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Kelmscott House | A Brief History

13th March 2018

A few weeks ago, during a conversation with our friends at the William Morris society, we discussed a few blog topics that we want to write about in the upcoming weeks – one that stood out was Kelmscott House and it’s history. Amazingly, they sent us a booklet, ‘A History of Kelmscott House,’ written by their curator Helen Elletson to help us learn more about the house so we’ll reference this throughout! If you would like to purchase the book for yourself to read more, you can buy it here on Amazon – we’d highly recommend it!

Today the home of the William Morris Society, Kelmscott House dates from the late 1780s – an incredible show of late Georgian architecture. If you haven’t visited, to help you imagine the house, you can get a thorough description of the house by the 1915 Survey of London, “The building has a simple front of stock brick […] each storey has five sash-windows regularly spaced, excepting the ground floor, where the central space is occupied by a well-designed entrance with Ionic pilasters, horizontal entablature and semi-circular fanlight. This entrance enters on the eastern of the two great bastions in the river wall, which give added width to the Mall […] The plan is well arranged and represents the original design.”

Sir Francis Ronalds (1788-1973) in 1816 constructed the first electric telegraph in the garden of Kelmscott! The garden, being almost an acre long meant, “eight miles of wire were suspended from overhead bars by silk hooks, looping back and forth throughout. […] This insulated cable has emerged over the years, being dug up accidentally by subsequent owners.” (P.12 A History of Kelmscott House) The first section of the wire can even be found today in the Science Museum – some can also be found in the collection of the William Morris Society at Kelmscott House!

So how did Morris come to live in Kelmscott House? It was Dante Gabriel Rossetti who came across ‘The Retreat’ (as Kelmscott House was then known) when house hunting for himself. Since Kelmscott House overlooks the River Thames in Hammersmith he worried about flooding and he considered the kitchen ‘frightful’ but Morris immediately saw the potential of the house. Morris’ first mention of the house was in a letter to his wife Jane, dated 12th March 1878, “I want to talk to you about the McDonald’s [sic] house that was now that I have been over it twice: if you could be content to live no nearer London than that, I cannot help thinking that we should do very well there: you can get a cab to the house in a quarter of an hour: and certainly the open river and the garden at the back are a great advantage: the house itself is just big enough for us, and the rooms are mostly pretty: the drawing room is (since Mc: knocked a bedroom into it) a great long room facing the river: the draw-back to the house is a dreary room at the back: high, darkish and ugly-windowed: but we should only want it as a subsidiary ‘larking room,’ so needn’t mind it much when it is duly whitewashed: besides we might keep hens in it: or a pig, a cow; or let it for a ranter’s chapel.” (The Collected Letter of William Morris, Vol.I, 1984 PP.456-7, Norman Kelvin.)

His enthusiasm for the house is clear even here – Jane’s reservations lied in Rosetti’s exaggerated accounts of the house and the fact it was far from central London. But with high rent prices in central London and Morris promising the rooms would be beautiful, “with a touch of my art,” plus the suggestion of a pony-and-trap to alleviate the problem of distance instead of paying inner London rent, they agreed to rent the house. The rent was £85 a year – repairs and re-decoration would cost Morris a further £1,000 a year. They renamed The Retreat, Kelmscott House, to link it together with their beloved Kelmscott Manor which Morris had rented since 1871. Both lying on the Thames, Morris took two boat journeys between the homes in the years following with friends.

Make sure to check back for our future blogs where we continue our story of Kelmscott House!

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