Reminiscences of William Morris

by a working colleague

Part 1

To the refined and cultured in society, Morris would undoubtedly find a place in the front rank of the celebrities of the age as a poet and an artist, but to the mass of the people, even of his own country, his would be a comparatively unknown name. No one knew better than Morris himself that, even if the mass had the means at hand to procure his poetical works, the leisure and frame of mind necessary to enjoy them would be wanting.

I remember on one Saturday in the early days of the Socialist League when our Comrade Kitz was arrested at the Grove, Stratford, for causing an "obstruction." I went to the office of the S.L. in Farringdon Road and informed the members—who were having a social evening at the hall—of the arrest, and that, we wanted bail. Carruthers and Morris left at once with me, and when we arrived at West Ham Police Station I introduced them to the inspector on duty as the sureties for Kitz's appearance on the following Monday.

The officer put the question: "What is your name?" Our comrade answered, "William Morris."

"What are you" queried the officer. But before Morris could reply to this question, Carruthers stepped up to the desk, and in a vehement manner said: " Don't you know? Why, this is the author of The Earthly Paradise."

Morris turned to his friend with an astonished look and said: "Good heavens, Carruthers!. you don't expect a policeman to know anything about 'The Earthly Paradise,' do you ?" And turning to the inspector said : "I am a shopkeeper, carrying on business in Oxford Street."

The shopkeeper's name was good enough, and I doubt whether the poet's would have been any better than my own, even to one so high in the ranks of the workers as an inspector of the police.

But, indeed, we need not come so low down as even a police inspector in order to find this ignorance, for we know that magistrates have displayed it on the bench, and men laying claim to be journalists have shown it in the press.

We had an instance of this during the struggle for freedom of speech at Dodd Street, Burdett Road. Several arrests had been made at the meeting on one Sunday in September, 1883. On the Monday following a great number attended at Thames Police Court to know the result, Morris being one of them. In the course of the day the police—acting undoubtedly under orders from their bosses—succeeded in ruffling his temper by their ill-treatment of Mrs. Aveling, and being then handled pretty roughly himself by two or three stalwart young policemen, it suggested by someone present that the police should be summoned for assault. This was instantly turned to account by these "guardians of the peace," and Morris was arrested and charged with "assaulting the police".

Saunders, the presiding magistrate, in the course of the hearing of the case, asked the usual question:

"What is your name?"

"William Morris."

"What are you ?" further queried the stipendiary.

For once Morris was brought by the ignorance of the magistrate to deviate from his usual modesty, and replied:

"Well, I am a poet and an artist, and I think pretty well known all over Europe."

This answer probably struck terror into the heart of the poor old dunderhead, the result being that the charge was dismissed. The press of the day openly admitted that, had the charge been made against a workingman, he would certainly have been imprisoned; and that, had Saunders known with whom he had to deal, he would not have allowed the case to proceed as far as it did.

Whether well known to all the world besides, he certainly was unknown within the sacred precincts of a police court even in his own town.

A good cartoon was issued at the time by Funny Folks with the police blacking Morris's boots.

It was in reporting this case for the press that the "journalist" described Morris as the author of the "Paradise League."

Can anything be more deplorable than the thought that it is possible to come even lower in the scale than this? And yet we have only to look among the small shop keeping class to find it.

I was in the United States of America when Dickens died, and a very short time afterwards a grocer whom I knew here—and who had become bankrupt came out to the States. In the first conversation we had, I felt anxious to know something as to the feeling displayed on the death of so well known a man; and having asked him, he said: "Dickens? Dickens? Was he in the provision line or the general grocery?" And this is the kind of education we receive in the "most highly civilised country in the world."

As an artist, he would be still less known to the mass. With our cheap press it is possible for a great number of the workers to enjoy the fruits of the imagination of "an idle singer of an empty day," but to speak of art under the brutal degradation brought about by commercialism is altogether beyond our imagination.

(To be continued.)

S. Mainwaring

Part 2

It is often said that Morris regrets the art of the middle ages, and, indeed, he himself says he does; but his reason for this is that "the medieval craftsman was free in his work." In the "Aims of Art" he says, "Come, let us put it in the way least respectful to the mediaeval craftsman, most polite to the modern hand; the poor devil of the fourteenth century, his work was of so little value that he was allowed to waste it by the hour in pleasing himself and others; but our highly strung mechanic, his minutes are too rich with the burden of perpetual profit for him to be allowed to waste one of them on art; the present system will not allow him—cannot allow him—to produce works of art".

The best illustration of this that I know of is the railing around the tomb of Henry VII. in Westminster Abbey. The most wonderful piece of handicraft I have ever seen, every panel displaying new thought, new beauty, no reproduction of a leaf, a flower, or a feather; a work that will repay all who can spare the time to visit it. When I saw it last, it had a card bearing the information that the workman took 32 years to complete it; that is, he was allowed time to think out his subject, and to put in such work as will bear scrutiny for ages to come. But let the craftsman of today be set to do a piece of work to suit the requirements of capitalism, and if he spent a month on it he would be discharged for having taken too long on the job.

The inevitable result of this hurry, this greed for gain, is the production of the sordid, hideous habitations of our towns and villages, and even the decorations in our recreation grounds display this ugliness, this vulgarity. I remember passing through that portion of Victoria Park which is set aside for flower-beds, one Sunday afternoon, after one of our demonstrations there. Pointing out to Morris the flowers laid out as a plume of feathers and geometrical figures of all kinds, I asked him what he thought of our artistic flower-beds. "O, just the same." he said, "as of everything else around here—damned ugly!" Pointing to the other side of the pathway, he said: "There, that's what I call pretty; where the flowers grow as nature produces them."

I believe that Morris, seeing no hope for Art while present conditions last, broke loose from his old surroundings—that is, as he often said, of a hanger-on of the upper classes—and devoted himself to the task of ending the present starvation, over-work, dirt, ignorance, and brutality. In other words, he became a Socialist; and, many-sided as was his character, I believe this will outlive all the others in the affections of the people of the world.

The press of the country has been flooded with notices of him since his death, but principally as a poet and artist. For my part I cannot see how he could be a true artist without being a Revolutionist.

I remember being in Norwich at a demonstration some years ago, at which Morris, Faulkner and several others were present. Monday being at our disposal, we made a party to visit the beautiful cathedral there. It is the custom, I suppose, to have a guide for each party of visitors; anyhow, there was a party preceding ours with such a guide. Morris, of course, fell into the place of guide to us, and in his rough, sailor-like fashion was pointing out the difference in the architecture of different periods and the beauty of all, when one of the ladies from the other party, who had evidently been paying more attention to our guide than her own, asked Comrade Faulkner who Morris was. He answered her politely. Replying, she said, "The poet, I suppose, not the Socialist." This time Faulkner asked very gruffly in return, "How can he be Morris the poet without being Morris the Socialist?" Notwithstanding his Socialism, the other party joined ours—guide and all.

When the scribes did condescend to notice his Socialism, it was with a kind of under-current of apology, for which, had he been living, he certainly would not have thanked them.. As an instance about the time of the Jubilee, the name of Lewis Morris was very prominent before the public, he having written the Jubilee Ode in consequence of the indisposition of the Poet-Laureate. Morris delivered a lecture in Birmingham, and the reporter confused the two names. Lewis thought it necessary to contradict the report. Seeing it, I pointed it out to William. Having read it, he indulged in a hearty laugh, and said he was very glad he had done it, as he certainly would not like to be mistaken for Lewis.

One paper contained in a leading article the, to me, astounding information that in his later years he became a Socialist, but that his Socialism was not of the wild type of Robert Owen's. This reminds me of a lecture delivered by the Rev. Sinclair Evans on "Ruskin's Message to Working Men." The chair was occupied by a well-to-do tradesman of the town. After the lecture, the drift of which was that men should be in comfortable circumstances, and the ordinary needs of life secured to them, before it would be possible for them to appreciate and enjoy artistic life, the chairman, rising afterwards to make a few remarks, said, "It is all so very pretty, but so impracticable." I suppose this means the same as the "wild Socialism of Robert Owen." Whether Morris's Socialism was wild or tame, he certainly put into it an amount of energy and determination as if it was the sole end and aim of his life.

I was at the Hyde Park Franchise demonstration, when a large meeting of Socialists was held after the political one was over, at which John Burns referred to Bright as a silver-tongued hypocrite. This was enough for the radicals of that day; our banners and platform were torn and broken up, and some of us were being run to the Serpentine for a ducking. Morris fought like a man, with the best of us, and before they had taken us half way to the water we had succeeded in making a stand, and I remember Morris calling on Burns to finish his speech. Being on level ground, and our opponents still fighting, Burns said he wanted something to stand on. That day we had only our first pamphlet, "Socialism made plain," of which Morris had a large bag-full at his side. These we placed on the ground in a heap, and Burns mounted and continued his speech, while Morris, and a dozen more of us, were fighting to keep back the more infuriated of the people. Some of our friends found fault with Burns for using language to irritate the crowd, but Morris's opinion was that they would have to be told the truth, and that it was as well to tell them first as last. We know he has done his part in carrying on the fight until it has become possible to address meetings on this subject wherever we go. He was not only prepared to face the brutality of the ignorant policeman, but went still further and faced the still more brutal laws enacted by the aid of the people.

During the struggle for freedom of speech at Bell Street, Edgware Road, after the committal of two speakers to take their trial at the sessions, and when we all thought that a long term of imprisonment would be the result, he volunteered to speak in the interval between the committal and trial; and, when reminded of the general impression that imprisonment would be the result, he simply said, " Well, it will be another experience, and we must not allow the fear of consequences to interfere with our duty."

He was not of the opinion of the City Missionary who was preaching a little way up the same street, on the same Sunday morning, at whose meeting I stayed a while. In the course of his address, the missionary mentioned the masters command to his disciples, "Go into the highways and byways," etc. Wishing to know what kind of metal he had in him, I asked the constable on duty whether he had not received "instructions to remove all persons causing an obstruction in the street." He replied in the negative, and added, "Do you wish to complain?" I said I would like him to tell the speaker what was being done at the other meeting. He complied, and the speaker at once came off the stand. I asked the man what he meant by disregarding the injunction of his master, and he said, "Oh, you know we must obey the policeman!" I left, thinking the cause had lost nothing by preventing a weak-kneed, half-hearted creature like that to stand up for it.

(To be concluded.)


Part 3

Government he held in supreme contempt. He says, "It is but the necessary result of the careless, aimless tyranny of the times: it is but the machinery of tyranny. And not only in the affairs of the nation, but everywhere." He says, again, "In State, in Church, in the household, we must be resolute to endure no tyranny, accept no lie, quail before no fear." This innate aspiration for freedom, and his contempt for rulers and opportunism, was at the root of the split in the Federation; as the facts are now well nigh forgotten and in some cases misrepresented, I think it necessary to reproduce some of them here.

It is well known to the older members of the Socialist movement that attempts had been made to crush out local freedom in affiliated bodies, and to expel or render unpopular those individual members who had asserted their independence. The organ of the party, also, had been in the hands of an irresponsible editor who had declared himself determined to resign rather than allow the Federation to have any control over the conduct of the paper. There was also a tendency in the S.D.F. to political opportunism which, if developed, would have involved us in alliances, however temporary, with one or other of the political factions. There was also, among those who favored these views of political adventure, a tendency to national assertion, the persistent foe of Socialism; and it is easy to see how dangerous this might become in times such as we were then passing through. All this became intolerable to a majority of the Council, and it was decided to part company.

The first work of the new organisation, the Socialist League, was to make the position clear as to its attitude towards parliamentarism; and a circular to Socialists was issued, signed by Morris and the other seceders. After explaining the cause of our resignation, the circular goes on: "Our view is that such a body in the present state of things has no function but to educate the people in the principles of Socialism and to organise such as it can get hold of to take their due places when the crisis shall come which will force action on us. We believe that to hold out as baits hopes of amelioration of the condition of the workers, to be wrung out of the necessities of the rival factions of our political rulers is delusive and mischievous. It would have weakened our propagandist force by driving us into electioneering and, possibly, would have deprived us of the services of some of our most energetic men by sending them to our sham Parliament, there to become either nonentities, or perhaps our masters and, it may be, our betrayers."

As we are more concerned with Morris than with any particular period in the history of the movement, we will give his own views of parliamentary action. In the little pamphlet, For Whom Shall We Vote, written in 1885, just before the General Election— "Workingmen, keep away from the poll altogether!—DO NOT VOTE. You are governed as a lower class by an upper class : let the class that governs you take all the responsibility of its government, and itself bear all the fear and hatred that may come of it ! the one thing which the ruling classes desire, whether they be Conservative, Liberal or Radical, is to make you the accomplices of your own enslavement. We show you the snare; avoid it, and do not vote." "When those who govern you see the number of votes east at each election growing less and less, and note at the same time the growth of Socialist bodies in every town, in every village throughout the country, terror will fill their souls, and one of two things they must do-either use violence against you, which you will learn how to repel, or quail before you and sit helpless not knowing what to do, until the time shall come when you, well knowing what to do, will step in and claim your place and become the new-born society of the world."

"Compare the ideal which we International Revolutionary Socialists offer you, and which it lies in your own power to realise, with the miserable pettiness of parliamentary party life and the mean lies and hollow pledges of an election contest, and then surely you will agree with us that it is your business not to vote, but to prepare yourselves to bring about the Social Revolution and accept its happy consequences."

Again, in The Labor Question from a Socialist Standpoint, a lecture delivered in 1886. After enumerating some of the things the worker has to pay for, he says, "He has also to pay for the thousand and one idiocies of parliamentary government, and ridiculous monarchical and official State; for the mountain of precedent, nonsense, chicanery, with its set of officials whose business it is, under the name of law, to prevent justice being done to any one."

It may be said that all this only applies to Parliament as at present constituted; but Morris has made quite clear his deprecation of parliamentary reform and his entire sympathy with all revolutionary attempts of the workers to gain their freedom in the Commonweal of May 1st, 1886, in which he says, "But there is another thing besides bourgeois stumbling into State Socialism, which shows which way the tide is setting, and that is the instinctive revolutionary attempts which drive them into these courses. What is to be said about these ? They are leaderless often, and half blind. But are they fruitful of nothing but suffering to the workers ? We think not; for, besides the immediate gain which they force from the dominant class as above said, they are a stern education for the workers themselves. And, however bitter that education may be, it surely is not much worse than the periods of quietude they have had to endure; the worst thing we have to dread, though every day now it is less to be dreaded, is that the oppressed people will learn a dull contentment with their lot, and give their masters no more trouble than may come of their dying inconveniently and being terrible objects to look at or speak to while they live ; the rudest and most unsuccessful attempts at revolution are better than that, though that is what is chiefly aimed at by middle-class social reformers."

"With all genuine revolutionary attempts, therefore, we must sympathise, and must at the least express that sympathy, whatever risk its expression may subject us to ; and it is little indeed if we can do no more than that."

"The Commonweal, then, will steadily continue to put forward the principles of International Revolutionary Socialism ; will deprecate all meddling with parliamentary methods of reform. Constitutionalism means the continuance of the present system ; how can Socialists, therefore, who aim at abolishing the system, support its support? With all revolutionary movements the Commonweal will sympathise as it always has done, and will not accuse the people of rashness for doing what they have been forced to do, or of blindness for making the only protest against their wrongs that they are able to make."

This was written, not in a time of peace and quietude, but when the whole civilised world was in the throes of revolution; when the workers of all countries were expressing their discontent with their miserable surroundings. In London the Trafalgar Square riots, which caused such a panic among the middle-claim that commerce was paralysed for a few days, and in order to appease this terrified class the authorities were compelled to discharge their chief of police, and repressive measures were put in force against us. In Belgium the riots of March and April at Liege, Ypres and Charleroi. In France the Decareville riots, in which M. Watrin was thrown out of window and trampled to death by the workmen whom he had robbed and tyrannised over, raising such a wail in the middle-class of not only France, but every country in which the popular fury was feared. In America the agitation for lessening the hours of labor had commenced, ending in the throwing of the bomb in the Haymarket and the loss of so many staunch comrades. For us who are in the van of the movement this expression of sympathy with revolutionary attempts on the part of the workers is of the greatest value.

(To be continued.) S. MAINWARING.

Bibliographic information


Reminiscences of William Morris


Sam Mainwaring


Part 1: Freedom, December 1896 pp2-3
Part 2: Freedom, January 1897 p. 5
Part 3: Freedom, February 1897 pp2-3


Although the 3rd part ends with 'to be continued', there is no continuation in the March or April issues. The 2nd part ends 'to be concluded', so the 'to be continued' at the end of part 3 may be an error,

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, September 2020.