The Morris Story

When William Morris had his request for a pay rise refused, it set him on a path that would lead eventually to him becoming one of England’s wealthiest men. But before that, he had to make his first successful car.

William Richard Morris was born on 10 October 1877, the eldest of seven children, at Comer Gardens in Worcestershire. His father Frederick had reputedly been a wild spirit, who had worked as a coach driver in Canada and even lived for a time with a Native American tribe.

Frederick returned to England where he married Emily Pether, whose father owned a farm at Headington near Oxford. The family moved around a bit, with Frederick managing a number of businesses, from a drapers shop to a brewery, but by 1880 had moved back to Emily’s father’s farm where he worked as bailiff.

Young William attended the Cowley local village church school. He taught himself to ride a family friend’s penny-farthing bicycle at the age of fourteen and shortly afterwards bought himself a second-hand safety bicycle.

The safety bicycle, on which most modern bicycles are still based, had only been invented in 1885 by John Kemp Starley. It was marketed as The Rover and changed the face of cycling from the pursuit of the daring, young and wealthy, to the leisure and sports activity of the masses.

William became an avid cyclist, entering many local races and endlessly stripping and improving his bicycle. He later claimed that this was where he developed his early engineering abilities.

When his father’s deteriorating asthma stopped him from working the following year, William left school and took on an apprenticeship with a cycle agent named Parker in central Oxford. His starting wage was five shillings a week, but after nine months the pressure to support his family caused him to ask for a rise of one shilling.

Mr Parker told his apprentice that he was not worth the additional shilling, so William gave his notice. He had already shown his ability in bicycle repairs, so set up his own business in the brick shed at the rear of his parents’ home.

The cycling boom was at its height, with Oxford in the thick of it, and William quickly developed a reputation for high quality workmanship at reasonable prices. One of his customers, the Reverend Francis Pilcher of St Clements, was 6’ 3” (190cm), which was tall for the day, and he asked William to custom-build him a bicycle.

Without the money to buy the parts, William borrowed £4, the equivalent of three-month’s wages when he was an apprentice, from his neighbour Mrs Higgs – promising to pay it back as soon as he could.

Morris’ reputation continued to grow and his burgeoning business quickly outgrew his parents’ little shed. He moved to a shop at Oxford, where he built and repaired bicycles. He dabbled with his first motorized bicycle in about 1900 and in 1902 sold his first motorcycles. These were simple affairs, with a single-cylinder 2 ¾ hp engine from French maker de Dion.

Morris designed his own carburettor and developed a method of releasing the clutch via a cable operated from the handlebars. At the time the largest UK exhibition for motorcycles was The Stanley Show at Islington and after working to exhaustion Morris got his motorcycle there for display only a few minutes before it opened.

Around this time he began a partnership with a Joseph Cooper but the partnership was dissolved, though they remained friends, because the ever-cautious Cooper wanted to buy engines one at a time, but thought that Morris was too risky in buying them three at a time.

Through this period Morris had continued to ride his bicycles for pleasure and in         competition. In 1900 he won seven local  championships and was considered to have the potential to compete internationally. He also met Elizabeth Maud Anstey through his local cycling club, and the pair were considered quite formidable on a tandem. They often went for long weekend rides as far afield as the Welsh mountains, which even at the time was no mean feat.

In 1903 Morris entered into a new partnership with F G Barton and, apparently, another silent partner – reportedly wealthy investor Launcelot Creyke. Renamed the Oxford Automobile and Cycle Agency, the business expanded into a former livery stable in Longwall St and another shop in Queens Ln.

However, due to the extravagance of one or both of Morris’ partners – depending on the reports – the business collapsed in 1904, with substantial debts. Morris was left with nothing but his tools, which he reportedly had to buy back at the liquidation sale, and his good reputation.

Compounding his problems, he and Elizabeth had married in April of that year. This near financial ruin, combined with both his and Elizabeth’s histories of having to provide for their families when thy were young, instilled in the couple a frugal sense of living that lasted the rest of their lives – even after  Morris had made his substantial fortune.

However, he maintained his good will with his suppliers and customers, as well as his reputation as the best mechanic in Oxford. He was able to secure a small bank loan, which was supplemented by loans from various suppliers, to resume his business.

He was able to return to the Longwall St workshop and to again rent the showroom in High St. By 1908 Morris had finished with the bicycle trade and was solely concerned with motorcars. He sold them, repaired them and even had a thriving car hire business operating from the Longwall St premises, now known as The Oxford Garage.

In 1910 he was financially secure and was able to commission the redevelopment of the Longwall St site, with a new 4,400 sq ft (410 sq m) building, at the cost of £3,763 – paid off by way of a 21-year repairing lease of £300 per annum. Completed in 1911, renamed The Morris Garage, and able to hold 60 cars, the building gave Morris the facilities he needed for his next plan – to design his own car.

From his experience gained in repairing and hiring out cars from a variety of makers, Morris was aware of many problems that he aimed to avoid in cars of his own make.

However, although he was a gifted self-taught mechanic, he had no formal schooling after age 15 and was not an engineer, so had to follow the hands-on route of trial and error. It took nearly two years but toward the end of 1912 his first car was ready, assembled with assistance from some of his staff at The Morris Garage.

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