The Historical Perspective

The Moral Imperative in Craft

Last week I went to a wedding, and the reception was held at The Great Hall at Dartington in Devon. The Great Hall was built by the half-brother of Richard II in 1388 and from that time to this it has reflected the changing fortunes of its owners and caretakers. It was passed from landed family to landed family, until the wealth and power of its last aristocratic owners dwindled in the agricultural depression of the nineteenth century.

For many of us, our vision of Victorian times centres on a growing affluence in urban areas, or perhaps for those more pessimistic, a slightly more “dark Satanic mills” picture. It’s worth remembering that, once protectionist economic policies were opened out to allow free trade in the second half of the nineteenth century, the bottom fell out of many rural British economies, and massive countryside hardship was the result. All of those poverty-stricken millworkers, seamstresses and pure-finders[1] were coming to the cities from somewhere – and it was usually from the homes they no longer had, now that jobs on the land, and all the associated trades like saddlery and smithing, had either been more economically replaced by machinery, or had simply been priced out by imports.

Wait…this is sounding curiously familiar…

There are plenty of people now who would like to live on the land and who can’t afford it, and plenty of debate about the desirability – or otherwise – of a lack of restriction on capital. The fingers of the past often reach a long way into the future. For me, the most interesting thing about Dartington is not that its aristocratic owners couldn’t maintain it as a country estate. What is interesting about it, for modern times at least, is that in 1925 it was rebuilt by a wealthy philanthropic couple who decided to use it as a social experiment in rural regeneration. Between 1926 and 1937 the Hall and the 800-acre estate were restored for Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst. New methods in forestry and farming were introduced (including the first battery chicken sheds – !), and new related industries were promoted, along with the arts and crafts and a coeducational boarding school.

What they were doing has to be remembered in context. Not only was the rural economy in massive decline, but the Great Depression hit during this time as well. Dorothy Elmhirst was a wealthy American heiress, and needed to be: plenty of money was required to make their vision begin to become a reality. But what it needed even more than money was the ideological conviction that an integrated approach was the only way to make the experiment a success. That making the farms and craft workshops and school successful in terms of economics was only one part of the equation; that rural – that any – communities could certainly support sophisticated ideas in engineering, art, ecology, and social policy; that every person had a right to a full and rounded existence based on interaction and integration of work, leisure time, and social responsibility. In other words, the Elmhirsts realised that for a sustainable community to be built, well-being indicators and ecological factors had to be considered along with the economic viability of the experiment.

This is what’s known today – contentiously[2] – as the triple bottom line. This concept holds that a company’s responsibility should be to anyone who is directly or indirectly influenced by the actions of the company – the stakeholders – rather than merely to its shareholders; and the company’s business should be directed at maximising the good to all stakeholders rather than to gaining the maximum profit. The criteria for measuring the success of a company, and the values underpinning those criteria, are therefore expanded.[3] As John Abrams, of the South Mountain Company, states,

“We all know it at some level, but when we get down to business it is all too easy to forget: using money as the sole measure of prosperity fails to recognise that people have lives, families, and communities. Many people value the quality of their work environment as much as, or more than, the size of their paycheck. In addition to making a reasonably good living, we need to be satisfied by our work. We need to meet the expectations of our clients and business associates, to contribute to the stability and vitality of our community, to care for the environment, and to maintain a workplace that is safe, healthy, and rewarding. We need the pleasure of good service, the joy of humor, the treasure of strong relationships, the fulfilment of collaboration, and the security of stability and longevity. Our enterprise must create sufficient profit to be able to serve all these worthy ends, but profit is simply the engine that drives a bottom line composed of many parts.”[4]

William Morris, in his work with the Arts and Crafts movement, had similar concerns. Morris, as a disciple of Ruskin, derided both the quality of mass-produced goods, but also their effects on the individual worker and on society as a whole. Convinced that mechanisation caused the degradation of the worker by disallowing any sense of personal achievement and by relegating the worker to a part of a machine, mindlessly repeating the same unfulfilling task, and worried about the quality of the environment in which most workers found themselves, Morris sought to make beautiful things – in a different manner. His notion of good design was linked to ideas about a good society. For Morris, “… inspiration need not be purely artistic, but a matter of moral or spiritual purpose.”[5] He was not only building a profitable company, but trying to factor in multiple “bottom lines” in what seems a remarkably prescient world view.

Morris’s views on the environment, on preserving what is of value in both the natural and “built” worlds, on decentralising bloated government, are as significant now as they were in Morris’s own time, or even more so. Earlier in the twentieth century, much of his thinking, particularly its political side, was dismissed as sheer romanticism. After the Second World War, it appeared that modernisation, centralisation, industrialism, rationalism – all the faceless movements of the time – were in control and would take care of the world. Today, when we have a keen sense of the shambles of their efforts, the suggestions which Morris made in his designs, his writings, his actions and his politics have new power and relevance.[6]

Morris designs are still being produced, though the company which produces them has not attempted to carry on his zeal for campaigning for social justice. But there is a growing band of craftspeople for whom making things of beauty is not enough: they, too, are looking at multiple bottom lines. There is a whole movement now based on the slow, on the handmade, on happiness and satisfaction, on knowing when you have enough. These artists are showing what may be a way forward, by reaching back to movements of the past. In some ways Morris showed that the pen was mightier than the sword and the wallpaper. Whether people could afford his work or not, they could read his writing. Whatever positive developments are being made –socially, economically, materially – they need to be widely shared. That is the purpose of this essay – and this website. By sharing stories, case studies, visions, plans, we can truly build a web that supports us all.

[1]Dogs’ – dung is called ‘pure’ from its cleansing and purifying properties. The name of pure finders…has been applied to…old women (who) gathered the substance… “(Henry Mayhew, 1851)


[4] Abrams, John (2006) The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place Vermont: Chelsea Green p78

72157603819268045/ last accessed 26/02/09

[6] Stansky, Peter (1983) William Morris. Oxford: Oxford University Press p89