Biography: William Morris – One Man’s Lasting Influence On The British Industry And Country

The life and career of William Morris* could appear straightforward and not unusual in the motor industry: A small bicycle maker evolves into a car builder; the business grows and ultimately becomes part of an industry consolidation; the figurehead retreats and retires; and the name is finally dropped from the cars. Many memorable cars were made, some of them popular and fondly recalled, but the business is no longer separately visible, and therefore history may be seen to be claiming the founder and his record, and the name to be losing recognition. There are many such examples across the world, but among them Morris deserves a bit more attention.

To consider the William Morris and Morris Motors story only in that way misses the heart of the story – this was the man who effectively defined the development of the mass production automotive industry and market in the UK, and thereby defined a large part of the industrial structure of the Midlands of England whilst he himself became one of the richest persons in Europe, one whose legacy now is seen as much in the impact of his philanthropy, especially around medical research and education, as in the industry.

Morris was a private man, cutting a solitary figure at times, with few close family and trusted friends, and earned a reputation of being determined, even stubborn; of being able to put his ideas and energies to many things beyond car making and for having a vision for the industry that was wider than most. He was a strong minded individual, with a definite ruthless streak and clear (to him at least) ambitions. He went his own way, often successfully, sometimes not so.

He was a much more complex man than was often recognised, or is often now understood or recalled and, while the Morris name may be long gone from the showrooms, his impact continues. Car production at Cowley in Oxford has lasted, so far, for almost 110 years and shows no sign of ending, and neither do the wider societal impacts of his actions, but William Morris’ interests in motor manufacturing ran for just forty years (or one working lifetime) before the consolidation into BMC and his effective retirement. With a commentary of some special cars, let’s try to give justice to his remarkable story.

William Morris, 1895

How it all Began

The Morris family in 1896, WRM, back right, with his parents and sisters.

William Richard Morris was born on 10 October 1877 in Worcester, now an hour south west of Birmingham and around 90 minutes north west of Oxford; his family moved to Oxford when he was aged three. Many stories have been told about Morris’s father, Frederick, including of driving mail coaches in Canada and more, but what is formally recorded is that he settled as a leading hand working on his father in law’s tenanted farm in Headington, on the edge of Oxford, and the family lived in a small terrace house in another of the villages surrounding Oxford, Cowley.

William left school at 15, as was the norm at the time, and took an apprenticeship to learn a trade and to contribute to the family budget. Frederick Morris had to give up farming work due to ill health (he later kept the books for his son’s shop) and there was no question of William going into further or higher education – it was unaffordable and effectively non-existent to a person of his background at the time.

1901, High Street Oxford

Morris’s apprenticeship was with a local bicycle repairer and builder, where he started work in 1892. In 1893, he left, having been denied the pay rise he felt was justified, and already showing an entrepreneurial and independent spirit, started his own business, with a capital of £4 (adjusted £500) as a bicycle repairer, and later assembler, in his parents’ backyard.

The High Street, Oxford, around 1890

Within a year he had made and sold 50 bicycles; by 1901 he had a shop on the High Street in Oxford and a contract to maintain bicycles for the local Post Office. In 1902, aged just 25, he moved to much larger premises on nearby Holywell Street, in a building that still stands (and is protectively listed) as it was after he extended it in 1912, and was also starting to maintain and build motorbikes, initially by attaching de Dion engines to frames derived from those of his bicycles. He relaxed by joining a local cycling club, and proved a successful competitor at sprint and distance events. There, Morris met his future wife, Elizabeth Anstey (usually known as Lillian but also as Lizzie and Lily); the couple took many weekend cycling trips to Wales and married in 1904.

1903, and the team at Morris gather. WRM is far right

1904 was a big year for another reason – Morris’ business collapsed. Perhaps against his better judgement, he had been tempted into a partnership with a chap named Launcelot Creyke, who was everything Morris wasn’t. An old Etonian, failed Oxford University student and inheritor of a family fortune, he invested in a business that Morris would run, alongside a third partner Frank Barton. In short order, Creyke managed to bankrupt the business in the restaurants and dining halls of Oxford, and Morris was left standing in the rain buying his own tools in the Receiver’s auction with the proceeds from selling Lilian Morris’s jewellery. Frank Barton, though, clearly saw something in Morris and stuck with him, eventually becoming Morris’s distributor in south west England.

Morris Garages in 1907

Morris started again, building up from the remnants of the earlier shop and starting a vehicle hire business for Oxford’s affluent undergraduates, and later as a motor dealer selling amongst others Arrol-Johnston, Humber, Hupmobile, Singer, Standard and Wolseley cars, and various motor bikes as well. By 1910, his business, trading as the Morris Garages and employing 20 or more people, was making £1,500 (£180,000) per year in profit. Morris was ready for the next stage – becoming a car builder. So far, so not unique….

The Morris Garages building from 1912

Unlike many others, including market leaders Ford and Austin, Morris had no intention of building a complete car of his own, and indeed lacked the knowledge and ability to do so. Instead, he planned to be an assembler, choosing or defining his own specification for major components and sub-assemblies, finding a supplier, and in some cases enabling a potential source to get established by placing substantial contracts for their product in return for their commitment to his business. This differentiated him from almost all the contemporary industry, with leading UK competitors such as Austin, Singer and Wolseley all designing and building complete cars and engines.


To this end, from 1910 for more than two years he spent 2-3 days a week based in Coventry, 60 or so miles north of Oxford and already the heart of the British motor industry, working his concept and requirements through the motor industry supply chain that had developed there. For his first generation of cars, Morris took an existing engine from White and Poppe, an established engine builder; axles and steering from Wrigley in Birmingham; a radiator from Doherty in Coventry; and a body from Raworth in Oxford, while Sankey provided the wheels. William Morris had a strong independent, even stubborn, attitude which can be seen in that he did not attempt or even consider basing his motor business in Coventry over Oxford, then a small city better known as a regional market centre and home of the university, with no industrial or engineering heritage to rival Coventry or Birmingham.

Morris’s plan called for the first car to be exhibited at the London Motor Show in late 1912; in the event, it was not complete (some histories say the delay was caused by a drawing that was wrongly scaled leading to a casting that was half size) so Morris had to work with just blueprints, specification sheets and brochure artwork. Even so, the established distributors Stewart and Arden in London signed up to sell 400 cars. As his factory, Morris had found an old school in Cowley, in fact the one his father had attended, which had  been used as a military college and then fitted out for an engineering works, which he leased and then purchased. For a car factory, it was unusual, being spread over three floors around the old parade ground but fitted his criteria (of location, size and affordability) and also had a separate domestic building suitable for the Morrises to call home for several years.

While he was preparing for the automotive business, named WRM Motors, he also established the first motor bus service in Oxford. The city council had long been debating and deferring the introduction of motor buses or electric trams without making any progress. So Morris bought a fleet of buses and sold vouchers in shops instead of tickets on buses (since he had no licence), in direct competition with the horse buses, from November 1912. Within two months, the city had capitulated to the combination of Morris’s energy and the public’s demands, and Morris got an operating licence, which he promptly sold to the horse bus company; perhaps, an early indicator of Morris’s lack of patience with slow decision making and established norms and formal procedures.

The first Morris Oxford was completed in March 1913; the delayed engines had started to come from February. There were teething issues, inevitably, but in 1913 Morris sold 404 cars, all with the distinctively profiled radiator that led to them being known as the Bullnose Morris. There was a longer wheelbase version for 1914, sold as the De Luxe, which was the more popular model among the 908 cars built in 1914. Other versions appeared for 1915, including the Express Carrier – a two seat version with a large rear box. Another 150 cars were built in 1915, but inevitably the business had to turn to war related production. Morris had also entered into various exclusive regional distribution and commission agreements across the UK, notably with WHM Burgess covering most of southern England.

Morris had proved that his business model of being an assembler of other specialist products could work; the challenge was to grow the business towards its fuller potential. At this time, Ford was the market leader in the UK, selling over 8,000 cars in 1914 in a market of around 25,000 cars a year, all assembled in Manchester from imported component sets. Morris planned to emulate this and was prepared to make the commitment and take the risks to achieve that aim. In early 1914, in perhaps a seminal episode in his story, he sailed to America.

That first trip consisted of Morris repeating in Detroit and Michigan what he had done in Coventry a few years earlier – searching for ideas and suppliers. A businessman (for that was what Morris really was) going to America in 2021 for the materials or ideas to expand his business is unremarkable; in 1914, a regional motor trader going to Detroit to learn the secrets of manufacture and bring them back to Europe for his small business must have seemed audacious to say the least. Morris was not a large or even especially well known business, or part of an established major company, like Wolseley, then owned by the Vickers conglomerate for example, and diversifying into car building.

One week’s production, 1914

The purpose of this visit and its industrial logic was clear – Morris wanted to access components at American prices, and to learn more about mass production and its potential.  He returned to America in April 1914 with his key technical lieutenants Frank Gray and Hans Landstad, who had been poached from White and Poppe. Landstad even took a short term job at Continental Engines to study mass production techniques, and secured access to Ford’s Plant as well. Morris meanwhile worked up the business part of the agreements – for a Continental engine, a Warner gearbox, axles from Detroit Gear Company. On the Atlantic crossing, Morris and Landstad had laid out the general assembly for the proposed car, and this work was continued in the hotel room in Detroit by night. As a measure of the value and success of this work, he secured engines for £18 each, compared with around £50 (£5900) from UK suppliers.

In April , the new car, sold as the Morris Cowley, was launched, still with a bullnose radiator. Morris had signed contracts for 2,500 sets of components in the first year and 5,000 in the second, so there is no doubting his ambition and the volume the American businesses required him to go to get the audience and contracts at the prices he wanted. Technically, the Cowley was a conventional car for its time, built on a longer and wider version of the Oxford chassis. Later, post-war Cowleys were de-contented lower powered derivatives of contemporary Oxfords, but the first one was upmarket of the Oxford and had a different character, with the contrast of the torque rich Continental engine to the revvy White and Poppe unit.

In 1915, outside events took over. The UK government introduced import duties (known as the McKenna duties) on motor vehicles and components, nominally to conserve foreign exchange, but also directly hitting not only Ford but Morris as well, and his prices had to rise significantly. And the British Admiralty took effective control of the Cowley works, tasking Morris with applying his emerging mass production knowledge and techniques to munitions. In short order, he took on a contract for nautical mine sinkers, and reduced the cost by 50% while increasing production from around 20 a week to over 2,000, and learning more about mass production. Morris’s business came out of the war in fair financial shape, but with an existential challenge around his basic business model, dependent on imported components and vulnerable to the impact of tariffs, unlike most of his competitors, and an imminent economic slump.

1914 Morris Oxford

Morris had a choice – to design or buy another engine (and other parts), or somehow manufacture the existing components, but by necessity from sources in the UK. He chose the latter, purchasing the rights to the Type U engine from Continental and searching for a UK supplier to build it. Many were asked, including White and Poppe, who declined, until Morris eventually found the UK arm of the French Hotchkiss Company in Coventry, looking for work to replace munitions. To support Hotchkiss in achieving the volume for the cost Morris was after, he set up a foundry at Cowley as well.

The 1919 car was essentially similar to the pre-war car, but from the new supply chain. The Cowley was a two seater without an electrical starter, sold as the entry level model with the Oxford sold at a higher price point, although both cars were built on the same chassis and with the same 1548cc engine.

The chassis now came from Rubery Owen in Birmingham; the electrical equipment from Lucas (Morris had given Lucas their first big automotive commission in 1914); the instruments from Smiths; the axles from Fisher and Ludlow; the radiator from Osberton in Oxford, and the bodies from Hollick and Pratt, who established a new factory adjacent to Morris’s factory at Cowley, as well as their Coventry facility. Production started in the late summer of 1919 and around 380 cars were built that year. But Morris did something quite drastic to try to ensure success.

1917 Morris Cowley

In July 1919, he liquidated his car making business, then known as WRM Motors Ltd, and established a new company, Morris Motors Ltd. The primary reason was to extract himself from the distributor agreements, notably the one with WHM Burgess. Although legal, Morris ultimately had to compensate Burgess and others, but it is another indicator of his ambition and ruthlessness.

* William Richard Morris, born 1877, awarded OBE 1919, raised to Sir William Morris Bt in 1929, to Baron Nuffield in 1934 and to Viscount Nuffield 1938. Usually known as Lord Nuffield from 1934. He was awarded Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1939, a GBE (Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire) in 1941 and appointed a Companion of Honour (CH) in 1958. He was an honourary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and of the the Faculty of Anaesthetists of the Royal College of Surgeons, and an Honourary Doctor of Law from Oxford University. And many others. 


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