History of Kelmscott Manor

A Brief History of the Manor

Built in around 1600 for Thomas Turner and originally called Lower Farm, the house was erected on the site of two earlier buildings. The Turner Family were successful yeoman farmers and a prominent local family. 

By the 1660s, Thomas Turner had married into a titled family and was now described as a ‘gentleman’. He received a grant of arms in 1665 and at around that date the house was extended, and the new wing was built on the north-east corner of the house. The additional rooms created by this extension (White Room and Tapestry Room) are characterised by their higher ceilings, larger windows, and decorative fireplaces. 

In 1864 James Turner purchased the lordship of the manor and Lower Farm became ‘Kelmscott Manor’. 

In 1870, with the death of James Turner, the Manor and associated farm buildings passed to Turner’s wife’s nephew, Charles Hobbs. Hobbs intended to farm the land and use the outbuildings but had no use for the Manor itself and put it up for rent. William Morris saw the advert and came to the Manor in May 1871 for a viewing. 

Morris had ‘been looking for a house for the wife and kids’ away from the unhealthy environment of London. When he wrote about it to a friend the very next day, he called it a ‘heaven on earth’. Morris took the Manor on a joint 3-year lease, initially with Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although Rossetti left in 1874.  

William Morris rented the property until his death in 1896. 

Morris never lived here on a permanent basis but spent as much time as he reasonably could, considering his other commitments. He loved it deeply and it was a great inspiration for him. His daughter May later recalled that it was the undercurrent to his life. It inspired both designs (e.g., ‘Strawberry Thief’) and writings (News from Nowhere) as well as informed his thinking about society, ecology and building conservation. 

When William died, the tenancy passed to his wife Jane until 1913, when an opportunity to acquire it arose. The trustees of William’s bequest bought it for £4,000 to provide security for Jane. However, she died 3 months later in January 1914. 

The estate then passed to May, the Morris’s younger daughter, and in 1923 she moved permanently to Kelmscott Manor until her death in 1938. 

After May’s death, the Manor was left firstly to her companion, Mary Lobb (who died in 1939) and then to Oxford University. However, her will made several stipulations as to its development:  

• that it should be used as a ‘house of rest’ for artists and scholars whilst remaining as an unaltered memorial to her father. 

• there was to be no electricity installed and no modernisation. 

Between 1939 and 1951 the University leased the Manor, but the funds provided in May’s will for maintenance proved inadequate, and the lack of modernisation of the property, which fell gradually into disrepair.

Seeing the Manor as a financial drain, in 1962 the University went to court to be released from the terms of May’s will. The court found in the University’s favour and ruled that ownership of the manor and its estate should be passed to the Society of Antiquaries of London, who were the residual legatee of May Morris’s Will, and the restrictive terms of May Morris’s will were now null and void. By then the Manor was in a very poor state and, over the next few years, a major restoration of the Manor house was accomplished. 

This is a 26-minute film from the 1970’s showing the state of the building at that time, its restoration and repair.