Thomas Welch's Table-cloth Printing Works At Merton, Surrey

Eric N. Montague January 2002:

A recent contribution to the Wandle Industrial Museum's library is a copy of an anonymous article in The Illustrated Exhibitor and Magazine of Art Vol. II No.30 dated July 1852 describing in great detail the processes employed at Welch's works, which stood partly on the site of Trellis House in Merton High Street, and partly on the eastern side of the Wandle, now occupied by the Savacentre. (The premises were, in fact, those taken over by William Morris in 1881). Several of the picturesque weather-boarded buildings familiar from photographs taken early last century probably dated from Welch's time, if not before, and can be seen very clearly in the 25 inch maps of the area produced by the Ordnance Survey maps in 1874 and 1894-6.

The history of Welch's works can be traced back to Halfhide and Son in the late 18th century and their successor, William West, whose "calico and printing grounds" were mentioned by James Malcolm in his Compendium of Modern Husbandry published in 1805. The date West left Merton has not been ascertained but he appears to have ceased production in the early 1820s. The trade had by this time shifted more towards meeting the demand for finer materials and luxury goods, and accordingly the activities at the Merton workshops were directed increasingly to the printing of silks and challis. West was succeeded by a Mr Allchin. and a map of c.1825 shows, to the east of the river, at the head of a large mill pond, "Mr. Allchin's Silk Mill".1

In 1853 Brathwaite visited "Mr. Welch's print works" located on what he described as the south side of Merton bridge2, and there seems to be little doubt that they were in premises formerly occupied by Allchin. Welch would have been "Thomas Welch the younger", whose name is mentioned in an indenture dated 1846, now at the Surrey History Centre.3

A wheel of eight horse power was employed, and the mill head was described as a "large basin" fed by an overflow from the Wandle. There was also a rinsing wheel worked by the main river. and here ten men were constantly employed.

At this time Welch was considered to be one of the foremost printers of table-cloths in the country, and had been awarded a prize medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Four classes of table-cloth then being produced at his works at Merton are listed in The Illustrated Exhibitor as:
    I   Table--cloths printed in squares or oblongs.
    II   Table-cloths printed in pieces about 40 yards long, and cut up to the size required.
    III   Table-cloths of velvet pile, in squares or oblongs; and
    IV   Table-cloths of which the material is embossed."

The fabrics used were not produced locally, material for the first category of table-cloth coming from Yorkshire. The long lengths of fabric were supplied ready-dyed to order, commonly green and crimson, whilst velvet 'pile material, composed of silk and wool, was produced in Glasgow, The article follows the actual processes employed in great detail, that of embossing being of particular interest since it seems not to have been described at Merton before.

Colour mixed with flour was applied to the already dyed material in sections using deeply-cut brass plates. The cloth was then placed in steam-heated presses where it remained for 15 minutes achieving a "metamorphosis" which, the reader is told, "greatly increased its beauty and value".4

Welch's was one of the many textile works in the Merton area the history of which has been sonewhat eclipsed by firms like Littler, Liberty and Morris & Go" and the article from The Illustrated Exhibitor is a valuable addition to the Museum's archive.

Notes and reference:

See also R Watkinson "Merton before Morris" in the William Morris Society Journal Vol. IX No.4 (1992) 25-28

(I am greatly indebted to Judith Goodman of Merton Historical Society for supplying the information in notes 3 and 4)
1    Wimbledon Museum. Map of the River Wandle. A copy of the map can be seen at Merton Local Studies Centre.
2    F. Braithwaite, "On the Rise and Fall of the River Wandle" in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers Vol. 20 (1861)
3    Surrey History Centre 3057/1/7.
4    Thirty years later tastes were changing, and Welch's tablecloths were evidently viewed with disapproval. at least by leading members of the Arts and Crafts Movement. William Morris, writing to his wife Janey on 19 March 1881 after viewing Welch's Merton Abbey Works. left no doubt as to his opinion of what they were producing, referring to ". . . those hideous red and green tablecloths and so forth ... " N Kelvine (ed.) The Collected Letters of William Morris Vol. II 1881-1884 37.

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