Sat 14th July 2012
10.45am - 1pm

Merton Abbey
Watermill Way, Colliers Wood, London SW19 2RD

On a very damp Saturday morning our group was met by David Saxby, an archaeologist who has been studying Merton Abbey for several years. He has written a book, William Morris at Merton (1995), published jointly by the Museum of London Archeology Service and the London Borough of Merton, and several articles on his discoveries. He has an enormous amount of knowledge of the area and was very willing to give us loads of information on our guided tour.

Merton Abbey Mills is on the River Wandle in Merton, Surrey. Having had many changes and owners, its present use is as a Visitor and Craft Centre, with a colourful weekend market and a focus for local cultural and community activities.

David explained to us that Merton Priory, an Augustinian monastery, stood on the site from 1117 to 1538, next door to the present Merton Abbey Mills where William Morris had his works. The Priory was as long as Westminster Abbey and the foundations of the Priory Chapter House are preserved under the road, Merantun Way, which was agreed with Sainsburys before they built their store on part of the site. It was an important building as some monarchs chose to be crowned there instead of Westminster Abbey.

From the 17th century the area became known as Merton Abbey. From the 1660s the site developed into a textile manufacturing centre and by 1667 Johannis Walker was producing silk and the Jacob family were using part of the site as a bleaching ground. Calico was the main 18th-century industry and the area became a major centre for textile printing and dyeing in England; the River Wandle passed through the site providing good clear water for bleaching and dyeing and a water wheel was built to drive machinery.

Much of Morris and Co’s design work and manufacturing after 1881 was done at Merton Abbey, a perfect location for weaving looms and for creating natural dyes for textiles. Morris didn’t make any changes to the buildings apart from some minor alterations and they remained unchanged until the works closed in 1940. The buildings included a house, coach house and workshops along Merton High Street with various outbuildings; a mill house, mill pond, meadow, orchard and vegetable garden were also part of the grounds in the picturesque seven-acre site.

On the tour David showed us where various buildings had stood. The two-storey shed to the rear of the High Street buildings contained the dyeing vats which had been dug into the ground, with the glass studio on the first floor. Outside this building was a single-storey weaving shed. A large shed on the south bank of the River Wandle housed the carpet and tapestry looms and the first floor was used for fabric printing. As the journey from his home in Hammersmith took two hours, Morris often spent three or four days at the works in furnished rooms.

Seeing the original buildings, the waterwheel in action and the fast flowing River Wandle helped us to visualise the area when Morris and Co. worked there.

In his book David Saxby shares this explanation from A brief sketch of the Morris movement (1911):

“The cotton cloth is first dyed to a uniform dark shade of blue in one of the large indigo vats, and is printed with a bleaching agent which either reduces or removes the blue colour as required by the design. Mordants are then printed on the white parts, where red has to come, and the whole cloth is dyed a second time with madder. The process is repeated a third time for yellow, the three colours being superimposed on each other to give green, purple, or orange. All loose colouring matter is then cleared away, and the colours are set by passing the fabric through soap at almost boiling heat. The final treatment is to spread the cloth on the grass with its printed face to the light, so that the whites may be purified and all fugitive colour removed in nature’s own way. The process is called ‘crofting’, and the meadows round the works in fine weather are bright and gay with long strips of many-coloured material stretched upon the buttercups and daisies.”
Some buildings still stand. Liberty and Co occupied the site until 1972 and used a building named the Colour House in which to mix their dyes, and another for printing. It is now an ideal venue for intimate music, chamber opera and children’s theatre. The Wheelhouse, immediately opposite the Colour House, has south London’s only fully operational working watermill, which once not only produced power for Morris’s works but also turned the spools Liberty used for rinsing gum off their silks after printing. It is also a working pottery, producing items for sale, and is thought to be Britain’s only directly water-driven potter’s wheel.

Although the weather was not pleasant, we were not deterred from discovering more about William Morris and his company and we were very grateful to David Saxby for being so willing in giving his time and knowledge to us.

Penelope Clayden Swain