How William Morris betrayed his socialist ideals with his wallpaper

The great Victorian designer William Morris is internationally celebrated as a socialist and early environmentalist. But new research has shown that he sanctioned the use of arsenic in his world-renowned wallpapers and dismissed concerns over the health risks.

A sample of Morris's first wallpaper design from the mid-1860s has been found to contain copper arsenic salt, which created a green pigment used to colour the pattern. Arsenic pigments were used widely in Victorian times in paints and to dye clothes, paper, cardboard and food, and were responsible for chronic illness and death, causing a popular outcry.

The discovery was made by Professor Andy Meharg, of the school of biological science at Aberdeen University, who analysed a fragment of "Trellis", the first design produced by Morris in 1864. The discovery is likely to force some to reassess their view of Morris, who was known for his concerns at the effects of industry.

Professor Meharg said: "There is no doubt that William Morris was a utopian idealist whose life was full of contradictions. He was a progenitor of the green movement and decried the environmental and human degradation caused by industrial activity. But he was also a successful capitalist who supplied the bourgeoisie with expensive interior decor.''

Widespread public concern was generated, including articles in The Lancet, on the effects of arsenic salts because they produced the highly toxic gas trimethylarsine when exposed to damp, a common condition in Victorian houses.

Morris held shares in the mining company Devon Great Consols, which his father helped to set up and which was then the biggest arsenic producer in the world. But workers there suffered from skin lesions called "arsenic pock" and many died from arsenic-related conditions. Morris used income from the shares to establish his design company and was a director of DGC.

In the mid-1870s, Morris's socialist beliefs strengthened and he resigned his directorship. At about this time the firm that made Morris's wallpaper, Jeffrey & Co, in Islington, north London, began advertising its products as free from arsenic. Other fragments of Morris's later designs analysed by Professor Meharg showed no evidence of arsenic, although other toxic substances such as lead and chromium were present.

Although the health risks might be assumed to have led Morris to stop using arsenic salts in his wallpaper in 1875, letters to his dye manufacturer in 1885 found by Professor Meharg indicate Morris ignored the concerns and illnesses of those exposed. "As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were being bitten by witch fever.''

Another letter states: "Of course, it is proving too much to prove that the Nicholsons [customers] were poisoned by wallpapers; for if they were, a great number of people would be in the same plight and we should be sure to hear of it.''

Professor Meharg said Morris was simply reflecting the laissez-faire attitudes of Victorian industrialists. "He seems to have had a blasé attitude to health concerns. However, we cannot be too harsh on him ­ he was a product of his time.''