William Morris

Town and Country, as reported in The Leicester Daily Post


Mr. William Morris, at the New Islington Hall, Manchester, on Sunday, in connection with the Ancoats Recreation Committee, delivered an address on "Town and Country." Mr. Charles Rowley presided. Mr. Morris, after a reference to the differences of town and country life under the Romans, dealt with the gradual development of differences with regard to similar life in England. About the middle of the 18th century, London, he said, became more decidedly than before the centre of England, and there was not, as hitherto, a mere distinction between the town and the country side, but between London and the rest of the country, town and all. Then began what real difference there was in town and country life. Beyond that there was a further development of this difference in the great industries which created big manufacturing towns, a thing so entirely modern that even London had more relation to the cities of the past than had these manufacturing towns. The British Museum alone made London differ from any other big town. The Museum, apart from its practical daily uses, was the symbol of the intellectual centrality of London. As to cities like Liverpool and Manchester, he did not know what would make them worthy of remembrance, except that perhaps Manchester might be remembered as the last home of the Althorp Library.

Considering farther the contrast between town and country, we should, he said, be careful not to forget this special sign, the intellectual centrality of London. We had in the consideration three things to really deal with. London, the external beastliness and sordidness of which was in some degree compensated by its intellectual life; the commercial centres, which had no such compensation, and in externals were even more horrible than London; and last the country, which, instead of being the due fellow and helpmeet of the town. was a troublesome appendage, an awkward incident of town life. Commercial or intellectual, "town life" was the real life of our epoch.

The result of all these differences in life was the usual makeshift jumble that oppressed all our being in such an epoch of strange and rapid change. We had, in fact, fallen into a grievous want of reasonable organisation. Even London, far better as it was than the commercial towns, was sordidly vulgar in its rich quarters, noisome and squalid beyond word in its poor quarters. Its amusements, both for rich and poor, were little bettor than varying symptoms of disease, or, as it was called, mental aberration. People talked of intellectuality, but the intellectuality of present day London drifted constantly, with a strong drift, into the direction of newspaper twaddle and of a scrofulous inquisitiveness into the weaknesses of those citizens whose good or evil fortune made them conspicuous. The utterances of its public men — was he making them acquainted with something new? — were now always taken by sensible persons with due deductions made for the sheer lying which they contained. The newspaper press, to pass by other matters in it — there was no time for everything — had anybody ever seen any statement made in a newspaper relative to art or occupation which he understood that was not so stuffed with ignorance and inaccuracy as to be wholly misleading and useless?

All this created very grave doubts in us — or should do — as to the future. Our deficiency in the matter of proper organisation confronted us the more seriously where we really brought ourselves face to face with real problems. There was the question of the agricultural labourer, who, if more silent, was not altogether so dull a fellow as some people would make him out, but whose condition was certainly unsatisfactory. What were we going to do to better it? Then when we came to each districts as this of South Lancashire, with such an enormous population, was it not still more clear that our lack of proper organisation left such a district scarcely manageable on any terms? Or take London. London had been experimenting on self-government and he, in common no doubt with many, had been watching tbe work of the London County Council to see how it would deal with such questions as confronted it. The work was stupendous. Take such a matter, for instance, as the disposal of the sewage of so vast a multitude.

Then the country. He had some knowledge of this country of ours. It was beautiful — that was, where too many modern houses had not been built in it. Yet even for a rich man, a wall-to-do man at least, it shared in the makeshift stupidity of the epoch. Amongst all the superabundant beauty of meadow, of leaf and flower, acre and hillside, he knew only of one epithet that would for his present purpose best describe it, and that epithet was "stingy." Yes, if the matter were thought out well, when they came to take a close view of the work done in the country, they could adopt no better word as a description. In an ordinary way, was an hour's extra work spent in taking away an ugly dead tree, in mending a shattered wall, setting a tottering vane straight — in short, in mending any defacement caused by wind and weather? Not a moment of consideration was given as to whether the sightly or the unsightly material should be used, whether the strong or the unsound, providing it would temporarily hold together and that the one were cheaper than the other. People talked of living in the country. Why, in the country you could scarce get milk unless you kept a cow; and as to vegetables, you could have them with the proviso that you grew them yourself. That was the ordinary tale; he did not say that there were no exceptions. Sometimes — here and there — we should find a rich squire, who took the trouble to beautify his cottages, restore his church, and do other works of a like kind. What was the result of that? All the plain and simple beauty of the country went, and on our journey here and there, where these "modern improvements" had been brought in, we came across a village as vulgar as Bayswater. Knowing what he did of the country, having for more than 40 years diligently and affectionately observed the country side in its smallest detail, he must say that he had observed with pain that a change for the worse in it had been steady. Beyond that, within the last 20 years this change had become startlingly rapid, so that although at one time he thought it impossible, he was much afraid that even he might live to see the worst of it. It might perhaps be said that all this suffering was a due reward to men for living on other people's earnings, for their allowing the human stock of the country to live out such a wretched, scanty existence as they did. This might be perfectly true, but it made up no reason why the men of the prevent century should be punished above and beyond measure because they had so increased in population, and could not live in comfort under the same terms as their forefathers did.

The whole thing ought to be a sign to sensible people that the present condition of things should be mended. For one matter we could give thanks that we had that kind of feeling. It was a certain sign that at last we were tending to some sort of change; that at last we had recognised that something could be done to alter our present ill conditions. What did we want — relative to that change — altered in the matter of town and country? We wanted neither the towns to he appendages of the country nor the country to be appendages of the towns. We wanted the towns to be impregnated with the beauty of the country, and the country to be impregnated with the intelligence and vivid life of the town. We wanted a new order given to every homestead, and we wanted to do away with that old, untidy, slack way of farming, so that we might have a set of lovely homes surrounded by acres of real gardens. There was ample room for it if only the work were properly taken in hand. On the other hand, he would like to see our towns clean and orderly and tidy — in short. they ought to be gardens with beautiful houses in them. There was ample room, too, for that. He did more than wish for these things; he claimed them as the due heritage of the latter ages of the world, which had subdued nature and could, if they would only understand it, have what they really needed for the asking. Some might say that this was all an impossible ideal. That, however, was not true. It might be impossible to a poor community, but it was not so to a wealthy one. Were we a wealthy or a poor community? He could not say we were a wealthy one, although we had many rich men among us. They in reality were the enemies of the community. It was the very essence of their business to get everything they could from the general community and keep all they got, and did it not follow that the community Were poor in consequence? As things were now carried on in this country we were a nation that depended on makeshifts. We were engaged in designing makeshift necessities for the poor, and makeshift luxuries for the rich. The real workers, as they got scarcely anything real in return for their labour, so could find few customers for genuine useful wares. It was our business to change all that. We had to bring the two extremes of rich and poor together, or rather to do away with them. That would he done by the reorganising and setting up of a real society. The country all round would then be wealthy enough to have what he had pointed out. All sane men desired to incorporate in life the beauty of the country and the brisk, vivid energy of the town. Get them to interpenetrate and all would be won. (Cheers.) — An excellent musical performance was also gone through during the afternoon, and Mr. Morris was thanked for his address.


Town and Country (as reported by Leicester Daily Post)


  1. 29th May 1892, at a meeting sponsored by the Hammersmith Socialist Society, at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith.
  2. 23rd October 1892, to the Ancoats Brotherhood in Manchester


Leicester Daily Post, Tuesday October 25th, 1892

A summary of the speech was given in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser on Monday 24 October and the whole speech reported in the St James's Gazette on the 25th, using the same text as above but with some sentences deleted. A hostile review was printed in the Huddersfield Daily Examiner on Saturday 29th October. Morris's biographer, Mackail, wrote that 'The greater part of the address was delivered without notes, and of that portion no trustworthy record has survived'. However, all four newspaper reports include phrases which match almost exactly.

The speech was published in The Journal of Decorative Art, XIII April 1893 (portions only)

Transcription and HTML

Graham Seaman, May 2020.

The original is one continuous piece of text; paragraph breaks added by MIA.