The lost wheels of the wandle by Tony de Seife.

(Tony was Wandle Industrial Museum project manager 1984 to 1989. This article was first printed in an early 1984/5 News letter)

Today someone standing on Plough Lane might well hear a roar coming from Wimbledon football ground, but a hundred years ago a similar sound would have been heard; not from enthusiastic supporters of the Dons, but from the sound of busy water wheels churning the Wandle.

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Behind the football ground and currently occupied by Avery's is one of the old mill sites of the River Wandle. There is little evidence today of its hard working past but the Garrett Copper Mill as it was known at the time can be seen on John Rocque's Map of London of 1741. Today the name 'Copper Mill Lane' is the only indication of its former whereabouts.

It was in 1673 that Aubrey visited the Wandle valley and in his Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey he speaks of the Merton copper mills. David Lysons following in his predecessors footsteps over a hundred years later tells us that the mill was in the hands of Benjamin Paterson. In the 19th century the mill and surrounding land was owned by Edward Pontifex, whose firm Pontifex Brothers continued production until almost the end of the century, drawing an end to copper working on the Wandle.

However the story does not stop there. The wheel, the largest on the river, was 20ft in diameter. Its 42 paddles were 15ft long and 22ins deep, being activated by water passing underneath, or in millwrights terms 'undershot'. This mighty engine continued to give good service to Chuter's Chamois Leather Works which succeeded Pontifex Bros. at Garrett Mills, and is reputed to have been the last wheel in use on the Wandle.

A Glimpse of the Past

"... but (William) Morris rarely stayed there, usually travelling each day from Hammersmith to Farringdon Street by the Underground, across the City, and down to Merton Abbey Station from Ludgate Hill by train, a journey of two hours"

(No change there, then. Ed).

The Garrett Mill however was not the only copper works in Merton. In 1845 copper working was described as the principal trade of the area along with silk printing. On the ground now covered entirely by the New Merton Board Mills, stood several mills including that of Shears & Co., a copper hammer and rolling mill. Its tarred board buildings, red tiled roof, furnaces and chimneys would have been a familiar site to coach travelers arriving at the Kings Head on the opposite bank of the Wandle.

To the local residents more familiar still would have been the sound of the large single beam hammer worked by the water wheel as it pounded the sheet copper into the required form. Chamberlain in his 'Reminiscences of Old Merton' records that the sound of the workings 'could be heard for a considerable distance, most especially in the stillness of the night'. The busy Wandle water wheels worked nights as well as days.

He also mentions that the employees 'used to wear a peculiar shaped paper hat fashioned by the men themselves' - a local curiosity whose secret was lost with the demise of the company in 1874. It is recorded that there has been a mill on this site since 1114. The history of manufacturing in this part of the borough continues apace, the board mills being as much of a landmark today as the copper mills in their own time.

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