Cosmo Rowe and Two Wolverhampton Houses

article by Nick Matthews

In 1887 the Mander family decided to move out into the country and purchased part of the Wightwick Manor estate, three miles from their paint factory in central Wolverhampton. The new house built between 1887 and 1889, designed by Edward Ould, of Port Sunlight fame, was built for Theodore Mander. The family firm Mander Brothers, was a very successful paint and varnish manufacturer with branches all over Europe and North America. Like all the family Theodore was very active in local affairs and became Mayor of Wolverhampton shortly before his death in 1900.

Today Wightwick Manor is a rare survivor, one in which original William Morris furnishings and fittings have remained largely intact. Almost every aspect of the work of Morris and Company is represented. There are wallpapers, printed and woven fabrics, carpets and embroideries, furniture and metalwork, stained glass and tiles, Kelmscott Press and other books, and studies and working drawings for designs. Together with a large collection of pottery and tiles by William De Morgan.

Here Morris designs can be seen as they were originally intended, rather than in the artificial setting of a museum. The collections have a complex history, yet they were very largely assembled by two generations of the same family.

In the hall can be found a magnificent portrait by the artist William John Monkhouse (‘Cosmo’) Rowe, (1877–1952) appropriately of William Morris.
Across the City in working class Blakenhall is Wanderers Avenue near what was until 1889 Phoenix Park home of the Wolves. Players names can be found on the front of the terraced houses along the street. The club was founded as ‘St Luke’s Football Club’ in 1877, a school side, before later merging with another local team, ‘The Wanderers’ to form Wolverhampton Wanderers FC.

Parts of Wanderers Avenue are even older than Wightwick Manor one of them for well over fifty years was the home of the Garner family. The Garners, Alan and Mary were stalwarts of the Labour movement in Wolverhampton. The house had a double front and one of the front rooms was given over as a Labour Party office come committee room, the centre piece was a manual printer that over the years churned out tens of thousands of Labour newsletters and leaflets many of which had been typed up by Mary.
The place really came alive at election times when Mary had all the local kids collecting the numbers at the polling stations rushing back to Wanderers Avenue to be rewarded with pop and crisps. Once the knock up had been completed the table would be bursting with homemade cakes and sausage rolls a reward for a hard day’s electioneering. As well as being active in the Labour Party they were active in the Co-op and their unions Alan in the NUR and Mary in the T&G. They were a tight loving family and everyone on the left was welcome at Wanderers Avenue.
In the hall could be found a magnificent portrait by the artist William John Monkhouse (‘Cosmo’) Rowe, (1877–1952) appropriately of Keir Hardie.

Greeting cards have been produced to mark the donation of the Keir Hardy litho and to honour Mary’s memory. Available from Wolverhampton TUC, Penn LP, Revolver Co-op(Wolverhampton) and Past Pixels

It somehow feels right that portraits of great socialists should hang in the hall at both Wightwick Manor and Wanderers Avenue. Under the direction of Sir Geoffrey Mander, in 1931, Mander Brothers was the first British company to introduce the 40-hour week through an historic agreement signed and mediated by Ernest Bevin, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. And in 1937 he donated Wightwick to the National Trust. Despite being a Liberal MP before the War, post-war he joined the Labour Party and even became a Labour County Councillor.

Alan Garner (centre with glasses) at the History of Wolverhampton Trades Union Council book launch in 1995

Alan Garner served on Wolverhampton Council for over twenty years and was a great advocate of the Midland Metro on the Passenger Transport Authority who named a Tram after him. He died in 1996 but Mary reached ninety before dying this year. Loved by everyone who knew her she was delivering labour leaflets in her late eighties. She was difficult to get to know but once you did, she was honest, perhaps to a fault, had impeccable ethics and was a real socialist.

I left Wolves 22 years ago but amongst the people I kept in touch with were Alan and Mary. I came to Alans funeral. Mary would phone me, and we exchanged cards and when I was passing we would meet up and share our gossip in the tearoom at Wolves art gallery with coffee and cake. I did not like Mary, I loved her.
In the last year the calls became more frequent. There was something she wanted me to do. She had a way of asking that made it hard to say no.
In these visits she told me about the source of her politics that when she was a girl her father, Albert Cockburn was the secretary of the Penn and St Philips Labour Party. This branch was serious about member education and organising for maximum effect. They had a wonderful library of Labour Book Service and Left Book Club titles (many of which were still on the shelves at Wanderers Avenue) and were early adopters of Ian Mikardo’s Reading electoral system.
One regular visitor to their house, as in those days, Penn was in the Cannock Constituency was the incomparable Jennie Lee. The Cannock Miners had adopted Jennie as their candidate in 1945. After a day’s canvassing she would come to the Cockburn’s, slip off her shoes, and tuck her legs under her as she sat on the sofa. Mary would sit on the floor and soak up the adult conversation.
I am convinced that Mary’s uncompromising socialism, commitment, strong moral and ethical values hark back to those days of Jennie Lee and the Independent Labour Party. The thing she wanted me to do was make sure the picture in the hall was safe when she was gone.
A bit of research showed that the picture in the hall was a lithograph produced by Cosmo Rowe around 1905 and was based on a photograph by George Charles Beresford. This wonderful picture had hung in the Garners Hall for over fifty years.
Cosmo had been a friend of William Morris, Literary Secretary of the Hammersmith Socialist Society designing the sign which hung outside their meetings. He was probably most famous for his illustrations for H.G.Wells The War of the Worlds which appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897.
His oil paining of William Morris found its way into the Mander collection and to Wolverhampton and for over fifty years shared wall space on the other side of town with Keir Hardie in an even more prestigious hall. Before she died Mary left the lithograph to the Working-Class Movement Library.

this article was also printed in the Morning Star 29-10-2022