William Morris and Hyde Park

Post date: May 4, 2010 9:58:23 PM

by Leslie Jones

In the summer of 1884 William Morris was speaking regularly in Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Victoria Park in the East End, together with H.M. Hyndman, John Burns, Tom Mann, Jack Williams, and others. He was one of a small knot of Socialists who spoke at the great Franchise meeting in Hyde Park, on July 21st, 1884. They provided themselves with a little cart with a red flag, from which they distributed their manifesto and tried to sell their newspaper. Little success was made in trying to convert the enthusiasm of the occasion to their own use. J.W. Mackail in 'The Life of William Morris, vol. 1 & 2' published by Longmans, Green and Co. 1889, notes that "In the main they were unnoticed and swallowed up in the vast crowd." Morris wrote next day "We found it easy work getting rid of the gratis literature but hard to sell anything." The attempts at speaking from the mound of the reservoir in the Park were little more successful. A contemptuous reference by one of the speakers (John Burns) to John Bright raised a storm of hooting in the audience; the crowd began to push and sway, and the ring of friends around the banner was broken up and dispersed. There was no actual violence, a suggestion that the unpopular speaker should be put in the Serpentine was not taken up: but the day was over as far as any attempt to influence the crowd was concerned. On Saturday June 12th 1886, William Morris spoke at Hyde Park near the Marble Arch. Writing to his daughter Jenny on June 15th he said "I was quite nervous about it, I don't know why: because when I was speaking at Stratford I was not nervous at all, though I expected the police to attack us. At Hyde Park we had a very quiet and rather good audience and sold 4 quires of 'Commonweal': and I spoke twice, the second time not at all nervously." On Sunday morning, July 18th 1886, in accordance with advertised arrangement, William Morris was addressing an outdoor meeting in Bell Street off the Edgware Road. An inspector of Police appeared on the scene, the crowd groaned, but made way for him. He came up 'mighty civil' and told Morris to stop speaking: Morris refused, his name and address were taken, and went away again. Morris was summoned two days afterwards at the Marylebone Police Court: the technical offence of obstructing the highway was of course indisputable, and he was fined a shilling and costs. This was his last encounter with authority in the cause of freedom of speech.

In October 1887 Morris's interlude 'The Tables Turned, or Nupkins Awakened' was produced at the Farringdon Road office of the Socialist League for the benefit of 'The Commonweal'. It was performed there on October 15th. Morris himself acting in it, and was so successful that it was repeated three times. Shaw says he had never been present at such an overwhelmingly successful first night. The scene is 'A Court of Justice', and the case is heard by Mr. Justice Nupkins. Morris himself took the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury, called as a witness for the defence in a police prosecution of a member of the Socialist League on a charge of obstruction and riot. The Archbishop had gone to see for himself what a socialist meeting was really like. But he was disappointed by the 'extreme paucity of the audience' and disgusted by 'the rude and coarse words' of the prisoner, who had complained that it was 'damned hard lines to have to speak to a lamp-post, a kid, and an old buffer', by the latter vulgarity indicating myself as I understand. Philip Henderson in 'William Morris: his life, work and friends' published by Thames and Hudson in 1967 says "Morris drew upon his own experiences of open-air meetings and attendances at police courts." The trial of the comrade is interrupted by the singing of the 'Marseillaise' and the outbreak of the revolution offstage. The play ends at Kelmscott in the world of 'News from Nowhere' a socialist commonwealth and Nupkins, in a world without lawyers, ie condemned to dig potatoes as a temporary penance.