William Morris. Commonweal 1886

Socialism in the Provinces

Source: “Socialism in the Provinces” Commonweal, Vol 2, No. 14, April 1886, p.30;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I am asked by some comrades to give a brief report of my lecturing tour to Sheffield, Liverpool, and Norwich. I do so, therefore, believing it of some use to give the impressions of a Londoner as to our prospects in other parts of the country.

I gave two lectures at Sheffield on Sunday February 28th, in the Secularist Hall: both were well attended, although I was told that the religious rancour which runs high in Sheffield would keep many people away from the Secularist Hall. Both lectures were well received, the evening one, the more plain-spoken and less historical of the two, particularly so: indeed I have never stood before a more sympathetic audience; and it seemed to me that the interest in the subject had much increased since I was last in Sheffield about a year and [a] half ago.

On the day following, I attended a private meeting of about thirty sympathizers, called to discuss the possibility of starting a definite Socialist body. Of course I went as an advocate of the League. I found much interest in the subject amongst these friends, also some doubts and hanging back from that step of association, a step undoubtedly harder to take in a provincial town where people are so much more known and as it were ticketted than in London. The doubts had reference, some to the religious question, but mostly I think they turned on our repudiation of the Parliamentary method, the reasons for which I did my best to explain. However it was determined to set on foot a Socialist body, of which I hope we shall hear more soon as undoubtedly several will join it who are both intelligent and eager to do something. Sheffield, I was told, is a specially good town for open-air meetings; and those who gather at them have every reason for listening to speaking which offers a remedy for the present state of things, as labour is very badly off there, and as far as I could make out from what I heard, political matters are sufficiently mixed up. It is worth noting in relation to the matter of would-be Parliamentary Socialism, that an advanced Radical association with a semi-Socialistic programme, which had been established in the town, was swept away by the General Election, the Radicals belonging to it joining the regular party, as they are pretty sure to do under such circumstances.

From Sheffield I went to Liverpool and delivered my lecture at the Concert Room in Nelson Street, on March 2nd. The hall was crowded with an audience mostly of working men, who not only listened with very great attention, but took up all the points which they caught and understood with very hearty applause. After the lecture I had the group round the platform eager to ask questions, which one always encounters in these more northern towns, and there could be no doubt of their eagerness to learn. It is much to be regretted that the League has no branch at Liverpool: although the members of the Workers’ Brotherhood are doubtless intelligent and in earnest, they seem to shrink from the full consequences of the change which they advocate: I must ask them to excuse my pressing on them the advisability of their forming themselves into a branch and rallying to them energetic people from the working-classes. From all that I saw and heard at Liverpool, half-a-dozen, nay two or three energetic and uncompromising men pushing our principles there would soon have a following, especially if they spoke quite roughly and plainly to their listeners whether working or middle-class men.

On the 8th March I went to Norwich and lectured to a very good audience, some 800 I should think, at the Victoria Hall. Again the audience was mostly working-class, and was or seemed to be quite in sympathy with the movement. There was no opposition except from a clergyman, who I was told was a worthy man; he however only said that he disagreed, without giving his reasons.

It was strange to me for once to be preaching Socialism in a city like Norwich, with its beautiful architecture and strange half-foreign old-world aspect. But from all I can learn its seems as likely a place as any in England for the spread of Socialism. The working-classes there are in a sad plight; the old weaving industries are fast perishing; the modern industry of mechanical shoe-making is hard pushed by foreign competition, and the ‘hands’ are terribly exploited. Like all other industrial towns its ‘reserve army of labour’ or something more than that is all but disbanded. The magnates of the town have been forced to give them some employment, but it is a good illustration of the helplessness of the authorities in such a crisis that they are chiefly setting them to tumble the hillocks into the holes on Mousehold Heath, a rough uncultivated tract of land near the city and which now belongs to it, and where these sturdy bodies are producing under the bourgeois organizers of labour nothing at all, except — ugliness, and literally, platitude.

I had the pleasure, which was a real pleasure and not a mere conventional one, of meeting our branch before the lecture. And here there was no room for the regret one felt at Liverpool, for they seemed just the men wanted in such a place, with their hearts in the business, and with no thought of compromise, thoroughly understanding the futility of Parliamentary agitation. Here again they told me there was good opportunity for open-air work, and they intended to set about it as soon as the weather permitted.

Altogether it is not as a partisan but as an observer that I say that everywhere people are willing and eager to listen to Socialists, and that the doctrines will take root; and as a last word I appeal to all who are not afraid of the expression of opinion, to help us, whether they call themselves Socialists or not. Some of those who are better off, if their position or their sensitiveness, whatever that may mean, prevents them from joining us, or working actively, can at least help us with money; and let them remember that these people who want to know about that Socialism which is beginning to stir the world, and which offers them a remedy for their hardships and degradation, are poor and daily growing poorer. Some day they will assuredly move in a way which will shake everything and overturn much: surely it will be better even for you well-to-do people if they have an aim and a policy in their movement. And to help them to this is our purpose; therefore in our turn we ask help of all thoughtful people.