It was hardly a surprise when, in 1892, fifteen-year-old William Morris secured his first job at a bicycle repair shop. He was a passionate cyclist who thought nothing of pedalling to Birmingham and back in a day, from the family house in 16 James Street, a round trip of over a hundred miles. He was also good with his hands and showed business acumen from an early age.
It wasn’t long before he had set up on his own, not only repairing bicycles but making and racing them. Then it was motor cycles. Then motor cars. (Henry Ford was getting going in Detroit at about the same time). Then he sold his cycle business and used the proceeds to purchase a prime site garage and workshop on Longwall Street. You can see it to this day, its handsome frontage displaying black and white photographs of the man and his machines. One local newspaper dubbed it ‘The Oxford Motor Palace’, and it was here on 28 March 1913 that a car was built which changed the course of history. Its name – could it really have been called anything else? – was the Morris Oxford, its badge an ox, fording the River Isis.
The Morris Minor followed in 1928, by which time cars were being mass-produced at a rate of a thousand a week from vast premises on a disused military-school site in the nearby village of Cowley. Other factories followed, in Coventry, Birmingham and Swindon, but Cowley was always heart of the Morris motor empire. At its peak 30,000 people were employed there, clocking on and off in vast droves, and changing forever the identity of the place down the road. The balance between town and gown shifted to the point where one wit talked of ‘the city of screaming tyres’ and dubbed Oxford ‘Cowley’s Latin Quarter’.
For all his fame and success Morris never moved far from his roots, setting up house in the village of Nuffield, fifteen miles away, and taking its name as his title when he was elevated to a peerage in 1934. Nuffield was also the name he gave to his charitable foundation, which in due course bequeathed millions of pounds for (mostly medical) research, together with a hospital and a graduate college, whose green copper spire is instantly identifiable on the Oxford skyline.
Morris changed the face of Oxford, and the Morris Oxford changed the face of Britain. He didn’t live long enough to watch the motor industry he had forged shrivel, collapse and get sold off, so that Cowley – though still home to the Mini – is now a shadow of its former self (owned and operated by German-based BMW); but he might have been heartened to see the glorious resilience of the two-wheeled, unmotorised technology which was his first love. Oxford is still a place where the bicycle rules, and, in the view of most of its citizens, all the better for that.
The Oxford Bus Museum at Long Hanborough has an excellent display of Morris cars and material relating to William Morris and the Cowley works.