William Morris was born, in modest circumstances to Frederick and Emily Morris, on 10th October 1877 in the parish of St John in Worcester, England, but when he was three his family moved to Oxford. By the 1930s, Morris had become one of the world’s richest men but he spent little on himself and preferred to donate much of his fortune to charity. He became Sir William Morris in 1929 (later Lord Nuffield in 1934). After attending the village schools at Headington and Church Cowley, Morris became apprenticed to a cycle agent in St Giles, Oxford when aged 18 but, following a disagreement over wages, left in 1893 to start his own business at his father’s house repairing and later assembling bicycles. Morris raced some of these bicycles himself and by 1900 he held seven local championships. This photograph was taken in 1896, when W.R.Morris was 19, and shows him standing behind his parents Frederick and Emily Morris, along with his sisters Alice(standing) and Emily. The family lived at 16, James Street, Cowley. The business developed and expanded into a showroom at 48 High Street in the centre of Oxford and additional premises at 1, Queens Lane were soon also taken on for storage and repairs. Morris then started to make motor cycles but this undertaking needed additional finance so he entered into a partnership with a friend, Joseph Cooper. Within a year the parnership broke up, due to a clash of temperament: Morris repaid Cooper his capital and the pair remained friends. In 1903, Morris became interested in motor cars and besides advertising himself as the ‘Sole maker of the celebrated Morris Cycles and Motor Cycles’ he could add ‘Motor repairs a speciality’. In the same year he formed the ‘Oxford Automobile and Cycle Agency’ in parnership with a wealthy Oxford undergraduate, Launcelot Creyke, and a businessman, F.G.Barton. Unfortunately, the business foundered during 1904 because of Creyke’s alleged extravagence and Morris had to face the humiliation of having to buy his tools back at the liquidator’s sale. Morris’ personal life was more fortunate at this time as he married Elizabeth Maud Anstey on 9th April 1904. Elizabeth worked in a department store in Oxford and had met Morris when she joined a cycling club, where Morris was a member. Sadly, the couple had no children. After the failure of the ‘Oxford Automoblie and Cycle Agency’, Morris then traded under his own name until 1908 when he sold the enterprise to run a motor hire and repair service in a premises at Longwall known as the ‘Oxford Garage’. He was soon awarded agencies to sell new cars and the Oxford directory then listed him as a ‘motor car engineer and agent, and garage proprietor’. By 1910, new premises had been built on the site and the name of the business was changed to ‘The Morris Garage’.
For some time, Morris had been planning to make motor cars so he was anxious to see new designs whilst maintaining customer’s vehicles. In this way he developed an understanding of the good and bad aspects of several makes of car and was able to put this experience to good advantage when he decided to become a vehicle manufacturer. The prototype of Morris’s first car was assembled by Morris himself, with assistance from some of his staff at the Morris Garage. The vehicle, which was announced in ‘The Autocar’ during October 1912, consisted of components bought from several outside suppliers. After sufficient orders had been promised, and with financial assistance from the Earl of Macclesfield, production of the 2 seater, 8.9hp (1089cc) ‘White & Poppe’ Morris Oxford commenced at Cowley during March 1913, in a disused Military Training College, under a new company called W.R.M.Motors Ltd. In September 1915, W.R.M.Motors Ltd. introduced another model, the Morris Cowley, which was available either as a 2 seater or a 4 seater. Initially, most of the mechanical components for the Morris Cowley, including its Continental engine, were made by American companies and despite the costs involved in shipping them across the Atlantic, these components were still cheaper than equivalent British products.
The early years of the First World War were difficult for Morris. On the outbreak of war, most motor maufacturers were inundated with work but because Morris’s factory was laid out for the assembly of bought in components, his machining capacity was limited and war work did not come automatically. Initially, Morris could only obtain modest orders for making hand grenades and machining bomb cases for Stokes trench howitzers, but this changed in 1916. By a stroke of good fortune, a Royal Navy minesweeper netted a German mine complete with its sinker, which was of advanced design. The Admiralty urgently wanted large quantities of similar mine sinkers but this gave the Ministry of Munitions a problem because all their large engineering plants were already fully engaged. Finally, the authorities accepted Morris’s proposal that they should use subcontractors to make individual component parts and then have them assembled into complete units at his Cowley factory. Morris was therefore given a contract in 1916 to make initially, 250 mine sinkers a week and he became responsible for supplying each subcontractor with jigs, drawings and standards for the part to be made. The drawings were prepared by Morris’s chief designer, Hans Landstad, while Arthur Rowse, who worked for the Ministry of Munitions, arranged for the jigs to be made. After the War, Rowse joined Morris’s organisation as Production Manager. Late in 1916, soon after the production of mine sinkers had commenced, the Ministry of Munitions requisitioned all of Morris’s factory at Cowley that was not engaged on machining bomb cases. Morris was then officially appointed as ‘Controller of Mine Sinker Assembly’ and although production of Morris Cowleys continued during this period on a small scale, a permit was required before one could be purchased. Morris’s methods proved to be a huge success. Not only did his factory achieve a peak output of 2000 mine sinkers a week but he was also able to reduce their price and, for his war work, Morris was given his first public honour, the O.B.E. W.R.M.Motors Ltd. did not expand as much during the War as some other motor manufacturers but Morris did gain the expertise of Arthur Rowse, a Whitworth Scholar and a talented production engineer, who was to play a very important part in Morris’s post—war success. To cater for the demand for cars, when the War ended in November 1918, W.R.M.Motors Ltd. was re-organised and Morris began negotiations to obtain components from British manufacturers to replace those items that had previously been supplied from America, as they were now subject to import duties. Although the parts on hand enabled the continued production of the Continental engined Morris Cowley, it was not until July 1919 that Morris was able to introduce his post-war models, the Hotchkiss engined Morris Cowley and the more luxurious Morris Oxford. Both of these models were initially fitted with a similar chassis and ll.9hp engines but, from 1923, the Oxford became available with a 13.9hp engine and later with a larger radiator and a longer chassis frame.
From their experience gained whilst making mine sinkers, Morris and Rowse were able to apply the same principles to making vehicles. These new practices enabled the manufacture of components to be sub—divided to such an extent that Morris no longer had to buy certain assemblies from sub—contractors, such as rear axles. This high degree of subdivision enabled Morris to – Make the design of car he wanted, albeit a copy of the Continental engined Morris Cowley. Produce large numbers of vehicles without massive financial investment.
Although Morris is generally recognised as an astute businessman, the way he conducted these complicated tasks also shows his abilities as a skilled negotiator and buyer.
To supplement supplies, a foundry and a bodyshop were built at the Cowley factory, in 1919, and then, between 1922 and 1926, Morris bought four important sub—contractors; the engine and gearbox manufacturer ‘Hotchkiss et Cie.’, ‘Osberton Radiators Ltd.’, the bodybuilders ‘Hollick & Pratt Ltd.’ and the ‘S.U. Company, Ltd.’, who were makers of carburetters. All of these companies became part of Morris’s organisation and their acquisition turned the business from an assembler to a manufacturer of motor vehicles. This situation was reinforced in 1927 when Morris purchased Wolseley Motors Ltd., of Birmingham, from their liquidators. At the beginning of 1924, Morris bought the axle and component maunufacturer, E.G.Wrigley & Co. Ltd. of Soho, Birmingham, from the receivers, and also obtained their plant together with a skilled workforce. The company was then renamed Morris Commercial Cars Ltd. and an extensive range of purpose—built commercial vehicles, ‘buses and taxis were soon designed and introduced. By 1925, Morris realised that all-steel vehicle bodies would supersede the timber framed bodies, then being fitted to his cars, so he visited the USA to study developments in this field. Morris later arranged for Morris Motors Ltd., the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia, who had patented techniques for pressing steel and welding, and the merchant bankers J. Henry Schroder & Co. to establish the Pressed Steel Co. of Great Britain Ltd. Their spacious new factory, which adjoined Morris’s works at Cowley, commenced production in 1927 and although teething troubles were initially experienced, due to the new technology, Morris is credited with introducing the all-steel motor vehicle body into Britain.
Since 1923, The Morris Garages had made sporting versions of the Morris Cowley and the Morris Oxford and, from 1928, these cars were sold as ‘M.G.’s, a marque distinct from ‘Morris’. During July 1930, the M.G. Car Company Ltd. was registered, with Morris as Governing Director and Cecil Kimber as one of the directors, to take over the manufacturing side of The Morris Garages Ltd. and the company continued to make sports cars at its Abingdon factory until 1980.
Morris was always eager to develop export markets and had been quite successful in the British Colonies and Dominions. To generate business in the France, he established the ‘Societe Francaise des Automobiles Morris’ in Paris during 1924 but, as sales were disappointing, he then decided to buy ‘Automobiles Leon Bollee’, which had a factory at Le Mans. The company was re-organsied, with some of the senior positions being filled by people transferred from Cowley, and production of Morris Leon Bollee cars commenced at the end of 1925. Despite difficulties in obtaining supplies, output rose to a peak of 150 cars week but, as the French were unwilling to buy vehicles from a foreign enterprise, production ceased in 1928 and the company was wound up and sold in 1931.
Morris’s policy was that before a new vehicle was released from his factory, it must have been paid for by one of his agents. Because of the credit terms given by sub—contractors, this meant that Morris was often receiving payment for vehicles before he had paid for the components from which they had been made. This scheme provided W.R.M.Motors Ltd. with working capital but Morris realised it was not enough to rely on just two agents, W.H.M.Burgess and H.W.Cranham, so a new company, Morris Motors Ltd., was registered in July 1919 to take over the assets of W.R.M.Motors Ltd., which went into voluntary liquidation. This move got rid of restrictive agency contracts which not only enabled Morris to set up an extensive vehicle distribution network, to sell the quantity of vehicles he hoped to produce, but also provided him with a much broader financial base. By 1924, 114 main dealers had been appointed who, in their turn, had appointed 400 sub—dealers.
A vital contribution to Morris’s success were his financial policies of which he said: ‘They are so simple that you may be inclined to smile at them yet I owe very much – more tha I can tell – to sticking to them. In the first place, I have insisted on financing the company from the inside. I have never gone to the public for ordinary capital and in consequence all the directors are “still under one hat”. Morris’s policies were in marked contrast to other motor manufacturers, many of whom got into severe financial difficulties in 1921, when the post war boom collasped, because they had saddled themselves with vast debt repayments. Morris’s dependance on outside finance, to meet his post—war programme, was only £29,000 in 7% preference shares and £20,000 in personal loans. These modest requirements enabled him to hold on to all of the ordinary shares and thereby retain absolute control over his business. The wisdom of this policy became evident when the number of vehicles being sold by Morris Motors Ltd. declined sharply during the winter of 1920, as a result of the post—war recession. Morris’s sound financial position enabled him to respond by reducing the prices of his cars – some by nearly 20% — during February 1921. This action not only stimulated vehicle sales but also raised pre—tax profits from £144,902 in 1921 to £241,540 in 1922 and the crisis was resolved.
The rapid expansion of Morris Motors Ltd., during the mid 1920s, was due to the popularity of their products – the 11.9hp Morris Cowley and the 13.9hp Morris Oxford – owing to their reliability, successive price reductions and, at the same time, improvements in their specification. About 2000 vehicles were made during the whole of 1920, whereas 48,686 (or nearly 1000 per week) were built during the 1925 season. In that year Morris Motors Ltd, became the market leader with over 40% of the UK’s total industry volume. However, for the first time since 1920, annual production of Morris vehicles fell in 1928 along with a reduction in their market share. Morris Motors Ltd. had been caught ‘off balance’ by the effects of taxation, which promoted the sale of smaller cars, and although they responded by introducing the 8hp Morris Minor, the decline continued. The depression that followed the Wall Street financial crash of 1929 exacerbated the situation. At this time, Morris was middle aged and had lost some of the drive of a decade earlier but he realised that drastic action was needed to save Morris Motors Ltd. so he asked Leonard Lord, a brilliant production engineer, to overhaul the company’s product range and implement a re—organisation. A massive extension and modernisation plan was put into effect and vehicle sales jumped from £11,379,000 in 1933 to £21,124,000 in 1936. By 1937, Morris Motors Ltd. had become the largest and most modern motor manufacturer in Europe and, in 1939, it became the first British company to make 1,000,000 vehicles. Morris’s outstanding success in business enabled him to amass immense wealth, much of which he divested into trusts, charities and schemes to benefit his employees. The ‘Guinness Book of Records’ recognised this generosity by listing William Morris – Lord Nuffield – as Britain’s greatest benefactor.