William Morris in Huddersfield

This article was written as a contribution to THE MORRIS CENTENARY in 1996

WILLIAM MORRIS’  MISSION TO HUDDERSFIELD, 1887

The evening of the meeting on Tuesday 8th November 1887 was wintry and wet. Perhaps some people had been put off by the weather. The Victoria Hall on Buxton Road, a plain neo-classical building fronted by a portico of ionic columns , (later the town’s first  cinema, swallowed up by the co-operative store in 1938), was less crowded than expected, considering the celebrated artist and writer billed to speak.

But William Morris, renowned for his volume of poems Earthly Paradise, was not in Huddersfield to speak about literature. Nor about the artistic design and production  of wallpaper, textiles and stained glass for which he was well known. His visit was not as spokesman and founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, a cause very dear to his heart.

Morris’ invitation had come from a local woollen manufacturer, 45 year-old George Thomson of Woodhouse Mills, Deighton, a devotee of  the ideas of the art critic and social philosopher, John Ruskin. The previous year, Thomson had converted his family business into a co-operative venture which allowed the workers to help run the firm and share the profits.

From his home in Hammersmith, Morris – himself an employer- replied to Thomson on 12th September 1887, making clear his impatience with such schemes: ‘no amount of (so-called) co-operation or profit sharing that is possible will prove to be a solution of the labour question as long as land is owned in severalty and capital is the property of the individual…’ He warned that if he came to Huddersfield ‘I should have to come as an uncompromising Socialist amongst you who are trying to work a compromise.’

English: Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William...

English: Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris (right) in the garden of Burne-Jones’s home the Grange, Fulham, 1890. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This proviso was evidently agreeable to Thomson, who joined Morris on the Victoria Hall platform. Alongside was another prominent  co-operator, radical Liberal and future mayor of Huddersfield, Owen Balmforth, named after the leader of an earlier generation of Socialists, Robert Owen. A leading local Liberal took the chair: Ernest Woodhead MA, outspoken son of the Huddersfield Examiner proprietor Joseph Woodhead, had become editor of the paper two years earlier, although only 28 years old.

Morris too was a newspaper editor and journalist. But his journal was a far cry from the Examiner! The  Commonweal  was the revolutionary publication of the Socialist League, founded by William Morris and others, including Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor.

Morris actually started political life as a radical Liberal. In 1876, outraged at the atrocities carried out by Turkish troops in Bulgaria, he became treasurer of the Eastern Question Association, which backed Liberal leader Gladstone’s campaign against the Tory government’s pro-Turkish policy. After prime minister Disraeli sent British ships to defend Istanbul from Russia in 1878, the  Liberals caved-in to jingoistic hysteria, and Morris, disheartened by politics, returned to his workshop and study.

In 1883 he joined the  Democratic Federation, soon to be  transformed into the Social Democratic Federation, an avowedly revolutionary Socialist organisation. At 49 Morris had discovered a cause – one which offered hope of salvation from all the ugliness, poverty and suffering of modern society  he found so offensive to his love of truth and beauty. Frustrated by the SDF’s autocratic leadership under H.M. Hyndman, Morris helped set up the Socialist League in late 1884 and became its treasurer. He threw the same energy and dedication into the movement that he had into his art, touring the country addressing hundreds of meetings. He not only edited Commonweal, but also wrote much of the copy, and some of his political poems and novels were first serialised in its columns.

Ernest Woodhead, introducing Morris, joked about their common interest in literature ,and described him as ‘not only the poet who sang the Earthly Paradise, but the enthusiast … who wished that all should find a corner in that Earthly Paradise.’ Despite disagreement with Morris on some issues, ‘as one who was wishful to do anything tending to heal the wounds of society, he was greatly interested in the matter Mr Morris was bringing before them.’

Morris spoke for  over an hour, explaining in a simple, sometimes humorous fashion the basic principles of Socialism. Although a poet and an artist, he did not use flowery rhetoric to sway people. Instead, he captivated audiences by using forthright, down-to-earth language and the strength of his convictions. It was wrong for capitalists to live off profits accumulated from the labour of others, he contended. All productive wealth should be owned and managed by workers themselves, so that wealth could be fairly distributed. There followed some probing questions from the audience, which included many respectable middle-class people, including at least one clergyman. In reply he was emphatic that Socialism required ‘nationalisation of the land as well as all other productive means.’

Ernest Woodhead, moving the vote of thanks to Morris, threw in some comments of his own. To the audience’s amusement, he quipped that he was well-placed to be an impartial chairman because ‘although the son of an employer he was also one of the employed. He had felt the tyrant’s heel upon his neck, he had known the bitterness of receiving smaller wages than he was entitled to.’ His main reservations about Socialism was that ‘Life under Mr Morris’ conditions would leave too much to the community and too little to the individual.’ Morris, who was horrified by the way industrial production destroyed human creativity and subordinated people to machines, retorted, ‘It was the present system that crushed out all individuality.’

Mr Woodhead continued the debate in the Examiner. The  editorial, on 10th November, paid tribute to Morris’ earnestness and sincerity, conceding that the existing distribution of wealth in society was not as fair as it ought to be. Nevertheless, he thought that Morris ignored the benefits of capitalism and also the fact that poverty was sometimes the result of ‘idleness, extravagance and drunkenness.’

However, Woodhead’s opposition to Socialists did not prevent him speaking out when they were victims of injustice. The very day Morris was in Huddersfield, a chain of events unfolded in London which were to have a deep impact on the working class movement.

For over two years, unrest had been growing about unemployment, repression in Ireland and police harassment of Socialist open air meetings. On 8th November, the chief of the Metropolitan police, Sir Charles Warren, issued a proclamation banning meetings in Trafalgar Square. On Sunday, 13th November, thousands of police and troops, the latter with fixed bayonets and live ammunition, cordoned off the Square as tens of thousands of Radicals, Irish nationalists and Socialists marched to demand the right of assembly. Morris encouraged the Clerkenwell contingent with a speech, ‘of a determined character’ according to the Examiner, in which he demanded the release of the gaoled Irish MP William O’Brien. He was in the thick of the fighting with the police, who soon dispersed the unarmed and disorganised protesters. Hundreds were injured, including two fatally. The day went down in the annals of working class history as ‘Bloody Sunday’.

The Examiner editorial on Saturday 19th November slammed the government panic which had precipitated the tragedy, ‘The contention of those who assert that by the repression of the liberty of free speech and public meeting in Ireland the existence of that liberty in England is directly threatened has been completely justified.’ The ban was ‘an unwarrantable interference with the right of Englishmen to hold open-air meetings for legitimate objects.’

The next day, the workers of London again tried to assert their right to meet in the Square, and again the police battered them off the streets. A bystander, Alfred Linnell, was trampled by a police horse and fatally injured. He earned immortality through commemoration in a ‘Death Song’ composed by William Morris, who delivered a deeply moving oration at the graveside.

The events of Bloody Sunday, and its aftermath, convinced Morris that Socialism would always meet with violent resistance and the workers had to be better prepared if they were to confront the state. Others, like George Bernard Shaw, drew different conclusions. Workers could never win by physical force and Socialism had to be introduced gradually. Morris stuck to his revolutionary views until his death in 1896, although an Anarchist take-over of the Socialist League and of Commonweal, combined with his declining health, forced him to take a less active part in political life.

When Morris visited Huddersfield in 1887, there were only a handful of Socialists in the area, according to weavers’ union leader Ben Turner, a supporter of the Socialist League. However, five years later, the town and neighbourhood, particularly the villages of the Colne Valley, played an important part in the Socialist revival and the founding of the Independent Labour Party. It is impossible to determine if Morris’ visit or his writings inspired other local Socialists. There were probably more people in the Victoria Hall that night who were as mystified as the 1996 Centenary pundits continue to be. How could a genius of such romantic, artistic sensibilities be a revolutionary Socialist?

But for Morris, art and Socialism were inseparable. The future depicted in his novel, News From Nowhere, was not Stalin’s brave new world of steel and concrete. ‘It is our business to try and make this earth a very beautiful and happy place.’ he said at the funeral of Alfred Linnell. One hundred years on, after a turbulent century of technological ugliness and destruction even he could not have envisaged, Morris’ hopes for a beautiful, peaceful world are more important and inspiring than ever.

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by Will...

Detail of Woodpecker tapestry designed by William Morris. (The complete tapestry has a border and inscription.) (Identification from Linda Parry: William Morris Textiles, New York, Viking Press, 1983, ISBN 0-670-77074-4, ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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