military products, which made the company little profit (though Morris was rewarded by being made OBE in 1917) but provided further experience in mass production at the state's expense. In 1919 he began car production in earnest, but could produce only 387 cars that year. The British Ford company dominated the market. By 1923 Morris produced more than 20,000 cars a year at an exceptionally low price. He achieved this by forcing his suppliers to cut their prices and risk large-volume output. The economies of scale thus achieved allowed Morris to undercut almost all his competitors. His cars also developed a reputation for reliability, ease of maintenance, and innovation. Morris kept a careful eye on American practice, which led to the widespread introduction of hire-purchase schemes in the 1920s, aggressive advertising, and a system of Morris dealerships across the country. Morris exploited the growing car culture of the inter-war years more effectively than his rivals, including Ford, whose fortunes in Britain went into decline in the mid-1920s.

Morris soon developed a circle of subsidiary businesses which were almost wholly dependent on supplying Morris cars. In 1923 he took over ownership of his engine, body, and radiator suppliers, and Morris Engines was founded in May of that year. In 1926 he took over his main carburettor supplier. This expansion called for a regular reorganization of the business. In July 1919 Morris had set up Morris Motors Ltd, with £29,000 of preference shares and £75,000 of ordinary stock, all of which he owned. In 1926 he floated shares in Morris Motors (1926) Ltd. He kept control of the ordinary shares, now valued at £2 million, and floated £3 million of preference shares which were oversubscribed. Over the 1920s capital in the company expanded at over £500,000 per year, much of the new capital coming from re-invested profits.

Management style

From the late 1920s, when Morris supplied a third of all cars made in Britain, the fortunes of the company went into a slow decline. The launch of the successful Morris 8 and Morris 10 range in the 1930s kept Morris in the lead, but the competing pack closed in and other businesses imitated him successfully. Morris came to rely on the initiative of others in the organization, most notably the engineer Leonard Lord, who succeeded in reversing the decline in the early 1930s by modernizing factory practice (including the building of Europe's largest integrated car plant) and rationalizing the corporation as far as Morris would allow. His resignation in 1936, following Morris's refusal to give him a share of the profits, left the business in a difficult position, unable to rationalize effectively because of the insistence of its founder that he should keep general strategy in his own hands, and hostage to Morris's increasingly old-fashioned view of what would sell. Like Henry Ford in America, Morris exercised a damaging authoritarianism over his enterprise at a time when up-to-date production and sales required the move to more modern systems of management and control. Product development stagnated, and the successful post-war Morris Minor was only introduced into mass production against Morris's initial wishes. In 1951, disillusioned by the new era of state controls and the difficulties of holding his rambling industrial empire together, Morris merged the business with Austin to form the British Motor Corporation. He was its first president until he retired in 1954, and continued to interest himself in the affairs of the business until his death in 1963.

Morris's routine involvement in the affairs of the company ended in the 1920s after the successful launching of volume car production. From 1927 he began a long series of annual cruises to Australia, which left him absent even from general policy-making for months at a time. His subordinates, whose views were recorded in the 1950s by Morris's official biographers, Philip Andrews and Elizabeth Brunner, have left a generally unkind picture of their leader. Morris had strong views, which he expected others to respect and interpret. He disliked committee meetings, and instead discussed issues face-to-face with particular individuals. Collective decisions were seldom made by the directors unless they were confident that Morris endorsed them; on occasion Morris could go behind the backs of his directors and authorize policy on his own. One manager recalled that 'Cowley politics' were 'too fierce for words' (Church, Deconstructing Nuffield, 571). Morris did not like yes-men, but he disliked being crossed or ignored. His chairmanship of the Morris company was, as a result, arbitrary and often ill-informed. His was a familiar experience of the small-time entrepreneur who found himself in the space of a decade or so riding the wave of a remarkable consumer boom, forced to cope with the administration of an organization and workforce for which he had little experience. For all his faults Morris did retain values which were commercially sensible. He insisted on low price combined with quality; he believed that after-sales service was a vital key to high sales; and he did not overcommit the business financially. The merger of 1951, which Morris's managers resisted, was on the surface a realistic decision which might, under different circumstances and leadership, have produced a successful post-war volume car industry.

Public life

In the 1920s Morris became a figure of national importance, enjoying publicity and honours. In 1929 he was given a baronetcy, in 1934 a barony, and in 1938 he became Viscount Nuffield, of Nuffield in the county of Oxford, where he had settled with his wife in 1925. He was showered with academic honours, including five honorary LLD degrees, and honorary fellowships at four Oxford colleges, St Peter's, Pembroke, Worcester, and Nuffield, the college he founded in 1949. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1939, a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1948 (following extensive medical benefactions), and was made a Companion of Honour in 1958. For all these honours, Morris remained a man of simple tastes and pleasures. He liked golf and excelled at deck games on his many cruises. His habits were modest. He drove a small Wolseley car and kept his small office at the Cowley works for his entire business life.

Morris's brief forays into public affairs ended unhappily. He was persuaded by Oswald Mosley during the slump to put up £50,000 to help found his ‘New Party’ in 1930, in the mistaken belief that Mosley favoured some of his ideas on involving businessmen in government to secure economic stability and rational action. Once Mosley began to demonstrate his more fascist aims Morris abandoned support, and any idea of businessmen's rule. In 1935 began a sharp dispute with the government over re-armament plans which ended with the exclusion of Morris from the so-called ‘shadow factory’ scheme.

After 1945 Morris undertook a long and unsuccessful assault on the new Labour government's economic controls. His political instincts were profoundly conservative. He disliked socialism and delayed the introduction of trade unions at Cowley for as long as he could. As late as 1956 Morris Motors was only twenty-five per cent unionized: like Henry Ford, Morris believed that the loyalty of the workforce could be bought with high wages. He was an individualist of a classic Victorian kind and distrusted the mass culture and economic collectivism to which his product and business had in part contributed.


Morris's greatest public achievements lay in philanthropy. He began to make educational and medical donations in the 1920s, and as his personal fortune grew he became aware of the contribution he could make to relieve suffering in a pre-welfare state. In 1936 he floated much of his ordinary stock in order to release funds that he could use for benefaction. In total he donated £30 million, two-thirds of it for educational and medical purposes. He was instrumental in establishing a network of provident societies which formed the basis of the British United Provident Association (BUPA), founded in 1947. He established a medical school in Oxford with a donation of £2 million in 1936. In 1937 he granted land and an initial £900,000 for the founding of an Oxford college. He wanted a college of engineering, which would link the world of industry and the university, but instead the Oxford authorities wanted a college to provide social studies. Morris reluctantly agreed, but he took very little interest in the new college and refused to favour the university again. His later donations went to hospitals, and in 1939 to the Nuffield Trust for the Forces of the Crown, which helped to provide welfare facilities for the military. In 1943 he agreed to set up the Nuffield Foundation with a capital of approximately £10 million. Its purpose was to provide medical and social relief, but from the 1950s it also provided educational grants.

Morris took a lively personal interest in his medical benefactions. 'The progress of medical science and the conditions under which medical practice is carried on have long been … among my main interests', he wrote to the vice-chancellor of Oxford in 1936 (Andrews and Brunner, 288), and his endowments were especially important at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford (which successfully resisted the addition of Nuffield to its title) and at Guy's Hospital in London, where a statue was erected in his honour. He retained a lively and informed interest in medical science and was responsible for the initial supply of iron lungs to British hospitals when still in an experimental stage. Morris himself was a lifelong hypochondriac, constantly anxious about his health despite his early robustness. In fact he remained in good health for a man who chain-smoked until four years before his death, when he was forced to give up. His obsession with health perhaps owed something to his father's frail condition and the death of five siblings at a young age.

Morris did finally decline physically after the death of his wife in 1959. Following surgery in 1963 he died on 22 August at his Oxfordshire home, Nuffield Place, Nuffield. His ashes were buried in Nuffield parish church, though Morris himself had taken almost no interest in religion throughout his life. The bulk of his remaining estate, valued at over £3 million, was given to Nuffield College.


  • P. W. Andrews [and] E. Brunner, The life of Lord Nuffield (1955)
  • M. Adeney, Nuffield: a biography (1993)
  • R. J. Overy, William Morris, Viscount Nuffield (1976)
  • F. H. Ellis, ‘The author of Wing C6727: Daniel Coxe, FRS, or Thomas Coxe, FRS’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 18 (1963), 36–8
  • R. Church, ‘Deconstructing Nuffield: the evolution of managerial culture in the British motor industry’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 49 (1996), 561–83
  • R. Church, The rise and decline of the British motor industry (1994)
  • R. Jackson, The Nuffield story (1964)
  • J. Foreman-Peck, S. Bowden, [and] A. McKinlay, The British motor industry (1995)
  • S. Tolliday [and] J. Zeitlin, eds., The automobile industry and its workers: between Fordism and flexibility (1986)



  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage



  • B. Patridge, chalk and pencil drawing, 1927, NPG
  • A. Cope, oils, 1929, Nuffield Oxf.
  • H. Coster, photograph, 1930–39, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1934, NPG [see illus.]
  • B. Enes, oils, 1937, Guy's Hospital, London
  • P. A. de Laszlo, oils, 1937, St Peter's College, Oxford
  • M. Lambert, bronze statue, 1948, Guy's Hospital, London
  • J. Wheatley, oils, 1949 (after photograph), RCS Eng.
  • O. Birley, oils, 1952, Nuffield Foundation, London
  • Mme Lejeune, bronze bust, Nuffield Oxf.
  • F. Lion, pencil drawing, Nuffield Foundation, London
  • two photographs, NPG

Wealth at Death

£3,252,764 2s.: probate, 26 Sept 1963, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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British Library of Political and Economic Science
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University of Oxford
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Royal College of Surgeons of England
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G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
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Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
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Churchill College, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge
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Nuffield College, Oxford
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BBC Written Archives Centre, Reading