Lost Common Lands – Morden Common

Local History Notes 4: by Evelyn Jowett

Morden Common, always small, shrank throughout the 19th century. The last open land was lost in the 1920s.

This article first appeared in the Merton Borough News as part of the series ‘The Merton Story’ on 8 March 1974. Miss E M Jowett , Vice President of the Society, died in August 1990.


MERTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY
LOCAL HISTORY NOTES – 4
LOST COMMON LANDS
1 – Morden Common
by Evelyn Jowett
LOCAL HISTORY NOTES – 4
LOST COMMON LANDS
1 – Morden Common
by Evelyn Jowett
The Borough of Merton is very fortunate to have within its boundaries two
ancient commons, both beautiful and refreshing stretches of wild countryside.
Wimbledon Common in the north-west and Mitcham Common in the southeast
were both preserved as amenities after long and expensive struggles
over a hundred years ago.

Morden has some magnificent parks and open spaces but its Common has
long since been given over to other purposes. Now no area of ancient heath
and grassland remain here which has never in its history been submitted to
the plough. At the same time there has been lost its accompanying natural
habitat for wild flowers, birds and animals and the life of ponds and stream.

Morden Common was situated in the south-west corner of the parish. Its
triangular shape can still be traced on a modern map. The apex lies west of
Stonecot-hill in Trafalgar-avenue, Cheam, where the Pyl Brook crosses the
Morden parish boundary, the latter forming the southern limit of Morden
Common and the Pyl its northerly demarcation until they both meet the base
lying to the west of Garth-road Depot, and the new cemetery, near the
entrance to Battersea Cemetery.

As a common, this area has had a continuous history from Saxon times until
the early part of this century. The earliest Saxon settlers who came to Morden
some time between 400 and 600 AD are thought to have decided on this area
as common: that is, a particular part of the general wilderness lying between
their small fields, where all the villagers could graze their animals and gather
firewood.

These continuous processes over the area eventually produced much sweet
grassland and kept it from reverting to scrub, reduced the gorse and bramble
thickets, and prevented the growth of birch and oak seedlings. The flocks
and herds of each peasant would be watched over by their own herdsman
or shepherd to prevent straying and loss, just as still may be seen today in
many rural areas of eastern Europe.

Eventually, as the manorial system superseded the simpler farming of Saxon
times, the Common became part of the Manor of Morden and given with it,
to Westminster Abbey, some time probably before the Norman Conquest.
The Abbey’s medieval records of Morden have not yet been explored and
so there is no documentary evidence relating to the Common during this
period. No doubt these will eventually reveal at least the usual medieval
trends: a growth in population both of people and animals, leading to
regulation in the manor court of the tenants’ rights, for instance as to the
number of animals each could graze and whether and how much firewood
they could cut, with prosecutions and fines for breach of these rules.

In Tudor times after the dissolution of the Monasteries, Morden Common
passed with the rest of the Manor out of the ownership of the Abbey and
eventually into that of the Garth family. In Tudor times also another trend
is shown by records of a legal dispute with Cheam. From ancient times,
Morden Common had been part of a larger heathland area on which other
villages also had their commons, notably Cheam and Malden. With
increased grazing, encroachments became a problem and especially between
Morden and Cheam with their mutual frontier formed only by an unfenced
parish boundary.

Morden Common had always been a comparatively small area. All known
plans show it to have been the same as outlined in the Tithe Award of 1839,
where it is declared to be 83 acres in extent. Mitcham Common is still over
460 acres and Wimbledon and Putney Commons together comprise 1040
acres. It also had an awkward shape and remote situation. It was a long but
narrow strip of land, separated from the village by the Pylbrook, a possible
obstacle to its use. An ancient bridge across the Pyl by the Epsom-road in
the east gave access to it and also eventually a bridge at the extreme west
end in Green-lane. Otherwise animals must have had to ford the stream. By
the eighteenth century local farmers had consolidated their farms and turned
part of the fields to grass and later still are known to have hired grazing land
elsewhere in the village instead of using the Common.

This may also account for the ease with which the earliest enclosures were
accepted by the Commoners who appear to have been the Lord of the Manor
and his copyhold tenants, the later successors of the medieval villeins, and
not of course any and every resident in the parish. In 1805, a licence to
enclose a “piece of land, part of the waste at Morden Common”, was granted
to the Rev George Whatley of Wokingham and Ann Whatley, widow. The
land is described as “heretofore two pieces containing 3 roods” and so had
obviously been enclosed some time before.

The purpose of the deed appears to have been to regularise these enclosures,
make them one property, and to convert them to a copyhold tenement or life
tenure. The full ceremony of the General Court Baron was invoked for the
occasion. Mr Appleyard, Gentleman and Steward for the Lord of the Manor,
with the consent of the tenants gave the Whatleys possession “by the rod,
by copy of Court Roll, fealty, suit of court, heriot, and a yearly rent of 2/6.”

Within two months the property was transferred for £8.12.0 to Jonathan
Acres, a carpenter of Morden. He came of an old Morden family and had
a very sad life. He married twice, first to Susannah, who died aged thirty
and then to Elizabeth who died aged twenty-seven in 1814. All his children
by both died as infants, except Henry William who succeeded him to the
property. Jonathan’s brother, William continued the carpentry business,
however, and died at the ripe old age of 85 in 1859. In spite of all vicissitudes,
Jonathan took on much unpaid local public service, being one of the Parish
Overseers of the Poor in 1810 and also a trustee of the Mary Batts Charity
for the distribution of coals among the industrious local poor. He himself
died ultimately in 1827 aged fifty-four.

His son, Henry William, born in 1804, succeeded to the property in 1827 and
in 1861 conveyed it back to Richard Garth, the Lord of the Manor, for £100.
It was then described as orchard land with houses and outhouses. Two subtenants,
Mrs Hitchaman and Mrs Hill, are mentioned who were already there
in 1839. This was not surprising as Henry William had meanwhile emigrated
to Canada and is described as a farmer of Delaware, Middlesex County,
Upper Canada (now Ontario). The deed was sent to Canada for his
signature, a Notary Public there vouching for its authenticity and the
Governor General of British North America vouching for the Notary being
one duly appointed. It could have been that Acres desired the money but
it seems much more likely that Richard Garth, the Lord of the Manor, had
already decided on the profitable policy of buying in his copyholds with a
view to their extinction and conversion to more easily saleable freeholds. By
1874 Garth was in a position to legalise the extinction of all his copyholds.
This was in preparation for the sale of his Morden properties including the
Common, as freeholds.

Some time before 1885, the south-west portion of Morden Common
consisting of about 40 acres had already become the property of the
Hatfeilds who succeeded the Garths as Lords of the Manor. In 1885 the rest
of the Common was put up for sale in two lots. Lot 1, formerly the Acres
property, now consisted of about 10 acres of “freehold land, being a
productive market garden, well stocked with thriving fruit trees, with a brick
and timber dwelling-house of seven rooms, with stabling and sheds”,
occupied by Mr Edmund James, the leaseholder since 1881. He was to have
compensation if his garden were sold and used for building purposes.
However, the time for this was not yet and Kelly’s Directory for 1918 still
records Edmund James, Market gardener of Lower Morden, though soon the
garden had gone. Vincent Lines, writing in this paper in 1930, most
nostalgically recalls it: “On Morden Common there was a well favoured local
industry – a strawberry farm, where gooseberries and raspberries as well
were grown in abundance and of which not a few Morden residents yet have
happy recollections.”

Lot 2 concerned the rest of the Common, at that time a brickfield. The Lord
of the Manor had always had additional rights on the Common, including
especially the right to extract materials, usually gravel, which could be very
profitably sold for road repairing. Morden Common was also a valuable
source of clay for making bricks and tiles. How soon the Garths exploited
this right is not known but in 1768 Richard Garth granted John Ewart the right
to take clay for bricks and tiles for building Morden Park House.

The Tithe Award of 1839 does not mention brickfields on the Common but
some more cottages had been erected there, perhaps for brickmakers. The
Common was, however, remote from a main road and removal of the bricks
was difficult. But records of 1869 refer to a road leading to the brickworks,
with twelve newly-erected cottages in it, and a record of 1884 confirms that
this road led from the London to Epsom-road. It is now Garth-road.

The brickworks were offered for sale by the Garths in 1873, but the sale of
1885, when they were sold for £2,150, gives the greatest detail. They were
a freehold of over 24 acres with a large quantity of brick earth, drying and
moulding sheds, an engine house, stable, offices and kilns. The plant
included an engine and a pump and the Sutton Water Company’s main was
laid on. There were also ten brick and timber cottages each with four rooms
and a garden. No proprietors are named and it is described as “recently in
full work.” It continued to be operated later, however, by the Trendell Bros
who were still in business there in 1918.

Suburban development came to this area late, not taking place until after the
first world war, in the 1920s. Writing in 1930-31 in this paper, Vincent Lines
recalls how the Common had “even now a rather wild appearance, gipsy
caravans lie in the hollow and small barefooted boys ride huge carthorses
barebacked.” He also recalls “Whack” Clark, a popular character who lived
on Morden Common in his “Lodge”, a wooden house on wheels, in which
he also journeyed about Surrey. The local farm labourers, he continues, used
to collect rushes from the Common, and one of them, very skilful in plaiting
them, made a weathervane in the form of a peacock for Peacock Farm.

The Common finally disappeared as open land when the local council in 1926
bought much of it for the Merton Morden and Carshalton Cemetery (now the
Merton and Sutton cemetery) and, later, more land for the Garth-road Refuse
Disposal Depot. Building developers bought the rest. Soon Garth-road was
lined with houses and an extensive modern industrial estate replaced the old
brickworks.

Garth-road depot from entrance gate looking west over the
premises once widest part of Morden Common – 1974

Pyl Brook at Garth-road, Morden where it crosses the parish boundary
and forms the northern limit of Morden Common – 1974

ISBN 1 903899 28 1
Published by Merton Historical Society – September 1991
Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained from
Merton Library & Heritage Service, Merton Civic Centre, London Road, Morden, Surrey. SM4 5DX
This article first appeared in the “Merton Borough News” as part of the series “The Merton Story”
on 8th March 1974. Miss E M Jowett , Vice President of the Society, died in August 1990.
ISBN 1 903899 28 1
Published by Merton Historical Society – September 1991
Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained from
Merton Library & Heritage Service, Merton Civic Centre, London Road, Morden, Surrey. SM4 5DX
This article first appeared in the “Merton Borough News” as part of the series “The Merton Story”
on 8th March 1974. Miss E M Jowett , Vice President of the Society, died in August 1990.