We were walking past the police station when we spotted him. Across the road. Above the bus stop. About nine feet high and fifteen feet off the ground.

William Morris, Viscount Nuffield.

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Further investigation revealed two things:

(1) What is now Oxford Crown Court was once the site of a magnificent, state-of-the-art Morris Motors showroom.

(2) The sculpture, unveiled in 1999 and carved in Portland Stone, is the work of none other than Martin Jennings, one-time denizen of this place and chiseller of Oxford’s other great philanthropist, Dr John Radcliffe.

‘A bit of a hybrid, half inscription and half a relief portrait,’ is how Martin has jokingly described it; ‘WM looks like he’s leaning on his garden fence.’

This is one of several monuments to Britain’s greatest car-manufacturer and Oxford’s most generous benefactor (reckoned to have bequeathed the equivalent of over a billion pounds at today’s values, in support of education and research, mostly in the field of medicine.) Other mementos in his home town include:

A shop window in The High (no.48) whose engraved glass records that this was the site of his first (cycle repair) shop;

The red brick facade in Longwall Street, displaying images of Morris’s first bespoke workshop and garage: the so-called ‘Oxford Motor Palace’;

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The obelisk near the business park in Cowley, marking the pinnacle of the Morris manufacturing achievement, when over 30,000 workers a day were clocking on and off at his factory up the road;

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A student accommodation block in St Peter’s College: the Emily Ann Morris Building, named for his mother. Not to mention an entire college – Nuffield, with its ‘Cotswold Manorial’ quadrangle and distinctive, needling spire – which owes its very existence to his bequest;

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The now boarded-up Bullnose Morris pub – where pints of Oxford ale were once raised in his honour; and the (almost as depressing) William Morris pub, now part of the J.D. Wetherspoon chain;

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The blue plaque outside his adolescent home, no.16 James Street OX4, where the remarkable rags-to-riches story began.

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All of which is by way of saying that today is Morris Oxford Day: the day the first Morris Oxford motor car rolled off the production line – 28 March 1913 – and the fifth anniversary of Morris Oxford the website, which was launched exactly 106 years later.

We now have well over 2000 subscribers, all by word of mouth. And we’ve received some really interesting feedback to our monthly Stories. You can see what people are saying here.

We remain proudly and resolutely FREE – no subscription, no advertising, no secret sponsor, no hidden costs. All for love. William Morris, the thrusting young entrepreneur, might have been nonplussed, possibly even horrified at such a notion; but we hope the philanthropic Viscount Nuffield would have understood and approved.

Onward and Oxford!

A British Pathé promotional film showing the Bullnose Morris assembly line in the 1920s.

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Feedback

We were thrilled to hear from Susie Peddle (and our thanks to the Museum of Oxford):

The Oxford bus in your picture was made by my Grampy Bob Rogers for his son, my Uncle Chris, in the 1950s. Grampy worked at Nuffield Exports for over 25 years and had a passion for amateur woodcraft. The bus currently resides in The Oxford Museum at the Town Hall.

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There are two plaques outside no.16 James Street. The artist, Judith Lane, is responsible for one of them. She writes:

When we bought our small terrace house in James Street in 1970 (for the princely sum of £3000) we were completely unaware of its historic significance. The building was in a terrible state of repair, so we set about restoring it and contacted the Council to order a skip. The elderly gentleman who took the call said he remembered when William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, lived there. He built and repaired bicycles there, pushing them through the house, much to the annoyance of his wife. Indeed we noticed that the architraves were dented at handlebar and pedal height.

I went on to do further research, as a result of which the Nuffield Foundation supplied a plaque. The story made it into the Oxford Mail, 14 March 1971, alongside a picture of me with my Vidal Sassoon hairstyle!

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Maurice East leads fascinating walks which focus on Oxford Town rather than Gown. He writes:

I attach an image of the Morris Garages (now the court). The frontage is much changed, but the original drop curb in front of the building’s main doors is still there: a nice reminder of when cars would have been driven in to be put on display in the windows.

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I remember being taken to the Bullnose Morris in Blackbird Leys as a child. It was always packed on a Sunday lunchtime with car workers in suits and ties. Different days!!

Incidentally, there was a third Morris-related pub in Oxford: the Nuffield Arms at Cowley on the Littlemore Road – sadly now closed and turned into a Co-op.

Tanya Field, who organises the Cowley Works Facebook page, ‘a group for all those who worked or work at Cowley to share memories’, has thrown the cat among the pigeons by claiming that the first Morris Oxford was produced on the 29th not the 28th of March. Perhaps ‘Morris Oxford Day’ isn’t Morris Oxford Day after all!

On 29th March 1913, the first Cowley built car, a Morris Oxford, left Cowley heading for London, unfortunately breaking down twice en route! BMW will tell you that it’s the 28th March the first car rolled off the line, however it didn’t roll off the line (there was no line to roll off) and it wasn’t 28th. The cynic in me can’t help feeling this was done in order for BMW to celebrate the 100th anniversary a day early because the 29th March 2013 was Good Friday, so not a particularly convenient day to have a big celebration. However, other than it being a tad annoying that the date is incorrect, it actually did the local community, car community and me a big favour as it meant that MINI Plant Oxford was available for me to use to celebrate the centenary as the Plant had their celebrations a day early.

On the 29th March 2013, I had the honour of organising a cavalcade of 40 Cowley built cars from MINI Plant Oxford to Broad Street in Oxford and we had a fantastic (if not freezing!) day. On the same day, the Bullnose Morris Club organised a convoy, starting or finishing at Nuffield Place, I can’t remember which way round, but it was 10 years ago! There was also a very special trip in an early Bullnose from the old Military College in Hollow Way (where the first Morris cars affectionately known as Bullnoses because of their bullet shaped front ends were built), to Nuffield Place. The purpose of this drive was to semi replicate that first Bullnose leaving Cowley, only wisely those organising it thought London was too ambitious and Nuffield Place was much more realistic.

As a direct consequence of the Centenary Cavalcade 10 years ago, I now organise the annual convoy from MINI Plant Oxford to Nuffield Place to celebrate Nuffield Place reopening each year which is an appropriate way to keep the link between motor manufacturing in Cowley and William Morris / Lord Nuffield alive. I also (supported by many local car enthusiasts) put on the twice yearly, week-long car displays in Cowley Centre / Templars Square Shopping Centre which is a great way to celebrate and reminisce with the local community, and former and current workers, and I never tire of listening to their stories.

I have a personal connection to Cowley as my great grandfather loaned William Morris £4000 back in 1912 and became president of W.R.M. Motors Ltd, this being the first company to build cars in Cowley. They were in business together until 1921 and the final Bullnose my great grandfather had from William Morris still survives to this very day.

As there aren’t any photos of that first Bullnose leaving Cowley in 1913, here are some of my favourite ones from the Centenary 10 years ago. Finally, here’s to motor manufacturing in Cowley and long may those MINIs continue to roll off the line.

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David Dales, now an Oxford Guide, has vivid family memories of growing up close to the Morris works:

Being brought up in Cowley, my family were heavily involved in the motor industry. My grandfather, Cecil James Howse, was one of the key men at Pressed Steel. In his role as General Personnel Manager he was responsible for employing many people from all over Britain, especially the Welsh. We lived quite close to Florence Park, where, as Morris Oxford readers are probably aware, the Welsh tended to reside – hence its nickname ‘Little Rhondda’. My grandad was a bit of a folk hero locally. In fact he became known as ‘Mr Pressed Steel’. People would often stop, get off their bikes, doff their caps and thank him for the employment opportunity.

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My father became an Industrial Relations Officer, also at Pressed Steel, and was responsible for disciplinary action (the opposite of my grandad!) He had many tales to tell: for example, men on nightshift found guilty of shooting rabbits while supposedly at work!

My mother was a wages clerk at Morris Motors. She would walk along Garsington Road handing out the wages to people in the various factories located there – incredible to think that there was no protection in terms of bodyguards/security vans etc.

Liz Woolley finds further signs of William Morris:

Other Morris mementos are visible in the streets of Oxford: William Morris Close in Cowley, and Nuffield Road in Wood Farm. Nearby Pether Road is named after WM’s maternal grandfather, Richard, who had been a tenant on Wood Farm and Brasenose Farm – where William spent part of his childhood.



(Morris Crescent, just off the Cowley Road in East Oxford, was named after ‘the other William Morris’, the pre-Raphaelite.)

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Erica Franklyn, architect, writes:

You rightly cite Nikolaus Pevsner’s condescending reference to Nuffield’s ‘Cotswold-Manorial’ architecture (Buildings of Oxfordshire p.65) He derided it as a building.

He was, however, prepared to acknowledge that the tower, which he described as ’a book stack for the library’, possessed ‘something of Lutyens’s felicitous manipulation of period details into a non-period whole and will, I prophesy, one day be loved.’ And he approved the spire: ‘deliberately thin after the mighty tower … (it) positively helps the famous skyline of Oxford.’(p.235)

The rest, however, he regarded as ‘absurd’ (p.67) … ‘Cotswold Gables and Cotswold windows indeed. The answer to that criticism may well be that Lord Nuffield himself, wanted his college to look like the older colleges’ (p.235) But that was no excuse in Pevsner’s book for its lamentably home-spun lack of architectural merit, especially when contrasted with St Catherine’s, which he deemed ‘the most perfect piece of architecture of C20 Oxford … the whole college built by one man to one design’ and ‘begun in the very year (1960) the other was finished’.(p.67)

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Legendary proprietor of the Rose & Crown, Andrew Hall, concurs with Pevsner

When they were building Nuffield college my father, a builder himself, told us to really commit to memory the spire. It was covered in new sheets of copper that were SPECTACULARLY shiny and bright. My father told me that the copper would in time react with the elements to become beautiful and green-lustred. And so it has.

Peter Gilliver, lexicographer supreme and historian of the Oxford English Dictionary, writes:

It so happens that on this Morris Oxford Day I have been continuing my research into William Morris’s brother-in-law Felix Arthur Yockney, who married his sister Emily Ann Morris in 1903 when her brother’s business was just beginning to take off. Young Felix—who, somewhat exotically, was born in Argentina—was working at the Bodleian Library at the time of his marriage, but it’s what he did next that brought him to my attention: in 1905 he was engaged as one of James Murray’s assistants on the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked for the next decade. He later returned to the Bodleian. I thought your readers might enjoy the attached gossipy news item from the Daily Mirror of 30 Dec 1935.

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Ivor Durrant was moved to send in this splendid photo of his fine motor car, Borris, which will be 100 on 4 May 2027.
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This picture was spotted and sent in by ‘a man in a hard hat’!
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