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William Morris In The East End

June 2, 2020
by the gentle author

William Morris spoke at Speakers’ Corner in Victoria Park on 26th July & 11th October 1885, 8th August 1886, 27th March & 21st May 1888

If you spotted someone hauling an old wooden Spitalfields Market orange crate around the East End, that was me undertaking a pilgrimage to some of the places William Morris spoke in the hope he might return for one last oration.

The presence of William Morris in the East End is almost forgotten today. Yet he took the District Line from his home in Hammersmith regularly to speak here through the last years of his life, despite persistent ill-health. Ultimately disappointed that the production of his own designs had catered only to the rich, Morris dedicated himself increasingly to politics and in 1884 he became editor of The Commonweal, newspaper of the Socialist League, using the coach house at Kelsmcott House in Hammersmith as its headquarters.

As an activist, Morris spoke at the funeral of Alfred Linnell, who was killed by police during a free speech rally in Trafalgar Sq in 1887, on behalf of the Match Girls’ Strike in 1888 and in the Dock Strike of 1889. His final appearance in the East End was on Mile End Waste on 1st November 1890, on which occasion he spoke at a protest against the brutal treatment of Jewish people in Russia.

When William Morris died of tuberculosis in 1896, his doctor said, ‘he died a victim to his enthusiasm for spreading the principles of Socialism.’ Morris deserves to be remembered for his commitment to the people of the East End in those years of political turmoil as for the first time unions struggled to assert the right to seek justice for their workers.

8th April 1884, St Jude’s Church, Commercial St – Morris gave a speech at the opening of the annual art exhibition on behalf of Vicar Samuel Barnett who subsequently founded Toynbee Hall and the Whitechapel Gallery.

During 1885, volunteers distributed William Morris’ What Socialists Want outside the Salmon & Ball in Bethnal Green

1st September 1885, 103 Mile End Rd

20th September 1885, Dod St, Limehouse – When police launched a violent attack on speakers of the Socialist League who defended the right to free speech at this traditional spot for open air meetings, William Morris spoke on their behalf in court on 22nd September in Stepney.

10th November 1886 & 3rd July 1887, Broadway, London Fields

November 20th 1887, Bow Cemetery – Morris spoke at the burial of Alfred Linnell, a clerk who was killed by police during a free speech rally in Trafalgar Sq. ‘Our friend who lies here has had a hard life and met with a hard death, and if our society had been constituted differently his life might have been a delightful one. We are engaged in a most holy war, trying to prevent our rulers making this great town of London into nothing more than a prison.’

9th April 1889, Toynbee Hall, Commercial St – Morris gave a magic lantern show on the subject of ‘Gothic Architecture’

1st November 1890, Mile End Waste – Morris spoke in protest against the persecution of Jews in Russia

William Morris in the East End

3rd January & 27th April 1884, Tee-To-Tum Coffee House, 166 Bethnal Green Rd

8th April 1884, St Jude’s Church, Commercial St

29th October 1884, Dod St, Limehouse

9th November 1884, 13 Redman’s Row

11th January & 12th April 1885, Hoxton Academy Schools

29th March 24th May 1885, Stepney Socialist League,  110 White Horse St

26th July & 11th October 1885, Victoria Park

8th August 1885, Socialist League Stratford

16th August 1885, Exchange Coffee House, Pitfield St, Hoxton

1st September 1885, Swaby’s Coffee House, 103 Mile End Rd

22nd September 1885, Thames Police court, Stepney (Before Magistrate Sanders)

24th January 1886, Hackney Branch Rooms, 21 Audrey St, Hackney Rd

2nd February 1886, International Working Men’s Educational Club, 40 Berners St

5th June 1886, Socialist League Stratford

11th July 1886, Hoxton Branch of the Socialist League, 2 Crondel St

24th August 1886, Socialist League Mile End Branch, 108 Bridge St

13th October 1886, Congregational Schools, Swanscombe St, Barking Rd

10th November 1886, Broadway, London Fields

6th March 1887, Hoxton Branch of the Socialist League, 2 Crondel St

13th March & 12th June 1887, Hackney Branch Rooms, 21 Audrey St, Hackney Rd

27th March 1887, Borough of Hackney Club, Haggerston

27th March, 21st May, 23rd July, 21st August & 11th September, 1887 Victoria Park

24th April 1887, Morley Coffee Tavern Lecture Hall, Mare St

3rd July 1887, Broadway, London Fields

21st August 1887, Globe Coffee House, High St, Hoxton

25th September 1887, Hoxton Church

27th September 1887, Mile End Waste

18th December 1887, Bow Cemetery, Southern Grove

17th April 1888, Mile End Socialist Hall, 95 Boston St

17th April 1888, Working Men’s Radical Club, 108 Bridge St, Burdett Rd

16th June 1888, International Club, 23 Princes Sq, Cable St

17th June 1888, Victoria Park

30th June 1888, Epping Forest Picnic

22nd September 1888,  International Working Men’s Education Club, 40 Berners St

9th April 1889, Toynbee Hall, Commercial St

27th June 1889, New Labour Club, 5 Victoria Park Sq, Bethnal Green

8th June 1889, International Working Men’s Education Club, 40 Berners St

1st November 1890, Mile End Waste

This feature draws upon the research of Rosemary Taylor as published in her article in The Journal of William Morris Studies. Click here to join the William Morris Society

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20 Responses leave one →
  1. Catherine permalink
    June 2, 2020

    Thank you so much for this fascinating post. William Morris is one of my personal heroes and I think his efforts on behalf of Socialism are too often overshadowed by his admittedly wonderful design work. Fitting perhaps, in light of his East End associations, that SPAB headquarters are in Spital Square!

  2. June 2, 2020

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for highlighting this aspect to the life and work of William Morris; I I can almost see him standing on the orange crate.

  3. June 2, 2020

    William Morris deserves to be remembered for so much more than his lovely designs. Seeing one of the pictures above, I mused on what he would make of the facadism plague. I believe that he would have hated it with a utter passion, as it lacks integrity (for starters)

    GA, heartened by the fact that if you are well enough to lug that orange crate hither and yon, you must indeed be feeling back on good form!

  4. Mary Purcell permalink
    June 2, 2020

    You mentioned Rev Samuel Barnett in today’s fascinating blog about William Morris. May I put in a word about Mrs Henrietta Barnett,the vicar’s wife who founded Hampstead Garden Suburb? I’m writing to you from the ‘Artisan Quarter’ of the Suburb, within sight of St Jude’s Church, designed by Edwin Lutyens.
    It may be that you’ve already followed up the connection between the Suburb and Toynbee Hall, which we still support via the annual ‘Proms at St Judes.’
    Apologies if you’ve ‘been there, done it already.’
    Hoping you’re fully recovered from your encounter with Covid-19.
    Reading your blog is always a high point in the day,
    Mary Purcell

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 2, 2020

    I love this blog and I’m glad that the spirit of William Morris lives on in the East End Preservation Society, and in your campaign against the plague of ghastly façadism… (that picture of Toynbee Hall is still a real shocker).

  6. June 2, 2020

    I was praying that the poor urban skeleton was not that of another victim of façadism, but apparently yes. The irony is especially grotesque in this case…

  7. June 2, 2020

    Victoria Park was my playground as a child and many hours were spent around that wonderful Burdett-Coutts Fountain, totally oblivious to the fact that William Morris had given one of his Socialist speeches there .
    A great man standing firm against injustice and stoic in his beliefs.
    A fascinating and apt post for today GA ……given what is happening across the Pond.
    I hope you are slowly recovering and making a return to good health.

  8. Laura Sheed permalink
    June 2, 2020

    I loved reading this fascinating account of William Morris’s activism and the simple act of placing a wooden crate in the locations where he gave some of his speeches really brought his story to life. Thank you.

  9. Claire Weiss permalink
    June 2, 2020

    Superb blog piece! The locations, the person, the writings, all linked together. The visual irony of the Toynbee Hall facade and the magic lantern show of Gothic architecture caption leaves me gasping..

  10. June 2, 2020

    “A Man For All Seasons” — and reasons. It seems that every topic I research eventually includes
    William Morris in the mix. Seriously! The term “influential” takes on added meaning, after reading this post. He was a monumental figure, and even that description seems too tepid for the great Morris.

    (I actually think that Morris would prefer to see a pile of rubble, rather than look upon that
    horrific insipid façade. Whaaaaaaat?)

  11. June 2, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I enjoyed seeing the many locations where William Morris (1834-1896) shared his socialist views in the East End. I must confess though, I am more interested in his art work. I had planned to visit his gallery/museum in Walthamstow this June. But, alas, such travel is not an option at this point.

    Also, the wooden soap boxes are a clever prop. What an interesting and complex character William Morris was in Victorian London.

    So happy to see that you are out and about again. Stay well.

  12. paul loften permalink
    June 2, 2020

    Thank you so much for this. “Traipse with an Orange Box” would be a great title. How our troubled times cry out for a multi-faceted leader with the charisma, courage, and vision that William Morris possessed. What a shame the orange box stands empty!
    As a supporter and also a maker of handcrafts, I will apply to join the William Morris society. Thank you for the link

  13. Flora permalink
    June 2, 2020

    What a great way to show WM’s soap box speeches. However, I can’t help but be depressed that his ideas for workers are not much further on nowadays. I was born in 1946 and consider I lived through a Golden Age for socialism. Free healthcare, free third level education, and for the most of the UK, apart from N Ireland, relative peace. Membership of the EU, with all its faults, opened the door to opportunities and civil rights. The country is still run by the privileged elite and getting an education does not bring wisdom. Congratulations on a very interesting and original blog.

  14. Bob Land permalink
    June 2, 2020

    A wonderful man, he is one of my heroes. Thank you for this blog post.

  15. Mark permalink
    June 2, 2020

    A brilliant human being and a Socialist to boot.
    Touched by the fate of Alfred Linnell.
    Trafalgar sq. has figured large in our protesting past for the last 2 centuries.

  16. June 2, 2020

    William Morris’s box on these pictures will make people remember.??✌

  17. Carolyn Hooper permalink
    June 3, 2020

    Wonderful post, gentle author about an amazing individual. There is always so much more to learn.

    Reading the message here about the Match Girls brought to mind a very recent find of mine about my East End family ancestors. The wife of a first cousin, twice removed, of the Bow area, Caroline Eastwell (nee Bailey) had died in 1937 in the Claybury Asylum Essex. She had been there for decades. From 1901 their four little children under 8 were without their mother.

    Then…..I found she had been a match maker. Following this I learned of the dangers faced with working closely with phosphorus.

    So I salute William Morris for his magnificent life and his superb heart.

  18. Eric Forward permalink
    June 3, 2020

    Very timely post GA. What with riots and in particular I think we’re at a time in history where labour has never been less valued than capital. The entire financial system protects the latter at a cost to the former. We see in America $1,200 checks sent out to last people months while trillions (inconceivable amounts) are pumped into keeping markets levitated. Disgusting and I fear we’re see another roaring 20s, for all the wrong reasons.

  19. Emily and Susan Johns permalink
    June 7, 2020

    This made me and my mum happy and sad to read. We followed your journey by Streetview during lockdown. So much more green in the East End but also so much seized by the wealthy. And so many generations of struggle! I have a photograph of my father standing on the anarchist soap box at Speakers Corner and thought of him as you talked of Morris.

  20. June 14, 2020

    Barnett’s building of Toynbee Hall hasn’t been demolished has it?

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