Industrial heritage on the banks of the Wandle


By - Monday 20th October, 2014

Sean Creighton tells the story of the river Wandle past and present


Waddon Ponds.
Photo by Louise Crothall, Living Wandle Landscape Partnership Scheme Project Officer, used with permission.

6th July last year saw the Wandle Park Revival Community Day celebrating the regeneration of this Croydon park. This followed work on the restoration of the River Wandle, which was broken out from a concrete culvert beneath the park. Now it’s the turn of the nearby Waddon Ponds to have money spent on them to create a wide range of habitats for amphibians, invertebrates and wildfowl. This mini-project forms part of the work of the four year £1.9m Heritage Lottery funded Living Wandle Landscape Partnership. Two ponds have been restored so far and this autumn will see further improvements to the third pond.

The partners are Croydon, Merton and Wandsworth Councils, Wandle Trust, Groundwork London, Wandle Piscators, London Wildlife Trust, Merton Priory Trust, National Trust, and the Wandle Valley Regional Park Trust. There is a wide range of restoration, heritage and nature projects, and many opportunities for people to volunteer and participate to improve and enjoy the river.

The Wandle was, apparently, the finest trout river in England

Wandle Park. Photo by Louise Crothall, Living Wandle Landscape Partnership Scheme Project Officer and used with permission

The River Wandle wends its way from Waddon through Beddington Park to Morden, then along to Colliers Wood until it comes into Earlsfield, alongside King George’s Park, then on to the Thames. It is navigable from Merton Abbey Mills to the Thames. The Battersea Canoe Club used to canoe down the river for the Wandle Festival.

It was a working river from the 14th century, as well as, apparently, being the finest trout river in England. It was one of the country’s first ‘industrial’ rivers. Massive industrial growth proliferated from the late 1600s. An article from the late 1700s found in the Times Archives by Vicki Carroll, a leading figure in organising the Wandle Valley Festivals, says that at one point there was a government plan to divert the ‘pristine’ water of the Wandle all the way to Southwark; this was cancelled when, by the mid-1800s, it was very polluted.

Along its banks are a number of parks including Beddington, Ravensbury and Morden Hall

Goods produced over the centuries have included calico, leather, corn and flour, snuff and tobacco, using the power of water mills. For many years, the Wandle itself was badly neglected and in 1929 Wandsworth Trades Council & Labour Party conducted an enquiry: ‘The Scandal of the Wandle’. Indeed in Wandsworth, Southside Shopping Centre is built over part of it. The river is perhaps most famous for being linked to the Surrey Iron Railway, the first public commercial railway which ran alongside.

Waddon vegetation growth.
Photo by Louise Crothall, Living Wandle Landscape Partnership Scheme Project Officer, used with permission

Along its banks are a number of parks including Beddington, Ravensbury and Morden Hall. A park was promised by Greater London Council chief Ken Livingstone on the right corner of the Thames, then cancelled when Margaret Thatcher froze capital spending as a step towards abolishing the GLC.

The Wandle has had its fans and defenders over the decades. Back in 1983 the Wandsworth Society wrote in its newsletter:

“A couple of years ago some intrepid canoeists were reported to have navigated the Wandle from Croydon to the Thames. When it comes to imagination and action what is needed is a first step. Once the Wandle starts to be opened up there will be no shortage of new ideas (and interest in hitherto neglected possi­bilities). [...] Interest will be re-kindled in the river’s history and its flora and fauna. Indignation will be sparked by pollution. Enthusiasm will be generated for new recreational possibilities.”

The Wandle Valley Festival ran from 2004 until 2013. The Festival produced ‘The Mills of the River Wandle’ and ‘The River Wandle Wildlife Guide’ as well as a set of Wandle ecology and history story boards, displayed at the 2014 Wandsworth Heritage Festival. The final panel covering Croydon and the Wandle is now available and was displayed at the Living Wandle Festival in September and all are available to view here.

Industrial Heritage Recording aims to locate historic artefacts, paintings and written works associated with the Wandle

The nineteen Living Wandle Partnership projects which started in autumn 2013 are varied and include: discovering the river’s source, activities for those living on Council estates by the river, fishing for youngsters, improving access, creating a walkway through the Morden Hall Park wetlands, improvements to the display of the ruins of Merton Priory Chapter House, river education, climate change, invasive species and pollution awareness programmes, and improving the Ravensbury Channel. All should be complete by autumn 2017.

For me, Industrial Heritage Recording is the most interesting project. Its aim is to locate historic artefacts, paintings and written works associated with the Wandle that have been dispersed and are now in various locations. The Partnership team is looking for people to take part, so if you are interested you can find out more about the Living Wandle Partnership by clicking here. To indicate your interest in the industrial heritage work please contact the Living Wandle team on 07500073049 or .

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • WSOS

    I love parts of the Wandle but regret that where it joins the Thames is such a mess and that there is a constant threat to develop the piece of land next to the Causeway.