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William Morris In The East End

August 27, 2023
by the gentle author


Next ticket availability Saturday 2nd September


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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12 Responses leave one →
  1. August 27, 2023

    Thank you GA for reminding us that Morris was not only a prominent designer but a campaigner too. I love the Educate, Agitate, Organise poster. I definitely need to get a copy for my wall! I’m sure that he too would be frustrated by today’s politics and find plenty of causes to step up onto his orange box and orate about.

  2. Eve permalink
    August 27, 2023

    A man of conscience, rather than a victim of ‘Socialist principles ‘ & many have reason to be thankful for such enthusiasm..

  3. Patricia permalink
    August 27, 2023

    Indeed, a man of conscience. Who dared to make his beliefs known.
    The impact of the soap/orange box placed in significant areas he was active in is powerful.

  4. Christine permalink
    August 27, 2023

    I found this very interesting and did not realise that William Morris was such an activist! I also only found out recently his Company fitted the stained glass windows that Edward Burne-Jones designed for St Phillips Cathedral in Birmingham and made by Morris & Co that were installed between 1885 and 1897. Love the Posters too x

  5. Saba permalink
    August 27, 2023

    I do forget the deeply political roots of some writers and artists in the late nineteenth century. These brave people are a call to us today.

    GA, is it not time for your annual vacation?

  6. August 27, 2023

    I love your orange crate as an evocation of Morris — evocation and icon!

  7. Saba permalink
    August 27, 2023

    I should have added that, here in the Hudson Valley, Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscaper, architect, and publisher, carried out commissions for wealthy clients but he also believed that everyone should have access to well-designed open space and was the original proponent of Central Park in New York City until he tragically died in a boating accident. Downing published a magazine with well-detailed instructions for DIY projects in the creation of gardens, furniture, and homes.

  8. August 27, 2023

    What a two-day bonanza for your readers! First, the toy theaters and now William Morris.
    Although today’s post mentions that his death might have been attributable to his enthusiasm for Socialism, I have discovered a different quote: “William Morris finally died as a result of………being William Morris”. When one reads about his rampant lifelong endeavors, a feeling of awe creeps in. He must have teemed with curiosity. I imagine him lumbering and bounding out of bed each morning, already inflamed with his ideas for projects, speeches, etc. Trailing pages of sketches and notes, perhaps.

    Have you noticed? — I have. I will be reading about a favorite artist or designer and inevitably their admiration for William Morris is mentioned. We toss around the term “Influencer” a lot these days. Surely he was the original Influencer? My favorite story about Morris is that he got a yen to have his own suit of armor (well, sure) and taught the local blacksmith how to make it. In my minds eye, I imagine the baronial-sized Morris giddily slipping into this self-designed miracle of metal.
    What a glorious human being!?

  9. Sonia Murray permalink
    August 27, 2023

    GA, what is that horrendous facade at Toynbee Hall? Surely the settlement house has not been demolished by developers? William Morris was a supporter. I have photographs of the beautiful refectory – Gran’s brother was a resident and teacher. Too much of the East End has been destroyed to put up soulless glass towers.

    (Sorry, I don’t know how to put the wiggle under the c in facade.)

  10. David Ellison permalink
    August 27, 2023

    A wonderful tribute to William Morris – thank you.
    His spirit lives on.

  11. Eleanor permalink
    August 29, 2023

    Thank you for this lovely piece. I am so happy that his communism has been acknowledged and his activtism elaborated on. I was shocked to discover that someone I engaged with from SPAB had no clue that the co founder had a deep political commitment, but knowing the elitist (and ruling class biased) world of historic conservation as it is now, i am sure this ignorance is fostered. His realisation that his designs furnished the houses of the bourgeoisie must have been a depressing one! I think that’s why many artists in the UK who are communists and socialists like myself (also a historic conservationist like Morris) don’t bother to engage with the ‘art world’.

  12. Linda Kincaid permalink
    September 4, 2023

    A truly great man. Would love to have met him.

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