As part of our Wandle Treasure Hunt Project, we recently visited a couple of treasures to help inspire and inform our participating volunteer-researchers.
Our first visit was to the Wandle Industrial Museum – a small, but uniquely fabulous museum detailing the history and heritage along the River. We were treated to a talk and short film screening by the Museum’s friendly staff, a team of highly dedicated volunteers with extensive knowledge and first-hand experience of the local heritage.
After learning about the various 90+ mills that were located along the River; the Surrey Iron Railway; the manufacturing of peppermint oil, herb and snuff; and the printing workshops of Liberty’s and William Morris’ Company, the group had the opportunity to try some block printing in true Morris style! A fun experience, though far less tiresome than it would have been back in the 1800s!
Our second visit took us to Merton Priory Chapter House – a true treasure buried under the A24 Merantun Way, between the Merton Abbey Mills market and a Sainsbury's/M&S hypermarket.
Entered through a door located in a non-descript underpass, there is a Alice in Wonderland feel to stepping into the cavernous chamber which houses the foundations of the Chapter House of an Augustinian priory, founded in 1117 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538.
We were fortunate enough to be treated to an inspirational and highly informative guided tour by John Hawks, the vice chair of Merton Priory Trust (MPT). John shared stories about the history of the Priory, including its usage as a royal staging post on journeys to and from London; its role as a venue for royal sports between 1346-49; and as the venue for the Coronation of Henry VI in 1437.
During 17th Century, Merton Priory became commonly known as ‘Merton Abbey’, despite not having abbey status; and from the 1660s, the site of the Priory developed into a textile manufacturing centre, which became the main focus of activity across subsequent decades.
By the 18th Century, the main industry at ‘Merton Abbey’ was calico printing and the area (together with Mitcham) became a major centre for textile printing and dyeing in England. Several printing works, most notably Arthur Liberty: Liberty & Co. and William Morris: Morris & Co, were established on and nearby the site, and production continued until 1940.
Over the years, archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence on medieval architecture and interiors, medical practices, diet and food.
Today, at the discretion of the MPT, drama groups can gain special access to the site for performances and workshops; educational opportunities (such as our visit) can be arranged, and children’s activities take place. The site is also open for specific events such as Open House, Archaeology Week and the Wandle Valley Festival.
John also talked about the conservation plans (supported by Heritage Lottery Funding) to open up the south-east side of the Priory, and which are currently waiting planning permission. He mentioned similar developments to increase access (and awareness) to the public through refurbishment, digitalisation and a curatorial programme.
And so, another chapter in the history of Chapter House begins...
*The Wandle Treasure Hunt is a volunteer-led local heritage project where we identify lost treasures along the course of the River Wandle, which spans four London boroughs (Wandsworth, Merton, Sutton and Croydon). The final selection will then be drawn by artist Stephanie Theobald and uploaded to a website with an interactive map.
The project is delivered in collaboration with Living Wandle Landscape Partnership Scheme as part of the Industrial Heritage Recording Project.