Nuffield College, painting by David Langford

In 1929, the Oxford Times, carried a profile of Viscount Nuffield a.k.a. William Morris of Morris Motors fame. “I’ve lived long enough to know,” he said, “that it is not always the men who have an expensive education who do things.”

Fighting words from that city renowned for the ‘Town and Gown’ riots of the 13th century and where the divide between commerce and academe sometimes seems as firmly entrenched as ever.

Morris was the only surviving son of a local draper. His father being ill, he left school at 15 to support the family. It was not an agonising decision, as he was an indifferent scholar.

Young William was a practical, hands-on kind of lad. He took on an apprenticeship with a local cycle trader, and before long was mending and building bicycles on his own account.

A couple of failed attempts at partnerships convinced everyone that Morris was a one-man band, a pattern that never changed during his progression from bicycle maker to one of the most famous names in motor engineering.

“No factory can turn out a cheap car on low wages,” Morris declared, and he paid top rates right from the outset of his business. He also introduced an incentive scheme, pioneered paid holidays, profit-sharing, sports clubs and medical centres for his workers.

Seeing the need to prepare for war in 1929, Morris began research into the development of aero-engines, but the government, assuming he was motivated only by profit, refused to allow him the initiative in industrial manufacture, even when belatedly admitting that war was imminent. It seems that an expensive education doesn’t do much for myopia.

Thirty million pounds was disbursed by Morris to good causes during his lifetime –– more than by any other Englishman in history. Activities of the Nuffield Foundation included building the Jodrell Bank telescope and finance of early experiments in penicillin.

And we have Nuffield College, a fine building reminiscent of that other great William Morris of Pre-Raphaelite fame. Morris envisaged a foundation for the training of engineers, but the University did not see engineering as a “proper” Oxford subject and insisted that Nuffield concentrate on the study of political and social sciences.

Morris’s reluctant capitulation may be discerned in the rider that it functions by “the co-operation of academic and non-academic persons.”

Bill Morris was living proof that it is not always those of expensive education who “do things”. But considering the post-war emergence from Germany and Japan of the world’s pre-eminent engineers, one wonders at the attitude of HMG and what might have happened had Oxford’s ivory towers been a little more welcoming.

The Oxford Limited Edition June, 2005