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Morris's 1885 Interview with the Pall Mall Gazette RSS
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Posted by fsboos on Jan 05, 2011 09:33PM

The newspaper interview was a relatively recent phenomenon in Victorian Britain, and William Morris’s unusual blend of forthrightness, literary distinction, radical politics, and dedication to a wide variety of ‘the lesser arts’ made him a popular subject for its more dissident practitioners. Since Terry L. Meyers first edited Morris’s 1885 interview with the Gazette for the Victorians Institute Journal in 1991, it has since reappeared as the second selection in Tony Pinkney’s We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris: 1885-1896 (Spire Books, 2005), a collection of thirteen newspaper interviews focused on Morris’s views on art, politics and book design.

The background of this particular interview may be briefly sketched as follows. On September 20th, 1885, Lewis Lyons, a tailor, was arrested for allegedly “resisting arrest” at a public meeting called by a confederation of London radical and socialist groups to protest the abridgment of “free speech.” Morris, Eleanor Marx Aveling and others attended Lyons’s trial a day later, and Morris was briefly “collared” after he and others shouted “Shame” in response to the summary condemnation of Lyons to two months’ hard labor (a ‘speedy trial’ indeed) by Judge Thomas Saunders.

In the Pall Mall Gazette Morris had a reasonably sympathetic audience, which may have encouraged him to “[think] aloud, at greater length than the officers of Mr. Saunders’s court would permit . . . . ” On September 21st the Gazette had published a full-page account of the trial and arrest, accompanied by an editorial in support of free speech, and the next day Morris enclosed cuttings from the Pall Mall Gazette and Daily News to his wife Jane, then at Kelmscott Manor, noting that “[m]y adventure there [in the court was] pretty well told,” (Kelvin, Letters, vol. 2, 454). His letter describes informally his brief confrontation with ‘the law’:

When I got to the door I turned round and expostulated with the policeman for his shoving, and the beggar immediately collared me and swore I hit him and had broken his helmet: I had never lifted my hands above my elbow and his helmet breaking was the breaking of its chin-strap which I suppose he himself had done: there was a funny scene in the police station where they charged me, the inspector and the constable gravely discussing whether the damage done to the helmet was 2d or 1/2d. (Ibid., 454)

To Jane he names “the man who did the most” and “the man who was least responsible” referred to in the interview:

As to Saunders and his justice, the old wretch gave poor Lyons who had done just the same as the others 2 months ‘hard’, and let off [Charles] Mowbray altogether who had really done the most . . . .

That Morris wished to reassure his wife may be indicated by the signature, “Best love, dear, best love, Your W. M.”, instead of the more usual “Your loving W. M.”

In a letter to the Daily News published September 22,nd Morris emphasized aspects of the incident calculated to increase public sympathy for the imprisoned Lyons: the injustice of sentencing a man for assault who could not have attacked the police as claimed; the harshness of the sentence; and the sympathy of the populace toward the prisoners’ cause. In the Gazette interview published September 23rd, he further responded to questions about his own arrest and considered the political implications of the incident.

In this conversation, Morris praised the paper’s editorial call for a conference “of all persons interested in the maintenance of the right to hold public meetings in the streets,” and recalled the circumstances of his unanticipated arrest:

Two or three policemen rushed at us, especially the policeman who had given evidence against Lyons. He caught hold of me and shoved me, and also seized Mrs. Aveling by the shoulder, and hustled us about. . . Turning round, I remonstrated with the constable upon his conduct, when he exclaimed, “I will run you in,” and then, as if a brilliant idea had suddenly struck him, he added, “you have broken my helmet chinstrap.” . . . As sure as a gun, if I had passed as an ordinary workman, I would have been sent to prison. (Pall Mall Gazette, 23 September, 4)

Morris clearly understood the circularity of the fabrication of “charges” against opponents of the fabrication of “charges,” and the implications of this circle for the fragile and class-biased right of “free speech” (“I shall probably get to prison yet”). The incident doubtless strengthened Morris’s contempt for the penal system; three years later, he wrote Georgiana Burne-Jones that “[t]he whole prison system in its folly, stupidity, and cruelty, is a disgrace to mankind; and the treatment of political prisoners is only one instance” (14 January, 1888, Kelvin, vol. 2, 735).

After Morris’ death, his daughter May had to omit many of her father’s letters and socialist writings from the Collected Works (1910-15) and her two volume William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist (1936). Since then, Alan Bacon, Philip Henderson, Norman Kelvin, Eugene LeMire, Paul Meier, Tony Pinkney, Nicholas Salmon and I (among others) have (re)discovered and published many of these texts, though others still remain ungathered. The incisive qualities of Morris’s brief interview with the Pall Mall Gazette, one of many such examples, suggest that a wider range of these should be drawn together in a comprehensive, multi-volume edition of Morris’s non-literary works.


Bacon, Alan and Lionel Young, ed. The Relations of Art and Labour. London: William Morris Society, 2004.

Boos, Florence, ed. “Two Unpublished Essays by William Morris: ‘Socialism’ and ‘What We Have to Look For.’” Journal of William Morris Studies 19.1 (Fall 2010).

-----. William Morris: “Our Country, Right or Wrong.” London: William Morris Society, 2008.

-----. “William Morris’s ‘Commercial War’: A Critical Edition,” Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 19 (Fall 2010).

Henderson, Philip. William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends. New York; McGraw Hill, 1967.

Kelvin, Norman, ed. The Collected Letters of William Morris. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984-96.

LeMire, Eugene. A Biblography of William Morris. London: The British Library and Oaknoll Press, 2006.

-----. The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1969.

Meier, Paul. “An Unpublished Lecture of William Morris: ‘How Shall We Live Then?’” International Review of Social History 16 (1971).

Pinkney, Tony. We Met Morris: Interviews with William Morris: 1885-1896. Reading: Spire Books, 2005.

Salmon, Nicholas. William Morris. Journalism: Contributions to Commonweal 1885-1890. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1996.

-----. William Morris: Political Writings, Contributions to Justice and Commonweal, 1883-1890. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1994.

A convenient online resource for browsing in Morris’s published socialist writings may be found at The William Morris Internet Archive.
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