Judith Goodman on William de Morgan at Colliers Wood Merton Historical Society

From bulletin 132 - december 1999 - page 12

As mentioned in the Workshop Report in September's [Merton Historical Society] Bulletin (No.131, page 15) I recently discovered, quite by accident, that the ceramic artist William De Morgan, friend and colleague of William Morris, had his 'Merton Abbey' workshop, not in Merton, but on the other side of the Wandle, at Colliers Wood.

William Frend De Morgan (1839-1917) had as father a musical mathematician and as mother a philosophical classicist. Both were free-thinkers.

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Rice plate. with green fish on royal blue ground surrounding a central motif in turquoise. Made at Merton Abbey in the 1880s. [Full size image 38kb]
Their seven children grew up in a high-minded, but happy atmosphere, though four were to die relatively young of TB, and the fear of this disease clouded much of William's life.

De Morgan came to ceramics by way of stained glass and experiments with lustre. He had met William Morris ( 1834-96) in the early 1860s and worked with him briefly at Queen Square before setting up his own workshop in Chelsea.

The two men shared a dream of setting up their ideal factory where men and women would exercise their skills in traditional crafts among beautiful surroundings; and they undertook many fruitless journeys in search of a site for this 'fictionary', as they called it. Finally, in 1881, they came upon a printworks at Merton Abbey, within the old priory precincts, with picturesque buildings, a millpond, trees and meadows. Morris took a lease on this site, and by the end of the year was beginning to manufacture his goods - but it has never been clear where De Morgan established himself and built his kiln.

J. W. Mackail, Morris's first biographer, stated only that the plan of "joint, or even contiguous, factories never fully took effect". Mackai1, who was Burne-Jones' son-in-law and also knew Morris quite well, almost certainly would have known exactly where De Morgan's workshop was, but unfortunately did not think it relevant to his narrative. Later writers have contented themselves with locating De Morgan, vaguely, next door to Morris", or very close by. For some reason however the Museum of London booklet on Morris placed De Morgan's workshop in the middle of the Morris site. Apart from the fact that no building is shown there on the OS I :2500 map of the mid-1890s, a very well-known article from 1883 in The Spectator makes it clear that the sites were indeed quite separate: "Turning out of the garden [ of the Morris site ]" it says,"a few minutes along the high road bring us to the building where Mr.De Morgan's pottery is already manufactured, though the whole building is not yet finished..."
Amery Mill, Colliers Wood

Extract from "Victoria County History" Vol. 2 (pub 1905)

"A copper mill is marked on the map issued with Aubrey's "Natural History & Antiquities of Surrey" (pub 1719), at Merton Abbey on the Wandle. This is probably the Copper Mill at the north east corner of' the abbey premises which is said in 1792 to have been long established there. At the latter date it was occupied by Mr THOYTTS, but in 1811 had passed into the hands of Messrs MORGAN. Other copper mills on the Wandle were in Wimbledon, but at a considerable distance from the village. They were owned in 1792 by Messrs HENCKELI, and in 1811 by Mr Benjamin PATERSON."

De Morgan took a little time to get started at his new site, wherever it was, but early in 1882 he was beginning to produce 'Merton Abbey' wares.

De Morgan stayed at 'Merton Abbey' for only six or seven years. He found the travelling from Chelsea, where he lived, tiring, and he was troubled with a painful back which he was fearful was tuberculosis of the spine (it wasn't). In 1888 he set up his Sands End factory in Fulham, and early the following year finally moved all his manufacture there.

Until now I had been more or less convinced that De Morgan had taken over the old copper mill immediately to the east of the Morris works. Copper milling had ceased in the 1860s. The site had briefly become a flock mill, but seems to have been standing empty by the early 1880s. Admittedly it was scarcely "a few minutes" walk from the Morris site - it was next door and barely a minute away - but I could not see where else De Morgan could have been. And that was because it had never occurred to me to seek him over the border.

It was when looking for dates and addresses for mineral water bottlers in Mitcham (see September Bulletin), and going alphabetically through the commercial pages in the Mitcham section (where I had never before ventured!) of the Kelly's directory of 1884 that I was astounded to see an entry which read: De Morgan. Wm, Stone pottery, Singlegate, Merton Road Here De Morgan built a workshop and a kiln:- the "magnificent basement" that "became a skyscraper", as he said. His foreman described the kiln as "in and on the ground, right in the centre of the building - the chimney shaft quite a splendid idea, but unfortunately it was built over the centre of the kiln, and the weight of the shaft was enormous ... [I]f it fell it would take the whole of the building with it".

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William De Morgan, chalk portrait by Evelyn De Morgan, 1907 (De Morgan Foundation)[Full size image 40.7kb]
After De Morgan's departure the Stone Cottage site stood empty for a while, before being taken over, by 1899, as the Abbey Cork Mills, proprietor Walter Mays. And as a cork works it continued for decades. By the late 1950s Stone Cottage had gone, replaced by part of a motor company's premises. Today its site lies beneath the forecourt of Colliers Wood Service Station. The cork works site at the rear was redeveloped in the mid-1960s. Here stands Newborough House, named to mark the creation in 1965 of the new London Borough of Merton. It would be good to see it bearing a plaque celebrating De Morgan 's association with the site.

At the end of the 20th century, when De Morgan is seen as one of the great figures of the Arts and Crafts Movement, it seems astonishing that the memory of his presence at Colliers Wood had vanished so completely. In James Bass 's reminiscences of an Edwardian childhood at Millers Mead he mentions the "cork factory (where tiles were previously made)", and he might have been talking of a sanitary ware works. However it seems to have been true that in his own day De Morgan achieved more fame in his second career. Because of poor health he gave up making pottery and became a successful novelist, producing nine books between 1906 and 1921. They were mainly in a sub Dickensian vein and have not remained popular, though the first (and best), Joseph Vance, was reprinted in the World's Classics as late as 1954.

De Morgan was clearly a delightful companion and an entertaining friend. He married, in his late 40s, artist Evelyn Pickering. In a letter to Edward Burne Jones he announced his engagement as follows: "Dear Ned, I meant to come in yesterday evg: but I was engaged to be married and couldn't! I wanted to convey the news to you of two engagements that have just come to pass. One is my own - I am engaged to a lady. The other is Evelyn Pickering's- she is engaged to a cove, or bloke..." It seems to have been a strong and happy marriage, though Evelyn, who survived her husband by only two years, was 17 years his junior. There were no children.

Why did he call his works 'Merton Abbey'? He must have known he was in Colliers Wood, Mitcham. He would have paid rates, after all. However; that part of Mitcham then received its mail through Merton Post Office, and the whole area by the Wandle where the parishes of Merton, Mitcham and Wimbledon met, was generally spoken of as Merton. Moreover the name would have reaffirmed the friendly collaboration with Morris, whose workshops were indeed at Merton Abbey. Would William De Morgan's Mitcham Works, or Colliers Wood Works have sounded so euphonious as the Merton Abbey Works? Possibly not.

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