20th anniversary of the wandle industrial museum

Living in the past

Nick has asked me to put on paper what I can recall of the early days of the Museum, so here goes.

I don't specifically recall its founding. I just became gradually aware that a small group of strange people were using a room attached to St Mark's Church, Wimbledon, which I then attended. On inquiry I learned that it was a group I'd never heard of called the ‘Wandle Industrial Museum'. I thought "Why ‘industrial'?", but nevertheless, was interested. Partly this was because I'm interested in history (though, since I prefer military and political studies to social and industrial and the Dark and Middle Ages to the modern period, the match was less than ideal). More importantly, I was living very near the Wandle, in Windsor Avenue, at the time and had come to like the river. So I made it my business to meet the people studying it.

I don't remember the name of the man in charge in the early days (my memory for names has always been awful, and it has grown worse with age). He was tall, dark, big built and middle aged and, although he was always very nice to me, I believe some of his employees found him intimidating. His chief assistant was Roger Hardman, a very able man with an artificial leg. He and I hit it off at once: we were both folkies and partial to real ale.

The Deserted Mill

One of the main problems in those days, the early eighties, was the tendency of pikies to settle for long and destructive periods in the Merton Abbey area. On at least one occasion, they camped in the then-empty Liberty works and proceeded to strip the rooves from the Wheelhouse and Colour House. Magistrates then were prone to allow travellers up to six months grace before moving them on. Neither building (both already listed) would have survived six months.

By then I was, almost by accident, representing Abbey Ward on Merton Council. The local people were as worried about the pikies' presence as the Museum was. I mobilised my ward colleagues and between us we began to pressurise the Officers, culminating in a series of Councillors' questions (which annoyed the opposition, who thought question time was their peculiar province). The Officers reacted very well, and managed to get the pikies removed in short order. As Roger and I watched the last of them leaving, we sang ‘Farewell to the tent and the old caravan...'

I then talked to the Officers about keeping the pikies off. Earth banks had proved unsuccessful, as had standard fences. We agreed to try 12foot lengths of railway line (easily available as the Merton Abbey line was being taken up just then) standing upright about a foot apart with half their length buried in the earth. It worked! I persuaded the officers to leave one two foot gap at each end, however, so people could walk along the riverbank between Windsor Avenue and High Path. It wasn't then an official footpath, but the Council officers agreed (for the first time) to turn a blind eye to it being used as one. So I suppose I can claim some credit for helping to add that section to the Wandle Path.

The plan at Hartfeild Crescent.

The plan at Hartfeild Crescent. [Full image 41.1kb]

(In ‘88/'89 when I was Deputy Mayor the Ramblers organised a walk down the Wandle and Valerie and I were asked to join them for part of the Merton stretch. Naturally we wore jeans and trainers. The Deputy Mayor's badge sat nicely on my Guernsey sweater. The Ramblers were impressed. Other Mayors and deputies had turned up in lounge suits and street shoes and hadn't enjoyed the experience. Where the Wandle meets Windsor Avenue they asked me, without warning, to speak about the Council's ‘Wandle policy'. They were quite surprised to find not only that we had one, including a respectable amount of Wandle Walk already in place, but I knew quite a bit about the river).

The Co-op department store which used to be in Morden was an attractive building with distinctive ceramic tiles featured on its frontage. It was pulled down to make way for Safeways. Shortly afterwards, I paid another visit to the still-deserted Liberty Mill. There, filling the space between the buildings, was all that remained of the Morden Co-op. The tiles were very distinctive.

Wanderers and Sojourners

I was asked to become a Trustee of the Museum, along with Harry Galley and Kevin Leyden (once I visited Kevin at his home, which he had restored almost completely to its original Victorian splendour, an impressive sight). There was another trustee, but he had all but disappeared. From my point of view, it was a slightly unsatisfactory situation because Harry was Head Teacher of a Mitcham primary school and Kevin was his deputy. So whenever we met, I found they had already discussed our business informally and agreed how to deal with it. My position was that of a rubber stamp. I suppose if they had ever disagreed I would have had the deciding vote, but it never happened.

We left St Mark's Church, and found ourselves in a large, open space in a building in Hartfield Crescent (not to be confused with Hartfield Road). It was, we knew, temporary because the site was earmarked for eventual development. The Fridge on the Bridge now occupies the space. But, meanwhile, it was wonderful. With what we had already collected and various loaned items, we were able to mount an interesting exhibition.

By then, the Director was Tony de Sieff, and he was well suited to the task of setting the exhibition up. As we were then part of a Government funded project, we had a number of employees and the mood was very positive. It was at this point that I met Marguerite. I also recruited my wife, Valerie as hon. treasurer. Later she was our first company secretary. When I helped for a time with the administration of the Museum in the late nineties, I noticed her name was still on the bank statements.

One summer holiday in the mid-eighties, I was walking up Hartfield Road when a fire engine passed me and turned into Hartfield Crescent. When I got to the junction, it was standing outside the Museum.

There had been a disastrous fire, caused by a faulty boiler. The exhibition was destroyed, though fortunately almost all the loaned items had survived, and clearly staying in the building was no longer a viable option.

An original timber doorframe, exibeted in context.

An original timber doorframe, exibeted in context. [Full image 33.4kb]

The team went into a sort of communal shock. Harry and Kevin were both away and I spent most of the next few days in the smoke-stained shell that had been our exhibition hall. I don't think I did much except share the general sense of desolation, but I'm told my presence was appreciated and helpful. The melancholy tasks of returning the loaned items and finding homes for whatever else we could salvage were soon completed. The most difficult items to store were the edge runners. Eventually they were put into the playground of Harry's school in Bond Road, and stayed there until years later they were set up in Ravensbury Park.

We moved into a small, rather decrepit building at the back of Wandle Park. It was full of character – mostly bad. Roger immediately hailed it as a former station of the Surrey Iron Railway. I think he was wrong. In any case, it was far too small and the Council (which was throughout very supportive) offered us the former Citizens' Advice Bureau in Hartfield Road (not to be confused with Hartfield Crescent).

It was a good administrative base, but there was no possibility of having an exhibition there. So we compensated by creating a travelling exhibition which toured schools and libraries. And, again, it was only a temporary home, because this building, too was to be disposed of by the Council.

So from there we moved again to the Vestry Hall Annex, where we still are.

The Mill Occupied

Rhe camera can not do justice to the vreadt of the displays.

The camera can not do justice to the vreadt of the displays. [Full image 29.6kb]

We had always hoped, of course, for a permanent home on the Wandle. Various possibilities had been canvassed, but our main hope in the early days was Liberty Mills. At that time, Station Road went right through from High Path to Christchurch Road. The ‘site of the High Altar of Merton Priory' was inaccurately marked by a concrete slab inside a metal fence. Between Station Road and Merton High Street was a (latterly derelict) DRG works, formerly Metal Box Co, formerly William Morris's Mill. The Wandle was culverted where it flowed through it. Between Station Road and the Pickle Ditch was a wilderness of small, tumbledown industrial units which had been built when planning permission was not required, and showed it on every square inch of their rotten structures. One was pumping out such noxious vapours that a friend and I called in the Toxicology Inspectorate (and even discovering that existed was a triumph). The fumes turned out to be toxic and that unit, at least, was closed down.

When the whole area, including the Liberty site, was acquired by a developer, opinion in the Museum was split.

Plus points were: the flats on the corner of Mill Road; the deculverting of the Wandle, along with another stretch of Wandle Walk; the hypermarket; the demolition of the small industrial units (even the empty concrete now in their place is a one thousand per cent improvement); Merantun Way (meaning traffic could be taken out of local residential side roads);; the protection of parts of the site which had not been dug under the concrete bed of Merantun Way.

Minus points were: The hypermarket; the sealing of parts of the site which had not been dug under Merantun Way; Merantun Way; the Liberty buildings (except the listed ones) would be demolished. (I told you opinion was split).

No real consensus emerged from discussion, but eventually, as I recall, we compromised on support for the proposals in general, but with a reservation in favour of the preservation of the Liberty buildings.

Part of te textile display.

Part of te textile display. Figure 3 [Full size image 33.1kb]

I couldn't be at the hearing held by the Planning Inspector, but things went pear shaped and our spokesmen found themselves isolated in opposition to the development proposals. Despite this, when the Inspector's report came out, he had agreed with us. The Liberty Buildings were to be preserved and were in part to be used for a historical exhibition.

So far so good, and the creation of the Abbey Mills Craft Market, which the decision led to, has been an outstanding success. Unfortunately our stance seems to have annoyed the developers and they announced that, rather than offer us a home, they would create their own historical display (it's in the Wheel House). None of this is a criticism of the management of the Craft Market, who have always been helpful to us, but it did mean that a promising door was closed.

Nor was that the only negative effect. We had at that time an organisation called the ‘Friends of the Wandle Industrial Museum' which had its own officers and committee. They, however, had supported the development one hundred per cent. Relations became so strained that in the end we felt we had no alternative but to disband the Friends.

Museum in Peril

The Government project of which we had been a part had (as they all do) eventually come to an end, and we found ourselves a much smaller organisation with only one employee, Tony de Sieff. For funding we were mainly dependent, as we still are, on the local authority. But we were renting, on an open-ended contract, a photocopier which was much larger than we needed at a cost that we could not afford.

But the photocopier company were, to be generous to them, perfectly bloody-minded and we could not negotiate ourselves out of the contract. The fact that none of us were business men was a serious weakness. Things became so bad that bankruptcy was a distinct possibility, and with a seat on a virtually hung Council to protect, I realised I had to resign as trustee and director (we were already a company limited by guarantee).

We needed a hero to save us. At my last trustees' meeting, Kevin said that his brother, Ray, who had business experience, was between jobs and might be willing to help us.

It's no exaggeration to say that Ray saved the Museum, but I'll leave it to him to explain how. In fact, he quickly became the driving force behind the organisation, and is the best person to bring the story forward.

But, finally

For a while I had little to do with the running of the Museum. Tony left. Andy Vail became Administrator. He asked me to form a small working party to reform the Friends. In fact we quickly decided to have members of the Museum rather than an arms-length organisation so that they would be an integral part of the Museum with rights to speak at the AGM. This, we felt, would minimise the chance of future rifts. We set up the member's sub-committee to provide a newsletter and members' events.

I promised to chair it for a short time, but knew I was too busy to continue longer. So I looked for someone to take over from me. I found Andrew Wakefield.

Stephen Ashcroft January ‘03

Editors Note:

The photos all show parts of the lost Hartfeild Crescent displays. Just look at what we are missing.

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