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Wandle Industrial Museum

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by Bastion Harrison (subscribe)
Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from
Published March 11th 2014
A River That Made Everything From Leather to Lavender,
wandle industrial museum
Wandle Industrial Museum, London Road, Mitcham

Did you know that Mitcham was once the opium capital of the world, it is the producer of squirting cucumbers, and the borough's mint was the first ever GM crop? I didn't. Not until I went to the Wandle Industrial Museum. Founded in 1983, its continuing aim is to 'preserve, store, and interpret the heritage and history of the industries and people of the River Wandle.' Run entirely by volunteers, the museum has had many homes, but since 1991 it has occupied the annex of Vestry Hall on London Road. The giant vestry somewhat overshadows this little buildings, and can easily be missed. I for one had not noticed it before. Perhaps that is why they are hoping to move to the move prominent Ravensbury Mill in the near future.

wandle industrial museum, donations
Donation Wheel

The Wandle Industrial Museum is open on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons and they only charge 50p entry (20p children). That, donations, plus a gift shop of stationary, postcards, and heritage booklets, helps keeps them running.

wandle industrial museum, logwood
Sample of Logwood

The River Wandle runs through the London Borough of Merton and is one of the few London tributaries that still flows above ground. Today it is a source of recreation, but it used to be the lifeblood of manufacturing industries. The Wandle may only be nine miles long, but that nine miles created trade links all over the globe. The valuable cargo imported to Britain became the target of pirates, but the British Navy eventually captured them and sent the criminals to harvest logwood in Belize. Logwood was an excellent source of red and black dye, and a fifty-ton shipment was worth an entire year's supply of any other cargo. Unfortunately the trees grew in crocodile infested swamps, so the mortality rate was high. Hey, there are always more pirates to go around.

wandle industrial museum
Bulletin Boards provide interesting factoids.

Another source of red dye was from Brasil trees, which grow in Brazil, and from which the country got its name. Brasil wood was worth more its weight in gold and diamonds, and so heavily forested that it is now an endangered species.

wandle industrial museum, printing block
Liberty Scarf Printing Block

The dye was used to colour textiles such as calico. Calico is coarse thick cotton made in Kozhikeode, India. Europeans called Kozhikeode 'Calcut', from which they got the name 'calico'. As well as imports, Merton also exported goods, such as Merton Mint. They sent it to France, where it was used to make creme de menthe (a mint cream liqueur). Silk from China was also brought in, and these two materials were dyed and printed by the most famous mills of the Wandle, run by William Morris and Arthur Liberty.

wandle industrial museum, water mill, merton abbey mill, william morris

There are only a few mills that remain standing today. Some of these include Ravensbury Mill and Merton Abbey Mills. This was the location of William Morris's textile factory. He moved his industry there in 1881, not only because of the practical benefits of the water mill, but also because of his historic interest in the site.

wandle industrial museum, water mill, merton priory
Model of Merton Priory

In 1114 King Henry I granted Merton to Gilbert the Norman, who built a priory by the River Wandle. It had many notable visitors, including Queen Matilda, Thomas Beckett (who was educated there), Henry III, Edward III, and Henry VI. This was of course until the dissolution of the monasteries, when Henry VIII had it demolished.

wandle industrial museum,
A 3D map of where all the mills were located.

The museum gave a long visual list of all the mills along the Wandle. The logwood mill on Willow Lane opened in 1685, then converted into a leather mill in 1875. Between 1361 - 1938, Hackbridge Mill ran as many different things: brazil mill, gunpowder mill, copper mill, and leather mill.

wandle industrial museum, jelly moulds
Victorian Jelly Moulds

The smallest of the lot was owned by Arney & Co., and only had a six horse power engine. The gelatine mill ran between 1860-1867 in South Mitcham because it was next to a leather mill, from which they could use the left over beef bones and pig skins.

wandle industrial museum, liberty

All these industries of course caused terrible pollution. Dyes and other waste products were constantly thrown into the river. Sometimes the dye used by Liberty splashed up onto the bank. Sparrows would have a bath in it, making them look very psychedelic. Fortunately Liberty used natural dyes, so it was non-toxic. The same can't be said for a lot of the other companies, which ended up poisoning the fish population.

wandle industrial museum, snuff bottles

In 1880 The River Wandle Open Spaces Society brought in a legislation that prevented industries from dumping their waste in the river. But the main reason the health of the river improved was mainly due to the fact that by the twentieth century, most of the polluting factories were gone.

wandle industrial museum, beer, young's, ram's brewery

As well as Liberty of London and Morris & Co., other famous industry along the Wandle were Young's Ram Brewery and Connolly Leather. Brothers Samuel and John Connolly came from Ireland, and set up a tannery so highly regarded that they were commissioned to upholster the read and green seats in the House of Lords and House of Commons. During the 1950s-1960s more than 80% of their leather was used for cars such as Roll Royce, Jaguar, Bentley, Aston Martin, and Jensen.

wandle industrial museum, wheel
Train wheel found at the bottom of the Wandle.

There is lots more to learn about at the museum, such as the Surrey Iron Railway, William de Morgan's pottery, and lavender production. If you have any questions, the volunteers are very chatty, and wiling to assist.
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Why? Learn about the Wandle's heritage
When: Wed: 1pm-4pm, Sun: 2pm-5pm
Phone: 020 8648 0127
Where: London Road, Mitcham
Cost: 50p adult, 20p children
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