Thursday, 11 April 2013

How William Morris poisoned Britain

There was a fascinating TV documentary on BBC4 the other night called Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home. It was a sharp corrective for anyone who disapproves of health and safety legislation, for we learnt that many of the Victorian era’s new household products and gadgets were lethal.

One such hazard was wallpaper, or more specifically wallpaper dyed with a green pigment containing arsenic. A leading manufacturer of this wallpaper was none other than the famous socialist, designer, artist and all-round romanticist William Morris. The documentary explained that, besides his wallpaper manufacturing business, Morris owned a big stake in the world’s largest arsenic mine (which was the main source of his inherited wealth). Morris was aware of the hazard of arsenic poisoning but dismissed warnings of the danger.

The documentary did not mention that Morris also poisoned Britain figuratively as well as literally. He shares the blame for one of the biggest problems in Britain today: the inability of people to come to terms with urban living. Britain is one of the most urbanised countries in the world (80% of us live in cities and towns), yet most urban dwellers want to create an illusion of rural life. They aspire to a detached or semi-detached house with a large garden, instead of a town house or flat as in most continental cities. As a result, British cities have sprawled outwards and used up far more land than is necessary, which in turn has increased travel distances and encouraged excessive car use.

This trend has its origins in Morris’s ‘back to the land’ anti-urbanism, an understandable sentiment at a time when many people lived in overcrowded slums but unjustifiable now. Morris, with his concern to protect the natural world from pollution and industrialisation, is today regarded as a proto-environmentalist. Yet the irony is that, by fostering a pastoral impulse, he bears more responsibility than most for the destruction of the countryside to make way for sprawling low-density suburbs. As Jonathan Meades put it, the trouble with ‘back to the land’ is that eventually there is no land left to go back to.

Morris remains a hero to many for his socialism, his art and his environmentalism. But he was a hypocrite even by the standards of his own time, and we will not create liveable cities in Britain until we reject the baleful influence of his counter-productive sentiments.


  1. While agreeing wholeheartedly with your view of Morris's anti urbanism you should be a bit more careful about the use of the word British.

    In Scotland's cities well over half (74% in Glasgow and 67% in Edinburgh) the population live in flats - just like continental Europe.

    1. Fair point, Dan. And there's another similarity between Scottish and continental cities. Whereas in England, the sink estates are in the inner cities, in Glasgow and Edinburgh they are on the periphery, like in French cities.

  2. If we look at European urban areas, public space is more interesting than in the UK. The hours kept by coffee houses and shops are different. Park and recreation space is often better maintained and less vandalised (the relationship there may be more complex than first appears).

    And we live on a bunch of wet, windy islands where natural inclination is to stay indoors a lot of the time. When we do feel suited to spend the evening outdoors, we seek our own garden rather than a public park or town streets, because public space is so dismal.

    Regarding travel distance to work, this is also a consequence of job specialisation, for the middle classes at least.

    1. Climate does not explain the difference between Britain and the continent. Belgium, the Netherlands and northern France share a similar climate to England's, yet have a markedly continental urban culture.

    2. Of course, Simon, our weather is not the only reason. I did say that public space is dismal. Why is public space so wretched? We could blame it on public finance or we could curse public uninterest, or more likely it is a combination of factors that we have not discussed.

      But if we want citizens to live in smaller spaces, we have to deliver a better public space first.

    3. I didn't say that you were arguing that weather is the only reason. I said that the weather does not explain the difference.

      I agree that public space is a problem. We do parks well in Britain but not squares. Naming them a 'plaza' makes them only more dismal and windswept. There seems to be an unfailing ability in Britain to make things tawdry (compare, for example, a British 'food court' with an American one), but I can't figure out why this is.

      The comedian Frankie Boyle once remarked how the smoking ban had encouraged pubs in Glasgow to provide pavement seating: "It looks like Paris after a nuclear holocaust".

  3. You are only telling half the story. In Britain, despite our love of suburbia, there has also been consciousness of the need to avoid urban sprawl and preserve our countryside which has found effective expression in the planning laws and the CPRE.

    Compare, for example, population density figures for London, L.A., NY, and Paris: While London has significantly less dense population than Paris, it is still denser than NY, but nobody thinks of New Yorkers as suburbanites, and I don't think you can blame the Arts and Crafts Movement for US urban sprawl.

    The current planning reforms threaten to exacerbate urban sprawl in the UK, and William Morris is definitely innocent this time round!

    Jane Leaper


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