Ann Gagné, A Very Morris Birthday

Dr. Ann Gagné is College Instructor at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. Her current research explores how touch and ethics relate to education as well as the spatial framing of learning in the nineteenth century which is an extension of themes found in her doctoral dissertation. She is very active on Twitter @AnnGagne and also writes a blog that relates to teaching and pedagogical strategies at

Fig. 1 William Morris. Photograph from Wikipedia commons, 14 April 2015.

On March 21st, 2015 the William Morris Society of Canada celebrated what would have been Morris’s 181st birthday with a lecture and, of course, cake at University College at the University of Toronto.  About fifty people, members and friends of the Society, joined in the annual celebration of Morris’s life, art, and thought.

 Brian Blackstock on the Allen-Robinson Mill

The afternoon started with a fascinating lecture by Brian Blackstock entitled, “Architectural Preservation in Upper Canada: A Case Study.”  The focus of the lecture was on the preservation the Allen-Robinson Mill in Waupoos, Ontario which is in Prince Edward County 140 miles east of Toronto. Built in 1795, and owned by a Loyalist Joseph Allen, this mill is steeped in history and Blackstock has made sure to keep that history alive. The mill has also become a museum of sorts, housing materials and artifacts from the Robinson family, who started the restoration of the mill when members of the family found it derelict in the 1950s and purchased it as a would be summer home. John “Black Jack” Robinson was the well-known editor of the Toronto Telegram from the 1880s through to the 1920s and many of the family artifacts have found their way to the mill. The Robinson family, in their original restoration, repurposed and crafted what was already present at the mill in order to maintain the heritage and feel. Blackstock explained that the Allen-Robinson mill is an “overshot” mill which means water comes from above and is not sourced from below. Overshot mills were much more effective grist mills and necessarily required more elaborate planning which makes the Allen-Robinson mill and its history even more important.

Upkeep and continued restoration to the mill is done using antique material and supplies. Some of these materials have been found at a building supply store which specializes in material for period restorations in Cobourg, Ontario, a town 60 miles to the west of the mill. Don McLean was also present to speak of the challenges of restoring the mill and the importance of finding material and parts that are historically accurate. McLean’s newest project is a settler’s cabin from the 1820s which was brought onto the mill property in the 1970s. He provided pictures to demonstrate the craft that has gone into restoring the cabin by emphasizing the need for modern building practices to avoid deterioration and the effects from the weather,  yet still use historical materials in order to give the cabin an early-nineteenth century appearance .

William Morris’s Birthday Cake, A Fine Tradition

Much of the excitement at this event every year is the revealing of the cake. Creating a cake that depicts a specific Morris pattern or is related to Morris’s life and work is a tradition that started in 2002 and the cakes, created by William Morris Society members, Gianna Wichelow, Laura Bright, and James Bailey, are such true pieces of art (and craft!) that Morris himself would surely be very proud.

Fig 2. “2015 William Morris Society of Canada Birthday Cake- Compton pattern.” Image Ann Gagné. 21 March 2015.

This year’s cake was in the Compton pattern, a pattern that was designed by John Henry Dearle for Morris & Co in the late 1890s. Compton was one of Dearle’s best known patterns which was designed for Compton Hall in Wolverhampton.  If you are interested in the previous year’s cakes, please do visit the WMSC website which provides images of the previous thirteen years’ worth of cake.

Adding to the very Victorian feel of the day, the cake cutting and birthday celebration was held in the historic Croft Chapter House at University College. The Croft Chapter house was built in 1859 and was named after Henry Croft, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto in the mid-nineteenth century. With its vaulted ceilings, the Croft Chapter house has some of the most interesting architecture in University College and is one of the few places spared from a 1890 fire at University College.

Fig 3. Croft Chapter House, University College, University of Toronto. Photograph by loozrboy. Wikipedia commons, 14 April 2015.

William Morris’s birthday celebrations are a yearly reminder of what makes Morris and Morris studies still so very relevant today. Brian Blackstock and Don McLean demonstrated how craft and repurposing are important elements in historical preservation and that sourcing materials that are historically appropriate to the project at hand is very valuable and necessary work in order to keep the nineteenth century alive for us all.

About the William Morris Society of Canada

The William Morris Society of Canada has an exciting monthly program of lectures, conferences, visits to exhibitions, and walking tours which foster knowledge about the life and work of William Morris. The Society has a very active group of members throughout Canada. More information about the William Morris Society of Canada can be found at their website or by following them on Twitter @wmsc_ca .

Related Posts

Introducing ‘How We Might Live: The Vision of William Morris’

The Red House Discoveries (Or, the Wombat in the Drawing Room)

The Past is Red: Some New Departures in the Historiography of Victorian Socialism


Related JVC Articles

Abberley, Will. ‘To Make a New Tongue’: Natural and Manufactured Language in the Late Fiction of William Morris.” Journal of Victorian Culture 17.4 (2012): 397-412. Print.

Parkins, Wendy. “Feeling at Home: Gender and Creative Agency at Red House.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15.1 (2010): 61-81. Print.



  1. Not to take away from your scholarly activities, but this cake is breathtaking. I hope it tasted as good as it looks.

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