|William Morris in Leek 1875
||[Apr. 19th, 2010|10:28 am]
I have been reading through the archive of the Leek Post and Times and stumbled across the obituary in the paper of someone whose fame continues the grow throughout the world over 100 years after his death and is perhaps the most notable figure to live in Leek in the last 130 years. The Leek Times of 10th October 1896 carried the sad news of the death of William Morris who had died a week earlier. His doctor believed his early death at the age of 62 was caused by doing the work of ten men. He had worked himself to death. It was noted in the Times article that Morris the internationally known artist, designer, educationist, environmentalist, writer and Socialist propagandist was well known in the town. He last came to Leek in December 1882 when he gave a public lecture in conjunction with the School of Art.|
A number of telegrams were sent to Jane Morris the widow from a number of notable citizens in Leek such as the architect Larner Sugden. The previous Tuesday the Leek Working Men’s Reading and Debating Union passed a resolution recorded their grief and loss at the death of such a brave and brilliant champion of Labour.
The notice described the principle role that Morris had in the development of art and design in the later half of the 19th century especially in the influence of the Pre Raphaelite Movement. The obituary notices in the Leek Times was signed Walter Crane who included a poem that he had written for the occasion. Both Sugden and Crane would ensure that Morris’s name would live on in Leek and the impact of on of the great figures of the 19th century would continue to play a role in progressive politics in the town well into the next century.
Morris interest in Leek was the consequence of an interest in returning to the colours in dyes derived from natural materials. He came to the town several times from February 1875 onwards some time staying for several weeks working with Thomas Wardle the brother in law of his works manager George at his dye works at Hencroft.
Morris was faced with working conditions that were the consequences of industrialisation. He regarded one of the worst aspects of factories was the tendency to chain workers to a single repetitive task. Morris would describe in a lecture of the 1880s that the modern factory as “a temple of overcrowding and overwork” His anti factory system writings drew on his Leek experience. For the first time he came across the social consequences of capitalism and its impact upon people. The poor huddled together beside gigantic factories in houses the size of dog kennels. He also saw the spoliation of rivers and the increase in atmospheric pollution which he concluded were the consequence of unrestricted capitalism. The 19th century had a profound impact upon Leek, in the 1870s has seem its population triple from the beginning of the century. This growth in its textile industry would result in it becoming one of the centres of the British silk industry. At the start of his first stay Morris initial opinion about Leek was favourable. He thought the town not nearly as bad as he anticipated and in a letter to his wife described the countryside around as being beautiful.
He lodged with the Wardle’s in their substantial house in St Edward Street. Morris became obsessive with the goal of producing prefect original colours naturally. Both Wardle and Morris spoke to older dyers who remembered how they did things before synthetic dyes were introduced. Morris would write back to friends and family chronicling the experiments and the search for natural dyes that he and Wardle were enthusiastically embarking upon but it was the search for the perfect blue that dominated Morris’s time and energy.
He became an expert at the process, one could almost say obsessive, knowledgeable on the problems of oxidation identifying the smell of “stinking meat” which indicated that the dye was ready. He was” hands on” in this hunt and when he returned to London it amused his friends to discover that his hands were bright blue. It caused embarrassment to him when he was out and about in the capital and he was nervous about gaining admission to the premier of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera “The Sorcerer” because of the state of his stained hands. While away from Leek he fretted and became engaged in a protracted correspondence with Wardle about the experiments in colour this correspondence is described by Morris’s biographer Fiona McCarthy as being amongst the most remarkable business letters ever written. Morris became more and more demanding and began to loose his temper
“They have been very trying: but I wish I hadn’t been such a fool: perhaps they will turn me out tomorrow or put me in a blue vat”.
Ultimately Morris was dissatisfied with the Leek experience although he continued working on these problems during the following decade.
They are a number of tangible legacies of William Morris time in Leek one being the interest he took in the Leek School of Embroidery which was founded by Mrs Wardle in the 1880s. He offered to design a rug for her woolwork and sending items to a textile museum that she created. Fiona McCarthy believes the most moving aspect of his time in Leek is the existence of so many Morris style church embroidered items- many of them still in use in local churches.
Another monument to Morris in the town was the establishment of the William Morris Labour Church shortly after his death by Larner Sugden. The art work in the church owed a great deal to many followers of Morris in the Arts and Craft movement. The church had red painted walls with stencilled tracery. Woodwork was painted green and the curtains that hung there were blue velvet of one of Morris’s designs. Much of the work in the Church was carried out from designs by Walter Crane who signed Morris’s obituary in the Leek Times.
The Church was the centre of what a local Socialist author and first principle of the Nicholson Institute Kineton Parkes called “the intellectual and semi intellectual activity flooded the town”.
The Church saw many principal figures of progressive politics address Leek audiences through the 1890s and up to the First World War. It was a particularly active time during the opposition to the Boer War in 1899. In October 1899 the pioneer journalist WT Stead came to Leek to speak against the war in his role as a member of the Stop the War Committee. An interesting man he was the first investigative journalist exposing child prostitution a cause in which he himself suffered imprisonment. He also carried the first interview in a British newspaper interviewing General “Chinese” Gordon shortly before Gordon embarked for the Sudan and his martyrdom at the hands of the Mahdi in 1884.
He was also a strong supporter of women’s rights and was proud that he was amongst the first employers in the country to pay women the same as men. He was also interested in psychic research believing himself to be a reincarnation of Charles II. Stead died on the Titanic his image allegedly was filmed after his death which lead AN Wilson in his book on the Victorians to remark that the ghostly image of Stead hovering of the shoulder of a clergyman was “moving testimony to the essential irrepressibility of the fourth estate”
William Morris was the principle inspiration for the Liverpool born Walter Crane. They had first met in the late summer of 1871 after Morris had returned from a trip to Iceland. The movement that Morris inspired had many supporters whose work has made an impression on the town, Norman Shaw the architect of All Saints Church was closely associated with the movement. The artwork of William Lethaby Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art in the opening years of the 20th century work adorns the interior of the church, but Crane a surviving fragment of whose art still exists within the Friends Meeting House was a principle inheritor of the Morris tradition.
Best known as an engaging children’s book illustrator and was a forerunner of the art of political propaganda a tradition that comes down to the modern day. He cut an appealing figure. For their sons birthday he and his wife dressed up as a crane and a marigold. He was an artist for the new socialist journal the Clarion at the time of Morris’s death and from 1894 he was involved with the Clarion Cyclist Club in Manchester. A newspaper report from the Leek Times in 1897 reported that over 400 cyclists from Manchester had cycled to the town over a summer afternoon.
Crane’s reputation continues to grow after his death in 1915 and he had many connections with North Staffordshire after 1860. During that decade he worked on pottery design at Wedgwood’s and he also painted a number of Peak District landscapes at that time. In 1896 he was teaching at the Manchester Municipal School of Art and as a follower of Morris he had also taken the same path to a belief in Socialism as Morris had by the 1880s. Both men believed in the importance of architecture as the primary expression of art in a happy healthy community and they look forward to a future where a united society would create magnificent buildings.
After Morris’s death Crane continued through the use of art and illustration to promote pacifism. He believed that wars were started by capitalists for reasons of exploitation and profit. At the time of the Boer War he was firmly in the camp of the anti war campaign judging that the war was unnecessary and a manifestation of imperialism. He was not alone in this opinion. These sentiments were frequently expressed in Leek and at the time of the war there was a very strong anti war movement at the front of which was Larner Sugden. Larner Sugden was a man of much distinction and work with his father which had been set up in Leek by mid century had set up an architectural practice in the town.
In a pamphlet published to celebrate the European Architectural Heritage Year of 1975 GA Lovenberry celebrates the role that the Sugdens played in embellishing Leek with many fine late Victorian buildings. He uses the quote which commemorates the impact that Wren’s buildings had on the capital ” If you seek a memorial then look around you” to acknowledge the role that William and Larner Sugden played in a similar way on a North Staffordshire mill town in the 19th century. The list in the pamphlet is impressive and includes the Nicholson Institute built between 1882-4. The Police Station in Leonard St built in 1891 The Nat West Bank and Trinity Church (1863) in Derby St and others.
During the winter of 1985-6 I remember being on the top floor of another Sugden building Bank House in St Edward St with the then Chief Officer of Staffs Moorlands CVS the late Peter Shackelton. We looked over the roof tops of a snowy Leek. He remarked that someone should do a book on the chimneys of Leek. Reading through the pamphlet it seems that many of them owe their creation to the Sugden’s- father and son.
The Sugdens arrived in the town in 1848 establishing their practice in Derby Street. The younger Sugden was a strong admirer of the work of Morris and met him through their shared membership of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings that Morris help to found in 1877. His admiration of Morris‘s writings had a profound on Sugden. He became a Socialist inspired by the older man’s writings. It was said of him” that it mattered nothing to him that he was alone in his view”. Larner Sugden’s political beliefs especially in support of the Boer War made him a target and his opinions attracted much hostile comment in the pages of the Times. It is suggested that his House at 29 Queen Street was attacked by an angry mob celebrating the Relief of Mafeking in May 1900. Sugden's health was never very strong and there is a suggestion that the strain and the hostility that he faced for his anti war feelings hastened his early death at the age of 50 in 1901. He was the first person in Leek to be cremated and the first Labour MP Keir Hardie spoke at a memorial service at the William Morris Memorial Church in Leek.
Morris even in the 21st century continues to exert an influence although it is certain that many people are attracted to him mainly because of his designs rather than his socialist writings in doing this they overlook one aspect of his character that was forged by his experience of Leek in the 1870s.