William Morris wanted to be a surgeon, but his working-class family could not dream of sending him to university. So at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a bicycle repair shop. After awhile, he politely requested a raise. When his boss refused, he went down the street and opened his own repair shop. Soon he was building and selling superior bicycles, which he personally raced, winning national awards for distances from one to fifty miles. His bikes, with a distinctive gilt wheel, attracted customers from all over Great Britain.
He met his wife because she loved cycling too. As a side business, the enterprising Mr. Morris ran a taxi service. Soon he was repairing taxis. It was just one step further to building his own car–simple and easy to repair. How hard could it be?
Soon he was selling huge numbers of Morris motorcars –and selling them at a price that middle-class and even working-class people could afford. Just as Henry Ford did in the United States, William Morris pioneered mass production, turning out fleets of fine affordable cars in ever-shorter times.
He was a master of marketing, too. He offered affordable car repair plans. He published a colorful magazine that showed ordinary people tootling along the roads of Great Britain, enjoying excursions that were once reserved for the rich and their chauffeurs. But Mr. Morris gave away his money as quickly as he made it. All over Great Britain, self-made men were building stately homes that rivaled royal palaces. But Lord Nuffield gave most of his money to charities. He lived happily at his fairly modest home, Nuffield Place, now a National Trust property.
In gratitude for his philanthropy, the King “created” him Viscount. He became a close personal friend of both King and Queen. He took the name “Lord Nuffield” from the village near Oxford, where he had a home. On the eve of coronation in 1937, the Queen wrote him a sweet note of gratitude.
Rather reluctantly, because they were modest people, Mr. Morris and his wife decked themselves out in the ermine-trimmed red velvet robes needed for the coronation.
When World War II broke out, the Morris factories had to meet the tremendous need for military vehicles. Soldiers set forth from England to battlegrounds all over the world in Morris vehicles. Lord Nuffield was too old to fight, but he saw another need: anesthesia for field hospitals.
Again, how hard could it be? In no time, he had designed a portable machine to administer ether. He gave away thousands of them. No longer did soldiers fresh off the battlefield have to endure excruciating pain in surgery.
The war ended at last. Then in the 1950s, there was an outbreak of poliomyelitis, in England as in the United States. Lord Morris designed and manufactured an iron lung. One of them is on display at Nuffield Place. It is hard to imagine life inside one of these machines, but the machine saved many lives. Lord Nuffield gave away over 5,000 of these machines to patients all over Britain and the Commonwealth. Polio victims could get through the worst stage of the disease. Without such a machine they died because they could not breathe. Many of them were able to recover. They might be left with some paralysis, but they were alive.
So William Morris, who richly deserved the title “Lord Nuffield,” ended up saving and improving countless lives. What would he have accomplished as a surgeon? Most likely he would have been equally creative and generous as a physician.
England has hundreds of very grand castles, palaces and stately homes. But one of my favorite sights is Nuffield Place, the fairly modest home where William Morris chose to live.
I wrote about Lord Nuffield and his home after a visit last fall, at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/04/21/nuffield-place…-practical-man/
I’m off to England again soon. If I can, I’d like to pay another visit to this inventive, practical, generous man’s home. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!