3rd October 1896. Arsenic and old Wallpaper.

Morris Wallpaper.

Morris Wallpaper.


‘Of paper there are divers sorts finer and courser, as also brown and blue paper. Truly they are very pretty and make houses of the more ordinary people look neat’. (1)






Today in 1896, saw the death of the atheistic, socialist, William Morris, who according to John Betjeman, was the successor to the romantic Catholic, Augustus Welby Pugin, the most influential of 19thc architects.

Both Morris, born in 1834, and Pugin, deplored the ‘soul-less’ new machinery, which was now taking over from craftsmen, and they reacted by looking back to the ideals of the medieval world, which influenced the Art Noveau Movement.(2)

Morris thought all ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction, a style typified by square, wooden shapes, solid, pierced wood furniture and wallpaper with natural themes of flowers.

Glass ar St Editha's Church Tamworth.

William Morris Glass at St Editha’s Church Tamworth.

Morris was horrified by the new artificial aniline dyes of William Perkins, preferring to use natural pigment such as madder and indigo.

The anilines such as ‘Gas Green’, he said was ‘as abominable as its name, both by daylight and gaslight’.

Morris was the subject of controversy as early wallpapers contained arsenic- the family owning a Devon arsenic mine.

In 1858 The Lancet reported the death of a child, through eating a flake of wallpaper containing arsenic. In 1879 Queen Victoria had rooms stripped of the green wallpaper, containing arsenic, after a guest suffered from its effects, whilst stopping there.

Could the poison have been responsible for the fatigue and malaise of many Victorians, with the gorgeous,but impregnated fabrics, blowing arsenic around ball-rooms?

ca. 1875-1899 --- A print of an advertisement for Jeffrey & Co's, producers of artistic wallpaper free from arsenic. --- Image by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS

ca. 1875-1899 — A print of an advertisement for Jeffrey & Co’s, producers of artistic wallpaper free from arsenic. — Image by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS

Morris’s wallpaper and fabrics were chosen to decorate Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton, owned by the Mander Family, whose paint-works were to transform interior design.

Morris’s wallpaper business survived up until 1940 when taken over after its liquidation, by Sanderson’s, the oldest brand in England in its field.

(1) ‘Collections for the improvement of husbandry and trade’.1669 John Houghton.

(2) Charles Voysey, wallpaper and furniture designer, inspired by Morris, opened his Chiswick Factory in 1902.

Ref: Colour Chemistry, RM Christie, Royal Society of Chemistry(GB), 2001.

Ref: Philosophical Trans. 1771 pp114-127.

Ref: Pic Images: googleimages and alamy.com.

Ref: 25.1.2010 Daily Mail/ article on arsenic.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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