Sunday, April 15, 2007

William Morris in Waltham Forest

WILLIAM MORRIS, his home in Walthamstow, and a piece of his design, called "Wandle", after the river in south London.

AT the north-east end of the Victoria Line is Walthamstow, part of the London borough of Waltham Forest, and though it might not be posh or trendy, they celebrated a famous local's birthday recently and I am sorry I missed the occasion.

William Morris, poet, artist and socialist was born in Walthamstow on March 24, 1834.

In 1845 the family moved into Water House, a substantial Georgian home, with moat and water gardens where the young William played with his brothers and sisters. Today the grounds form Lloyd Park (named for a newspaper owner who gave them to the local council) and the house is the home of the William Morris Gallery, opened by Labour prime minister Clem Attlee in 1950.

I first visited Lloyd Park many years ago when Waltham Forest Trades Union council were holding their May Day fete there. The Jewish Socialists' Group had a lit stall, Harry Cohen MP stopped by for a chat, and I bought and enjoyed an excellent charcoal-grilled shish kebab in pita with salad from the Kurdish refugee workers on the next stall. On a more recent visit to Walthamstow one evening I repaired to an Asian cafe on Hoe Street where the friendly proprietress in shalwar and khamis brought me my beigel and cream cheese and good strong coffee. East London, innit? Morris would wholeheartedly approve.

Though born when Walthamstow was still a country village, and creating poetry, arts and craft that seem so typically "English", William Morris offers little shelter for the flag-waving, narrow-minded patriots of phoney tradition. The ugliness of Victorian capitalism fired his wish to work and create artistically, but he came to left-wing politics as an internationalist, appalled by Tory and Liberal imperialist policies, and rejecting the chauvinism of his pseudo-Marxist contemporary H.M.Hyndman. It was Morris who earned the affection of Fred Engels and Marx's daughter Eleanor, and spoke to audiences of East End working-class immigrants.

But for all we have been hearing about "heritage" in the past few years, Morris and his museum are not faring well in the climate of cuts and closures under this Labour government, any more than nearby Whipps Cross hospital. As this note below from the William Morris Society told us:

24 March 2007 (Morris's birthday)

Dear Friends,

The Walthamstow Borough Council has cut resources to the William Morris Gallery and its curatorial staff, which affects opening hours and reduces service. The curator, Peter Cormack, has already been given notice of his termination. A petition has been set up to protest at Please sign and pass on to others who may be concerned to protect a valuable resource in Morris Studies. For full details please go to, which is regularly updated with the latest news of the campaign. You can email Walthamstow Councillor Adam Gladstone directly via The entire Council can be reached by visiting
Finally, visit the Morris Gallery either in person or by going to and register your concern and support!

In fellowship,
The William Morris Society

That same day, despite bitterly cold weather over a hundred artists, musicians and local residents turned up outside the museum to celebrate Morris's 173rd birthday with a picnic. There were home-made Morris-inspired tapestries, and there was poetry to commemorate the event, and it was an opportunity to protest against cuts that will bring job losses and mean the Museum will have to close on weekdays. People fear that with the loss of jobs and expertise, as well as visitor numbers will come a decline leading to the museum being closed altogether.

"Some protestors dressed as 'fat cat councillors' whilst one creative protestor transformed himself into a seven foot depiction of William Morris' ghost" (BBC, report, Ramaa Sharma, .
They sang Leon Rosselson's song News from Nowhere, fiddlers played and dancers danced, and there were messages of support from Tony Benn and from the US William Morris Society.

Besides gathering hundreds of local people's protest signatures in Walthamstow market, including some in Sanskrit and Arabic, the Morris museum's defenders have launched an online petition which has raised over 5,000 signatures, many from past visitors, and many of them from overseas.

Waltham Forest council was due to discuss the gallery cutback on Friday the 13th, good job we are not superstitious, and there should be an announcement pretty soon. Maybe the councillors should reflect that when their borough is often in the news for crime and other problems, it is the Morris museum and the protestors who have put the positive side of Walthamstow on the map.

The museum website at has more information and even some Morris designs you can download as pictures or classy desktop screen wallpaper. Among them is the 'Wandle' design I took as a sample (above). Morris named it after the modest but hard-working river which rising from Downs springs flows through the boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Merton and Wandsworth to reach the Thames, and provided the power and clean water for Morris and Company's textile mill at Merton Abbey. For more information about this 1884 textile design see:

The other part of London particularly associated with Morris is Hammersmith. He took a home by the Thames, at which his Hammersmith Socialist Society used to meet (among its members incidentally was a young music student, who met his wife while conducting the society's choir; a Baltic immigrants' son named Gustav Holst).

When I heard that Weatherspoon were resuscitating an old pub on Swan Island in Hammersmith, I wrote to the company suggesting as a name for the new establishment "News from Nowhere", Morris' famous novel of a socialist future which he wrote while living in Hammersmith. They said they'd consider it. But in the end they settled for simply calling it the William Morris, which is fair enough.

The William Morris Society has more about his life and work at

You can find an essay on Morris and his socialism at

There is also an informative online exhibition provided by the University of Texas at

Oh, and there's still time to sign that petition at:

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