The River Wandle is not only steeped in history, it is now central to an on-going regeneration plan to develop a regional park, stretching into Merton. This edition of My Merton takes a look at the fascinating story of the Wandle and how it links the borough’s past and future.
Flowing through key industrial regions, residential areas and commercial centres, the River Wandle now provides vital habitat for a wide range of fish and other wildlife. However, it was once the focal-point of settlement and industrialisation in the local area.
Rising in the Surrey Hills and meandering through south-west London to the Thames at Wandsworth, the river once supported the highest density of water mills of any English river, providing a treasure trove of resources for local industry. In Victorian times, the Wandle was one of the hardest-working rivers in the world, with 90 mills along its 11-mile length. Pure and clear, the water was ideally suited for the bleaching and printing of high quality fabrics, designed and retailed by famous names like William Morris and Arthur Liberty. When the Founder of the Arts and Craft movement, William Morris, established an Arts and Craft works off Merton High Street in 1898, he said it was “because the water is abundant and good.”
Watermills along the river banks milled flour from locally grown wheat. Villages along the river prospered due to their proximity to London and the opportunities this offered to supply and trade with the markets in other areas of the capital. Using water-power, the mills continued to drive industrial growth through the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Wandle Valley became a centre for paper-making, metal-working, leather, textiles, gunpowder and snuff milling. The growth of the railways led to a boom in housing development and a rapid transformation in the character of the river valley from
rural to urban. During this period, Merton Board Mills and the Liberty print works dominated the riverscape in what is now the London Borough of Merton.
In recent years a number of regeneration projects have been set up to maintain the area’s character and improve the quality of the river water. Plans to create a Wandle Valley Regional Park have been developed through a partnership
involving several organisations including Merton, Sutton, Croydon and Wandsworth Councils, environmental charity Groundwork London, the Greater London Authority, local businesses, and voluntary organisations.
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