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Morris Motors and the “Inside Out” building

This is a transcript of episode 32 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Dr Tristram Hunt, Charles Smith, Professor Emma Griffin and Pete Neal as we continue our journey through the history of industry, trade & commerce in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hello, I'm Dr Suzannah Lipscomb from the University of Roehampton and you're listening to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. Our ten expert judges have selected ten locations across ten separate categories to take us on a journey through some of England's most remarkable locations. In this episode we reveal the final two of Dr Tristram Hunt's ten most important Industry, Trade and Commerce sites. Joining me today are Professor Emma Griffin, a social and economic historian from the University of East Anglia, and Charles Smith from Historic England.

We arrive now in the 20th century and our ninth location in this category. In the historic city of Oxford is a site that witnessed the birth of one of Britain's best-known motor manufacturers of the early 20th century. This is the former Morris garage on 21 Longwall Street. I actually used to live on this very street and, like me back then in the dark ages, this building houses students from the University of Oxford. But in the heyday, the period we're talking about, this site witnessed the work of a pioneer that would revolutionise the British motor industry and I'm talking about William Morris- William Morris as in the Morris Minor car, not the textile designer! At Longwall Street the foundations were laid for the beginning of what we now know as MG Motors. Here's why it made it into Tristram Hunt's top ten list when he judged this category.

Tristram Hunt:
I've chosen the Morris garage as a symbol of that essential force in 20th century industrial life which is, of course, the motor car. A system of production which drew in natural resources from around the world to the UK and sent out Morris Minors and Morris cars, and then the motor car, around the world. But there's also a particular West Midlands connection to this, in Oxford, in Coventry, in Warwickshire that I think this garage, in a quite humble and modest way, speaks powerfully to.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So Tristram very much sees this site as a symbol of a pioneering spirit in the motor industry. We've also been finding out more about the history of 21 Longwall Street in Oxford from Peter Neal, the archivist at the MG Car Club in nearby Abingdon. We set the scene with the help of the car that William Morris designed at Longwall Street, the Morris Oxford bullnose.

Pete Neal:
Those gear changes might sound a bit clunky by today's standards but, of course, we have to remember that this was a car built, designed, produced in the early days of the motor industry and in its time it was the bees knees when it came to motor cars for the masses. The Longwall site was purchased in the early 1900s by William Morris who was just branching out from his cycle business. He had a small cycle shop in the High Street in Oxford but he wanted premises where he could build and service motorcycles and also get into what was then the burgeoning motor industry.

The building that was there had been used in the early days for stabling. Then it became a print works for a weekly newspaper in Oxford and was built up against the old city wall. This proved to be unsatisfactory for Morris's requirements and he decided that he wanted to build a new purpose-built garage there on the same site.

I have in front of me the original architect's drawing for the new Morris garage, as it was called, and for its time it contained some quite outstanding features. It had over 4,000 square feet of floor space which was quite large. It had repair shops, an extensive show room because Morris always wanted to show off his cars in the best light. It had ladies and gentlemen's retiring rooms, imagine that, with lavatories and it featured the latest in hot water systems and electric light. It was known immediately as the Morris garage, Longwall Street but local people knew it as the Oxford Palace!

By 1912 Morris had permanently made his mind up to become a motor car manufacturer and set about building a prototype for what was to be the Morris bullnose Oxford which, in fact, set the scene for the massive car company and industry that was to follow. We have to remember that at that time we would have been talking about the empire and he set up an export business that explored the empire to its furthest most points - Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong. He sent cars wherever there was a British presence and sold them in large quantities. I think, therefore, you can say that Longwall Street represents the very beginning of that worldwide trade that his pioneering spirit, in fact others followed, but he was the first one to do it in any quantities.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
The sound of that iconic Oxford bullnose car is just wonderful, particularly those clunky gear changes. That was Peter Neal, the archivist at the MG Car Club in Abingdon, providing fascinating insight into the story behind 21 Longwall Street in Oxford. Now, this is certainly not one of our grandest sites in this category but what happened here is incredibly significant, isn't it?

Charles Smith:
It is indeed. Just looking back at the history of the site, William Morris started his business there from very humble beginnings. He started by repairing bicycles, in fact, and then operated a taxi service and repaired and sold cars. Then in 1910 he changed the business's name from the Oxford garage to the Morris garage and we heard that critical moment was, of course, 1912 when he unveiled his first car, the Oxford bullnose- the prototype for which had been designed by him at Longwall Street and from there everything else took off and it became a hugely successful business.

Emma Griffin:
I think that's right. I think in the early days as well, I mean, there's just an opportunity with motor vehicles because people are starting to buy cars where they don't really know how they work, there aren't places that you can take them to, they don't know how to drive them, so I think he really moved in very quickly. I mean, there are some horse and cart drivers who were holding on to their old traditions and there are others who really understood, at the turn of the century, that the future was not with horses, the future was with cars. And they redeveloped, they redeployed their skills in the car industry and that's exactly what William Morris did.

Charles Smith:
And he took advantage of legislation changes, of course, because the use of motor cars was limited by the Locomotive Act until 1896 when the laws for lighter vehicles were relaxed and then British motoring could start in earnest and William Morris, of course, took advantage of that with his entrepreneurial spirit.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Morris becomes very rich, doesn't he, in the process?

Charles Smith:
By the 1920s Morris was making a third of all cars in the UK. So, I think perhaps inevitably that makes him a very rich man by that point.

Emma Griffin:
Like many of these all through the story of the Industrial Revolution, those men (as they nearly always were) who were in at the very beginning made massive fortunes and I think William Morris is a good example of that.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
But he was a good man as well, wasn't he? Didn't he give lots of money to philanthropic causes?

Charles Smith:
He did. He was particularly interested in medical causes. So, he founded the Nuffield Foundation and Nuffield College in Oxford and that allowed space for someone else to come through the ranks and that was his sales manager, Cecil Kimber. Now, Kimber helped to found the MG brand, of course the famous brand we know today, and those letters stand for Morris Garages, of course, as a nod to his old boss.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And MG became known for its affordable performance cars. I probably have it to thank for my existence because my mother was driving one when she met my father and they blame the car! Anyway, that early pioneering work at Longwall Street really laid the foundations and William Morris managed to succeed where others had failed. Why do you think that's the case?

Emma Griffin:
I think that's partly what he's doing. Likewise with the Morris Minor car, I think there were echoes of the Ford Company in the United States. Cars are luxury products initially- very expensive luxury products that are not available for the masses. I think one of the insights that William Morris had is that you can produce these cheaply and you can sell them in volume and that's the niche of the market that he moved into with resounding success, both with the Morris Minor and obviously with MG as well.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, the legacy of William Morris's pioneering spirit is still prevalent in today's MG brand and the cars produced in his heyday continue to hold an affectionate place in the nation's heart.

Now to our final location for this category and our judge, Tristram Hunt's tenth choice. This building is affectionately known as the 'Inside Out Building' because it has its lifts, its staircases, water pipes and other services on the outside! I'm talking, of course, about the Lloyd's building, located on the site of the former East India House in Lime Street, London. Here's what our judge, Tristram Hunt, had to say about the site.

Tristram Hunt:
There's always been this tension within British economic cultural life around finance and industry. So, if we're talking about industry, we should also be talking about finance- it was finance initially from global colonial trade, from the slave trade funnelled through London which allowed for the growth of industry. And then it was always claimed that finance took too much money away from industry. The Lloyd's building is both a symbol of that history of financial wealth creation but also, in its resplendent 1980s vulgarity, a symbol of the late 20th century resurgence of London as a global financial hub.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
This building is an internationally renowned symbol of trading and the city's financial power in the modern commercial era and its Inside Out nickname gives an idea of how strange it looks, doesn't it?

Charles Smith:
I'm really excited that this is one of our choices because it's a building that completely baffles newcomers to the City of London because it doesn't really make much sense to people! Because, of course, what happened at this building is they took all the services out of the building and put them on the outside, such as lifts and pipes and power systems, etc. And what that did was create more space on the inside of the building for a big trading hall and also lots of flexible space as well, so that the way the building is used can respond to changing fashions in the workplace.

It's known in architectural circles as something called "radical bowelism", a slightly distasteful term, but effectively it's like putting the parts of the inside of the human body on the outside, such as the bowels and the skeleton are on the inside and the working parts are on the outside, and that's what we see here at the Lloyd's building.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well, that's quite a thought. Thanks for that, Charles! But it's also known, isn't it, as high tech architecture? That's the style that the architect, Richard Rogers, used for a number of his designs, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Emma Griffin:
Absolutely. I think it's part of the kind of architectural movement that's happening in the 1980s, this kind of futuristic, efficient design and also a form of design that's very dependent on technology, so a very different way of building buildings. And I think what's very nice about this example as a final example is really as well it harks back to our industrial history. It's all about iron and steel and strong, large buildings of the kind that we only have in the modern era because older buildings of wood and brick just couldn't be made to scale in this kind of way.

Charles Smith:
And there's a long tradition of making a big statement about your building for marketing purposes and what a brilliant statement for a financial building than to make it stand out in the heart of the City of London by designing something as radical as this!

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And actually, of course, in itself it tells the story. Like many listed buildings, it tells us a lot about the ambitions of the era in which it was created. Lloyd's, like many surviving, enduring businesses, has adapted to changes in society, in the marketplace, in workplace technology. And the architect, therefore, had a number of things to take into consideration when he was designing this site, didn't he?

Emma Griffin:
I think that's right. By the 1980s it's clear that Britain is no longer the Britain that it once was. We are clearly no longer the workshop of the world. We're not really a political or economic leader in the way we were, say, in Victorian Britain and a lot of industry is closing down and going into decline. We have, however, got the rise of computers. We're really entering a different kind of era and this building is very much a break with some of the grand structures that have been put up in the past. Now we're trying to reinvent ourselves in a way that doesn't look back to the past in some kind of way but is looking forward to the future.

Charles Smith:
It was a bit of a guinea pig in a way because, of course, it was trying to incorporate all this new computer technology which was quite different from what we experience today. You know, you needed hefty service towers to house cables. You need big adaptations to fit desktop computers. You need big cooling systems. And also things like thinking about the glazing- you're looking at a computer screen, you need to make sure that you've not got the sunlight beaming down on your computer screen, so things which have heavily influenced the workplace today.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It's exciting to end with a commercial building that has so recently shaped and been shaped by our ever-changing, ever-innovating landscape of industry, trade and commerce. It's a tall order to pick out just ten and if you think we've missed something, tell us about the locations that make your list using the hashtag 100 places.

But before we end this episode, we have time for one last comment from our judge, Tristram Hunt. We asked him if he would like to give an honorary mention to a site that he feels is important in England's history of trade, industry and commerce.

Tristram Hunt:
My bonus building is the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent, for two reasons. One: another beautiful example of Italianate architecture in the potteries- a symbol of the culture and creativity in North Staffordshire in the second half of the 19th century. But also a building intimately connected to the Victoria & Albert Museum. It was one of the initial government schools of design, of which the V&A was the great proponent, and then one of the great teachers at Burslem, Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling, would come down to South Kensington and help design the South Kensington Museum, as it was in the latter half of the 19th century. So, it is a building that is beautiful and wonderful and resplendent in itself, but full of history that means a great deal to me.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
The Wedgwood Institute in Stoke-on-Trent gets a special mention from our judge for this category, Tristram Hunt.

Well, that's it for the theme of Industry, Trade & Commerce.

We found out about:

  1. The old furnace at Coalbrookdale near Ironbridge, Shropshire
  2. The Castlefield Canal Basin in Manchester
  3. Cromford Mills in Derbyshire
  4. The Piece Hall in Halifax, Yorkshire
  5. The Blue Anchor Inn in Helston, Cornwall
  6. The Rochdale Pioneers Shop in Rochdale, Greater Manchester
  7. Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent
  8. Dunston Staiths in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear
  9. The former Morris garage in Oxford
  10. The Lloyd's building in Lime Street, London.

Thank you to my guests, Charles Smith and Emma Griffin, and to our judge, Tristram Hunt. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb. Next time join me as we uncover the top ten Art, Architecture & Sculpture locations selected by our judge, Will Gompertz, for the next episode of A History of England in 100 Places.

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This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group. When it feels irreplaceable, trust Ecclesiastical.

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