The Wandle Navigation - Did it ever exist?

Eric Montague examines the evidence

Writing of the industries and natural resources of Surrey in the late 17th century, Thomas Cox, after mentioning the transport of coals to towns and villages on the river Wey, observed:

"And not only on this River is the Traffick maintained, but there is a Way found to carry up Coal upon the Wandle to Croydon where there is a great Trade for them ".
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The implication is that, like the Wey, the Wandle had been made navigable from Wandsworth Creek as far as Croydon, presumably in the latter half of the 17th century, and that it was still functioning commercially as a 'navigation' or canal at the time Cox was writing.

No other published source I have seen refers to such a use of the Wandle, and in the absence of supportive evidence I have tended to dismiss Cox's comment as suspect.

I have nevertheless always been puzzled as to why, when and by whom the very straight (and obviously artificial) 'cut' was made between Morden Hall and Phipps Bridge. It predates the earliest map we have of the Garth estate, made for Richard Garth of Morden in 1750, and there is no record of it serving a mill downstream at Phipps Bridge. Improvement of land drainage north-east of Morden Hall is one possibility, and another is an attempt to speed the flow away from a mill leased from the Garths by a Nicholas Davison, the site of which may have been immediately downstream from the Hall, where there is a small island. The mill was operating c.1620, but seems not to have survived beyond the mid-17th century. Neither theory, however, offers a convincing explanation for the expenditure of what must have been a large sum of money and an immense amount of labour.

Other, separate, 'improved' sections of the Wandle in its course through the borough of Merton are associated with mills, but may not have been dug specifically for them. For example, the Papermill Cut in the Watermeads takes its name from Richard Glover's paper mill, which functioned c.1780-1830, but there is no record of when and by whom it was excavated, and it could have been intended originally to serve the copper mills which were here from c.1700, and were working until the mid-18th Century. It is even possible that the cut pre-dates the copper mills, and was dug for some other purpose.

The present mill-head above Ravensbury Mill, is another obviously ‘improved' length of the Wandle. It was presumably there in 1680, when an entry in a rent roll of the Manor of Ravensbury' mentions "Mr Westbrooke's new mill". Again, the construction of a mill-head of this size seems excessive for a relatively humble mill. Was the channel dug several decades before the mill was built, and if so, why?

Other clearly man-made stretches of the Wandle can be seen above and below the Morden Hall snuff-mills; below Phipps Bridge as far as Merton Abbey Mills: and between Merton Bridge and the 'Merton' corn-mills (later Connolly Leather Ltd). Each is associated with a mill or mills working in the mid-18th century, but may have been designed for other, earlier, mills. Nothing survives in local records, however, to identify the original instigators of these enterprises, or their motivations.

A Glimpse of the Past

Extract from website of Southampton Canal Society.
"It was during the Seventeenth Century that demands for restoration began to be made to revive the cloth trade of Winchester. In 1617, the City of Winchester paid the expenses of a Mr More of Farnham for survey of the river between Southampton and Winchester but the idea of a navigation met with bitter opposition from Southampton. In 1660 a petition from the Mayor and Citizens of Winchester pleaded for restoration to provide work for the poor and bring increased trade to Winchester. This eventually led to the first Act of Parliament pertaining to the Navigation in 1665. The 1665 Act invested powers in a group of seven 'undertakers' to make the Itchin or Itching 'Navigable and Passable for Boats, Barges, Lighters and other Vessels'. It also granted the power to make other rivers navigable: the Test and Hamble in Hampshire, the Mole, Ravensbourne and Wandle in Surrey and the Great Ouse in the Bedfordshire area. However, the powers given by this Act for these other rivers seem not to have been exercised."

There, it seemed, the matter had to rest - to remain a mystery. Until, that is, my attention was drawn early last year (2001) to a 'River Wandle Navigation Act 16 & 17 Charles II c.12', which, I was told, provided "for certain rivers to be made navigable.'. 7 This enabling measure applied to several watercourses in Surrey, including the Wandle and the Mole, and stipulated that unless acted upon within 11 years the power conferred by the Act would lapse, ie in 1676/7.

Neither Surrey History Centre nor the archivist at Sutton Archive and Local Studies knew of this legislation, but on enquiry of the House of Lords Record Office I found that the measure did exist, that it was a Private Act, and that its full title was ‘An Act for Making Diverse Rivers Navigable or Otherwise Passable by Barge or Other Vessels'. Since this was a Private Act only one copy exists, but the membrane has been copied on microfiche. and prints can be obtained for a modest charge.

Did knowledge of this legislation lie behind Cox's comments, and, in the absence of any physical or documentary evidence of a Wandle navigation having been completed, should his observation perhaps be rephrased as:

".. and there has been identified a means whereby coal might be carried on the Wandle to Croydon ..."?

In other words. Cox was aware of the scheme, but did not consider it necessary to add that it had not been implemented (See Box). One of course wonders who the promoter(s) of the Act were, and further research in the journals of the House of Commons and in contemporary Parliamentary records could be productive.

Interesting light is shed on the historical background to the pioneering efforts to create what is now known as the Wey Navigation by two articles in Surrey Archaeological Collections.

Michael Nash has noted that stretches of the old river course were navigable and used by vessels in the early 17th century, but that mills and natural shallows presented serious obstacles. Furthermore, in the 17th century government authority was hard to obtain: The attraction of linking various 'cutts' to create a continous waterway from the Thames to Guildford, and hence revive the town's flagging industries, spurred Sir Richard Weston of Sutton Park both before and after the Civil War to proceed with such a scheme, but opposition was fierce, and it was not until 1651 that an Act was secured for making the Wey navigable. Work started immediately, and the project was substantially completed in 1653.

Hector Carter has shown how disputes and demands for compensation etc beset the project within a few years, so that Parliament eventually appointed trustees to settle matters.

"The abbey walls contain 65 acres. A fine clear stream runs through here, wherein are excellents trouts; it passes by the kitchen and drives a mill; this stream is the River Wandle which riseth at Croydon." John Aubrey, Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey 1673.

Is it possible that Weston's enterprise and vision inspired landowners in the Wandle Valley to follow suit and start opening up sections of the river to water-borne transport? Before the Civil War the Carews of Beddington might well have been attracted by such a project, for their large riverside estate extended downstream as far as Merton. Unfortunately the Carews were Royalists, and by the time hostilities ended they were impoverished.

Moreover, the many local interests, including mills and other industries along the Wandle, may well have presented daunting obstacles in the years that followed, and made agreement virtually impossible. If this is so, it seems likely that the difficulties faced by the otherwise successful Wey Navigation were enough to dampen whatever initial interest there might have been in the Wandle Navigation, and the powers conferred by the Act were allowed to lapse.

Editors Note:

This Article appeared in the Merton Historical Society Bulletin No 141, March 2002. It has relevance to us at this moment, with the excavations ongoing at Merton Abbey Mills/Merton priory. Thanks to Monty and MHS for permission to reprint.

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