Arts, Crafts & Socialism: Sheila Rowbotham Introduces the 'Hands-On' Utopian, C.R. Ashbee, and the Guild of Handicraft He Established in 1888, Shedding Light on Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Arts and Crafts Ideas about Work, Consumption and Society

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The Arts and Crafts Movement, which developed in Britain from the mid-1880s and later spread to the United States, brought together a loose grouping of artists who were resolved to bring beauty to everyday objects and surroundings. The movement was not simply aesthetic for it contained a critique of how things were produced in terms both of craft skill and working conditions. Its influence would spread internationally as an approach to style and also raise questions about the organization of production and ethical consumption, and indeed about how daily life itself was conducted.

One of many movements aiming to transform society in the 1880s and early 1890s, Arts and Crafts was marked by the utopian hopes of the era. Thoughtful and sensitive members of the upper-middle class like the artist and writer William Morris (1834-96) were becoming disenchanted with the social order. Amid depression, unemployment was mounting and the unemployed, led by the newly formed socialist organizations, were angrily protesting on the streets of the West End of London. Panic about foreign agitators spread and on Sunday November 13th, 1887, Morris took part in a demonstration against coercion in Ireland, led by the socialists, and by Radicals in the Liberal Party, along with Irish Nationalists. It was cleared from Trafalgar Square by a violent police charge followed by Guardsmen with drawn bayonets. Three people died and hundreds were injured on what came to be known as 'Bloody Sunday'.

The following month, William Morris (who was trying desperately to build up the small revolutionary organization, the Socialist League, that he had founded three years earlier) was still pondering the lessons of 'Bloody Sunday' when a young architect, Charles Ashbee (1863-1942) came to see him with an idealistic plan for a Guild and School of Handicraft in the slums of London's East End. To Ashbee's profound dismay, Morris dismissed the project with derision, sweeping aside the idea that a small experiment such as a craft guild could help the suffering of the unemployed. Ashbee was not as convinced as Morris about the need for a socialist revolution but as a student at King's College Cambridge, he had been affected by the mood of class guilt and social unease which troubled the young intelligentsia. Voluntary work in Toynbee Hall, Whitechapel (the social settlement established in 1884 for Oxbridge graduates to live and work among London's poor in the East End), and contact with Radical working men's clubs had made him aware of the consequences of poverty and inequality. Appalled by the waste of ability and inadequate training available to the working class he decided to start his own classes, and lectured to workers on his heroes John Ruskin and Walt Whitman. Despite his admiration for Morris, he ignored his mentor by setting up the Guild and School of Handicraft in the East End with just five members in June 1888. It operated from an empty warehouse opposite Toynbee Hall at 35 Commercial Street and soon expanded.

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Initially Ashbee envisaged that the Guild would provide a means of livelihood for the most wretched slum dwellers. While some members were recruited from among the very poor, he also collected cabinet makers, wood carvers, metal workers and silversmiths who already possessed some skill. Over the years the Guild produced pianos, bedsteads, wallpaper and clocks displayed at Arts and Crafts exhibitions and sold at first through commissions and later in a Bond Street shop.

In 1891 Ashbee broke away from Toynbee Hall and moved the Guild to Essex House, a large building on the Mile End Road. In 1902 the Guild migrated to the Cotswold village of Chipping Campden. Though not all the Londoners were happy about being transported to the countryside, new members arrived including a few women. With over seventy workers the Guild was bigger than other craft guilds, a factor which contributed to its collapse. …