A Merton Abbey marvel – Map of William Knight’s colour mills c1690

A chance find

This stunning and rare map, drawn in ink and watercolour on parchment, shows the Merton Abbey colour mills belonging to William Knight, potter, in c.1690. The map was a chance find in Chester City Library in 1992 and is just one example of how a document can be of no significance to where it was found but be invaluable to Surrey Historians.

A cartouche bears the title of the map ‘A Survey of Ground Pertaining to the Couller Mills at Martins Abby now belongin unto Mr Will: Knight Containing 15 Acars 3 Rood & 12 perch Walter Henshaw Fecit’. Surveyed by Walter Henshaw, the plan is masterfully drawn and hand decorated, with the cartouche, scale and compass all highly coloured; the compass is ornamented with a beautiful purple tulip.

A potter of some importance

William Knight was a manufacturer of ‘white ware’ pottery in the parish of St. Botolph, Aldgate, London. It is clear that he was a potter of some importance: as well as manufacturing ‘Delft’ pottery at Hermitage Dock, Wapping, with John Campion, he was also involved in the campaign to limit the import of foreign earthenware to this country. The Treasury Books at The National Archives contain two petitions on this subject signed by him in 1687 and 1689. In 1693, Knight testified in support of another potter, John Robins, who was accused of illegally importing fuller’s earth.

The main source for William Knight comes from Llewelyn Jewitt, author of The Ceramic Art of Great Britain (1878), who was in possession of a deed dated 1690, showing that Knight purchased a plot of land and premises situated ‘by the river running from Merton Mill to Wandesworth in the county of Surrey’ from Mary Crispe, widow of Ellis Crispe, late of Wimbledon. Intriguingly, the deed described Merton Mill as ‘formerly used for a Fulling Mill and Brasill Mill and now and of late used for a Colour Mill for Grinding Colours for the Glazeing of White Ware.’

What sort of pottery was produced?

‘White ware’ was the term for earthenware decorated with a tin glaze and decorated in the style of Dutch ‘Delftware’. The term ‘Delftware’ was widely used from the 18th century onwards to refer to tin-glazed earthenware made in Britain, rather than the products of the famous Dutch centre of Delft. Tin-glazing allowed potters to decorate their wares with coloured pigments applied over a lead glaze made opaque by the addition of tin.

Until the 1600s, the only decorative pottery was imported from the Continent, with Spanish, Italian and Dutch or Flemish tin-glazed wares the most common types found on excavated sites. Thereafter, with the expansion of London potteries producing this type of ware, the demand was high for blue, green and yellow glazes to decorate ‘white ware’ and create more colourful products. During the course of the 17th century, tin-glazed factories were set up close to the river Thames in Southwark and Lambeth and at Rotherhithe and Vauxhall. South of the river a factory was established in Putney in c.1680, and to the west another established in c.1665 at Hermitage Dock, Wapping, this being Knight and Campion’s pottery.

What did Knights pottery look like?

Although it is not known exactly what pottery was decorated using Knight’s ground colours, it is likely that they would have been used to glaze London Delft style earthenwares blue, green and yellow.

Knight’s site

Knight’s map shows the full extent of the mill buildings and mill wheel. Houses, a tower, gardens, trees, fences, hedges, roads, a bridge and watercourses are also depicted, even two swans are painted on the water at the bottom of the plan. The background of the document is not coloured but has a yellow and black border. Helpfully, the names of surrounding plots of land and landowners are given, including ‘Harty Feild’, ‘Mr Peter Rayes’, ‘Samsons Feild’, ‘The Ground belonging to Martins Abby’ and ‘The Wetstars Feild in the Ocupation of Mr Chapman’. Unfortunately, no further references to the surveyor, Walter Henshaw, or other examples of his work have been found.

The map is viewed with north at the top right hand corner. Originally folded in half, there are two pairs of horizontal cuts in the parchment, at the bottom left and right corners, suggesting that the plan was once attached to a deed; possibly this was the deed in Jewitt’s possession. The title may suggest that the survey was made shortly after Knight’s purchase of the land in 1690. (SHC Ref. 4079/1)

A colourful history

Merton Abbey Mills take part of their name from Merton Priory, one of the most important Surrey monasteries of the middle ages, which stood close by and owned much of the surrounding land. By 1600, textile mills were attracted to the nearby River Wandle, not only as a source of power but also because of the special quality of its water, a chalkstream ideally suited to the washing, dyeing and printing of textiles. By 1792, over a thousand people were employed in the area by the various print works or associated businesses.

The area surrounding Merton Abbey Mills continued to have a colourful industrial future. The famous Regent Street store Liberty mixed dyes for printing its fine cottons and silks there during the later nineteenth century and ran a printing works nearby from 1904 to 1970. William Morris moved his famous textile and stained glass workshops downstream of this site in 1881 and close by, the Arts and Crafts potter William de Morgan built his pottery in 1882. Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ excavated the Merton Abbey Mills site in 2003 but due to redevelopment found no evidence of industrial usage prior to the eighteenth century.

Map of William Knight's Colour Mills, Merton, c.1690 (SHC Ref.4079/1).

Map of William Knight’s Colour Mills, Merton, c.1690 (SHC Ref.4079/1).

2 thoughts on “A Merton Abbey marvel – Map of William Knight’s colour mills c1690”

  1. adele says:

    Lovely to see Merton Abbey, as one of our early settlers worked there, Edward Carter, patented the way to print silk on both sides.. he came to New Zealand. I have a copy of the book with the patent in it from the family.

  2. Victor Judge says:

    what a wonderful Map !

    Just to advise that The Aldgate Pottery was operating from Dukes Place at the sign of the Rose from 1570-71 until circa 1620 producing tinglazed Earthenware first under Jacob Jansson and then his widow and after by …. but that would be telling.

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