Merton Abbey Mills update May 2002

The following is extracted from the Museum of London newsletter Archaeology Matters, No 17, March 2002. We should all be indebted to Dave Saxby and his colleagues for the many freezing hours he spent out on site during the Open Days, explaining the site, and the progress made during the excavations.

In 1805 one observer concluded that the Wandle was 'the hardest worked river for its size in the world'. Today in Merton that intensive industrial landscape has all but disappeared and can barely be imagined. Gradually, however, a research programme involving both local historians and professional archaeologists is revealing the valley where there were once 90 water mills and where in 1881 William Morris set up his workshops

A particularly important discovery, made during a recent 12-week evaluation, are the foundations of the medieval mill and its mill pond. Merton Priory mills had previously been assumed to lie higher up the Wandle, near the site of the former Copper Mills on the south side of Merton High Street. Now it is clear that at least one mill was located close to the historic course of the river, near the south precinct wall of the priory.

The most impressive remains

The most impressive remains [Full image 20.5kb]

During the Tudor period the medieval chalk walls were rebuilt in brick and the pond was partly back-filled to make room for a new head race. The race was lined with large re-used medieval Reigate stone blocks, forming a channel 2.lm wide. Two wooden 'starts' small blocks that fix the blades of a water wheel to the rim - were found. In the 17th century the site began its transformation into a major textile manufacturing centre, mainly for calico, a fine cotton cloth imported from India.

The most impressive remains found recently belonged to a calico mill opened in 1802 by one John Leach. By 1820 his son-in-law, Thomas Bennett, was manufacturing colourful handkerchiefs there The brick wheel pit and gear pits were discovered in good condition (see picture), together with a small millstone that may have been used for grinding dye stuffs.

The millstone can be viewed at weekends in the wheelhouse of the Merton Abbey Mills craft market.

Dave Saxby, Museum of London Archaeology Service

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