William Morris


As other ages are called, e.g., the ages of learning, of chivalry, of faith and so forth, so ours I think may be called the Age of makeshift. In other times of the world's history if a thing was not to be had, people did without it, and there was an end. Nay, most often they were not conscious of the lack. But to-day we are so rich in information, that we know of many and many things which we ought to have and cannot, and not liking to sit down under the lack pure and simple, we get a makeshift instead of it; and once more it is just this insistence on makeshifts, and I fear content with them, which is the essence of what we call civilization.

Now I want to run through certain of these makeshifts, and see what there is of evil in them, what of present good and what of future hope. For I must tell you that I have come here to rail to-day, and to rail at a state of things without trying to mend it is a futile business I think.

It is quite likely that you will think many of these cases of makeshifts matters of very small importance, but makeshift is so thoroughly interwoven into the web of society at present, there are so many cases of it, that I can only take a few instances of which I personally know something; yet in the end I think I shall be able to show you that the sum of all these cases makes a serious matter enough; to wit, that the life of civilization is but a makeshift for what the life of man upon the earth ought to be.

Now I will begin very low down in the scale; with the common vulgar un-ideal subjects of food and drink. Have we no makeshifts there? Alas! only too many. You have all heard of the thing called bread, but I suspect very few of those here present have ever tasted the real article, although they are familiar enough with the makeshift. A makeshift which I have no doubt is of somewhat long standing. In my youth genuine bread was usually eaten in the country-sides, but was not for the most part sold in the big towns; but now the country bread made by the bakers in the small town is worse than the town bread. For the country-people, at all events in the country I know, have quite given up baking at home and buy of the small town baker. Even thirty years ago they used to bake in the cottages and in almost all old cottages about us (in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire) you will see from without the little round oven built at the back of the fire-place: but as aforesaid it is never used now. Perhaps you will say, But people can bake at home if they like still. No, they cannot. For to bake a good loaf you must have good flour, and that is unattainable; the ideal of the modern miller (imported from America, I believe, that special land of makeshift) seems to be to reduce the rich oily wheat grains into a characteristic white powder like chalk. Whiteness and fineness are what they seem to aim at, at the expense of the qualities which are discoverable by the palate.

So you see, bread is not to be had now by anybody almost; and this you must understand is an essential characteristic of the Social makeshift; it is forced on the whole population, and in a very short time supplants the original and genuine article entirely.

I suppose, to take another example of makeshift, that it will not be very long before butter will cease to be made and margarine will take its place. Already it is extremely difficult to get decent fresh butter either in town or country. You see it takes trouble to make it well, and it is now made on a scale which brings it under the force of the motto: Save trouble, make money, and who cares for the rest? Now having just mentioned two typical and important articles of food I must dwell no longer on that subject; but before I leave it I recommend you to read William Cobbett's Cottage Economy, both because it is a very charming and amusing little book, and because it gives us in its contrast between now and then a good measure of the rapid advance of makeshift in this detail of life.

How easily we are satisfied with makeshift in the matter of raiment you have only to look around you to see. If you look on any modern crowd; whether it is the ordinary toing and froing of people in the streets going about their business or pleasure, or some definite gathering for politics or amusement, or what not, the general colour of the crowd is a dirty sooty black-brown-drab with a few spots of discordant and ill chosen bright hues due always to the feminine part of it; though what should hinder us from wearing harmonious and beautiful colour, save the tyranny of customary makeshift no one can say. As to the shape of our garments it is for the most part so hideous, that a newcomer from another planet would surely look upon our aspect as an indication of our degradation in the scale of life. Even the ladies, who have a little more license in this matter than the non-ornamental sex, cannot help us much; I have noticed that if ever they do hit upon a pretty form of dress, that fashion always passes away quicker than any other; while some gross piece of deformity, like e.g. the horrible bunching up of the shoulders which is still common, is sure to be very long-lived. Here again in the matter of dress the makeshift is forced upon us, and that with grinding tyranny; so far from its being possible to dress decently nowadays, even a mere protest in words, however futile it may be, is a difficult thing to do. Even now, I see you all think the worst of me because I have mentioned the subject. But at least one final shot I will take, and ask you what you think of the makeshift shoes of this generation, and all the consequences of deformed feet and legs which they entail?

Again no doubt it is but a little matter, yet I should like to be able to buy good cutlery even if I had to pay a high price for it. Thirty years ago this was possible, it is so no longer. A knife with blades which will cut for any time is not to be bought anywhere. The other day I lost a pair of nail-scissors which would cut and which I had had for a long time; I set myself to buy another pair, and had to buy three before I came on the fourth, which would cut only rather badly.

I do not consider the subject of public amusements to be a trifling one; I think it a very serious matter on the contrary, that the standard of excellence at theatres should be so low, and that such sorry makeshifts should be forced on us at a great expense of the labour of many honest and often not unintelligent people. I say this is serious, because I know the sad reason for it, to wit, that the greater part of the town-dwellers live such woful lives, that their work is so mechanical and dull, their rest so vacuous, and too often so weary because of their overwork that anything which pretends to be an amusement will draw them to it. I know more of this dismal makeshift, because I am one of the very luck ones whose work is a constant pleasure; so that I find I do not want much of what is usually called amusement, though I thoroughly appreciate the benefit of sheer rest: but in good truth the amusement which amuses me most is a quiet time without immediate anxiety, in which I can get on with my work free from disturbance. And I feel sure that this ought to be the case more or less with all people. And only when this is the case can amusements cease to be wretched makeshifts. There is another kind of makeshift amusement, however, which consists in going [on] a railway journey to some place and then coming back again. There are two things that force persons into this business; one acts upon rich people the other on poor. With the rich people it is the uneasy longing to be somewhere where you are not, which drives people to Switzerland and the Rhine and Italy and Jerusalem and the North Pole, and where not: and for the most part people go to these places with their eyes in the pockets, and except that they have satisfied their above mentioned craving for perpetual motion had much better have stayed at home. With the poor people of our great cities and manufacturing districts it is I admit different. Their homes are so devoid of all pleasure of the senses, that they may well long to have a look now and again at the green fields and the sun shining upon them or the wind and the rain sweeping over them. Yet to my mind to go from a weary ugly place to a beautiful one, and to have a look at it and then go back to the weariness and ugliness is but a poor makeshift after all. I want to see the beautiful face of the earth not once a month, or once a week, not every day, but generally. I could no more agree to that other once a month business than I could to dining once a month. The real pleasure of which this tripping is a makeshift is making the place in which you live, in which you work, beautiful and pleasant. Then you can stay at home and enjoy yourself, learning as you should and would so the countenance and expression of every tree, nay every bough, every little sweep of bank or hollow, till they become dear friends to you - and such dear friends. And then now and again you may go from that friendly home to see fresh beauties and wonders in other places and to store your mind with memories for quiet days, always with the confidence that the well known untiring beauties of your home will welcome you back to the old unbroken pleasure. This I say is what ought to be; when you have thoroughly learnt why it cannot be now, you will, I hope and think, make up your minds that it shall be before long, and act on that resolution.

Now let us take the houses we dwell in, and consider what kind of a makeshift that is if it has been built within the last hundred years. It must be clear to all of you even those who use your eyes least that almost all modern houses are base in idea and ugly to look on, that the aggregation of them in our big towns makes our streets repulsive, and degrading to move amidst, and that when we come upon them in the country side they are just so many blots upon the beauty of the landscape, so that we avoid them unless we are driven to them by sheer necessity; nor can it be pleaded of them they are at least useful according to the trouble and cost of making them; it is by no means so; on the contrary, of all the walls and roofs that have been got together for shelter from wind and weather they are the worst planned, the most uncomfortable, the most unreasonable; in a word they are idiotic. Doubtless the greater part of you have no idea of what helpless feckless makeshifts they are for real houses fit for sober and thoughtful men; because you have never seen anything better, and are so used to these, that you think that they are about what houses must be according to their size, and the fortunes of the dwellers in them: whether they have six small rooms or sixty big ones, whether there indwellers earn sixty pounds a year or steal sixty thousand. But I must ask you to take my word for it at present, that such houses there have been as have made the streets in which they stand lovely to the eye and elevating to the mind; that the plan of them was handy and reasonable according to what their indwellers demanded in a house; that so far from blotching a fair landscape with ugliness they themselves made, yes and in some rare instances yet make, the chief building of the landscape; that in fact they are useful and not utilitarian; which word instead expresses as I think a quality pretty nearly the opposite of useful, and means something which is useful for nothing save squeezing money out of other people's necessities.

As for the towns and cities made up of these makeshift houses, how could they be anything but makeshift under the circumstances? in the special cases which are representative of the civilized manufacturing district or the cities which have grown, not great but big, because they are the seat of the government of the country, the mere size if nothing else seems bound to make them unmanageable; contrast such monstrosities of haphazard growth as your Manchester-Salford-Oldham etc., or our great sprawling brick and mortar country of London, with what a city might be; the centre with its big public buildings, theatres, squares and gardens: the zone round the centre with its lesser gildhalls grouping together the houses of the citizens; again with its parks and gardens; the outer zone again, still its district of public buildings, but with no definite gardens to it because the whole of this outer zone would be a garden thickly besprinkled with houses and other buildings. And at last the suburb proper, mostly fields and fruit gardens with scanty houses dotted about till you come to the open country with its occasional farm-steads. There would be a city for you. I do not say that any such has existed, because in ancient and medieval times the cities were fortresses, and the thick of them were confined by walls; but what is to hinder such kind of cities being the type of the future dwelling places of aggregated men? Nothing, it seems to me, if men shall be free to build them; what hinders it being done now, I will tell you presently.

Meantime amidst all these makeshifts that have to do with the industrial productions of men, I must admit there is one class of work which produces things which are not made in a makeshifty way, as far as the making of them goes; I mean setting aside their purpose; one class, I have said, I should have said two: first instruments made for the destruction of wealth and the slaughter of man, on which indeed wonderful ingenuity almost amounting to genius is expended: which perhaps as things go is not altogether bad, for it makes war more expensive, and so puts a sort of check upon it. That is one class of things made with care forethought and success; the second is all that mass of machinery for the production of marketable wares, which is the speciality of this century, and which seems now gradually advancing towards perfection: but wonderful as is all the talent and skill used both in its making and in the organization of the use of it, yet that very use of it is after all but a makeshift. All these admirably ingenious machines approaching so near perfection already, what are they so ingeniously used for? Wholly and solely for the making of makeshifts; for the making that is of things which no one would attempt to use unless they were forced upon him as aforesaid by the fact that they supplant the genuine useful wares which we would use if we could.

Another makeshift which really cannot be dissociated from the makeshift of building above mentioned is a sad one indeed, which is that we must needs turn the fairness of the earth in the very countryside itself into a makeshift of what it should be. And you must understand that I am not here thinking only of the unspeakable horrors of the manufacturing districts in which the face of the country has been destroyed, but rather of the vulgarization of the country which is still country; partly by the utilitarian cultivation of the farmers, the cutting down of trees, the plashing of hedges and the shabbiness and squalor of the surroundings of their farmsteads; the pleasure which every public body, and especially educational ones, seems to take in supplanting beauty by ugliness; iron railings and barbed wire used for stone walls or living hedges, blue slates for stone slates or red tiles, the planting of larch and spruce instead of oak or other real trees, and so on and so forth, all the thousand and one ways in which we belie our foolish boast of our wealth and our common-sense: that is one side of the said makeshift; the other is a curious one, and almost makes one laugh amidst of one's anger: for it is done by people who are so sublimely unconscious of their vulgarity that they fairly consider themselves sublime rather than ridiculous I am thinking of the result of the residence of rich men in the countryside. The squalor of the farmers above mentioned is no doubt largely the result of stupidity, but with them poverty can be pleaded; but the rich squire-archy and nobility are not forced by lack of pence to cockneyize the countryside; but yet so soon as ever you come across a village turned smart but dull by idiotic architect-tooral-looral excrescences and changes; the cock-tailed school, the restored church, the Lady Bountiful cottages, the lodges of the Bayswater pattern, the carpet gardening of the vicar's garden and so forth, then look out for the big house of my lord or Sir Robert, or Captain Killmister, and you are sure to find it presently and unless it be an old house, or you have not got the real use of your eyes, you will be heartily sorry that you haven't missed it, such a lump of ugliness and vulgarity it will be.

Literature and the fine arts I will only just name; for to say the ugly truth there are so many makeshifts current in them that it would take more than all my time merely to run through them. Just one word however about the fine arts, by which I mean painting, sculpture and the like; I should like you to see one point with my eyes, and that is, that the very foundation of this fine or finest art, is that face of nature and the aspect of the ordinary dwellings of men, the condition of which I have been bewailing to you; they are in fact both fine art in themselves and also the material from which fine art is fashioned, and if they are degraded, it is impossible that the special arts can be anything else than makeshift. I can no more think of their being otherwise if their foundation is rotten, than I can of music existing without the sounds of nature, the song of birds, the voices of cattle, the ripple of streams, the wash of the sea, the noise of the wind and the rain and the thunder. So make up your minds to this that if you cannot have an ordinary working man's dwelling beautiful, you need not try after getting a beautiful picture.

I wish I could tell you what I really think of the makeshiftiness of education; how different the best which we have now is from what it ought to be. But at least I will say this that if we grudge for sake of cost making our national education as good for the passing hour as we can make it, we had better give up any claim that we have ever made to be a commonsense or practical people. it seems to me it comes to this; say you have determined to do something for 50,000 and you find that in order to do it properly you must spend another 10,000; that in fact you will spoil your work unless you spend it: wouldn't it be very much cheaper to spend 60,000 in doing it than 50,000 in not doing it? That is the way we should treat this matter of national education, it seems to me, i.e. determine to make it as decent an education as we know how whatever the cost may be. It will not be too good even then perhaps; but at least let us begin by discarding the foolish idea that we teach people in order to fit them to become workmen and women desirable to be employed by the capitalists: we should teach them with one aim in view, to make their lives pleasanter to them: any other aim will result in deplorable makeshift.

Well now, I have gone over a good many matters which are indeed but samples of the general great makeshift called civilization; and if I am right in my views as to the universality of makeshift nowadays, the present epoch must surely be sick of some sore disease of which these miseries and discomforts are the symptoms. So I will at once name the disease, and then we will have a few words about its cure, if you will listen to me so long. The name of the disease of which the civilized world is sick, is Poverty. The reason why we put up with all these makeshifts is because we are so poor that we cannot help it. We are too poor to have pleasant green fields and breezy moorland instead of these dreadful deserts that surround us here: too poor to have rational, properly planned cities, and beautiful houses fit for honest men to live in: too poor to prevent our children growing up in ignorance: too poor to pull down our prisons and work-houses and build fair halls and public buildings on their sites for the pleasure of the citizens: too poor above all things to give opportunity to every one to do the work which he can do the best and therefore with pleasure in the doing of it. What do I say! too poor to make peace in our midst, and make an end at last to the war between rich and poor, between the have-alls, and the lack-alls.

That, I say, is the disease: what is the cure? Well by this time I believe there are a good many present who know at least the kind of treatment necessary for this sick man. But let me once again say what I have so often said in Manchester already on that treatment. For I say the cause of the disease is poverty, from which not only all the nations but the whole of each nation suffers, is just that very war between the have-alls and lack-alls which I spoke of a minute ago: the have-alls perpetually fortifying their position, for they have no idea of how to live out of it: the lack-alls perpetually struggling to gain a little more, and yet a little more if they only can. Take note also that the result of this war is necessarily waste. I noticed that the other day Mr. Balfour was saying that Socialism was impossible because under it we should produce so much less than we do now. Now I say that we might produce half or a quarter of what we do now, and yet be much wealthier, and consequently much happier, than we are now: and that by turning whatever labour we exercised, into the production of useful things, things that we all want, and not by refusing to labour in producing useless things, things which none of us, not even fools want. What a strange sight would be a great museum of samples of all the market-wares which the labouring men of this country produce! What a many of them there would be which every reasonable man would have to ticket as useless!

My friends, a very great many people are employed in producing mere nuisances, like barbed wire, 100 ton guns, sky signs and advertising boards for the disfigurement of the green fields along the railways and so forth. But apart from these nuisances, how many more are employed in making market wares for rich people which are of no use whatever except to enable the said rich to `spend their money' as 'tis called; and again how many more in producing wretched makeshifts for the working classes because they are so poor that they can afford nothing better? Slave-wares for wage-slaves I have called them before, and I call them so now again. In short in one way or another all the industry of the country is wasted, because the system we are undertaking, we one with another, just allows us to live, some honestly but miserably, some dishonestly and emptily, and no more.

For after all the producers though they do incidentally produce some utilities, or we couldn't go on at all, yet the essence of the reason of their production is not the production of goods but of profits for those who are privileged to live on other people's labour. That is what our present commercial and governmental system is organized for, and for that it organizes labour and does it splendidly, magnificently, unfailingly. But if you try to get it to organize anything else, it breaks down directly. It can do that one thing only and nothing else.

I tell you that the whole people can never be happy under such a system, that under it their life must be a wretched makeshift. The whole people can only be happy when it is working for the whole people, and is organized to that end. Then we have an end of makeshifts, for when we are working to supply our own wants why should we work worse than well? and then too everybody would have due sympathy with his neighbour besides due confidence; it is only the craftsman that can know the real difficulties of the craftsman, and estimate the excellence of his work: only when the carpenter is working for the blacksmith, the blacksmith for the ploughman and so on each for each, that all labour becomes interesting and friendly betwixt all men; when we shall not be living in separate camps armed to keep out the others, but in different workshops whose secrets shall be open to all.

The old question: How shall we bring it about? My friends, you know a good deal of that now, and I need not tell you much about it. Yet I will not shirk the question. The present makeshift system would keep you machines as you have been so long, fed like machines, tended like machines, made to work like machines - and cast away like machines, when you are no longer capable of being kept in working order. Your answer to that is to claim to be considered as citizens. I think that you are already beginning to do. The claim for a living wage, for dealing with the matter of the unemployed, for a legal shortening of the hours of labour and other things of that kind, I do not believe to be each of them infallible nostrums for the immediate change of society; but the sum of these demands even now (and they will go on increasing year by year, no doubt) do mean to my mind the awakening to that claim; to the claim for the workmen to deal with their own affairs; and that again means the driving of the thin edge of the wedge into the present system of property, which, as I have said before, must be broken up before we can produce rationally and happily, and put an end to makeshifts.

But in bringing this about, I much fear that we must use one makeshift, politics to wit, the grievous makeshift forced upon us in the place of serious and wise discussion of our own affairs which will one day take its due place. If we could do without this nuisance, it would be well; but I do think that it is as things go the shortest or perhaps the only road to the change which we can follow. Yet one caution I would give to all those who are trying to bring about the beginnings of true Society; namely that political action must be looked on as the means and not the end of the struggle: that seems obvious, but I am sure it is a necessary warning; for people in the heat of electioneering are very apt to forget what we are striving for (which I here say downright is practical equality) and to think they have done all when they have got their candidate into parliament; or if they are beaten get so discouraged that they are apt to throw up the whole matter. So I say propaganda first, i.e. teaching people what it is that we want and how reasonable and necessary it is. A great deal has been done in this direction, but surely not enough. No, not enough till every working-man and woman has had the hope of the future put before him or her to reject or accept; yes and put before them in such a way, so often, so clearly, so honestly that almost all will accept it.

Now I for my part believe that when that has been done, when Socialism has been accepted, the means of attaining that end will at least in this country be found ready to hand, and we shall soon find by practice, that we the heirs of all the ages have been poverty stricken by a sort of magic, and not by the unalterable conditions of nature which environ us; or in other words that it is our own faults that we live this makeshift life under which if we but knew it both rich and poor suffer; but the poor so much the more that they are in fact another nation than the rich living in another country, which most surely would seem to the rich if they were condemned to live in it like a mere prison ruled over by the cruel jailers' folly and greed.

One word more: I am now growing an old man, and it is little likely that I shall see the coming about of the great change from privilege and competition to equality and mutual help. But many of you I hope will do so, and even now I seem at least to see the beginning of it and how great a difference there is between the opinion of the working classes now and fifteen years ago; and hereabouts in the northern manufacturing districts the change has been, I fully believe, somewhat sudden even. I must tell you that when I first came preaching Socialism in Manchester the prospect was by no means hopeful; and now it is on the contrary very hopeful. The working men of South Lancashire are now at last touched, and I hope and think that their progress will be speedy. Now many things no doubt have helped to bring this about, no doubt chiefly this, that though we could not see it those years ago, yet people were getting ready for the change.

Nevertheless though the fields be white for harvest, there needs must be labourers for that harvest; and here you have had some very sturdy labourers: and amongst all of these I must needs particularize, the editor of The Clarion and his fellow-workers. It is difficult to exaggerate the service which has been rendered to the cause by their uncompromising straightforward, generous, and at the same time good-tempered advocacy of Socialism. And I for one am glad to have the opportunity of thanking them for its publicly here in Manchester, as I have long done privately at home. Let us hope then, my friends, that this new Manchester School; the school which advocated civil and religious liberty, equality of all citizens before the law, abolishing of feudal survivals, freedom of markets, but made the one essential mistake of having no eyes to see any inhabitants in this country below the level of the prosperous middle classes whose mouthpiece it was.

Let us learn our lesson better than that and take care that our present struggle leaves behind it no class distinction, but brings about one condition of equality for all; which condition of society is the only one which can draw out to the full the varying capacities of the citizens and make the most of the knowledge and skill of mankind, the gain of so many ages, and thus do away for ever with MAKESHIFT.

Bibliographical Note




  1. 18th November 1894, at a meeting sponsored by the Ancoats Recreation Committee at New Islington Hall, Ancoats, Manchester.