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An Interview With William Morris, September, 1885: His Arrest and Freedome of Speech

Terry L. Meyers

    "I shall probably get to prison yet," continued Mr. William Morris, "if the authorities maintain their present attitude. I have to go to Manchester next Sunday, but the Sunday after, if the game is kept up, I am bound to be on the ground. But I honestly confess I do not take kindly to the idea of going to gaol. For I do not like to have a door locked upon me, nor do I like to be stopped from going where I want to go. Besides, I have read the article in the Pall Mall Gazette by a writer who had spent some days in the Holloway Gaol ["Forty" 1-2]. The fines of all the men who were fined were paid the same evening, but not so quickly as to prevent one of them from having his hair cropped; and after they had been committed, they were insulted most grossly by the police. Going to gaol, even for a week, is no joke for these working men, as we must all admit if we give the matter a thought; but they are very eager in this business, I assure you. The existence of this spirit of self-sacrifice on the part of the working men makes the position one of some difficulty for persons with means. I have not yet made up my mind what course I should take if I were simply fined. My view is that everybody ought to do in this matter as his conscience bids him. We are certainly determined to support our friends. It grieves me to see so many outsiders taken, for all the speakers were not taken. We ought all to be taken."
    Invited to express his views upon the conflict in its graver aspects, Mr. Morris said, "We are regarding it simply from the public-meeting point of view. The movement at present represented in Burdett-road is not necessarily a Socialist movement; it is a movement in defense of the right to free speech. As I have heard the law expounded, those who call a meeting on a public road hold it on peril of being charged with creating an obstruction--with preventing a person going anywhere he pleases on the road; but before a conviction is entered, there certainly ought to be good proof of actual obstruction--the obstruction ought not to be a merely technical obstruction, but a real obstruction. Whether meetings held in the streets shall be interfered with or not undoubtedly lies largely in the discretion of the authorities for each district. But it is not the custom to strain the laws against the promoters of these meetings unless the necessities of the public convenience imperatively call for interference. At Hammersmith, where we have held meetings on a piece of waste ground beside the road, the police were even good enough to say, at a time when we were troubled with ill-mannered opposition, that if we sent them word they would send down constables to maintain order for us. The police at the East-end, however, appear to be downright ill-tempered. I suppose the police grow worse when they have continually to deal with poor people, for down there they seem to treat the people like dogs. The Socialist League has been 'warned' in Soho and Hoxton, and interfered with at Stratford, and, in this present case, at Limehouse. But when we were interfered with at Stratford, Mr. Phillips decided that there had been no obstruction proved, and discharged the prisoner. As everbody knows, meetings of other kinds have been held in numberless places without interference for years and years. We contend that the persistent interference with Socialist meetings held in Dod-street proves an animus of some sort, wherever it comes from--which we don't profess to know. A police-officer with whom I talked on the subject at the police-court raised what might be regarded as a reasonable objection--that meetings in the street interfered with the rest of working people who had to sleep during the day; but when I asked him, "Then why have you not shut up the 'Salvationists'?" he immediately shifted his ground, saying, "You must admit that the people of this country as a body are religious." That observation, as I remarked to the officer, just proves our case. We are interfered with because we preach disagreeable doctrines.