The Wandle Valley has definitely had its place in the sun as a major industrial area and as a country retreat for London’s wealthy merchants. In turn the opportunities attracted many wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs, perhaps most famously William Morris, whose works on the river at Merton became world renowned. But Morris who arrived at Merton in 1881 was building on centuries of industrial tradition before him.
George Shepley was one such man, he had milling interests at both ends of the river in the late eighteenth century. He was also a prime mover in the project to improve transport along the river valley, since of course the fast flowing river with dams and weirs was no good for navigation! This led to another World first for the Wandle Valley, the Surrey Iron Railway. This horse drawn plate way was the first in the world to be open to the public, and was opened in 1803, forty years before steam railways reached the Wandle Valley. It ran from Croydon to the river mouth at Wandsworth, and Shepley had a branch built to his substantial mills at Hackbridge. Despite the many factories along the river, the Wandle was still a picturesque retreat, and many wealthy merchants not all connected to the river, built grand houses on the river’s banks. Josias Dewye was among the first; a successful gunpowder manufacturer with a large mill at Hackbridge, he built Strawberry Lodge in about 1685, and owned another large house, Bacons, nearby.
A century later, downstream in the area we now call Culvers Island, Foster Reynolds, who was responsible for the large bleaching grounds on the island, almost certainly built The Limes, “an elegant house” according to Manning & Bray’s History of Surrey. Even grander was The Culvers, built or rebuilt by city banker Samuel Gurney. He laid out gardens. Stocked the river with fish, and is thought to be the first to have introduced black swans into Britain. Gurney’s house was the centre of a large estate, including several other riverside houses and cottages, as the sales particulars of 1866 show. Undoubtedly the most famous riverside resident, albeit very briefly, was Admiral Lord Nelson. Lady Hamilton chose a grand riverside mansion at Merton for the two of them in 1803, but of course, within two years he had been killed at Trafalgar.
Click here for high quality download of the Wandle Valley Tube Map
The decline of the Wandle’s importance both as a milling river and as a country retreat was rapid. Pollution progressively frightened off the wealthy as it had done the industries relying on pure water. For example, the river’s extensive watercress beds were lost as the 20th century wore on. Nonetheless much of the riverside land became the site of newer, larger factories and works located not to use water as a power source or raw material, but to exploit the valley’s location close to Britain’s largest market for goods. Sometimes these new industries moved into old waterside buildings, like the Distillers company (later BP chemicals) at Carshalton on the site of old paper mills. In other cases new factories sprung up, the largest being Mullards electronics factory at Hackbridge employing 5000 people. But it has been the relentless tide of houses, as London grows and grows, that has put paid most effectively to the old land uses of the Wandle Valley.
The old estates have been progressively sold to developers, especially during the interwar years, and new estates of semis covered the once green fields, while the industries in turn moved out, their cramped sites proving inaccessible and congested, or their sometimes noxious activities incompatible with residential areas. Only Youngs Ram Brewery at Wandsworth provided a thread of continuity, right up into the present century when even that finally ceased production, with the site being currently redeveloped with usual mix of housing and shops. The last decades have seen another chapter in the ongoing history of the Wandle Valley evolving: after reaching a nadir in the 1960’s when the river was so polluted it was declared an ‘open sewer’, a renaissance has taken place culminating in the vision of the river as focal point for the Wandle Valley Regional Park.
The newly created Wandle Trail knits together a ribbon of green spaces which have survived along the valley, while the water itself is cleaner then for decades, supporting trout and other coarse fish. Conservation volunteers work on numerous sites whilst the active Wandle Trust organises community clean-ups and undertakes river restoration work. As a result of this work the Wandle enters the new millennium in a far cleaner state than for a century; and access to the river banks has never been easier.
River Wandle Companion and Wandle Trail Guide by Bob Steel with Derek Coleman