Merton Abbey and William Morris
1st August 2019
We can never quite believe the achievements of William Morris. The multifaceted man achieved more than most in many lifetimes and had a range of talents. When reading about Morris for all these years, it’s clear to see that he took such a keen interest in such a variety of crafts and arts – but then not only that, he took it further to practice and practice until he perfected the art. He did of course have an unbelievable amount of natural talent, but by working at the crafts with such passion, he was able to master the arts.
One such venture was his work at Merton Abbey. Now, we know that Morris was determined to push back against the mass industrialisation that was occurring at the time. The return to traditional craftsmanship was part of this – he dreaded the people losing that skill and relying on machines. Merton Abbey Mills takes it’s name from Merton Priory; one of the most important monasteries of the middle ages. The abbey was on the River Wandle, so textile mills were attracted to the property and area by 1600 due to the water power but also importantly, because of the properties the water possessed. The water had a special balance of a chalk stream which was suitable to textile creation for washing, dyeing and printing. In fact; by 1792, the river was actually one of the hardest working rivers in Europe as various print works moved to the banks.
It’s important to mention the industry at the time – the textile industry in the UK was booming. The British Empire was expanding, as was the population and therefore the demand for textiles (cotton) increasing with it. The Pennines in particular saw a real boom in trade. The good thing about this is that it really improved the standard and quality of living within the UK and those areas. Prior to industrialisation, many families had been working in the domestic system and so there was a ready supply of both talented weavers and spinners.
It was no different in Wandle Valley and it attracted workers from all over the UK to the hive of activity. We still print and manufacture all our products in the UK, but it’s really unfortunate that so many don’t; simply due to cost. There are still mills in Britain and it’s important we use them so we don’t lose that heritage!
Morris moved his prints to Merton Abbey in 1881 and remained there until 1888. It was here he created multiple iconic designs – including Strawberry Thief and Brother Rabbit. The conditions on the River Wandle were completely perfect for his needs and textiles.
His interest in socialism intensified during this period and he acted upon them which is really key. For his workers, he really treated them fairly. It’s known that he payed his workers above the average wage, supplied a library to use for education and provided a healthy and very importantly safe workplace. The apprentice boys were even given accommodation whilst they learnt the craft, Morris knew the importance of educating the next generation to keep the crafts alive and in practice.
Many of our very favourite designs were produced there – including Willow Bough, one of our all time best loved designs.