Merton History

The River & Cloth programme was completed and this website last updated in October 2010.  This website is no longer being maintained but a copy is kept for research and reference purposes.

The textile industries along the river Wandle


'Wandle' designed by William MorrisIntroduction

The Wandle valley has a long tradition of textile manufacturing throughout the ages and the River Wandle was ideally suited for textile production – a fast flowing chalk-stream ideally suited to washing, dyeing and printing. The fields the river were used for the laying out of the cloth for bleaching in the sun.

The earliest textile industry along the river was the 'fulling' of wool in 1303. In a fulling mill, woollen cloth was beaten with wooden hammers to cleanse the wool, remove any dirt and make the cloth thicker.  By 1792 over a 1000 people worked in Merton's textile industry.

In 1805, the river Wandle was described as ‘the hardest worked river for its size in the world’ due to its large number of water mills located along its banks. It is 12 miles long and flows from the foot of the North Downs in Croydon and Carshalton, to the Thames in Wandsworth. Water mills were generally used for grinding corn and wheat to make bread, grinding tobacco and for grinding gun powder. The mills also served the textile industry, powering the fulling mills, rinsing spools and dyeworks.

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Artist's image of Bleaching Fields

Bleaching Grounds

Originally, linen was sent from England to Holland to be bleached and whitened in the spring time, arriving back in the autumn. Bleaching in Merton began in the late 16th century, when Dutch bleachers (also known as 'whitsters') began settling along the banks of the Wandle and opening their own bleaching grounds.  'Bunces Meadow' was a bleaching field and was located between what is now Deen City Farm and the tram line at the edge of Morden Hall Park.

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Watermill Wheel, Merton Abbey Mills

Dye works along the River Wandle

In the 16th and 17th centuries there were brazil wood and scarlet mills in Wandsworth, Wimbledon and Merton, and each of these produced red dye. The water mills - like the one at Merton Abbey Mills, were used for rasping the wood and plant material between grinding stones to produce a coarse powder.  Dyestuffs would have been imported into London and transported along the River Thames to Wandsworth by barge.  To read more about  different dyeing techniques, please go to the Textile History pages.

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Print works in Merton

A Huguenot called Peter Mauvillain, established the first calico printing works on the River Wandle in 1690, in Ravensbury, Mitcham and Wandsworth and by 1714  his was one of the largest calico firms of the period, employing over three hundred local people. By the the mid 18th century additional calico works were established along the Wandle including one at Merton Abbey and one in Merton Priory, in Merton High Street. To read more Peter Mauvillain and the different techniques in printing, please see our workshop pack for printing in the Resource section.

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Merton Abbey Works

In 1831 Edmund Littler took over the Merton Abbey works for the production of silks and fine fabrics. The Littler family came from an established calico printing firm at West Ham and Waltham Abbey on the river Lea. By the second half of the 19th century the market for exotic goods, silks and printed cottons had expanded and the place to purchase them in London was Liberty's. Arthur Liberty began as a shopkeeper before designing his own range of distinctive textiles.  A large number of these were produced at Merton Abbey Works - now the site of Merton Abbey Market. To read more about Arthur Liberty and Liberty prints, please see the Textile History pages and also our workshop pack on Printing in the Resource section.

During the second half of the 19th century the greatest designer of his day was William Morris. In 1881, Morris took over a site north of Merton Abbey Works - which is now the Savacentre, and opened up a factory to accommodate vegetable dying, workshops for cloth printing, textile and carpet weaving and tapestry making. Upon purchasing the site, Morris refused to pull down any of the existing buildings and apart from some minor alterations they remained unchanged until the works closed in 1940. For further information about William Morris, please go to the Textile History pages and also our workshop pack on Stitching in the Resource section.

Some of this information has been compiled by David Saxby, Musuem of London Archaelogical Studies.

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