William Sleath 1867-1943
William Sleath was born January 14th 1867 in Belgrave in the county of Leicestershire. He was the third son of a family of five born to Henry Sleath and his wife Caroline Scattergood.
His brothers and sisters were:
Frederick Hugh, born March 10th 1862 in Winshill, Burton on Trent
Henry, born September 16th 1864 at 21 New Bridge Street, Leicester St Mary
Alice Selina, born July 18th 1869 at Spittalhouse Street, East Leicester
Laura Elizabeth, born April 1st 1876 Endell Street Hospital, St Giles, Bloomsbury, London
Henry, the father, was born April 7th 1839 in Rothley and he was a carpenter by trade. In 1861 he was living as a lodger at Bass's Brewery, 131/133 Station Street, Burton on Trent, aged 22. Clearly it was whilst he was in Burton on Trent he met his wife to be, Caroline Scattergood, and they were married at The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Burton on Trent on September 22nd 1861. The marriage was probably speeded along in the knowledge that Caroline was already pregnant with their first child Frederick Hugh.
In 1871 the family was living at 9 Clinton Street, Leicester St Mary, but possibly for work reasons the family ventures down to London between 1871 and 1876 and here we find the most significant step in the development of William and his future career.
In 1881 the family, minus William and father Henry were living at 8, Lower Marsh, Lambeth. It is interesting to note that this was only a short walk away, over the Thames, to where William was living (see following paragraph) and we can only visualize his mother, Caroline, making the repeated journey over the bridge to see him. William was 13 years old at this time. We do not know why Henry, the father, is not shown on the 1881 census and he has eluded us ever since 1876. In the 1881 census Caroline was shown as Head but not widowed, while in the 1901 census she is described as a widow.
Meanwhile in 1881 William was found living in a Boys Home School at 35 Lambs Conduit Street, Bloomsbury and is one of 28 boys boarding. Here he must have struck up his life long friendship with William Knight who was also living at the same Boys Home. Knight was described as a Tapestry Maker, whilst William was described as a Tapestry Weaver. We know that William was apprenticed to William Morris at the age of 7 (1874) and that he remained at Merton Abbey for 18 years, returning subsequently on several occassions (as in 1922) to carry out special pieces of work. The following extract from "William Morris Textiles" by Linda Parry provides a corroborative hint of the date William started.
“Having mastered the technique of tapestry weaving with Cabbage and Vine, Morris next set up a loom at Queen Square and with the assistance of his first tapestry apprentice, Henry Dearle, who had previously been transferred from the glass painters shop. The first items to be woven were trial verdue panels, cushion covers and furniture coverings. One panel described as a frieze of greenery with birds was sold to George Howard to hang in Naworth Castle.
Dearle proved a gifted pupil and was soon joined by two other apprentices, William Knight and William Sleath. Dearle became responsible for their training and all of those who followed.”
Very early on in Williams life he lost the sight of his left eye. The family story tells that he was passing a village green where cricket was being played and a ball hit for six caught him squarely on the eye resulting in its loss. This makes his career as a tapestry weaver and painter all the more remarkable.
Also from the book “ William Morris Textiles” edited by Linda Parry, we learn that William Sleath participated in the making of the following tapestries
Flora and Pomona
Were woven between 1884 and 1885 by William Knight, William Sleath and John Martin
When the tapestry was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1898 Dearle wrote, “The colouring as well as the general design are by Mr. Morris and parts of the figures have been woven by his own hand”. The rest of the tapestry was woven by Sleath, Knight and Martin.
This was the first panel (of six of The Holy Grail scenes) to be completed and was exhibited at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition of 1893.
The Daily Chronicle reported thus: It occupied three persons, as many as can comfortably sit across the warp, for two years. The people who made it and this by far the most interesting thing about it, are boys, at least they’re grown up by this time, entirely trained in our own shop. It is really free hand work, remember, not slavishly copying a pattern, like those “basse lisse” methods, and they came to us with no knowledge of drawing whatsoever, and have learnt every single thing they know under our training.
In addition from the book “ William Morris” edited by Linda Parry we learn of the following tapestries that in some way William contributed to:
The Forest Tapestry
Designed by William Morris, Phillip Webb and John Henry Dearle
Woven at Merton Abbey by William Knight, John Martin and William Sleath in 1887
Two tapestries from the Holy Grail
1. The Arming and Departure of the Knights of the Round Table on the Quest for the Holy Grail
2. The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Perceval
Designed by Edward Burnes-Jones, William Morris, John Henry Dearle from 1890.
Woven at Merton Abbey by Martin, Taylor, Sleath, Ellis, Knight and Keach, 1890-94
It is probable that whilst William was doing some tapestry renovation or even teaching painting at The Manor House in Mitcham for Mr. John Owen Lewis, he met his future wife to be, Edith Gwynne Lewis. The Lewis family was a particularly wealthy family that had originally come from Eglwysfach in Wales. John Owen Lewis was Tea Merchant and had lived at The Manor House for many years. John Lewis was very protective of all his daughters and he frowned upon Edith’s friendship with William. On many occasions William would take Edith to Hilly Fields near Mitcham and they would often be escorted by Edith’s sister, Lilian. Edith was not gifted at drawing or painting but their relationship grew stronger over the many meetings they had.
William and Edith were eventually married on October 26th 1907 in Wandsworth and they went to live in Whitford Gardens. Their second home was in Caithness Road but we are unsure when they moved there.
There was only one child from the marriage, Stuart Arthur, and he was born December 8th 1910 in Mitcham
William was generally a very quiet, softly spoken person who throughout his life was a prolific painter in both oil and water colours in addition to his work as a tapestry weaver. He was dearly loved by all around him including the Lewis family, but still with a great reluctance from John Owen Lewis.
Stuart remembers there was a large loom at their house in 18, Penwortham Road, which was in the loft where his father William would weave the tapestries
Addendum 1 is a list of some of the tapestries woven by William Sleath although it has been difficult to trace the exact whereabouts of those listed.
An extract from The Story of Winchelsea Church” states that: The big tapestry (below) is the work of William Sleath who was a pupil of William Morris. The subject is from the Fra Angelico Predella of San Dominico, Florence, but Sleath has added some floral and feathered designs and decorations in the pre Raphaelite tradition. The benefactors were the Misses Beddington, one-time residents of Winchelsea.
William was not a family man, and perhaps this was passed down to his son Stuart who was quite a rebel. Stuart left home at the age of 17 for a short while and lived with his mothers’ sister Lilian who had married John Barrow. Stuart only stayed for a few months at their house, 7 Lavender Avenue in Mitcham and John did his best to instill some discipline in Stuart but it was to no avail
He was continually spoilt though by his mother (or perhaps his mothers’ family money) as he lived a very carefree life where money appeared no object.
In 1942 William and Edith were living at 60 Babbington Road where they had a large flat on the first floor. Nearby at 69 Babbington Road, Edith’s sisters, Beatrice and Emma (Tussie), were living. One night the air raid sirens went off and William ushered Edith to go to the air raid shelters saying that he would finish some tapestry work and come along shortly. Whilst William was still at his loom the house next door took a direct hit from the air raid killing the occupants and badly damaging Williams house. He was found by rescuers caught behind the rafters of the roof of his house and William was taken to the local hospital,”The Fountain Hospital” at Tooting, (now called St George’s). William suffered a fractured rib and was released from hospital some 2 weeks later. Remarkably the tapestry he was working on was found in a nearby tree, and, together with his silks all were undamaged. During Williams stay in hospital Edith had gone to live with her sister at 7 Lavender Avenue in Mitcham and William joined her there after being released from hospital. After about 8 weeks William started to show signs of dementia and he was soon admitted to Epsom Hospital where he died shortly afterwards
Throughout Williams life he never spoke about his parents, siblings or indeed where he came from, to his wife and many friends and all believed him to be an only child, possibly from Scotland. It was only in 2001 after much research that we discovered that William came from a family (close as we know today) of 4 other children.
What possibly occurred for him to turn his back on such a family? We may never know.