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The Oxford college named after a fascist

CW: Paedophilia, antisemitism, racism

You’ve probably heard of Nuffield College – a small postgraduate college, specialising in the social sciences, situated between the Westgate and Worcester College. You probably haven’t heard of its eponymous founder, however, William Richard Morris (1887-1963), the first Viscount Nuffield – but you definitely should have.

Visiting Nuffield College’s website and the short biography of Morris contained within, the impression given is that of an unambiguously benevolent civic hero all Oxfordians should be grateful for. Morris, the article describes, was a genuinely self-made man, who worked his way up from nothing to becoming ‘the British Henry Ford,’ before giving away his millions to worthy causes across the city.

I am not sure that, in my time as a History student, I’ve ever encountered such a selective reading of the past. Morris was a great industrialist, yes, and a generous philanthropist; he once remarked: “I can only promise you this, that for the rest of my life I will do my best for mankind.” But rarely has a promise been broken so completely. Not only was Morris a pro-Hitler fascist and 20th century Britain’s leading financier of far-right politics, but a deeply oppressive and cruel employer, a pedophile, and, ultimately, perhaps the most wicked man still celebrated unreservedly by the university.

Any investigation of fascism in 20th century Britain is likely to highlight Morris’ central role. His involvement with far-right politics began in 1930, when he gave £50,000 – almost £3 millions in today’s money – to Oswald Mosley’s New Party, the precursor of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The BUF would spend the next few years physically assaulting Jews on the streets of London, advocating a Britain exclusively for those of ‘British Birth and Parentage,’ and seeking collaboration with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. Mosley made little secret of his admiration for and friendship with Morris, describing him as his ‘chief backer’.

Two years later, Morris gave another £35,000 – around £2 million in today’s money – to Mosley to establish Action, the BUF’s primary newspaper. Action’s antisemitism was open, virulent, and occasionally violent; decrying the “filthy, obscene Jewish Communists”, it advocated disenfranchising them and “holding them under restraint” so as to protect native Britons. Jews, in the pages of Action, are to blame for all of society’s ills; it is they who control the “financial democracy” of the world, oppressing hard-working Britons and stealing their money for their own kind, seeking to “destroy Christianity” while using their control of the media to divert eyes elsewhere. Action also took every opportunity to refute criticism of Nazi Germany, and particularly their treatment of Jews – describing it as “mild”, “justified”, and as far less harsh than the treatment of Catholics elsewhere in Europe.

But by 1932, British public opinion was increasingly turning against fascism – and so Morris increasingly made his support for the far-right more subtle. He stopped directly funding Mosley, but became one of the leading figures of the Anglo-German Fellowship: founded in 1935, the Fellowship was a high-society membership organisation dedicated to building bridges with Hitler’s Germany, which held dinners with leading figures of the Nazi regime including Heinrich Himmler, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Rudolf Hess. Even during the war, he was involved with the National Front After Victory, a far-right organisation whose name was later shortened to the National Front. Once WW2 was over, and most of Britain disavowed fascism, his beliefs still remained the same: “it is a well-known fact that every government in my England is Jew controlled regardless of the Party in power”, he wrote in his diary.

Morris didn’t give all his wealth to the far-right, however; he did, admittedly, give lavishly to genuinely charitable courses – he gave millions to the university, for instance, helping fund not only Nuffield College but St Peter’s too. But these donations were made from wealth accrued by brutal means. Wages at his Oxford factories were abominably low – in some cases, people were paid as little as 19 pence for a week’s work (the average annual salary in Britain at this point was several hundred pounds). When his workers began to rise up against these conditions – something they were forced into doing, the factories being so hot work was virtually impossible – he clamped down. Morris was fiercely anti-union, and promised to fire anyone who joined one.

Morris’ crimes were not only political and economic, however – they were also deeply personal. In 2015, Ann Vaughan made a police report, as documented by the Daily Mail, documenting the horrific abuse Morris had subjected her 12-year-old self to. Morris showered her family with gifts and was, in exchange, allowed to do what he wished to their daughter; he repeatedly sexually abused her over the course of a decade, groping her genitals and forcing her to tell him she enjoyed it – he only refrained from penetration out of a fear that doing so would result in traces that could be identified by police. These are allegations, yes; but they are allegations it is difficult to question. “I’m sure I was not the only little girl that Nuffield abused,” Vaughan told the paper.

Oxford University has a dark past. It was financed on the back of the transatlantic slave trade; it has educated countless colonial administrators and tyrannical dictators; colleges have even had students burnt at the stake outside them. But the University has increasingly faced a historical reckoning – consider the enormous ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protests over the past decade, or the plaque at All Souls commemorating the slaves who financed it.

That reckoning has yet to reach Nuffield College. There have been no protests, no outrage, over the fact that a fascist pedophile, who stood for everything our modern society should abhor, continues to be unambiguously celebrated by the university authorities. Fundamentally, no one seems to care that, if you are Jewish, or LGBT+, or almost anything other than a wealthy white British male, whenever you say the name Nuffield College, you are saying the name of a man who would’ve wanted you dead. That ought to change.

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