William Morris

Town and Country [portions]

Town and country are generally put in a kind of contrast, but we will see what kind of a contrast there has been, is, and may be between them; how far that contrast is desirable or necessary, or whether it may not be possible in the long run to make the town a part of the country and the country a part of the towns. I think I may assume that, on the one hand, there is nobody here so abnormally made as not to take a pleasure in green fields, and trees, and rivers, and mountains, the beings, human and otherwise, that inhabit those scenes, and in a word, the general beauty and incident of nature: and that, on the other, we all of us find human intercourse necessary to us, and even the excitement of those forms of it which can only be had where large bodies of men live together.

In the Roman times of the Empire, when the lands were cultivated almost wholly by well-organized slave labour with its necessary concomitant of brigandage and piracy in out-of-the-way places, I can't think that the countrysides were very pleasant places to live in; whereas the Roman city with its handsome buildings and gardens, its public baths, and other institutions of almost complete `municipal socialism,' must have been very pleasant to well-to-do people, and perhaps, under the Empire at least, not quite intolerable to the proletarian, whose form of pauper relief did not include the prison system of the modern workhouse. In those days the town decidedly `scores'; all the more as manufacture was, as its name implies, wholly a matter of handicraft. But the Roman city-system was pretty much swept away by the barbarism which took the place of the Empire. In this country, and wherever the people were not completely Romanized, the town was almost always merely the development of the agricultural district; it was the aggregation of the cultivators of the soil, and its freemen were always landowners, though mostly collective ones. In fact, for a long time after the Teutonic invasion which made this country England, there were no towns at all: the English clans lived in scattered homesteads along the side of the sea, or some river, or in clearings of the wild wood, as their Anglish, Jutish, or Saxon forefathers had done, and when they took a Romano-British town they had nothing better to do with it than to burn it and let it be: though, when they got more civilized, the long extinct glories of Roman took some revenge for this destruction, by the impression which they made on the descendants of the destroyers: e.g., an Anglo-Saxon poet of about the time of Athelstane wrote a poem on the ruins of an old Roman city which is as pathetic and beautiful as any lyric extant in any language, and you may, if you please, look on it as a forecast of the glories of the cities that were yet to come.

Gradually, as civilization grew, the population thickened in certain places where the protection of the feudal lord - Baron, Bishop, or Abbot - made a market possible; and in short the growth of such places made our medieval towns; though, as was like to be, where an old Roman town like York or London was still in existence, it was used as such a centre. But doubtless our medieval towns were very small, smaller than our imagination of them pictures them to us; while on the other hand, the country villages were in many cases much larger than they are now. In fact in those days it was not so much the houses that made the town, as the constitution, the freemen and the guilds, which gradually grew into the Corporation. My familiarity with Oxford makes it easy to me to see a medieval town of the more important kind: a place of some extent within its ancient walls, but the houses much broken by gardens and open spaces within the walls, and without them, a small estate it may be called, the communal property of the freemen. On the whole, then, the towns of the Middle Ages, in this country at least, were a part of the countrysides where they stood.

In the Middle Ages even London was no more of a centre than Bristol or York, or indeed other places now become almost extinct. But in the eighteenth century London was become very decidedly the centre of England, and now the distinction was not between the towns and the countrysides, but between London and the rest of the country, towns and all. And here properly begins the opposition of town to country. The only further development of this was the work of the Great Industries which created the big manufacturing town, a thing so entirely modern that even London, with all its enormity, has more relation to the cities of the past than these manufacturing towns have.

On considering further the contrast between town and country we must be careful not to forget this special quality in London. For now we see that we have three things to deal with: London, the external beastliness and sordidness of which is in some degree compensated by its intellectual life; the commercial centres, which have no such compensation, and even in externals are far more horrible than London; and the country, which, instead of being the due fellow and helpmate of the towns and the Town, is a troublesome appendage, an awkward incident of town life, which, commercial or intellectual, is the real life of our epoch.

The result of all this is the usual make-shift jumble which oppresses all our life in this epoch of strange and rapid change, when we have fallen into such grievous want of reasonable organization. Even London, though far better than the commercial towns, is sordidly vulgar in its rich quarters, noisome and squalid beyond word in its poor quarters. And the country - at this end of May I am not going to say that it is not beautiful - beautiful everywhere more or less where there are not many modern houses in sight. But I know the country well: and even for a rich man, a well-to-do one at least, it shares in the make-shift stupidity of the epoch. Amongst all the superabundant beauty of leaf and flower, all the wealth of meadow, and acre, and hillside, it is stingy, O so stingy! In an ordinary way not an hour's work will be spent in taking away an ugly dead tree, in mending a shattered wall, setting a tottering vane straight (even if it be pulling down the roof-beam it is fastened to), in short in mending any defacement caused by wind and weather. Not a moment's consideration will be given as to whether the sightly material should be used, if the unsightly one be a fraction cheaper for the time being. You can scarce have milk unless you keep a cow: you can't have vegetables unless you grow them yourself. I say this is the ordinary rule: it is true that when there is a rich squire, he does sometimes take some pains in beautifying his cottages, restoring his church, and so forth - with the result in all cases, that the village he has so dealt with has become as vulgar as Bayswater. Nor can I leave this subject of the outward aspect of the country without reminding you that through forty years of my life I have diligently and affectionately noticed the countryside in its smallest detail, and that the change for the worse in its aspect has been steady, and, especially within the last twenty years, startlingly rapid. Indeed, sometimes I feel selfishly glad to think that I shall not live to see the worst of it. Now you may well say that all this suffering to men who are in the habit of taking in impressions through the eyes is a due reward for our living on other people's earnings; for our suffering the human live-stock of the country to live such a wretched scanty existence as they do. True, and over true; but then why should we of the nineteenth century be so extra punished, when our forefathers were involved in the same sin?

I take it that after all this is the case, that we feel it because it is at last tending to change - that we at last can do something to alter it. For this is what I want done in this matter of town and country: I want neither the towns to be appendages of the country, nor the country of the town; I want the town to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country with the intelligence and vivid life of the town. I want every homestead to be clean, orderly, and tidy; a lovely house surrounded by acres and acres of garden. On the other hand, I want the town to be clean, orderly, and tidy; in short, a garden with beautiful houses in it. Clearly, if I don't wish this, I must be a fool or a dullard; but I do more - I claim it as the due heritage of the latter ages of the world which have subdued nature, and can have for the asking.

Bibliographical Note


Town and Country


  1. 29th May 1892, at a meeting sponsored by the Hammersmith Socialist Society, at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith.