William Morris

Speech Against the Abuses of Public Advertising

Let me in the first place say that I think the Society have done absolutely right in pressing the point of the advertisements which disfigure rural scenery rather than making too much of the point of the disfigurement in towns. As soon as you get anything like public opinion to desire some reasonable regulation of advertisements in the towns, there are the municipalities - and some of them, like our own London County Council, would be very anxious, I believe, to do all they possibly could to force public opinion. We owe a debt of thanks to that member of the County Council who succeeded in getting passed the other day a resolution to the effect that the London County Council should take cognisance of every valuable piece of historical building which was threatened with destruction - a most important resolution I think.

Next, we have to remember that the enormous majority of the people of the country do not care one straw about natural beauty. They have, I allow, a certain sort of pleasure in wandering about in the fields and enjoying the fresh air, but, as for looking at nature in detail with anything like observation, it is a fact that the greater part of the people of this country are entirely without eyes! Unless you can use you eyes, and unless the use of your eyes makes you suffer, nothing will be done. Then, the farmers are willing to make a little money, without regard to beauty, and it may be said they are entitled to do that. In point of fact, this is the position: We have to get a majority - an effective majority, which will make enough noise about Reform to get it carried. We have then a very difficult task before us, but in the meantime it is well to consider if we cannot to a certain extent mitigate this evil. I would call your attention to the wisdom - the commercial wisdom - of this matter of advertising. In the first place, take my word for it, it is only under very peculiar circumstances that advertising ever pays. And yet, my friends, I tell you plainly, people all over the country, in all kinds of businesses, spend enormous sums of money and half ruin themselves in advertising, the result of which is that they do not sell much more. The truth is, it is only on these two conditions advertising pays: the thing must cost little or nothing to make, and it must attract everybody's money. The advertiser must enter into a life and death competition with all the other advertisers. A few succeed and flourish, but the greater part give in, and those that give in - well, their names appear in the Gazette. As to those goods which cost nothing to make and a lot to advertise, ought we not to avoid paying for them in hard cash. On the whole, we have a right to see that our money, if we possibly can, should not be wasted.

I cannot help saying that there is nothing for it but for us to slowly build up some kind of public opinion which shall allow us to have our own way, and that, of course, will be a very long job indeed. In these matters, I must tell you I am not, and never can be, a practical man; but I am perfectly willing to fall in with a scheme which has the slightest chance of success, and to give my most whole-hearted support to it, even if it be only an ad interim measure. This matter cannot be left from day to day: while the grass is growing the steed is starving.

My resolution says: "That it is a natural interest to protect rural scenery from disfigurement." Now there are a great many things besides placards and so forth that are permanent disfigurements. One permanent disfigurement occurs to me, a disfigurement at Mapledurham, on the Thames, which is no doubt one of the most beautiful spots in England - in the world. There is a sort of bank there. The Great Western Railway wanted more room; it would have been a very easy thing to get that room on the land side, away from the river without spoiling the place, but instead of doing this (which would have been comparatively harmless) they put up a hideous wall of blue brick, to the utter ruin of the view. It was nobody's business, and it went by default.

In taking up this matter of the boards that are stuck about our fields, I think we have done very well. It is very piteous, whilst travelling along the railway, to see some pretty piece of scenery disfigured, and one says, "It is horrible; I cannot look at it."

I also think that the Bill introduced in the last Session was a very right kind of Bill to put before the public. It condemned as a nuisance that which it was worth people's time and trouble to abate if they possibly could, and practically asserted: "That it is of national interest to protect rural scenery from unnecessary disfigurement." That resolution I must cordially sympathise with, and beg to second.

Bibliographical Note


Against the Abuses of Public Advertising


  1. 31st January 1896, at a meeting of the Society for Checking the Abuses of Public Advertising at the Society of Arts, John Street, Adelphi, London. Morris's final public address.