Leicester Secular Society

THE OLDEST SECULAR SOCIETY IN THE WORLD - FOUNDED 1851
Sections on this page: — William Morris: Biographical NotesWilliam Morris and SocialismFurther Recollections of Willliam MorrisOther ResourcesEnd
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William Morris (1834 - 1896)

Poet and Artist. At Oxford he was a zealous student of theology, and was expected to join the Roman Church. He founded a 'brotherhood' for the production of religious art, but they later turned to house-decoration and the production of beautiful books.

In 1883 he joined the Socialists and finally abandoned the faith. ‘It's so unimportant, it seems to me,’ he said to the poet Allingham (Diary 1907, p.316).

He published News from Nowhere (1891) and other Socialist works and became an aggressive Atheist. Belfort Bax, who knew him well, told [McCabe] that Morris used to recite aloud, with great pleasure, an unpublished scurrilous couplet of Swinburne's on the Trinity. See J. W. Mackail Life of William Morris 1899.

[The above information from Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia 1950]

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William Morris and Socialism

by Sydney Gimson,
from Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society, March 1932

In the eighties almost all Secularists were Individualists, of the Radical Individualists type which was influenced by John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer and Charles Bradlaugh. I went to greater extremes in Individualism in those days for I came much under the influence of Auberon Herbert. I shall have more to say of that charming man of fine character later.

Notwithstanding our Individualism we decided, on pursuance of our policy of a free platform, to give our audiences an opportunity to hear the best that could be said for the new Socialism which was then coming rapidly to the front. So we arranged for a lecture by H. M. Hyndman on Constructive Socialism on Wednesday Jan.16 1884, and one by William Morris on Art and Socialism on Jan.23. These were to be followed by a lecture in opposition by the Rev. J. Page Hopps on Sensible Socialism, on Monday January 28th.

Both Mr. Hyndman and Mr. Morris stayed the night at my mother's house. My brother, Ernest, and I were both at home and I remember our excitement at the thought of meeting these two well known men. We were somewhat surprised to find Mr. Hyndman in dress quite the conventional business man, frock coat, silk hat, etc., also much the same type in general manner. I believe he was on the Stock Exchange at that time. It seemed curious to hear revolutionary, even violent revolutionary, teaching given forth by such an "Eminently respectable" looking man! His lecture was able and very interesting but neither convincing nor persuasive to my brother and me.

The bigger event to us was the coming of William Morris. His reputation as a poet and decorative craftsman (the Kelmscott Press had not then been started) was so high that we were very definitely nervous of meeting the great man. Ernest and I went to the Station, and, two minutes after his train had come in, were at home with him and captured by his personality. It was impossible to feel constrained for many minutes in the company of Morris. He greeted us as friends, and as though we were equals, at once and, immediately, we were "at home". His was a delightfully breezy, virile, personality. In his conversations if they touched on subjects which he felt deeply, came little bursts of temper which subsided as quickly as they arose and left no bad feeling behind them. He was not a good lecturer. His lectures were always read, and not too well read, but they were wonderful in substance and full of arresting thoughts and apt illustration. In their phrasing and general form they were beautiful.

The lecture he gave on that night in January 1884 was soon afterwards published as one of Larner Sugden's "Leek Bijour Reprints" (No. 7) and was later included in Architecture Industry & Wealth, Collected Papers by William Morris published by Longmans, Green & Co. in 1902, printed in the Golden Type of the Kelmscott Press.

After the lecture the Rev. Page Hopps, who had been in the audience, came up to supper with us. After supper we were talking about the lecture, Page Hopps sitting in an easy chair, Morris on a dinner table chair. Page Hopps said, "You know, Mr. Morris, that would be a very charming Society that you have been describing, but it's quite impossible, it would need God Almighty himself to manage it!" Immediately Morris jumped up, ran his fingers through his hair and ruffled it, walked once or twice round his chair, then, shaking his fist close to Page Hopps' face, exclaimed: "All right, man, you catch your God Almighty, we'll have him!" There was a burst of delighted laughter, in which page Hopps heartily joined, and there was no response.

[These recollections are from pages 20-23. There is more on the relationship between Ernest Gimson and Morris on the Gimson page.]

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Further Recollections of William Morris

by Sydney Gimson,
from Random Recollections of the Leicester Secular Society, March 1932

It was a great joy to us to have several visits from this wonderful man. Distinguished in so many directions yet absolutely free from "side" there could be no jollier visitor in our home. Full of life and energy there was never a dull moment while he was with us. I remember so many characteristic and telling things that he said. One Sunday morning (by the way, on starting out Morris put on knitted woollen gloves, knitted with the four fingers in one compartment and two thumbs to each glove, so that, he explained, it did not matter which you put on which hand, there was no left or right hand glove!) Ernest and I took him for a walk all round about Stoneygate. When we got back Ernest asked him what he thought of the houses. Morris promptly replied, "Oh, architect-tooralooral". A lovely one-word comment. This would be in the mid eighties.

In the committee room down at the Hall after his first lecture he fumed about the discussion: "They all think I'm not practical because I write a bit of poetry. I run a good business all right. Because I can't help stringing a few rhymes together it doesn't mean I'm not practical!"

One night in Glebe Street we had a number of friends in to supper who were especially interested in his artistic work. Morris was in delightful form. After supper he sat near the fire in our drawing room. The rest of us, about a dozen, sat round in something like a circle. There was much jolly talk. Presently Morris spoke of his detestation of the "Restorations" which were destroying good and interesting work in so many churches, and instanced St. Alban's Cathedral as a horrible example. After a while one of the ladies present, Miss Edith Gittins, who almost worshipped Morris, quietly interjected, "Well, Mr. Morris, I have been into the only chapel in that Cathedral which has not been touched and I think it very badly needs restoring." The effect was electrical. Morris jumped out of his chair, rushed across to her, gesticulated with his fist near her face, and called out "Tommy rot, madam, tommy rot, tommy rot!" Miss Gittins gazed at him, quite at a loss and a bit alarmed, there was a moment's awkward pause then unrestrained laughter in which Morris and Miss Gittins joined. He stayed and talked a bit about the particular chapel to Miss Gittins and then returned to his chair.

There was a vacancy then in the Poet Laureateship and someone asked for his opinion. His only remark was, "I hope it wont be my namesake" (Lewis Morris).

Once when Morris came to us he brought a book of Kingston's, Three Admirals and he told me he could always enjoy reading Kingston's books but he did not think that one as good as most.

Some years ago, October 31st 1913, his daughter, Miss May Morris, sent me a copy of a letter from her father which interested me. In it he said: "Thank you for sending Gimson's letter; though I will say this of him —

There is a young person named Gimson
I could wish that he never had limbs on
   For then do you see
   His writing to me
Would have been a tough matter to Gimson"

I expect I was writing for a lecture which he did not want to be bothered with. It's not a high effusion of Morris's muse, but I am proud to have been the cause of even a Limerick from him! His letter was dated December 3rd 1885.

Since his death there has been a project to build a Village Hall in Kelmscott as a Memorial to him. The designs were made by my brother, Ernest, just before he, too, died.

[These recollections appear as an Appendix, pages 72-74.]

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