Merton Abbey 1881-83*

*Chapter Thirteen of William Morris (1994) by Fiona MacCarthy

“Up to and through 1880 William Morris had been aware of, and had felt frustrated by, the almost total impasse in English politics. He saw how the Labour movement had been paralysed by the severe trade depression of the 1870s. He had watched how the working-class leaders had been virtually swallowed up into the Liberal opposition between 1874 and 1880, while the Liberals were out of power. But he gradually sensed the situation to be changing…

In July 1881 Morris was much dismayed by the sentence of sixteen months’ hard labour, given at the end of his trial at the Old Bailey (pictured) to a Viennese dissident in exile, Johann Most, the editor of the anti-Bismarck news-sheet Freiheit which circulated illegally in Germany. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Most had published an article which Morris described as “a song of triumph”. Morris did not associate himself with what Most said, but he saw the hounding and harsh sentencing of Most as a terrible example of British tyranny, hypocrisy and class injustice: “These are the sort of things that make thinking people so sick at heart that they are driven from all interest in politics save revolutionary politics.” During Most’s trial, outside the Old Bailey, the Democratic Federation member Jack Williams had been selling English-language editions of Freiheit. By the autumn Morris was writing, “it is good to feel the air laden with the coming storm.” “

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