A History of Merton
This brief history of the borough introduces some of the main events that have shaped the Merton of today.
Mitcham, Morden, Merton and Wimbledon merged to form the London Borough of Merton in 1965, but the area was settled much earlier. Archaeology has shown that Merton was active even in prehistoric times. Celtic warriors were roaming Wimbledon Village long before the shoppers and drinkers of today. You can find the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort to the southwest of Wimbledon Common windmill, and there is evidence of another Celtic fort in the Pollards Hill area of Mitcham. Now known as Caesar’s camp, the fortified village on Wimbledon Common was actually inhabited about five hundred years before Julius Caesar was born.
The local Celtic tribes were quickly subdued when the Romans invaded Britain in AD 43. Shortly after they arrived the Romans set about building an important road through the borough called Stane Street. This was a fast overland link between London and the Roman port of Chichester, and quickly became a busy trade route. Imposed on today’s map, the street crossed the border with Tooting, bridged the Wandle at Colliers Wood, passed under Merton Civic Centre, crossed Morden Park and continued on to Sutton. Coins, pottery and tiles have been found at the river crossing by Colliers Wood, and a Roman well and graves have been unearthed near Mitcham Gas works in Western Road.
Germanic Anglo-Saxons were quick to replace the Roman settlers when the empire collapsed in AD 410. The invaders penetrated Surrey up river valleys such as the Wandle, and there is evidence of some violent meetings with the native Britons. However, Merton’s proximity to London meant it continued to prosper despite the loss of Stane Street’s imperial link with the continent. The names Mitcham, Merton and Morden are all Anglo-Saxon in origin. The name Merton dates from the 10th Century, and means ‘farmstead by the pool’. The area changed hands again in 1066 when knights under the Duke of Normandy crossed the English Channel and defeated King Harold II at Hastings. The Doomsday Book, published in 1086 for William the Conqueror, reveals Merton to be the largest community in the area. Mitcham was a small farming community and just 14 people occupied Morden.
Gilbert the Knight
Merton grew in significance when Henry I granted the estate to a knight called Gilbert in 1114. Gilbert founded an Augustinian priory in 1117 at the point where the old Roman road crossed the River Wandle, where the SavaCentre and Merton Abbey Mills now stand. It became nationally important when it was used for royal councils and conferences. In 1236 Henry III met his Barons at the priory to agree the Statutes of Merton, an important foundation of modern English Common Law. The king also brought Queen Eleanor to be crowned at the priory in the same year. Henry VI, the only king of England to be crowned outside of Westminster Abbey in the last 1,000 years, held his coronation ceremony at Merton Priory in 1437. Among those educated at the priory were Thomas Becket and Nicholas Brakespeare, who was the only ever English Pope. Adrian IV (Brakespeare) was the pope who granted the English king Henry II the lordship of Ireland in 1155. Also educated there were Walter de Merton, a future Lord Chancellor of England and Bishop of Rochester. He is also famous for being the founder of Merton College at Oxford University in 1264. The priory by the river was dismantled in 1538 as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and only a few remnants survive off Merantun Way.
Did you know?
In 1569, a Wimbledon woman was sentenced to hang for witchcraft. She was accused of killing three children and four pigs in the village by casting spells on them.
The Industrial Revolution
The area soon passed from the hands of royalty into those of successful tradesmen. Industry expanded on the banks of the Wandle, whose fast-flowing waters provided ideal power for the milling process. Flour, snuff, copper, iron, leather and dye works all flourished on the river at points like Mitcham Bridge and Phipps Bridge. By 1750, Merton Abbey and Mitcham had become the main centres of calico cloth printing in England. Increased industrial output in the Wandle Valley led to the construction of the world’s first public railway, the horse-drawn Surrey Iron Railway, which opened in 1803.
Admiral Lord Nelson moved into Merton Place House off Merton High Street in 1801. He loved his country home in Merton, and wrote in his diary as he departed for the Trafalgar campaign: “At half past ten I drove from dear, dear Merton where I left all I hold dear in this world to go and serve my king and country”. The highly respected sailor remained in Merton until his death in 1805 at the hands of Napoleon’s fleet during the battle of Trafalgar.
In 1881, William Morris opened a factory at Merton Abbey producing high quality goods: printed and woven fabrics, stained glass, furnishings, tapestry and carpets. Morris is famous as a founder of the Arts and Craft Movement, which rejected the mass-produced workmanship of the industrial age. His company continued trading until 1940.
Abbey Mills was also the base for Arthur Liberty, another eminent Victorian and founder of the famous Liberty’s shops. The Liberty works produced thousands of yards of hand printed silks that made Liberty a household name.
Did you know?
In 1798, Prime Minister William Pitt fought a duel against the MP for Southwark on Wimbledon Common. Both missed.
Admiral Lord Nelson and his family worshipped at the 12th Century St Mary’s Church in Merton Park.
London’s gentry began to populate Merton soon after the railway reached the borough. Shops such as Elys in 1876 opened to cater for the tastes of the new suburban residents. In 1868 the All England Croquet Club was founded in Worple Road. Its name was changed in 1877 to the now world-famous All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club, and it later moved to Church Road. Merton expanded as London grew to become the largest city in the world. Trams came to Mitcham and Wimbledon in 1906 and 1907 respectively. Motorbuses picked up their first passengers from Raynes Park and dropped them off at Liverpool Street in 1914. The London Underground reached Colliers Wood, South Wimbledon and Morden by 1926. These transport improvements turned Morden from a small farming community of 1,000 in 1900 into a residential suburb of 12,618 within thirty years.
A devastating war
World War II caused considerable damage to Merton. Housing was in great demand in the post-war era and new estates were constructed at Phipps Bridge, Pollards Hill and High Path in Wimbledon. Recovery from the war was painfully slow and food shortages did not end completely until 1956. Redevelopment schemes were remarkably successful and the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 marked the beginning of a new era.
A vibrant community
Affluence had settled in by 1965, when the creation of the new borough provided impetus for more growth. Five new town centres emerged to form the Merton we know today: Colliers Wood, Mitcham, Morden, Raynes Park and Wimbledon. They are all primarily residential areas, each with their own commercial and shopping centres. People are entertained by theatres, cinemas, greyhound racing, football teams, the international tennis tournament, and cricket played on the world’s oldest cricket green at Mitcham.