Nuffield Place was home of one of the 20th century’s greatest industrialists, William Morris
Words: Claire Masset
There is another William Morris. Not the William Morris of Arts and Crafts fame treasured for his ever-so-English wallpapers, fabrics and furniture, but the one – equally important – to whom we owe the Morris Minor and other much-loved British cars. As the founder of the Morris Motor Company, William Morris – or Lord Nuffield as he was later known – became one of the wealthiest men in the world.
After leaving school aged 15, the young William Morris (1877-1963) immediately put his aptitude for mechanical work to good use. Just a year later, he was running his own bicycle-repair business in a shed at the back of his parents’ Oxford home. From bicycles, he quickly moved on to motorbikes, and eventually opened his own garage, hiring, repairing and selling cars.
But even this level of success did not satisfy a man with Morris’s drive. Like Henry Ford, William Morris became a key player in the nascent car age. And also like Ford, he helped bring motoring within reach of the people on the street, by making his own range of affordable cars.
Morris made frequent visits to America, where he learnt the art of assembly-line production. By 1912 he had designed his first car, the ‘Bullnose’ Morris. By 1925 his Oxford factory was producing 56,000 motor vehicles a year, breaking the monopoly held by Ford’s popular and affordable model T. Morris cars became so successful that the company even produced its own magazine, Morris Owner. Each issue boasted specially commissioned full-colour cover artwork, helpful articles and motor-related adverts. Famous Morris cars included the Morris Cowley, Morris Oxford and, of course, the celebrated Morris Minor, which became Britain’s first million-selling car.
Despite his financial success, William Morris was not extravagant with his money, even when at the height of his career he was reputedly earning £2,000 a day. Questioned about his riches, he replied: “Well, you can only wear one suit at a time.” Apart from expensive cigarettes, his one indulgence was sea voyages, which he undertook for both business and pleasure – and because he adored playing deck tennis.
In the last three decades of Morris’s life, his home at Nuffield Place, situated in the Chiltern Hills of south Oxfordshire, acted as a sanctuary from the pressures of work. “This was somewhere he could rely on for relaxation,” says Joanna Gamester, curator at Nuffield Place. “Lord and Lady Nuffield were in their fifties and searching for their final home. They were looking for a big house and Lady Nuffield – a keen gardener – also wanted a large plot.”
Understated and discreetly located, Nuffield Place was built by Oswald Patridge Milne, a pupil of the popular Edwardian architect Edwin Lutyens, in 1914. Milne is famous for having designed Coleton Fishacre, the elegant Arts & Crafts-style home of Rupert D’Oyly Carte (owner of the Savoy) in Devon, now also in the care of the National Trust.
The village of Nuffield was close to Huntercombe golf course, which William Morris patronised. He and his wife were actually living in its converted clubhouse, when Nuffield Place (then known as Merrow Mount) came up for sale in 1933. Morris, who had just been raised to the peerage, took his title from the village and, on buying Merrow Mount, renamed it Nuffield Place.
The couple extended the house and furnished it in a conservative fashion, with just a few touches of contemporary Art Deco and much reproduction furniture. Although big – it has four bedrooms – the house is by no means huge, and certainly not what one would expect from the home of a millionaire. It is modest, almost understated – but definitely not sober. As his home and its contents reveal, here was a man who combined financial prudence and practicality with a sense of fun and joie de vivre.
As you step inside, the smells, decor and general atmosphere might transport you back to the home of your parents or grandparents. There is a sense of nostalgia, of the not-so-distant past, which makes Nuffield Place irresistibly engaging and which raises it beyond merely being a monument to a great man. It is a time capsule to a lost era – an era when people used to sit and listen to records or the radio, smoke cigarettes and sing together, and indulge in Sunday afternoon tea.
The house is full of charming and telling objects, and the more you look, the more you find. The Drawing Room, the best room in the house, was used for entertaining guests and family. Here you will notice a wonderful 1930s HMV radiogram, with an automatic record changer. Lord Nuffield had a large collection of records, and enjoyed music typical of the 1930s, as well as Albert Chevalier (famous of the music hall classic ‘My Old Dutch’) and Gilbert and Sullivan operas. On occasion, he would even dress up as Albert Chevalier. “He definitely enjoyed a laugh,” Joanna explains.
Guests would have sung and smoked, using the 1930s automatic match dispenser to light their pipes or cigarettes. Its ingenious design meant that simply by pulling a match, you automatically lit it. A couple of attractive 1930s clocks draw the eye, including one, hanging on the wall, which displays a stunning and typically Art Deco sunburst design.
Like the Drawing Room, the Dining Room was not designed for everyday use but for special guests, who would have been unaware that, hiding under the dining table, was a secret bell for calling the maid. Here too are items of sleek 1930s modernism. The chrome toaster is beautifully elegant, but only capable of toasting one slice at a time! Next to it is a stylish ‘Cona’ coffee maker, similar to the one which appears in the film Brief Encounter.
A far more intimate space, the Little Sitting Room acted as Lord and Lady Nuffield’s everyday living room. Here they would sit in the evenings – she sewing or writing in her diary, he smoking and possibly listening to music. Smoking-relating items are scattered throughout house, including the somewhat surprising sheet music entitled ‘Songs for Smokers’ on the easy chair. Hanging on the walls are pictures representing people with the name Morris. “They were not relatives though,” explains Joanna. “It just tickled Lord Nuffield to have them!” Meanwhile, on top of the wireless and in other parts of the room are models and pictures of Scottish terriers. A popular breed at the time, Lord and Lady Nuffield had three Scotties at one point.
The large Billiard Room was added to the house when the couple bought Nuffield Place to give Lord Nuffield the gentleman’s lifestyle he was looking for. Accordingly, it is full of items that reflect his masculine and sporting side: a beautiful burr walnut drinks cabinet, tennis racquets, golf clubs, a deck quoit which Morris used for deck tennis and – most fascinating of all – an ‘exercise horse’. Made at the Morris car factory, this unusual item is like a modern-day exercise bike, except that this one has two speeds: gallop and trot! No one knows for sure whether Morris ever used it, although, given his love of sport, it is likely that he did, perhaps on rainy days when golfing and cycling might have been less appealing options.
It is in his bedroom that Morris’s true nature is fully revealed. Filled with practical items and basic furniture, it tells of a man who didn’t believe in artifice or showiness. His simple bed was placed against the blocked-up fireplace, which acted as a headboard. The floor is covered, not with expensive rugs, but with pieces of sewn-together carpet designed for the interiors of his cars. How frugal for a man of such great wealth!
Utterly unexpected and somewhat incongruous is the tool cupboard in the corner of the room. “The story goes that when Lady Nuffield was away, Morris had it built, partly to please her.” Morris liked nothing more that to make and repair things – cars, clocks, even his own shoes. “Lord Nuffield was a doer. He was full of nervous energy.” This cupboard was somewhere ‘out of the way’ where he could tidy his bits and pieces. Containing all sorts of useful implements, the cupboard also houses Morris’s pickled appendix. “Apparently this is not as strange as it seems,” explains Joanna. “In those days it was quite common for people who had had their appendix taken out to take it home with them.”
Many more revealing items pepper this fascinating house, which deserves to be explored slowly. For it is often in the most unexpected details that one finds true insight – and also the most delight.