[Back to Schooldays page] - [Back to William Morris School]

William Morris, Walthamstow
William Morris
(Photograph by Frederick Hollyer - 1884 - Platinum print. Museum no. 7717-1938
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

William Morris (24 March 1834 - 3 October 1896) was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement.

Morris (1834-96) had trained as an architect and had early unfulfilled ambitions to be a painter. As a student at Oxford he met the artist Edward Burne-Jones, and through this friendship he came into contact with the Pre-Raphaelite painters, such as Rossetti, and others in their circle. In 1859 Morris married Jane Burden, an unconventional beauty and a favourite model for the Pre-Raphaelites. He immediately commissioned his friend, the architect Philip Webb, to build them a new home on land he had bought in Bexleyheath, Kent. Now a suburb of London, Bexleyheath was then a rural area. Morris wanted a modern home which would nevertheless be 'very medieval in spirit'. This is exactly what Webb gave him.

Morris and his wife moved into Red House in 1860 and spent the next two years furnishing and decorating the interior. Morris did much of the work himself, with help from his artist friends.

Prompted by the success of their efforts, they decided to start their own company. In April 1861 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was established at 8 Red Lion Square in London. It produced a range of original domestic furnishings including embroidery, tableware and furniture, stained glass and tiles.

Wallpapers were soon added to the list because Morris was unable to find any he liked well enough to use in his own home. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. profoundly influenced the decoration of churches and houses into the early 20th century. He was also a major contributor to reviving traditional textile arts and methods of production, and one of the founders of the SPAB, now a statutory element in the preservation of historic buildings in the UK.
Morris wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. His best-known works include The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), A Dream of John Ball (1888) and the utopian News from Nowhere (1890).

William Morris was in fact one of the pioneers of revolutionary socialism. He was one of the first to join the Social Democratic Federation in 1883. It had been launched two years earlier by HM Hyndman, an ex-Tory journalist, around a socialist programme broadly drawn from Marx. The discovery of a coherent theory that could tie his own critique of society with an effective way of changing it filled him with joy. A friend noted in his diary that 'he was bubbling over with Karl Marx'. When he was invited to speak at Oxford, his old university, he shocked his distinguished audience with a rallying call to class war: 'Here are two classes, face to face with each other...no man can exist in society and be neutral, no-body can be a mere looker on...you must either be a reactionary... or you must join in the march of progress, trample down all opposition.'

The SDF produced pamphlets and a weekly newspaper--Justice--that outlined a coherent Marxist politics for the first time in Britain. Its members set up branches wherever they could, built around weekly meetings and using public sales and outdoor meetings to attract an audience. Morris soon became a sought after speaker and a regular at various sales pitches around London. Morris's tremendous political speeches and writings were central to the revival of the British socialist movement at the end of the 19th century. They show that Marxism has been influential in Britain for over 100 years, and their relevance today is striking. Writing in the 1890s he warned against faith in partial reforms that depended on 'parliamentary agitation'. Such reforms would, he believed, 'be sucked into the tremendous stream of commercial production, and vanish into it, after having played its part as a red herring to spoil the scent of revolution.' If they wanted real change, Morris argued, people must 'take over for the good of the community all the means of production: ie credit, railways, mines, factories, shipping, land, machinery.'

Morris was a man of awe inspiring energy and huge talents. A contemporary remarked that he achieved what five normal men might do in one life. He was one of the leading poets of the age, a celebrated lecturer and pamphleteer, he wrote novels and edited two socialist newspapers, he led campaigns for the preservation of ancient buildings and he achieved international fame as a designer of textiles, wallpapers and even stained glass windows. But all his work was shaped by his developing rebellion against the values of Victorian capitalist society.

He devoted much of the rest of his life to the Kelmscott Press, which he founded in 1891. The 1896 Kelmscott edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is considered a masterpiece of book design.

William Morris is particularly important to Walthamstow as he was a resident who acquired world wide fame. The Borough motto 'Fellowship is life' is taken from from his writings "Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell; fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death; and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship's sake that ye do them."

(Text & picture kindly provided by Bill Bayliss)


1834 Born on 24 March 1834 in Walthamstow.
1848-1852 Attends Marlborough School for three years. Privately educated by the Rev. F B Guy 1851-1852.
1852-1855 Attends Exeter College, Oxford, with the intention of becoming a clergyman. Meets Edward Burne-Jones, also a first-year undergraduate. His love of medieval art and architecture begins while at college.
1855 Comes into his inheritance of £900 per annum. Makes a walking tour of the Gothic cathedrals in northern France with Burne-Jones.
1856 Begins work in the architectural office of G E Street. Meets Phillip Webb and, later that year, Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Morris abandons his fledgeling career in architecture and becomes an artist.
1857 Morris, Burne-Jones, Rosetti and various others paint the Oxford Union frescoes. Meets Jane Burden, one of Rosetti's models.
1859 Marries Jane Burden.
1861 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. founded. Founder members include Ford Madox Brown, Burne-Jones, Rosetti and Webb.
1862-1867 Designs the first of his wallpapers for the Company. Publishes poetry including The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise.
1868-1869 Studies Icelandic with Eirikr Magnusson, and the following year publishes translations of he Saga of Gunnlaug Worm-tongue and The Story of Grettir the Strong.
1870 Publishes a prose tranlation from the Icelandic of the Volsunga Saga. Commits himself to radical Socialist political activity.
1871-1873 Morris and Rosetti become joint tenants of Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire. Travels to Iceland. In 1873, travels to northern Italy with Burne-Jones.
1875-1877 Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. dissolved and reconstituted as Morris & Co., with Morris as sole proprietor. In 1877 Morris founds The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
1878 The Morris family move into Kelmscott House in Hammersmith. Made honorary fellow of Exeter College, Oxford.
1884-1890 Publishes Art and Socialism and A Summary of the Principles of Socialism. Founds the Socialist League. Becomes deeply involved in political activism, and is arrested in connection with free speech demonstrations.
1891 Founds the Kelmscott Press at Hammersmith. Declines the offer of the poet laureateship after Tennyson's death.
1894-1896 Publishes The Wood Beyond the World. Begins work on the Kelmscott Chaucer, designed by Morris and illustrated by Burne-Jones, and published in 1896. Also publishes The Well at World's End.
1896 Dies on 3 October at Kemscott House. Buried in Kelmscott Village churchyard.