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Morris and Liberty

Long ago and

William Morris got his inspiration from the past.


William Morris was born in Walthamstow in 1834. Morris' father was a wealthy city businessman, so when he died in 1848 he was able to leave his family well provided for. Morris went to Marlborough College Public School,where he was not very happy. Nevertheless the lack of structure allowed him to read widely and to explore architecture and ancient monuments of Wiltshire. His mother removed him from the school in 1851, and he was then tutored at home.


Morris went to Oxford in 1853 to study to become a clergyman, but here he met Edward Burne-Jones, who became a life long friend and together they decided to follow a career in art.

After Oxford

Morris studied architecture at the office of G.E.Street, here he met Phillip Webb who became a friend and collaborator. Morris continued to work at Street's who by now had moved to London. But outside working hours he began to write poems and romances, and try his hand at carving, calligraphy and illumination. He was being drawn more and more into the Rossetti circle.

The Red House

Morris married Jane Burden in 1859, in 1950 they moved into the Red House in Bexleyheath( now owned by the National Trust). Morris was not satisfied with any of the furnishings available ot the time so he and his artist friends set about decorating the Red House and designing the furnishings. Turning the Red House into " the beautifullest house in the world" as Burne-Jones called it.

The Firm

In 1861 the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company was set up. They advertized themselves as : Fine Art Workmen in Painting,Carving,Furniture and the Metals. Over the next few years Morris gradually took control of the Firm. These next years were his most prolific, designing and producing tapestries, wallpaper, stained glass,chintzes, embroideries, carpets and rugs. As well as his writing, publishing and involvement in social issues.

By 1880 he needed larger premises to house all his activities. His search finally took him to Merton.

Morris and his collaborators

Edward Burne-Jones Gabriel Rossetti Ford Madox Brown Holman Hunt

Search for a work site

In 1881 Morris was looking for a new site for his works, he wanted somewhere in the country where he and his workers could enjoy pleasant surroundings. He found the nine acre site at Merton Abbey, next to the river Wandle. It was just what he wanted, an open country area with historical connections. Situated close to the site of Merton Priory and not far from the Merton House where Nelson had lived.

The site also had a history of printing, for the River Wandle was perfect for washing the printed fabrics.

Working conditions

Here he was able to set up a factory that reflected his views on the working environment. he felt that people should work in pleasant surroundings and therefore be able to enjoy their work. He was a good employer and always payed his workers well, unlike many of the factory owners at that time.


In 1881 Morris opened his model factory at Merton. He had searched for a place offering the surroundings of a country idyll. The Cotswolds had been his first choice but that was too far from London. He found at Abbey Mills in Merton the ideal setting. Here there had been silk printing and calico works. The water of the Wandle was slightly alkaline and so perfect for washing silks. There were historical connections, the presence of the priory and Nelson had lived close by, which pleased Morris, and the rural setting was an inspiration to Morris.

Here was a works that was large enough for him to be able to carry out weaving, dyeing, cotton-printing, tapestry and stained glass production on one site.

Far away

Arthur Liberty got his inspiration from the Far East

Early Years

Arthur Liberty was born in 1843 in Chesham where his father owned a drapers shop. He was an intelligent boy who showed artistic leanings from an early age. But due to his father's financial difficulties he had to leave school and was sent to work at his Uncle's lace warehouse in Nottingham.


At sixteen he was sent to London. He worked first for another uncle and was then apprenticed to a draper in Baker Street. In 1862 he moved on to Farmer & Rogers' Cloak Emporium, in Regent's Street. Next to their main store they opened an Oriental Emporium selling Japanese goods they had bought at the London International Exhibition of 1862. Liberty went to work in the Oriental Emporium, and was appointed manager two years later when he was only 21. The Oriental Emporium became very successful and was soon a meeting place for artists. After working there for twelve years Liberty asked to be taken on as a partner. The request was refused.


Liberty decided to set up his own shop, he had no capital but he was now engaged to Emma Blackmore and her father put up enough money for Liberty to purchase the lease on half a shop, to which he gave the rather grand name of East India House. At first they only sold coloured silks imported from the East. This proved so successful that Liberty took over the other half of the shop and began to sell a much wider variety of goods from the Far and Near East.

Thomas Wardle- Dyer

Liberty found that some of the dyes used in the fabrics he was importing were not always consistant and were inclined to fade. He turned to Thomas Wardle, a silk printer and dyer from Leek, Staffordshire. Thomas Wardle printed silks for W.Morris and had worked with Morris experimenting with vegetable dyes to produce the subtle shades desired by both men.


Unlike Morris, Liberty was not a designer, but he created a style. 'Liberty Art Fabrics' He commisioned work from well known designers such as Arthur Silver, Christopher Dresser, Lindsay P Butterfield and Walter Crane.


Liberty used Littler's print works at Merton Abbey from the late1870s. He took over the mill completely in 1904. The mill continued printing Liberty fabrics until 1977.