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Former home of William Morris (b.1834) between 1878, when he moved here with his family, and his death in 1896. He founded the Kelmscott Press near here in 1890. The house is now headquarters of the William Morris Society and is occasionally open to public. Behind the house is part of Morris's former garden; although the garden has decreased since his day, largely as a result of the construction of the A4 in the 1960s, there is a small lower garden behind the house with a variety of ferns that thrive well in its shady micro-climate. The upper walled garden has lawns, shrubs, flower beds and trees.
The garden of 26 Upper Mall is first mentioned when Sir Francis Ronalds (1788-1873) lived here; in 1816 he constructed the first electric telegraph in his garden, which was then 600ft long and almost an acre going back almost to King Street, throughout which he suspended some 8 miles of overhead wire. A plaque on the house commemorates this. He later experimented with placing insulated cable underground, digging a 4ft deep trench 525ft long in the garden, portions of which have been accidentally dug up by subsequent owners. The first section of subterranean cable was dug up in 1862 and is now in the Science Museum, but another section dug up in the 1920s is in the collection at Kelmscott House. In 1867 26 Upper Mall, then called The Retreat, was owned by George MacDonald, poet, minister and novelist, with his wife and 11 children; the Coach House was used to stable their horse and Shetland ponies. At that time there was a great walnut tree in the stable yard, still present in the 1890s, and the garden had a tulip tree, said to be the 2nd largest in England. The roadway was then bordered by elms between the house and river, widening into a semi-circle in front of the house. Plays were performed with a removable stage erected on the lawn and the Coach House converted into a theatre with gas lit stage.
On 12 March 1878 William Morris wrote to his wife about the MacDonald's house, which he was interested in leasing: 'I cannot help thinking that we should do very well there: and certainly the open river and garden at the back are a great advantage', going on to say 'The situation is certainly the prettiest in London . . . the garden is really most beautiful . . . There is a good garden and root house, besides the large green house, a tank in the former for watering purposes: there are 2 arbours: there are of big trees 1st a walnut by the stable: 2nd a very fine tulip tree halfway down the lawn. 3rd, 2 horse chestnuts at the end of the lawn: beyond that is a sort of orchard (many good fruit trees in it) with rough grass (gravel walk all round garden): then comes the green-house and beyond that a kitchen: garden with lots of raspberries.' Morris subsequently leased the house and lived here for the last 18 years of his life; plants growing in his garden that he wrote about in the 1880s and 1890s include almond, pear and plum trees flowering in the orchard; raspberries, mulberries, quinces, peas, cherries, as well as pears and plums; and flowers: daffodils, wallflowers, crocus, peonies of various kinds, Japanese anemones, china asters, hyacinths, sweet williams, roses, foxgloves, orange lilies, white lilies, sunflowers, hollyhocks and poppies.
In 'Making the Best of it', 1880, he wrote of London town gardens that 'uphill work or not, the town garden must not be neglected if we are to be in earnest in making the best of it. . . . Large or small, it should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the wilfulness of Nature, but should look like a thing never to be seen except near a house. It should, in fact, look like a part of the house. It follows from this that no private-pleasure garden should be very big, and a public garden should be divided and made to look like so many flower-closes in a meadow, or a wood, or amidst the pavement. . . . In great towns, gardens, both private and public, are positive necessities if the citizens are to live reasonable and healthy lives in body and mind.'