William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath

“My work is the embodiment of dreams” – William Morris

After a train journey from London to Bexleyheath, you walk through roads of 1930’s semi-detached private housing to arrive at William Morris’s Red House. When Morris lived here this area was an open Kentish landscape of orchards and oast houses above the Cray valley near the hamlet of Upton. Morris commissioned architect Philip Webb to build the Red House. It was the need to furnish the interior of the house that led Morris to establish his textile firm and today you can now relish the aesthetic of his ‘Strawberry Thief’.

Inside the Red House Morris, Webb and Burne-Jones created a medievalist environment of furniture, stained glass, wall hangings, wall paintings, panels, embroidered panels, the impressive Drawing Room settle with miniature minstrels gallery, and murals featuring Chaucer, Malory, Froissart and Dante themes.

Ted Hollamby lived at the Red House and founded the William Morris Society but was also an important architect of post-war housing. Hollamby was Senior Architect at London County Council where it was said the department was infused with the ideas of Morris and the formalism of Le Courbusier. Later he was Director of Architecture at Lambeth Council. There was massive council house building inspired by Bevan’s  socialist” vision of new estates within capitalism where “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other”. The LCC and Lambeth were responsible for the design and construction of affordable, high quality housing projects such as Lambeth Towers, the Alton, Thamesmead, Pepys and Brandon Estates.

This reformist dream came to an ignominious end when capitalism went into crisis in the 1970’s. Ironically, Hollamby ended his career in the 1980’s working for the London Docklands Development Corporation where redevelopment of the Isle of Dogs was now private sector in creating homes for the corporate wealthy.

In the Studio you can find Hollamby’s book collection and Pevsner’s, but also works including Dialectical Materialism and Science by Maurice Cornforth (theorist of the Communist Party of Great Britain), Stalin’s Leninism, and Lenin articles for Iskra. The Red House used to host “impromptu CP meetings”. The CPGB adopted a reformist policy towards capitalism which was little different from the reformist Labour programme of 1945 and Bevan’s “egalitarian” vision for housing inside capitalism. Reforms to capitalism do not work in the long term. The house building of successive reformist Labour and Tory governments was eventually undone.

William Morris explicitly dismissed the whole idea of reformism in the manifesto he drafted for the Socialist League in 1885. Morris had originally been in Social Democratic Federation (SDF) but this organisation did not have the blessing of Engels, and its authoritarianism and increasing reformism led Morris and Eleanor Marx to leave and form the Socialist League. Morris died in 1896. In 1904 members left the SDF to establish the Socialist Party of Great Britain whose avowed policy is the  abolition of capitalism and the introduction of socialism not reforms to capitalism.

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