Fine Cell Work and the De Morgans

Welcoming Fine Cell Work (the social enterprise that works with Prisoners to create beautifully crafted interior design products) to the Centre once again, led me to reflect on the very special links between our two organisations, which run deeper than one might first imagine. Not only do Fine Cell Work produce a wonderful range of needlepoint cushions inspired by William De Morgan’s whimsical animal tile designs, but their very production, which champions craft skills and the meditative and restorative processes of creating were subjects dear to both William and Evelyn De Morgan’s hearts. However, social reform was also of great importance to the De Morgans and inspired by William’s mother Sophia, they were both involved with the social issues of the day – such as women’s rights. Indeed, William was at one point the Vice President of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage.

Although firmly middle-class, Sophia De Morgan (1809-1892) grew up in plain sight of the hardships suffered by the London poor, as she spent the first 10 years of her life living in Blackfriars where her father worked as an Actuary for Rock Insurance. In her nostalgic book of recollections “Threescore years and ten: Reminiscences of the late Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan”, published posthumously in 1895 she reflected on the “horror which filled her childish imagination at the glimpses she caught through the barred windows of the prisoners” from Fleet and Bridewell prisons, “who, she said, would grin at her from behind the rails”.

In 1837, Sophia married mathematician and University professor, Augustus De Morgan and quickly started a large family of seven children, of which William (born 1839) was the oldest. Despite running a busy household, Sophia found time to become actively involved with the suffrage movement and championed womens’ rights to higher education, giving her support to the formation of Bedford College. After moving to St. Pancras she became keenly interested in the need for work-house reform. From poor people of her neighbourhood she heard piteous accounts of the treatment they received at poorhouse, and determining to see for herself, she instigated the Workhouse Visiting Association which oversaw workhouses and actively campaigned for change.

Having met with the “angel of prisons” Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) in the early 1840s, Sophia also became an avid campaigner with the prison reform movement and she consulted with Fry on an article she wrote in The Monthly Chronicle on the subject. So important was Elizabeth Fry’s work as a social reformer, that today she is immortalized on the back of our £5 notes.

In the mid 19th Century, there were two main schools of thought on treatment of prisoners; the separate system and the silent system. As the names indicate these two systems sought to isolate prisoners and allow time for contemplation and reform. The first, with solitary confinement in order to protect them from the negative influence of other inmates.  However, as the prison population continued to grow a more draconian regime designed to scare prisoners into not reoffending became prevalent. The Silent system therefore not only called for total silence, long hours of segregation but also for long and pointless hard labour.

Fry and De Morgan both distinctly objected to the complete silence and solitude of the criminal, believing either would drive him mad. Instead they recommended a system which was eventually adopted in most prisons:  discipline, labour, time for contemplation and silence, periods of recreation and interaction with other prisoners and prison chaplains, and above all education.  It is this tradition, instigated by Fry and De Morgan, of educating criminals and giving them meaningful work, which Fine Cell Work continues to do so successfully today. 

The De Morgan Foundation are delighted to be able to continue in the De Morgans’ footsteps with an exciting new project which will enable us to become more involved with Fine Cell Work education and craft production. Watch this space for further information…


If you haven’t already seen it, there is still time to view the excellent Silence and Separation: Wandsworth Prison exhibition at Wandsworth Museum which runs until 31st December 2011.


More information on Fine Cell Work can be found here


Claire Longworth, Curator