- A502, Portland Square, Drake Circus, Plymouth, Devon, PL4 8AA
Dr Patrick OSullivan
Did William Morris wallpapers really poison his customers with arsenic?
The Spring 2011 Newsletter of the William Morris Society carries my article 'William Morris and arsenic: guilty or not proven?' This is my review of a lecture given by Professor Andrew Meharg of the University of Aberdeen to the Society on 13 November 2010, on the subject of 'Poisonous mines, wallpaper and seamstresses - William Morris and arsenic'. In this lecture, Professor Meharg stated that, like many other Victorian manufacturers, Morris & Co produced wallpapers rich in pigments such as arsenic green. However, it soon became clear that, owing to the action of damp mould, such wallpapers emit poisonous gases which made the occupants of houses where they were installed ill. A campaign against them was therefore conducted by The Lancet, the British Medical Journal, The Times and others. William Morris, however, apparently refused to believe that this was the case, and only reluctantly gave up producing such wallpapers.
William Morris is nowadays famous not only as a designer, but also as a socialist and 'proto-green'. But in fact his family was made very rich by production of arsenic at the Devon Great Consols mine near Tavistock, where conditions for the workers were very harsh. Morris apparently not only never visited the mine, but also, according to Professor Meharg, remained 'silent as a stone' as to his own role as a director, showed (no) 'remorse', and failed 'to confess' his fault in this matter.
However, more detailed historical studies (quoted in my article) show that it was not until more than thirty years after the beginning of the campaign against arsenical wallpapers, and almost ten years after Morris & Co ceased producing them, that any kind of scientific basis emerged for what was until then only a suspicion – if even if a strong one – that wallpapers containing arsenic were a threat to human health. More recently, it has also been scientifically demonstrated that
(1) there is almost no solid evidence that poisonous gases were ever actually formed in any room coated with arsenical wallpapers,
(2) gas production on wallpaper is unlikely, as although the mould in question is abundant in nature, the process is inefficient, (and) the organism does not grow well at high arsenic concentrations (!),
(3) the amount of gas produced is very small even under optimal growth conditions, and
(4) all of the above reasons ‘pale into insignificance’ in view of its very low toxicity.
In other words, William Morris did not poison his customers with arsenical wallpapers, and is therefore guilty of no such 'crime'.
Since I retired in 2005, I have been catching up on thirty years' backlog of unfinished writing, although I still give occasional lectures on environmental matters. For instance, I have lectured on 'Morris the Green' at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith (the headquarters of the William Morris Society), and at the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow. I also contribute infrequently to The Guardian's weekly 'Notes and Queries' column ('When does a jungle become a rainforest?', 12 February 2003; 'When does a pond become a lake?', 20 September 2006), where I also continue my one-man war against Neo-Darwinism ('The evolutionary benefits of Beauty', 4 March 2008, 8 April 2008; 'The Myth of Man the Hunter, 27 November 2008). Recent refereed publications have appeared in Saline Systems 2, 2006 (http://www.salinesystems.org/content/2/1/15 ), The Holocene 18, 2008 (http://hol.sagepub.com/cgi/content/short/18/1/45 ), and the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society 130, 2009 (http://www.dorsetcountymuseum.org/research/c130.html ).
My main work nowadays is editing The Journal of William Morris Studies, a task I took over in 2007(http://www.morrissociety.org/jwms.html ). As a result, I publish occasional editorials on Morris and contemporary issues (e.g. 'Editorial - How I became a Morrisian' [Winter 2007, pp. 3-9], 'Fears and Hopes' [Winter 2008, pp. 3-8], 'Science under Plutocracy' [Summer 2009, pp. 3-14], 'Looking Forward', [Winter 2009, pp. 3-8], and 'Still playing the money trick', [Summer 2011, pp. 3-6]). These gradually become available (after two years) at the US William Morris Society’s website http://www.morrissociety.org/jwms.chron.html . I have also recently reviewed Richard Bronk's The Romantic Economist (JWMS, Winter 2009, pp.106-109), 'The Alliance of Science and Art', a lecture by Dr Brenda King of the Textile Society discussing the relationship between Morris and Thomas Wardle of Leek, from whom he learned techniques of silk dyeing (William Morris Society Newsletter, Autumn 2009, pp. 24-25), and the exhibition 'Inspired by Nature: William Morris' at RHS Rosemoor, Summer 2010 (Newsletter, July 2010, p. 24).
BA Lancaster (1967) Environmental Science
D. Phil. (New University of Ulster (1971)
1970-1972 Post Doc, (new) University of Ulster
1972-1973 Lecturer, University of Durham
1973-1975 Lecturer, The Polytechnic, Wolverhampton
1975-2005 Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Principal Lecturer, Plymouth Polytechnic, Polytechnic South West, University of Plymouth.
Quaternary Research Association, 1990+
William Morris Society, 1990+
Roles on external bodies
Editor, Journal of William Morris Studies (http://www.williammorrissociety.org/journal.shtml)
Environmentalism, environmental philosophy, sustainability and 'collapse'. Environmental themes in the life and ideas of the 19th century designer and poet William Morris (1834-1896).
1. Environmental reconstruction, especially of past civilisations, using lake and other sediments.
2. Environmentalism and the philosophical basis of 'red-green' thought.
3. Environmental themes in the life and work of William Morris.
1. Journal of William Morris Studies; http://www.williammorrissociety.org/journal.shtml
2. Arne Naess lecture; http://video.plymouth.ac.uk/tvb/26-03-09ArneNaessInConversation.wmv
3. Penelope Fitzgerald lecture, William Morris society; http://www.morrissociety.org/news.html
4. Friends of the William Morris Gallery; http://www.friendsofthewmg.org.uk/
5. Green Books; http://greenbooks.co.uk/store/william-morris-news-from-nowhere-vision-time-p-189.html
6. The Lakes Handbook; http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0632047941.html
7. Saline Systems; http://www.salinesystems.org/content/2/1/15