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.