Did William Morris wallpapers really poison his customers with arsenic?
The Spring 2011 Newsletter includes a review by Patrick O’Sullivan, Editor of The Journal of William Morris Studies ('William Morris and arsenic: guilty or not proven?') of a lecture given to the Society on 13 November 2010 by Professor Andrew Meharg of the University of Aberdeen, on the subject of 'Poisonous mines, wallpaper and seamstresses - William Morris and arsenic'.
In his lecture, Professor Meharg stated that, like many other Victorian manufacturers, Morris & Co. produced several wallpapers rich in pigments such as arsenic green. However, it soon became clear that, owing to the action of damp mould, such wallpapers were emitting poisonous gases, which severely affected the health of the occupants of houses in which they were installed.
A campaign against them by The Lancet, the British Medical Journal, The Times and others then began. 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 he 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 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 recent scientific studies, and more detailed historical research, both show that William Morris did not poison his customers with arsenical wallpapers, and is therefore guilty of no such 'crime'. To read the full article, please click here.
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