Printed History


South Woodford resident Debbie Pearson is a tour guide for the City of London and the City of Westminster. During lockdown, she took the opportunity to learn more about the local area, including former resident William Morris, one of the 19th century’s most famous names

A man of many talents, William Morris is most closely associated with Walthamstow, but he also has a South Woodford connection. In his lifetime, he was a poet, writer, designer, printer and political activist.

William Morris was born in Walthamstow in 1834, the son of William Morris, a financier in the City of London, and his wife, Emma. In 1840, the family moved to Woodford Hall, a large Georgian mansion. Woodford Memorial Hall on the High Road now stands on the site of that mansion. As a child, William Morris would explore the Essex countryside on his pony. His observations of the natural world would later feature in his pattern designs.

In 1847, William Morris Senior died, and the family downsized to Water House, Walthamstow, now the William Morris Gallery.  William Morris Senior is buried at St Mary’s Church, South Woodford, in a large stone tomb near the High Road.

William Morris was educated locally and then at Marlborough College, Wiltshire, before entering Exeter College, Oxford. While at Oxford, he made two lifelong friends: artist Edward Burne-Jones and architect Philip Webb. He became interested in art, architecture, poetry and writing. He also experimented with stone and wood carving, embroidery and textiles.

He married artist’s model Jane Burden in 1857 and they moved to Bexleyheath. Their house, the Red House, designed and decorated by friends, is now owned by the National Trust.

A few years later, he set up a decorating company, initially with friends, but later known as Morris & Co. He was particularly keen to champion craftsmanship. His wallpaper designs are still sought after, his most popular designs being Strawberry Thief and Willow. He also designed tapestries, furniture and stained glass windows. He is famous for saying: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

His early attempts at poetry were not well received, but his retelling of The Canterbury Tales, as The Earthly Paradise, was very successful and made him famous.

He bought a property in the Cotswolds, called Kelmscott Manor, although he rarely lived there. However, it did inspire him, and he named his Hammersmith home Kelmscott House, and when he set up a printing press, he called it Kelmscott Press.

By the mid 1870s, he was becoming increasingly politically active. He was conscious of the class divisions in Victorian society and initially joined the Democratic Federation. He later joined the Socialist League and wrote their manifesto. He travelled the country giving lectures. He was also interested in conservation and founded the early conservation organisation, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

William Morris died in 1896 and is buried in St George’s Church, Kelmscott in the Cotswolds.

During his lifetime, he was most famous as a poet. But his legacy was much greater, including his emphasis on craftsmanship, his wallpaper and textile designs, his political ideals and his conservation work. A memorial bench featuring his portrait can be found on the High Road, over the North Circular.

For more information, follow Debbie on Twitter @debbieguide