Trouble at Mill: A brief history of the former Liberty Print Works site, including Textile printing at Merton Printers Ltd (Libertys) 1965-1982

by David Luff

David started work at Merton Printers Ltd in January 1965, and completed the last-ever print-run at the Merton Abbey Works before it closed in December 1982. In this book David traces the early industrial history of the site, and then takes us on a personal tour of the production processes, introducing us to many of the personalities along the way. This unique view ‘from the shop floor’ makes fascinating reading, and the abundance of photographs, diagrams and plans complement the text perfectly.


Review in MHS Bulletin 142 (Jun 2002)


 A few minor amendments were incorporated into a revised version with a new cover photograph in July 2017.

 

TROUBLE AT MILL

TROUBLE AT MILL

by David Luff
with special acknowledgement to
Harry Fairman and David Reeves

MERTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY 2002, revised 2017

Introduction

Introduction

The working life within a factory can be observed from a number of angles. The owners with their Board
of Directors would, of course, have the most accurate view, followed by the management team, and finally
there is the shop floor, where rumours would often abound.

This brief history of the works’ site, and in particular the years of Merton Printers Ltd, from 1965 until the
final day in 1982, are entirely those from the shop floor.

There is no intention within this book to record in depth and detail the working day inside the factory, as this
will follow in another publication.

Back in 1983, as a paid working member of the Wandle Industrial Museum, under the guidance of team leader
John Cook, I put together my own collection of photographs from the works which I have called ‘Libertys’,
which is the name by which the works have always been, and still are, known by all those who have worked
there.

These photographs were never intended to be an historical record, in fact just family album snapshots. All,
with the exception of the fire-damaged machine shop and those at Daneshaw Ltd, were taken without
permission. In fact, authorisation would not have been given, as photography was not permitted. To
accompany these photographs, I have written up my own recollection of the years from 1965, ‘Trouble at
Mill’, which along with ‘Libertys’ have never been published to date.

Unfortunately, although only a short lapse of time has passed since the print works closed down, many
historical inaccuracies have appeared in print with regard to the works.

Finally, I am totally indebted to the recollections of Harry Fairman (50 years service in the works) and David
Reeves (20 years service), without whom this book could not have been written with such historical accuracy.
Also I am indebted to Ken of Phillips, The Broadway, Wimbledon, for all his expert photographic advice and
for supervising the processing of all photographs within this book.

Special thanks for help and assistance in compiling this book are due to:
Liberty of London
Vita Tex
J Sainsbury Ltd
British Architectural Library
A E Powell RIBA
John Cook (former Team Leader, Wandle Industrial Museum)
John Foley (formerly of London Borough of Merton
Margaret Bellars and Mike Docker (formerly of Wimbledon News)
Peter Hopkins for typing, preparation and book layout

and, for the contribution of photographs:
John Butterworth
Harry Fairman
David Reeves
Michael Reeves
Ken Imire
Connie Bradfield

David Luff

Cover Photo:
The Buser flatbed-printing machine in 1977,
in what was the Machine Shop, now the car
park and site entrance area

DAVID LUFF

The River Wandle

The River Wandle

The river Wandle is some nine miles in length and flows from the foot of the North Downs in Croydon and
Carshalton to the Thames at Wandsworth. During this journey the river drops 124 feet, which is roughly 15
feet every mile. As is apparent from this information the river is extremely fast flowing and powerful, ideal
for turning water wheels in those days when Britain’s industrial power came from the wind and water.

Once fed entirely from springs in the Croydon and Carshalton areas, the river’s flow is now greatly assisted
with recycled water from the Beddington Sewage Works. A very tranquil river for most of the time, its flow
can increase substantially after periods of heavy rain. The straight stretch of river at Merton is of course an
artificial cut, for the Wandle once flowed along Liberty Way and the Pickle Ditch. The precise date of this
cut is not now known but the channel could have been far smaller in width and part of the Priory’s elaborate
drainage system. Then over the years following the dissolution of the Priory in 1538 and the subsequent
industrialisation of the site, the cut has been enlarged and finally took over as the main course of the river.

The Calico Years 1724–1832

The Dutch had by the 16th century perfected the art of open-air bleaching and introduced this craft into
England, setting up their crofting or bleaching fields on the banks of the river Thames in Kent, Essex and
Surrey. They were followed by Huguenot refugees from France who were also experts in the crafts of
bleaching.

Many of their descendants, looking for new sites, migrated up the many tributary rivers that flowed into the
Thames from the hills to the north and south.

It was by a Huguenot newcomer that the Merton Abbey Mill site is said to have been founded in 1724. Once
the water meadows of Merton Abbey were covered with bleaching grounds running east to west across the
area now used as car parks for the Mill complex and SavaCentre.

Natural bleaching was a fairly time-
consuming process and it took around a
month, depending on the weather, for the
grey calicoes to be bleached white.

Open vats gradually took over from the
meadows, and were housed in a number of
specially-built wooden-clapboard
workshops. These vats certainly reduced
the processing time but did little for the
bleachers, who were now working in
gloomy workshops filled with noxious
fumes.

Along with the bleaching and dyeing, some
printing was also taking place. The printers
at first used carved wooden blocks and,
depending on the skill of the block cutter,
some fairly complex designs could be
achieved. The calicoes would have been
temporarily fixed to a printing surface with
either gum or pins, or merely laid flat.
Many early designs were often loose fitting
blotchy patterns, where some misfitting of
the design would go unnoticed.

Detail from 1933 Ordnance Survey map.

Tie dyeing and wax printing were commonly done at this time, and both are still ways of colouring fabrics
today. Only with the perfection of copper plate blocks did prints really take off, as this allowed the printing
of very fine-outlined patterns.

Tie dyeing and wax printing were commonly done at this time, and both are still ways of colouring fabrics
today. Only with the perfection of copper plate blocks did prints really take off, as this allowed the printing
of very fine-outlined patterns.

The Littler Years 1832–1904

Edmund Littler, who took over the Merton Abbey Print Works in 1832, came from a family already well
established in the calico industry.

He had workshops on both sides of the river, and over the following years merged the Bennett site with his
own. This gave him a large working area with two water wheels and a large mill pond, which was no doubt
a valuable asset during periods of drought when the river level would have been low.

During the early years, Littler had his blocks cut by Mr Lawrence, who had a workshop in Phipps Bridge Road.
This enterprise later moved onto the Littlers works’ site, although I doubt if this was the only source of block cutting.

The Merton Abbey works were obviously in very capable hands, for Edmund Littler and his succeeding family
survived not only the recessions of the 1840s and 1870s, but also the rapid decline of the Wandle Valley’s
industrial base which had been taking place virtually since Edmund had arrived in Merton.

In 1875 Littlers started printing for Arthur Liberty’s Regent Street shop, and by the 1890s it is said that their
entire production of prints was for Libertys.

These years of the 1890s saw the building of a new
workshop. The architect’s design did not advance the
facilities in printing for the printers. Its basic shape was
that of a clapboard workshop, but this one was built
entirely with bricks.

When built this workshop became known, for obvious
reasons, as ‘The New Shop’. The name hung on over
the years until it acquired a new one, ‘Coles Shop’, in
the early 1950s. Its brick construction gives some
indication of either the prosperity of the works, or that
some thought had been exercised as to the potential fire
risk of the wooden workshops.

All block-printers across the United Kingdom were
employed by the individual print works, but they had the
freedom when orders were low to move around,
returning to their home works when the situation there
had improved. I have no knowledge of the origins of
this activity but I would assume it to have been common
practice amongst all tradesmen at the time. It no doubt
compensated greatly at a time of no lay-off or sick pay,
but I doubt if all ancillary workers faired as well. In the
block-printing trade it continued up until the outbreak of
the second world war in 1939.

The race from the former Bennett’s breast -shot water wheel
as seen in 1974, long after the mill has disappeared. The
origins of the building are unknown and it was demolished
during 1974 when the mill pond was drained. Saturday 30th March 1974 DAVID LUFF

The Decline of the Industrial Wandle Valley

The Decline of the Industrial Wandle Valley

By the middle of the 19th century the list of industrial sites along the banks of the river gives the impression
of an ongoing prosperity, but a falling water table and the rise of the steam engine as a new industrial power
source were heralding its rapid decline.

The 19th century was to see two periods of recession, one around the 1840s and another in the 1870s. Both
had their effect on the Wandle valley but more devastating was the rise in steam power.

Before the railways had established a network of lines and sidings to almost every town, city and village, coal
was extremely expensive to transport. This led to many new factories springing up in the coal fields in the
Midlands and the North, with possibly many others relocating there. They may then have attracted craftsmen
away from such areas as the Wandle valley, which could also have hastened its decline.

The Littler print works’ survival in Merton Abbey could have been due to it being a highly efficient enterprise,
the Liberty connection or just luck. For, as businesses were closing down, those remaining should have been
able to pick up some, if not all, of the orders on offer.

One fact we do know about the latter part of the 19th century is that the then environmentalists were very
concerned about the pollution of the river Wandle. For although during the dyeing and printing processes, most
of the colours and chemicals were struck into the fabrics, a small proportion did run out during the washing.
As this washing took place in and around the river we should not be surprised to hear that the river was often
multi-coloured downstream of the Littlers’ mill, as were other such sites along the river’s banks.

The Liberty Years 1904–1972

1904–1939

Arthur Liberty leased the site from 1904 and purchased
it in 1923. He had acquired a site full of mostly wooden
buildings long past their prime. Many were being propped
up and all were a potential fire risk.

Rebuilding of the site commenced almost immediately
with a new wash house in 1905. Inside were washing
winches, tubs and a dynamo that worked off the former
Bennett’s water wheel.

The Long Shop followed in 1906 and the Front Shop in
1912. Both maximised the use of natural light in the
placing of windows around all sides and the floor areas
were free of obstructing support girders. When built, the
Long Shop had a heating boiler and coke-fired iron
hotplates in side rooms that were part of the building’s
design. The Front Shop had similar rooms on the original
plans but these were never built. Instead a lean-to
construction on the eastern side between the Front Shop
and Cottage provided these facilities.

Harry Fairman sitting on the umpire chair
with the Pavilion and rockery behind.

H FAIRMAN COLLECTION

Around 1912 to1914 a number of the workshops not
required by Liberty were demolished. In one, on the
western side of the river, often wrongly referred to as
Abbey House, a Norman arch was uncovered. It could
possibly have been part of the Priory’s Hospice. After
being removed, the arch was rebuilt in the grounds of St
Mary’s Church in Merton, where it can still be seen
today.

Around 1912 to1914 a number of the workshops not
required by Liberty were demolished. In one, on the
western side of the river, often wrongly referred to as
Abbey House, a Norman arch was uncovered. It could
possibly have been part of the Priory’s Hospice. After
being removed, the arch was rebuilt in the grounds of St
Mary’s Church in Merton, where it can still be seen
today.

The year 1923 also saw the building of a new brick
workshop for the storage of the printing blocks and it
acquired the appropriate name of The Block Shop. I
have been told that this workshop was always plagued
over the years with woodworm, which leaves you to
wonder just how the wooden clapboard buildings used to
cope.

The workshop built during 1926 once again maximised
natural light by having windows around all sides. It was
self-contained, with its own boilerhouse and coke-fired
iron hotplates all within the design of the workshop.
Unusually for a block-printing shop, the top floor had a
high cluttered ceiling area that accumulated dust particles
and had the habit of dislodging them, and especially so during windy weather.

It was first known as The 1926 Shop after the year it was built and it was so called during my years from
1965 along with the name The Colour House. Since the printworks have closed down and with the opening
of the Merton Abbey Mills complex, it is now called The Apprentice Shop due to the block-printing apprentices
being trained here at periods during its working life.

The year 1929 saw the construction of one of the classical inter-war-years’ oblong factory units. Similar
structures were built all over the country and, like The 1929 Shop, many can still be seen today. A two-storey
block-printing shop, I have been told that at the time of construction there were rumours that it was to be four
storeys. Personally I think that they were just rumours brought about by the sheer solid foundation of the 1929
Shop, which was visible during its construction. All workshops built by Liberty have deep reinforced-concrete
foundations with several side buttresses. The shape of the foundations can be seen in the Front Shop where
the side buttresses have been built onto above ground level and form part of the workshop’s design.

The 1929 Shop actually completed a pleasant crescent to the river that was at one time complemented with
pathways, lawns and flower beds.

The depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash brought a halt, if only temporarily, to the building
of any more new workshops. Those working at Libertys in Merton Abbey found themselves, like many others
nation-wide, enduring the hardships of two-day working weeks. To alleviate this hardship, Liberty employed
a number of salesmen to travel around looking for print-orders. These salesmen were extremely successful
and, not only did full-time working return to Merton Abbey, but also Liberty were able to offer employment
to out-of-work printers from the Midlands and the North. To accommodate these printers, Liberty had a row
of flats built in Phipps Bridge Road (now Liberty Avenue) and they were appropriately called ‘Liberty Flats’.
They can still be seen today at the Christchurch Road end of Liberty Avenue.

H FAIRMAN

The pagoda bridge that crossed over the moat.

There were two types of block-
cutting used at Merton
Abbey. One is where the
pattern is burnt into the block
and the metal hammered in
afterwards. The other, as the
block in the photograph, is
made from moulds.

There were two types of block-
cutting used at Merton
Abbey. One is where the
pattern is burnt into the block
and the metal hammered in
afterwards. The other, as the
block in the photograph, is
made from moulds.

Close up of the registration
pin.

All block patterns had pin
marks as part of the design
to allow the Printer to fit
each block correctly in place,
eliminating any misfitting.

DAVID LUFF

Technology is forever moving on and by the early 1930s screen-printing had begun to have some impact on
the commercial textile industry. These early screens were copper gauze on to which the pattern had been
etched. They did require some careful handling, as any dents in the gauze would cause misfitting and would
necessitate the screens having to be rolled flat once again.

The first screen-printing at Libertys took place during 1935 on a converted block-printing table in The 1929
Shop. The designs on the screens, repeated at 12 to 16 inches, were identical to the blocks except that with
one stroke of a squeegee the area of three block lays could be printed. Also the printer did not require a long
apprenticeship to learn this trade.

Liberty quickly realised the potential of the new printing system and not only were plans drawn up for a new
workshop but a production evaluation took place leading to a new boiler house, and steam and washing
facilities.

Construction started during 1938 but by the outbreak of the war on 3rd September 1939 only the new
maintenance, boiler and steam houses had been completed. These were operational but, with the uncertainty
that the war had brought to the country, all building work ceased and no start was made on the new screen-
printing shop and office complex.

DAVID LUFF COLLECTION

Joy is pushing a colour-pad trolley which ran on wheels with a guide-rail on one side only. The trolley had a tub roughly
24 inches square by 8 inches deep. Into the tub the printer poured old colours which were called ‘swimmings’, onto
which was laid a suitable-sized piece of waterproofed duck-cloth. Finally there was a piece of felt onto which Joy poured
some of the printing colour and then spread it evenly. Ernie would place his block onto the felt which sank under its
own weight, so giving it an all-over covering. The block was then placed onto the correct part of the fabric and hit
with the wooden handle-end of a mallet.
As can be seen on the table behind, a length of fabric was printed in two halves. These tables were converted to screen-
printing in the late 1950s and continued in use until 1970.
[The above and all references to block-printing have been given by Harry Fairman, a Liberty man from the 1920s until
his retirement in July 1972.]

For many, the 1930s had been years of unemployment and often of extreme hardship. To help alleviate this
situation the government set up various job-opportunity projects, one of which was the building of new housing
estates. More often than not the unemployed who were offered these jobs were not given formal training to
become tradesmen but treated purely as labourers, but it was work.

To allow this to happen, landowners had to make some of their estates available for sale and a large number
did so. Liberty had already built some flats on part of their land to the east and now they sold the rest that
would not be required for the new printing shop’s development. Liberty were not fat-cats making huge profits
but, like many other companies, they were using the money from the land sale to reinvest. At a time of such
uncertainty it shows the commitment Liberty’s had for the Merton Abbey print works and, had the
redevelopment been completed, their staff would have almost doubled.

To obtain the best price possible for the land, as fallow is far cheaper than that which has been developed,
Hilary Blackmore, the man in overall charge of the Liberty print works, set up two enterprises. One was a
willow tree plantation and the other was a mink farm. Both only lasted a couple of years until the land had
reached the right price, and I do know that no bat was ever made from the trees as they had planted by mistake
‘crack willows’.

The War Years 1939–1945

The war started off fairly uneventfully on the home front with the period now known as the ‘phoney war’.

There were no immediate restrictions on the manufacture of luxury consumer goods and with a good
percentage of these being exported, production was actively encouraged, as the income generated would be
vital should the war become a prolonged affair.

In fact there was very little change to the day-to-day life in Britain’s factories until the autumn of 1940. The
war now had a real impact on Britain’s industrial base and although there was no total ban at first on the
manufacturing of consumer goods, a restriction on raw materials for such products had the same effect.

Those factories, warehouses and businesses that could, adapted themselves to some form of war production.
Others maintained their existence by leasing workshops, land or both to one or other of the many new
businesses that sprang up nation-wide.

Those factories, warehouses and businesses that could, adapted themselves to some form of war production.
Others maintained their existence by leasing workshops, land or both to one or other of the many new
businesses that sprang up nation-wide.

Liberty continued to print throughout the war, although on a much reduced scale, but they did have an unusual
success with a varuna wool headscarf. Headscarves have always been fashionable to some degree, usually
going through periods when the ladies will not be seen in public without one to the times when you rarely saw
one, but they never disappear altogether.

The entrance from Littlers
Close to Merton Printers and
Liberty Warehouse in the
early 1970s. The Screen
Print Shop to the right and
the new Office building to the
left were the work of Adrian
Evelyn Powell.

DAVID LUFF

The Long Shop and Screen
Shop showing the Parnall
canopy under which the
block and tackle crane
resided. These workshops
were first planned by Libertys
and such a large investment
at a time of extremely high
unemployment shows the
commitment they had for the
Merton Abbey Works.

DAVID LUFF

During the war, headscarves had a boost in popularity due, as it was said, to the cinema newsreels, which
were showing our recently-acquired east-European allies, the women of whom all seem to be wearing them.
To fulfil the ladies’ desires at a time when silk had become a very scarce and expensive commodity, Liberty
introduced the woollen one. They became an instant success and, being far cheaper than silk, the ladies could
buy more of them. While Liberty continued to print, they leased out land that had been set aside for the new
screen-printing shop and office building to Parnall Aircraft Ltd.

During the war, headscarves had a boost in popularity due, as it was said, to the cinema newsreels, which
were showing our recently-acquired east-European allies, the women of whom all seem to be wearing them.
To fulfil the ladies’ desires at a time when silk had become a very scarce and expensive commodity, Liberty
introduced the woollen one. They became an instant success and, being far cheaper than silk, the ladies could
buy more of them. While Liberty continued to print, they leased out land that had been set aside for the new
screen-printing shop and office building to Parnall Aircraft Ltd.

Having seen both Powell’s and Liberty’s plans for the site, I do know that there are some similarities between
them, but I have been personally assured by Mr Powell that the workshops built for Parnall were entirely of
his own design.

The new workshop was a solid-built north-light building with a large floor area which had a single central row
of support columns. The roadway that separated the workshop from the office complex had a canopy cover
under which an overhead crane could be manoeuvred along on a central girder.

The New Office building stood on the land from the new roadway to Bennett’s ditch. A rather grand but
cumbersome two-storey building, it originally had a large canteen on the ground floor with offices on the first.
It no doubt served its country well during the dark days of war but to me personally, in a peace-time role in
the print-works, it never seemed to fulfil its potential.

The Post-War Years 1945–1965

The end of the war came during the summer of 1945, by which time Great Britain Ltd had become virtually
bankrupt. Countries, of course, do not close down, so it was business as usual, which meant the austerity
conditions endured throughout the war years were to continue for many more years. In fact rationing did not
finally end until 1954. The peace that had now fallen over the world had brought an end to America’s lend-
lease agreement, which meant that, although bankrupt, we now had to repay money borrowed from America
who, it has been said, ended the war three times richer than when they entered. In fact it is a debt we have
not fully paid up, as I write in May 2001.

Under these circumstances industry had to return to Civvy Street as soon as was possible. This could not be
done overnight. Factories had to change back to their former peace-time role and await the demobilising of
their skilled staff from the armed and auxiliary services. Many, of course, were never to return to their families,
let alone their former workplace and had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. For many of those
returning to Liberty’s in Merton this would be their only break in service from leaving school to retirement.

Parnall Aircraft Ltd now had to relinquish their lease at Merton Abbey and find not only a new home but new
products to manufacture. For many companies, I don’t think that this was too much of a problem. I have heard
of one model railway manufacturer who tooled up a number of items under the guise of the war effort.

Parnall had become a very successful enterprise during the war and made the transformation into Civvy Street.
Last time I heard of them, after many takeovers, was in 1989 as Jackson Electronics of Stoke.

Liberty could now move into the new workshop and, although it may not have complied with their 1937/38
plans for the works, they were not in a financial position to do any major reconstruction. As the years passed
by, the north-light workshop turned out to be a very suitable screen-printing shop but the new office complex
never seemed to fit in correctly and was certainly under-used.

Time at the works had stood still for almost ten years and in many ways Liberty were about to implement
a 1930s plan in a world that had completely changed. The original intention had been to have the screens
carried along by two printers and for this a 32-yard table was sufficient. Now, with the view of using some
form of printing carriage running on rails, 52- or even 62-yard tables would have been a better proposition.

Had there been ten years of printing instead of waiting, the works would have been in a position to make
changes. The works departments now required to be concentrated into a far smaller area to produce a more
cost-effective, cohesive print production line. The country’s economic situation prevented this in the post-war
years, and helped seal the fate of Merton Printers Ltd.

Had there been ten years of printing instead of waiting, the works would have been in a position to make
changes. The works departments now required to be concentrated into a far smaller area to produce a more
cost-effective, cohesive print production line. The country’s economic situation prevented this in the post-war
years, and helped seal the fate of Merton Printers Ltd.

The original block-printing tables had been made with lengths of pitch pine, bolted together and planed flat
and level. They were constructed on site at Merton Abbey by Liberty’s own carpenters from their Highbury
Works. The thick wooden surface was required to absorb the continuous striking of the printer’s mallet and
entailed a specification that would not be required for the screens.

The new screen tables were made from pre-cast concrete sections that bolted together and formed a printing
table of 32 yards. A resin was then floated over the surface and levelled. Once this had set solid, three or
four felt blankets and a rubber printing surface were secured to the table. Each table had a hand cloth-
tightening ratchet at the southern end and a printed-fabric drying frame at the other end. There were ten tables,
four around 54 inches wide for printing 50-inch furnishing fabrics and six around 40 inches wide for the printing
of 36-inch wide silks and wools. They were numbered one to ten from the east. Alongside table ten was a
short 15-yard table used for the striking off of new set of screens and for sample printing.

drying frame
printing carriage
rail
gutter
squeegees
bar ratchet
backing cotton
varuna wool
DRAWING: DAVID LUFF (NOT TO SCALE )

The Washing Area
squeegee wash tank
screen washing bay
screen
hose
duck boards
screen storage racks

The Washing Area
squeegee wash tank
screen washing bay
screen
hose
duck boards
screen storage racks
DRAWING: DAVID LUFF (NOT TO SCALE )

The shop had a wash-bay where three printers’ assistants could individually hose the screen clean while
another could wash a squeegee. There were drying-storage racks for around sixty screens for the production
tables and a separate set of racks for the sampler and strike-off printers.

The shop had a wash-bay where three printers’ assistants could individually hose the screen clean while
another could wash a squeegee. There were drying-storage racks for around sixty screens for the production
tables and a separate set of racks for the sampler and strike-off printers.

During the early years of the Screen Shop the printing screens were carried along by two printers, but all was
soon to change.

Around 1949/1950 the Works Manager and the head of maintenance paid a visit to the French textile-printing
area of Lyon. Here they saw many different styles of hand-printing, with some using hand-operated carriages.
A number of secret sketches were made and on returning to Merton Abbey the Liberty hand-operated printing
carriage was born. The Liberty carriage is not an identical copy of any French one, but the result of a number
of experimental prototypes. A new double squeegee with a detachable handle was also designed and this
made the carriage one-man operable, even with the 50-inch cottons.

As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s the textile-printing works of Coles of Hackbridge ceased trading. All
equipment was put up for sale with a good part of it being bought by Liberty for Merton. Printing blocks were
also purchased. The normal procedure was to buy only the outline block and make new ones for the fill-in
colours. These designs on blocks would have received a number in the Liberty collection followed or
proceeded by the first letter of the former works. Most of this equipment found a new home in the New Shop
which became known as Coles Shop. (There is no ‘The’ in the name).

Attempts were made in the early post-war years to resurrect the Lotus Sports Club. It now found very little
support, though it had been extremely popular between the two wars, and only the football team continued.
Even the football team eventually became sponsored by an outside body and was by then no longer made up
entirely of staff from the print works. The former sports ground became overgrown and was sold during the
late 1950s and is now part of the Lyon Road Industrial Estate. The Pavilion survived into the late 1970s and
for many years it housed the screen-making department. It became a frame store from 1972, when screen-
making moved into the top floor of The 1926 Shop. Then, after having a new roof and used by supervised
youngsters during their school holidays, it became heavily vandalised. Local youngsters smashed the roof tiles
and, after attempts to burn it down on two occasions, it was demolished.

Apprentices to train as block-printers were still being employed right up until block-printing ceased at Merton
in 1957. John Bostock became Liberty’s last person to complete his apprenticeship, after which he became
a screen printer. This gives me the impression that it was a hasty decision rather than a planned works
production change.

The year 1957 saw the building of a very large corrugated-iron shed. Inside it was fitted out with Dexion
shelving and could house around 4000 screens. It continued as the screen store until this part of the works was
sold to the Construction Industry Training Board in 1974. They used half of it, for a number of years, as a
store until its final demise in the early 1980s.

With the end of block-printing all tables were converted to screen-printing using the printing carriages. They
were only, as far as I can recall, used for the printing of headscarves, or as we called them ‘squares’. The
most popular headscarves were the 24- and 27-inch ones and as the printer could reach across the screen
a single squeegee was used. By the 1950s the works operated as two companies, Merton Printers Ltd and
Liberty Warehouse. Both were run as separate organisations with different contracts of employment, hours
and pay. The print works had the better pay rates while the warehouse was considered a much cleaner job.

Screen Printing Carriage

Screen Printing Carriage
nylonscreen
from
above

wheel in key V registration and locked

side views

raised for moving

These carriages were
designed for one-
person operation

carriage raised wheel bounces over V in key

DRAWING: DAVID LUFF (NOT TO SCALE )
Diagram of Merton Printers’ printing carriage

Fred Sears
demonstrating the
double squeegee and
handles in the screen
shop on the sampling
table.
Monday 24th July 1972

DAVID LUFF

DAVID LUFF

Once the end is squared,
the threads are pulled
straight in a pull-up
stick, pulled tight, and
fixed to the table. The
threads have to be
perfectly straight.
Squares are torn from
the lengths of printed
fabric and not cut. David
is being assisted by Sid
Tappin, and Peter Lynch
is in the background.

DAVID LUFF

DAVID LUFF
DAVID LUFF

Alf Tomkin printing on table 2 in the Screen Shop in the
1970s. This is one of the 1966 metal 52-yard tables. He
is being filmed, but I can no longer remember who the
film crew were working for.

DAVID REEVES

The Works’ official address used to be 51 Station Road but, due to the operational railway running from
Wimbledon via Merton Abbey, all motor vehicles used the Littlers Close entrance.

The Works’ official address used to be 51 Station Road but, due to the operational railway running from
Wimbledon via Merton Abbey, all motor vehicles used the Littlers Close entrance.

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, not only were the winds of change blowing over Africa they were also
penetrating Britain’s industrial and social life. Many of Britain’s factory sites were similar to the Merton
Abbey Print Works, where small individual workshop buildings attempted to cohere into one working unit.
Such sites may be perfect heaven to William Morris fanatics of today but for Merton Printers Ltd in the late
1950s and early 1960s, attempting to compete with the rest of world, I am of the opinion that they were now
a liability. By the early 1960s Liberty were seriously contemplating moving the print works to the Midlands.
The precise details of the proposed move are not known to me, but I do recall my brother-in-law, a screen-
printer at this time, talking about it and even considering moving with the works. Whatever the connection,
a fire at the Macclesfield print works of Artcraft had a profound influence on the final decision not to move.
The fire totally destroyed the Mill building and, with no possibility of reconstruction taking place, a number
of the staff came to Merton Abbey. Several of the former Artcraft staff took on management positions and
for many years we had two heads of some of the departments. Artcraft’s Dr Schwarz became a sort of
second general manager alongside Mr Slinger, although his sole interest seemed to be that of acquiring and
running a flatbed-printing machine. There had been one at Artcraft that had been destroyed in the fire. The
purchase of the flatbed-printing machines, as they were known, took some time to complete. I do have some
correspondence in connection with this purchase but a number of vital letters are missing and I do not know
why he bought an Italian flatbed when I know that the original intention had been to buy a Swiss model.

These machines could not be fitted into any odd corner and although they required some space it did not
necessarily have to be extensively large with a high ceiling area.

Back in 1937/38, an entire evaluation was carried out on the impact the production from the new screen shop
would have on the Works. From this, the necessary changes were made. In the early 1960s, no such evaluation
seems to have taken place and, having been there at the time, my personal view is that those with influence,
along with management at the works, were totally obsessed with the printing machines. The rest of the works,
and specifically the hand-printing tables, became almost a forgotten entity.

The early 1960s saw the Colour House move from the old brick building into half the ground floor of The 1926
Shop. This was certainly long overdue, as the old building could hardly be described as spacious with an
abundance of natural light.

These years also saw improvements made to the banks of the Wandle as a precaution against flooding and
included new sluice gates alongside the watermill. Not being familiar with the variation of the Wandle’s power,
they diverted the river to flow under the water wheel while work took place on the sluice gate. The inevitable
happened and a sudden surge of water caused the wheel to turn and a large number of paddles were smashed.
They were replaced, or rather every other one was, with identical ones made from discarded box wood. This
was purely a cosmetic restoration not requiring all paddles, as it was not intended to restore it to working order.
The flood prevention does work to a point, but in 1968 and 1974 the river did overflow after a long period of
heavy rain. In 1968 it completely flooded the ground floor rooms of the wash and steam house, and in 1974
I and my work colleagues watched from the windows of Coles Shop as the river overflowed down the yard,
not, fortunately, at a great pace or for a long period.

MERTON PRINTERS LTD

MERTON PRINTERS LTD

Works Manager’s house (1967)

C The Pavilion

Screen making

D The Old Colour House

Gum and powder store

H The 1926 Shop

Headscarf printing andcolour mixing

I The Long Shop

Stenter, combiner and two printingtables

J The Screen Shop

Allovers printing

M The Screen Store Shed

Printing screen store

N The Maintenance Shop
O The Boiler House

P The Steam House
Q The Wash House

T The New Office Block

General, main office, grey andwhite store,
dispatch and maintenance store

LIBERTY WAREHOUSE

B The Front Shop

Furnishing fabric store

E The Mill

Stationery store

F Coles Shop

First floor: Offices;
Ground: Upholstery

K The 1929 Shop

Printed fabric store

L The Block Shop

Main offices

T The New Office Block

Header-board make up shop

G The Canteen

Used by both Merton Printers Ltdand Liberty Warehouse

A

G

GENERAL

t Toilets
cpch
ws
tk
Car parksChimneyWhite Spirit storeTanks
c
pr
Canopy’Priory Wall’

The southern part of the Liberty site 1965

The southern part of the Liberty site 1965

The 1926 Shop 1st floor

ground floor

printing tables

The Long Shop
pad mangle The Screen Shop
combining

machine

The New Office Block

1st floor

stenter G: gentlemen

L: ladies
screen washing bay Loft
1st o: office
maintenance ground floor
floors

screen

racks boilers Ground floor
rinse fa: first aid room
channel tp: telephone switchboard,

boiling off reception
tubs g: grey-white cloth store

m: maintenance store
maintenance office

THE PRINTING SHOPS
The 1926 Shop

steaming chest

ground floor: Two 20-yard x 40-inch-wide tables

and stars

Colour and gum-mixing shop
first floor: Six 20-yard x 40-inch-wide tables
Tables made of Pitch Pine wood with hand-operated carriages

The Screen Shop

ground floor

only: Tables 1 – 4 – 5 – 6 32 yards long x 54 inches wide
Tables 2 – 3 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 32 yards long x 40 inches wide
Table 11 sample and strike-off 15 yards, part 54, part 40 inches wide

Tables made of pre-cast concrete with hand-operated carriages

The Long Shop

All tables had a rubber

ground floor

printing surface

only: Two 20-yard x 40-inch-wide tables
Tables made of Pine wood with hand-operated carriages

Tables 4 and 5 were
heated by electric
blanket under printing
surface

The end of an era 1965–1972

The end of an era 1965–1972

The working day in any factory rarely remains static for very long. New technology, the world’s economy
and the individual company’s finances all have an effect on the day-to-day life inside the factory gates.

Even so, such was the rapid decline of Britain’s industrial manufacturing base from the late 1970s, right
through to the deliberate destruction of the 1980s, that it must have surprised even the most pessimistic of
doom forecasters.

The post-war years up to 1965 had seen relatively little change to the day-to-day life inside the Merton Abbey
Print Works. Block-printing had ceased in 1957, but all tables were converted to screens using the hand-
operated printing carriages. Headscarves, or squares as they were known to the printers on site, continued
to be printed in 10- to 12-yard lengths. All that had really changed had been the style of printing. The block-
printer and tierer had now become the screen-printer and servicer.

The Screen Shop remained the main printing area, as it had been since the end of the war. Here I was not
only to spend my first day in the works but also the following seven years.

There were ten 32-yard printing tables here, along with one 15-yard one, used for the testing of new screens
and the printing of sample lengths. In the adjacent Long Shop there were another two 25-yard tables and all
were used for the printing of dress and furnishing fabrics and were known as ‘all-overs’. After a week of
training in the craft of hand textile printing, watched over by Fred Sears, one of the Long Shop tables became
my first allotted table.

All silks and wools, with the exception of headscarf squares, were combined onto a backing cotton before
printing commenced. This backing cotton soaked up all the excess colour that otherwise could have bled back
into the fabric. The combining took place in the Long Shop. Here the operator not only had to make sure that
the fabric to be printed stuck onto the backing cotton, but also that the threads were perfectly straight.

Each table had a printer and servicer, although when staffing levels dictated, a table could very easily be
worked by one person.

When I started at Libertys, they were in the process of reducing the working week from 45 to 40 hours. This
had to be done over a number of years for financial reasons and had reached 42½ by January 1965.

All fabrics when they arrived at the works were known as a ‘grey stock’, with only the man-made fibres ready
for printing. The natural fabrics all required to be boiled-off, to remove unwanted particles and the small
amount of oil that had been used as a lubricant during the weaving process.

The boiling-off removed all the impurities from the fabric, after which it would have been dyed if required
or left as natural, an off-white colour. White is not a natural colour and is only achieved by bleaching.

During the boiling, dyeing, bleaching and washing processes, the wash house would often have been engulfed
in steam from the ceiling area down to almost floor level. This was never the most popular of shops to work
in!

From the wash house the wet fabrics went to the Long Shop where they were dried and rolled on a machine
called a stenter. It had now become ‘white stock’ and ready for printing.

Once printed, the fabric was returned to the Steam House, where the colours were made fast in a large steam
chest. Inside the chest the temperature would exceed 212o Fahrenheit, which would open the fibres of natural
fabrics and allow the colours to penetrate. On cooling they were held fast, and would remain so unless boiled
again.

DAVID LUFF

The rope wash in the
former Wash House. Just
outside the windows to
the left is Bennett’s
Ditch. The day is
Saturday 3rd March
1974. Like the washing
tubs and steaming chest
their working life has
come to an end.

DAVID LUFF

LEFT: The steaming chest, photographed on the same day
as the above. This view is taken on the first floor and the
lid opened to allow access to the star with fabric pinned
to it. 200 yards could be steamed at each session.
Its working life has now ended due to the sale of the land
here to the Construction Industry Training Board. The
chest was installed in 1938.

DAVID LUFF

To the north of the works site, a nondescript concrete bridge gave access to the western bank of the river
and the former sports pavilion. This unusual location had become the home of our screen-making department.
The inside had been divided up into three sections. One end was the darkroom where the screens were
engraved. The opposite end was where the girls traced out the negatives, and all were done by hand. Finally
there was the central area where the engraved screens were finished off ready for printing.
DAVID LUFF

To the north of the works site, a nondescript concrete bridge gave access to the western bank of the river
and the former sports pavilion. This unusual location had become the home of our screen-making department.
The inside had been divided up into three sections. One end was the darkroom where the screens were
engraved. The opposite end was where the girls traced out the negatives, and all were done by hand. Finally
there was the central area where the engraved screens were finished off ready for printing.
DAVID LUFF
The former sports ground Pavilion as seen on Sunday 30th October 1977 and certainly long past her prime. It had just
a few years earlier been completely retiled. A group of mindless local youths had great pleasure in smashing the roof
to pieces. They even tried on three occasions to burn the building down. As is typical of an age when the prosecution
of young vandals is considered to be a bad image on society, they won the day and the Pavilion was demolished.
A John Betjeman quote from his 1963 television programme “Branch Line Railway” is very appropriate here. He is
using it to describe a vandalised GWR auto coach:

“People hate things well-built, it gives them a guilty conscience” John Betjeman 1963

A piece of nylon was stretched and fixed to either a wooden or a metal frame, which was then coated with
a light-sensitive emulsion. It was dried and then placed onto a light-box where a negative had been secured.
Once exposed to a powerful light-source, the illuminated emulsion hardened while the pattern area, which
was not illuminated, remained soft and could be washed out. A fixing agent was applied to the emulsion, and
the screen was then ready for printing.

Another odd location found our canteen in the former surface air-raid shelter between Coles Shop and The
1926 Shop. The original Parnall wartime canteen had been on the ground floor of the new Office block, but
did not continue in such use during the post-war Liberty years. It had by 1965 become the ‘white-grey’ stores.

The years of the ‘swinging sixties’ saw the Liberty-design fabrics in great demand world-wide and
particularly so in America. It was designers such as Bernard Neville, whose patterns were regarded as
superb, exciting and outrageous, that put Liberty in the dizzy heights of the world textile trade.

Not all Liberty fabrics were printed at the Merton Abbey works. Most furnishing cottons were printed in the
Midlands by Barrachs and Park Adams. Many of these furnishing cottons required special colour-fixing
processing which was not available at Merton Printers at this time. Also our 32-yard tables were not really
suitable for long print-runs and this is where a 52- or 62-yard table would have been a better project.

Not all Liberty fabrics were printed at the Merton Abbey works. Most furnishing cottons were printed in the
Midlands by Barrachs and Park Adams. Many of these furnishing cottons required special colour-fixing
processing which was not available at Merton Printers at this time. Also our 32-yard tables were not really
suitable for long print-runs and this is where a 52- or 62-yard table would have been a better project.

It also had a high very cluttered ceiling area full of girders, pipes and light fittings, all open to the floor below.
Dust accumulated here and inevitably fell onto the printing machines below.

On the completion of what became known as the Machine Shop, part of the northern wall of the Screen Shop
was removed to form a large L-shaped printing area. This was complemented by a small extension to The
1926 Shop so as to give direct access to the Colour House. The only other significant construction at this time
was a new Wash House, specifically for the processing of ‘vat-coloured’ cotton. It was built during 1968 on
the northern end of the 1905 Wash House.

The printing machine arrived in various-sized boxes and it fitted together like a meccano set. It very quickly
acquired the name of Meccano. This was not in any way connected with Frank Hornby’s construction kits,
but an abbreviation of the machine-manufacturers’ name, Mecanotesselle.

The boxes were unloaded from the lorries using the former Parnall block and tackle crane under the canopy

– the only occasion I can recall it being used. Once unpacked it took just one Italian fitter, with some assistance
from our own maintenance staff, to assemble our new flatbed-printing machine.
Alongside the printing machine, five new hand-tables were installed. These were identical in description to
the concrete ones except that they were constructed in metal. The printing surfaces were rubber and they
could be heated using under-table steam-pipes. This heating was totally uncontrollable, you could either have
the table-surface hot or cold, there being nothing possible in between. There were four 52-yard and one at
62 yards in length. Each had a hand-operated printing carriage running on it.

With the opening up of the Screen and Machine Shops, four of the concrete tables were replaced by three
72-inch-wide 52-yard metal ones. Two of these had fully-automatic printing carriages running on them. They
were rather cumbersome slow-moving machines and not really successful at Merton Printers.

They were very useful with fabrics that required many strokes of the squeegees, but we did very little of this
kind of work. The work to which they were most suited was the printing of carpets. Hand-operated carriages
were far faster and did not require electricity to run them.

Unfortunately no lessons were learnt from this exercise. The future would see a similar type of semiautomatic
carriage purchased, and again proved to be a costly error. After a couple of years these two printing
carriages fell out of use and were replaced by hand-operated ones. They were eventually sold for scrap.

As far as I am aware, in 1965 there was no evaluation as in 1937 as to the impact the extra yardage of prints
from a machine would have on the Works’ processing departments. If such had occurred the inevitable
conclusion would have led to an enlargement of the wash and steaming facilities. The existing Screen Shop
tables would have been extended to 52 yards and a new machine-printing shop would have been a complete
self-contained unit.

At the time of construction of the new workshop it seemed to be more of a PR exercise for this new type of
building. As a general warehouse for storing non-temperature-affected items it was perfect, but no use at
all for a screen-printing shop.

Management changes came to the Works in the mid-1960s, with the retirement of Mr Slinger. Dr Schwarz,
who had come from Artcraft, also retired around the same time on grounds of ill health, or so we were told.

Management changes came to the Works in the mid-1960s, with the retirement of Mr Slinger. Dr Schwarz,
who had come from Artcraft, also retired around the same time on grounds of ill health, or so we were told.

We also had a new Works Manager and a chemist. Both came from the same printworks in the Midlands
and, although very capable in their respective roles at Merton, they never seemed to me to be totally
committed. They much preferred to return home every weekend they could do so, rather than make the
complete move to South London.

At the time of the arrival of the new chemist we already had a very capable one of our own, Mr Wooley.

Mr Wooley was exceptionally popular on the shop-floor, as well as being an expert in the operational aspect
of the works. His subsequent demotion and premature forced resignation gave us little confidence in the new
management’s ability to run the works. To coin a phrase, ‘we were not selling tins of baked-beans’, this was
a specialised industrial trade that required the expertise built up over years of working within the factory.

The new Merton Printers’ management team appeared to have only one policy for the works, and that was
printing with the flatbed-printing machines only. The hand-tables were regarded as obsolete, slow and old-
fashioned. They were basically relegated to printing only that which the machine could not – small orders and
squares. This became even more apparent with the arrival of the second flatbed-printing machine. This
blinkered policy would eventually have devastating consequences for the works.

The second flatbed-printing machine installed in our works was a Swiss-built Buser. After working on both
manufactures of flatbed, I think it would be universally agreed that the Buser was the superior of the two
machines.

Those who volunteered to work on the new machine were flown out to the Swiss factory. Here they not only
saw the assembly and first printing trials of our new machine, but also gained first-hand experience in
operating it.

Many of the problems that began to affect the Works seem to have started with the arrival of the printing
machines. This was, of course, purely coincidental. Even so, it is hard now to dissociate the period with the
beginning of the decline that led to the closure of the Works.

These printing machines were superbly engineered and constructed. The screens were easy to set up and
they produced very high-quality prints. The main problem was always keeping the threads perfectly straight,
which eliminated the printing of headscarf squares. A thread-straightening machine was available as an add-
on accessory, but it was not totally successful due to complexity of operation, which will be dealt with in a
later book. We never had one on the printing machines at Merton.

All silks and wools were first combined onto a backing cotton. This stopped bubble marks, and especially so
on the silks, caused by irregularities on the machine’s printing-blanket. It was discontinued as not necessary
and uneconomical and, although we would still print the wools, we could no longer print silks.

To run the machines 24 hours a day, five days a week, required far more print-orders than Liberty could
supply. This led again to the appointment of salesmen to scour the country looking for print-orders.
Unfortunately, we were not the only works in the same dilemma. It had in many circumstances to be work
at any price, and this led to many print-runs being done at cost or less, just to keep the printing machines
running. We were lucky that at this time there were plenty of orders around. Stretch-nylon covers were very
popular, and large orders came in. As far as I am aware, these were printed at cost due to the immense
competition for such orders.

To keep the machines in work, all ‘all-over’ patterns were transferred from the hand-tables, leaving them with
only headscarf squares. These hand-tables had so much potential that their deliberate demise was as tragic
as the management team of the day. Never again would we see printing tables of such quality of design and
construction.

Plan of Merton Printers Ltd and Liberty Warehouse 1970

Plan of Merton Printers Ltd and Liberty Warehouse 1970

A The Cottage

Works Manager’s house (1967)
Maintenance engineer’s house (1970)

C The Pavilion

Screen making

D The Old Colour House

Gum and powder store

H The 1926 Shop

Headscarf printing (until 1970),
colour mixing

I The Long Shop

Stenter, cans, pad mangle

J The Screen Shop

Allovers until 1970,
then headscarves only

M The Screen Store Shed

N The Maintenance Shop
O The Boiler House

P The Steam House
Q The Wash House

T The New Office Block

as in 1965

U The Machine Shop (1966)

Flatbed printing machines

V New Wash House

Flash-ager, Isotex, winches

LIBERTY WAREHOUSE
B The Front Shop

Furnishing fabric storeLiberty of London Studio

E The Mill

Stationery store

F Coles Shop

First floor: Offices; Ground: M.P.Ltd White store

K The 1929 Shop

Printed fabric store

L The Block Shop

Main Office

T The New Office Block

Header board make up shop

W The Marley Building

Extra warehouse storing room

G The Canteen
Used by both Merton Printers Ltdand Liberty WarehouseCanteen closed in 1975

GENERAL
t Toilets
cp Car parksch Chimmel
ws White Spirit store tanktk Tanks
c Canopy
pr ‘Priory Wall’

The Printing Shops 1967

The Printing Shops 1967
screens
Table:
Tables:
Table:
The Machine Shop
11 62 yards long x 40 inches
12 – 13 – 14 52 yards long x 40 inches
15 52 yards long x 72 inches
all made of metal
tables: 1 – 2-3 -11 12
– 13 – 14 – 15
heated by
steam pipes

Flatbed printing machine: Italian Mecanotesselle

tables 4 and 4A
heated by
The 1926 Shop electric blankets

ground floor:

colour and gum mixing

1st floor:

six tables, 20 yards long by 40 inches wide
All wooden pine table

The Screen Shop

Tables: 1 – 2 – 3 52 yards long x 72 inches
Tables: 4 – 4A – 5 – 6 32 yards long x 60 inches
Tables: 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 32 yards long by 40 inches

tables 1-3 metal-built 1966/7
tables 4-10 of pre-cast concrete Tables 1-10

The Long Shop screen wash bay 1stNew Farmatex stenter and old open stenter floor: Maintenance shop
Cans for drying heavy cottons groundPad mangle and combining machine floor: Maintenance office

1

2

The Screen Shed

3

New
Wash

4

House

The Washing and Steaming Shops

1: new Isotex full-width washing machine
2: spin dryer
3: washing winches, 2 small and 1 large
4: boiling-off tubs and winch
5: 1st floor: steaming chest and stars
6: ground floor: creeper dryer for headscarves and silk and store area
7: store area for steamed and unsteamed fabrics

The Printing Shops 1970

The Printing Shops 1970

The Machine Shop

M: Mecanotesselle flatbed printing machine
B: Swiss Buser flatbed printing machine
The 1926 Shop

1st floor: hand-tables made redundant and dismantled
headscarf printing transferred to the Screen Shop
Ground floor: colour and gum mixing

The Long Shop

Farmatex stenter, cans and pad mangle

The Screen Shop

Tables: 1 – 2 – 3 52 yards long x 72 inches
Tables: 4 – 4A – 5 – 6 32 yards long x 60 inches
Tables: 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 32 yards long x 40 inches

tables 1-3 metal construction, steam-heated from beneath
tables 4-10 of pre-cast concrete, no heating
except 4/4A electric blanket under
rubber printing surface

The Screen Shed

The Washing and Steaming Shops

all as in 1967

The Changing Print Shops

The Changing Print Shops

1965 hand-printing tables only
18 tables 8-hour day plus 1 hour overtime
18 printers }each printer
18 servicers }daily approx. 200 yards
1 screen washer }
= 3200 yards
1967 hand-printing tables plus one flatbed machine
24 tables 8-hour day plus 1 hour overtime
24 printers }each printer
24 servicers }daily approx. 200 yards
1 screen washer }
= 4800 yards
1 machine two 8-hour shifts
6 printers
approx. 11 hours printing
approx. 250 yards per hour = 2750 yards

1971 hand-printing tables plus two printing machines

8 tables 8-hour day plus 1 hour overtime
8 printers }each printer
8 servicers }daily approx. 200 yards = 1600 yards

2 machines two 12-hour shifts 18 hours printing
12 printers approx. 250 yards per hour = 9000 yards

The processing department had been set to handle the post-1937/38 redevelopment – new steaming chest
and washing range all capable of handling that period’s level of production.

The years that followed 1965 saw no enlargement to the steaming and washing ranges with the exception
of a new Wash House specifically for the fixing and washing of vat-coloured cottons. This new department
only relieved the older one at times of large orders of vat-coloured furnishing cottons.

There is basically no problem, so long as it is remembered that printing can only be as fast as the slowest part
of the complete production line.

Trouble at Mill

The prospect of working on the printing machine brought out very little enthusiasm among the existing hand-
table printers. This was mainly due to the shift working and particularly the late and night shifts.

Most of the new machine-printers had to be recruited from outside the Works, but even this did not prove
to be entirely successful. A change from 8- to 12-hour shifts with the incentive of increased pay certainly went
a long way in improving the recruitment situation.

As already mentioned, the production of prints was totally controlled by that which could be steamed, washed
and dried. In fact, looking at Merton Printers, it is a very simple conclusion that the processing departments
needed to run longer than the printing departments.

Logic in no way prevailed and the prints just kept rolling off the end of the printing machines. On some
occasions, the prints totally engulfed the steaming and washing departments. Many of the prints coming off
the machines ended up piled high on pallets and, when these ran out, on polythene on the floor and on the
unused hand-tables.

For short periods of storage time there was no problem, as the fabrics straight off the machines were bone
dry. After standing around they attracted moisture out of the air and then very quickly became damp. Colours
bled into each other, resulting in tens of thousands of yards of printed fabrics being totally ruined. This still
did not change anything. The prints just kept on rolling off the end of the printing machines.

For short periods of storage time there was no problem, as the fabrics straight off the machines were bone
dry. After standing around they attracted moisture out of the air and then very quickly became damp. Colours
bled into each other, resulting in tens of thousands of yards of printed fabrics being totally ruined. This still
did not change anything. The prints just kept on rolling off the end of the printing machines.

The 1960s saw the concreting over of the lawns for car-parking, even though there was already adequate space
behind the Screen Store. No doubt the latter was too far for some persons to walk.

As the decade of the swinging sixties came to a close, Merton Printers were basically in the same situation they
were at the end of the fifties. The site still contained a hotchpotch of workshops instead of a streamlined all-
purpose printing works.

The Italian Mecanotesselle
flatbed-printing machine
in the early 1970s. David
Reeves is watching over
the printing of a single-
colour design. To the upper
left is the not-so-good air-
conditioning trunking.

KEN IMIRE

The Swiss Buser flatbed-
printing machine with
Colin Tapping and Colin
Jones printing a lace
fabric. The part of the
machine to the bottom right
was for the use of roller-
screens. These were not
used at Merton. Converted
to screen, 14 screens was
the maximum that could be
printed in one pattern.

DAVID LUFF

Once again, I assume, the Works had become a financial liability, for a Factory Management Consultant and
Time and Motion personnel were commissioned. Their task should have been to bring in effective cost-cutting
improvements. These, in my opinion, never amounted to more than making it more difficult to earn the bonuses
and the stopping of all overtime. Just what benefits the company achieved from this exercise I have no
knowledge. One thing I do know is that it totally exacerbated the already-bad feeling towards the Works’
Management.

Once again, I assume, the Works had become a financial liability, for a Factory Management Consultant and
Time and Motion personnel were commissioned. Their task should have been to bring in effective cost-cutting
improvements. These, in my opinion, never amounted to more than making it more difficult to earn the bonuses
and the stopping of all overtime. Just what benefits the company achieved from this exercise I have no
knowledge. One thing I do know is that it totally exacerbated the already-bad feeling towards the Works’
Management.

A number of forward-looking changes were proposed and an immediate start was made on implementing
them. Unfortunately, as time would unveil, all was too late.

They included the training of new department heads to take over when the time came, and the transferring
of screen-making and sample-printing to the direct control of the Liberty Studio.

The policy of excluding the Liberty Studio staff from the Print Workshop, which had been in place during my
years and possibly earlier, became an open-access policy overnight. The reason for the restriction has never
been made clear to me. Not only were we owned by Liberty, but also naturally all print was for them or their
commissioned customers. It may possibly date from the arrival of Artcraft staff in the early 1960s. Dr
Schwarz, I do remember, always got very angry when he found any of the Studio staff in the Works. They
were allowed in but had to obtain permission first.

The width of varuna wool increased from 36 to 45 inches and then to 54 inches. Pattern repeats went from
16 inches and 24 inches to 36 and 48.

The 48-inch multi-coloured repeat patterns caused so many problems with misfitting that it was quickly
abandoned, with 36-inch repeat being the largest. This should have set a precedent for the following years.
No such logic prevailed. We would go through the same trials with 48-inch repeats with the same negative
results. Vita Tex, Riselime and Merton Fabrics all had to try them, even though they were told it would not
work.

The Works certainly appeared to be at the beginning of a new era, and then one afternoon in the early summer
of 1972 we were all called to a meeting in the Long Shop, where Liberty informed us that they had sold the
Print Works and the site.

I can no longer recall the reasons Liberty gave that afternoon for selling the Works. Nor can I now remember
the reaction of those around me, but I do think that many felt somewhat betrayed.

Really we should not have been that surprised, for these were the years when the property speculators were
rampaging and plundering the assets of Britain’s industrial heartland as fast as they could. In fact such was
the pace, it has been said that they did more damage to Britain’s industrial base in six months than the German
Luftwaffe had done in six years of bombing.

To be completely fair to Liberty, they could have made a handsome profit from the sale of the Works and
site, but chose to give it away for a song. This was to safeguard our pay and contracts of employment.

There had been a number of interested buyers, but only Vita Tex of Slough agreed to take the Works on
Liberty’s terms and conditions.

During my years at Liberty’s I have known, and printed the patterns of, three designers – Bernard Neville,
Blair Pride and Susan Collier. These three, to my knowledge, are not household names, but I would put them
as the top textile-pattern designers of all times. Bernard left Liberty’s some time in the late 1960s, and with
Blair ultimately passing in the early 1970s, it left Susan as the head of the Liberty Design Studio.

Not everyone accepted the sale as final. Susan Collier had a number of meetings with the Liberty Board in
an attempt to get them to change their minds. When she could not get them to retain the whole site she tried
to keep the Sampling section. Unfortunately again she was not successful, and on 1st August 1972 we became
part of the Vita Tex group.

Arthur and Oliver Liberty

Arthur and Oliver Liberty

During my years, I can only recall Arthur in a wheelchair, due to a riding accident that happened during the
early 1960s. This in no way stopped his visits, and a lift had been installed in Coles Shop to give him access
to the Warehouse offices that were located here on the first floor. There was a first-floor-level walkway to
the Liberty Studios in the Front Shop.

Oliver often came into the Screen Shop, where he always had time to spend talking to one and all. I can recall
him speaking to me, asking if I had recently started work, as he had not seen me before. He would come along
on the retirement drink-ups and never expressed any ‘gracious attitudes’ – in fact he was indistinguishable from
the rest of us.

There was an atmosphere of a family firm, but not quite. Many of the staff there when I started had been there
since leaving school. Many were to retire with well over 40-years’ service and one, Ted Greene, retired after
51 years with Liberty’s.

We all belonged to the Liberty in-house pension scheme, which you joined at 21, with retirement at 65. It was
later transferred to the Vita Tex in-house scheme, but came to an end with Riselime, who had no such
provision.

The Liberty family were always committed to the Works and did not sell it on a whim, as has been suggested
by some so-called historical publications.

Back in the recession years of the 1930s, Liberty did not rest on its laurels. They employed salesmen and
returned the Works to full-time working. Had the War not intervened, their 1937/38 redevelopment would
have seen a doubling of the staff at the Merton Abbey Print Works.

The post-war years brought more problems to the Works. Closure would have been the easy option, but
Liberty looked at moving, and then invested again. Unfortunately, those on the ground were not up to the task,
and Brian Cleveland did not come to the Works until after Libertys had sold it. The Works were sold for a
song and Libertys stuck with us over the years, through thick and thin.

Even Arthur Liberty’s chauffeur got involved with the printworks from time to time. During the annual Paris
Fashion Show, should a change of a colourway be required, instructions would be conveyed to the Studio, and
then to the Print Works at Merton. While a short sample length was being printed and processed, the chauffeur
would turn up at the Works with Arthur’s shining limousine to await the print and then he took it direct to
London Airport. Here a courier would take it on to Paris.Today, as I write, Liberty is Liberty now in name
only, and we are left to speculate what could have been if the world had been a different place.

The Vita Tex Years 1972–1977

The Works retained the trading name of Merton Printers Ltd. This made sense at the time when Merton Printers
Ltd spelt top-quality prints, and it has been said that fabrics washed in Wandle water had a much softer feel
than others washed elsewhere.

Our connection with Liberty did not cease. They just became another commission customer. They were, of
course, not just any other, they were the most important. Without them we would not have been viable.

The Liberty Warehouse and Studio remained on site for a couple of years as tenants. This was until their new
warehouse on the former Airfix factory site in Wandsworth had been completed. Liberty rented the ground
floor of The 1929 Shop and the first floor and attic of the Front Shop.

The owners of Vita Tex and now Merton Printers Ltd were the Whesley family, of which we saw a father
and two sons. (They may possibly still own the former.) Whenever they visited our Works, one of the sons,
Brian, was always the most approachable and would speak to anyone who wanted to converse with him.

The owners of Vita Tex and now Merton Printers Ltd were the Whesley family, of which we saw a father
and two sons. (They may possibly still own the former.) Whenever they visited our Works, one of the sons,
Brian, was always the most approachable and would speak to anyone who wanted to converse with him.

A new company called Vita Vogue was formed to oversee the development and sale of a new range of
designs, the majority of which would be printed on Vita Tex’s own man-made fibres. Over the following years
many hundreds of sets of screens were engraved. Few of these designs ever saw more than a sample print,
well not at Merton certainly.

The first year passed without any sign of the starting of the proposed new refurbishment. Then another. What
we did hear, though, was that the same old story was being told to all of Britain’s industrial workers nationwide,
not long after being taken over – the works had not been performing as well as expected, so any
investment would have to be put off until the situation improved.

But why? They had bought the Works and site for a song, knowing full well what needed to be done from day
one, and not ten years down the line.

All hand-table printing came to a premature end during 1973, with the exception of the sampling and strike-
off section. This actually transferred from the Screen Shop to the ground floor of Coles. Here, two 12-yard
tables were installed with two screen-washing bays and a waist-high tank for the washing of the squeegees.
Each table had two hand-printing carriages on them, and the intention was to have four printers and two
servicers. It very soon proved to be far too small. There was really nowhere else to go. The ideal shop would
have been the 1929 but at the time of the move it was being rented by Liberty Warehouse.

It very soon became apparent why the hand-tables had to go, when the land to the south of the Long Shop,
Screen Shop and The 1929 Shop was sold to the Construction Industry Training Board in 1974. The land sale
necessitated the relocation of all departments here, most of which were destined for the Screen Shop.

Of all the relocations, the Boiler proved to be the most complex and costly. Its new home became the Marley
building, which Liberty had purchased and erected during 1969 for extra warehouse space. It had stood on
part of the former car-park between the Water Mill and The 1929 Shop. It required extensive new pipework
to supply steam to the new locations of the steaming chest and washing ranges. Due to these locations, all
pipework from the Boiler spanned across the yard on a high girder. Before our own boiler could be moved,
all new pipework had to be in place and a temporary boiler hired. This resided just outside Coles Shop and
was extremely noisy for those working inside this shop.

There would have been no point in relocating the existing steaming chest and washing ranges. Neither could
cope any longer with the volume of prints, and with regard to the steaming chest, there was no suitable shop
available.

New, and reconditioned as good as new, replacement steamer and rope washing range arrived. The steaming
chest, due to the very large size of the individual parts, had to be installed through the roof of the Machine
Shop.

One of the casualties of the move was the vat-coloured fabrics fixing and full-width washing range.
Fortunately they were not scrapped, but simply stored in the open on the western side of the river.

Screen-making moved from the Pavilion to the first floor of the 1926 Shop. The restricted access here never
made this location suitable, but at the time there was no other workshop available.

Some of these relocations made sense. They brought the printing, steaming and washing into close proximity
to each other. The only real problem with this new cohesive unit was the lack of any partitioning between
the departments. This allowed steam from the winches and washing range to drift around.

Particularly affected were the screens in the store, now adjacent to the washing range. Here the steam drifted
across and at times saturated many screens for hours at a time. This led to the screens expanding, then
contracting, which led to misfitting, while on others the gum dissolved, causing the nylon to slip off the frames.
Steam in the ceiling area condensed, then dropped below. Mixed with grease and dirt, I often had to use a
high-pressure water-jet gun to remove it from the screen-printing area.

Particularly affected were the screens in the store, now adjacent to the washing range. Here the steam drifted
across and at times saturated many screens for hours at a time. This led to the screens expanding, then
contracting, which led to misfitting, while on others the gum dissolved, causing the nylon to slip off the frames.
Steam in the ceiling area condensed, then dropped below. Mixed with grease and dirt, I often had to use a
high-pressure water-jet gun to remove it from the screen-printing area.

Jimmy King and Ted Gilbert fixing Liberty varuna wool
onto one of the steaming stars. The star’s arm contained
many pins and you had to watch your fingers.

Saturday 18th September 1974

DAVID LUFF

Mr Brian Cleveland

Brian came to Merton Printers Ltd during 1973, and at a time when everyone assumed the closure of the
Works to be imminent.

He had applied for the position of Works Director on the retirement of Mr Slinger and, as we know, had not
been successful. Although I am now looking back with hindsight, in 1966 he would most certainly have been
the right person at the right time.

Brian’s enterprising leadership quickly reversed morale on the shop floor. He offered all those about to be
made redundant, with the coming closure of the Screen Shop’s hand-printing tables, alternative work. These
would not necessarily have been within the machine screen-printing department, but none took his offer.

The hand-printing tables duly closed down and that Brian did not stop this happening is the one real criticism
I have of his time at the Works. He possibly had no choice, as the Screen Shop would be required for other
uses with the coming sale of part of the site.

Brian instigated the new plans for a complete refurbishment of the Works, including a much-needed new roof
for the Machine Shop. All departments in adjacent separate workshops were to have connections built onto
the Machine Shop, along with a new Screen Store on the eastern side.

Wednesday 14th
March 1984

DAVID LUFF

The steaming chest in the Machine
Shop. It is in process of opening.

Late 1970s.

DAVID LUFF

He persuaded the factory’s owners to purchase a second Buser flatbed-printing machine, which duly arrived.
This one, a slightly smaller version of our original one, is alleged to have been Buser’s factory demonstration
model. With this type no longer in production, it was offered for sale.

He persuaded the factory’s owners to purchase a second Buser flatbed-printing machine, which duly arrived.
This one, a slightly smaller version of our original one, is alleged to have been Buser’s factory demonstration
model. With this type no longer in production, it was offered for sale.

The company that bought the machine refurbished it and sold it on. It went to a printworks in Pakistan, where
it possibly could still be working today.

These may have been good times for Merton Printers Ltd but elsewhere, beyond our factory gate, turmoil
had hit Britain’s industrial base.

Of these the most predominant in the public domain were the miners’ strikes of the early 1970s. This led to
a defiant Conservative government who made such statements as, “We will never give in to the miners”. It
is a great pity that when the Arabs doubled the price of oil at around the same time the same government did
not again show such a Dunkirk spirit.

Contrary to any other claims, it was Brian who had the water wheel restored to working order in 1974. The
plan was to use the water wheel to generate electricity during our periods of power cuts. The wheel did turn
once more, but it never generated any electricity, due to the very high charges made by Thames Water for
using the River Wandle. It just made it too uneconomic, and a diesel generator was hired instead.

The redundant full-width washing machine and ancillary equipment came back into production. Fortunately
they had been stored, albeit in the open, on the far side of the river, and not scrapped. They were reinstalled
in the Screen Shop by outside engineers, due to the complex operation of those machines. This allowed us
once more to print vat-coloured cottons.

Hand-printing made a surprise return to the 1929 Shop, where a 32-yard table and a Roubustelle semiautomatic
printing carriage were installed. It was a rather cumbersome machine in looks and size, and far
slower than an equivalent hand-operated carriage.

It had a white PVC printing surface and a chipboard table top. The printing surface was coated with a semipermanent
adhesive, onto which the fabric was fixed by rubbing down by hand. These tables were not suitable
for use with irons. This restricted its use mainly to cottons. Wools and silks could be laid, but you could not
pull the threads straight on the semi-permanent adhesive. A water-based gum was required, which could not
be used. The wools and silks could have been printed had they first been combined onto a backing cotton,
but this practice had been discontinued a few years earlier.

This hand-printing did not develop beyond a short trial period of a few weeks. The table remainedin situand,
along with this floor of the 1929 Shop, they were leased to Rustichina.

Whatever Brian’s intentions were for reinstating the printing tables, it was all about to come to an end before
it had begun.

In May 1975 the Works’ owners announced to Brian, who relayed it to Merton, that the Works was once more
up for sale. We were told that Vita Tex no longer regarded Merton Printers to be part of their expansion plan.
Had it ever?

Brian tried his best to buy the Works over the following couple of months, and he had the full support of the
shop floor behind him. I am not fully informed why it never came about, but it all ended in June 1975.

Brian had regular meetings with the owners in Slough, and even though we knew what was taking place in
the background, there was no reason to believe the June meeting to be anything other than normal routine.

On returning, Brian informed us that he had resigned.

He had become a very popular Works Director and he was certainly very sadly missed.

The End of Merton Printers Ltd.

The End of Merton Printers Ltd.

To everyone’s amazement, after the ‘up for sale’ had been made public, Mr Brian Whesley met with the
Works’ Union Rep and Area Convenor, Mr Charles Barlow, and announced that they had changed their
minds and the Works were no longer for sale. They were once again committed to the long-term future of
Merton Printers Ltd, with money to invest so long as it could be earned.

All appeared fine through late summer and autumn but then, as the winter began to bite, we found ourselves
on a 2-day-week. This had come about due to a fall in orders, but rumours on the shop floor had a different
tale to tell. Here we heard that a planning application had been put in for closure, demolition and a rebuilding
with factory units for rent. All our customers had been informed and had withdrawn their orders. The planning
application had failed and we were now struggling to get back on our feet. This may not have been true, but
it was certainly circulating at the time. Fortunately we had many loyal customers such as Liberty’s, who once
more placed orders in our Works.

Once again normality returned, but not for long. In early December exactly half of the staff were made
redundant, all of which took effect on Christmas Eve 1975.

The Works reopened after the Christmas break in January 1976, with all departments working on a single
12-hour day. These were worked on a 3-, 4- or 5-day week. Mostly we worked a 4-day week, sometimes
5 and none that I can recall of 3 days.

Again the owners and our management team were still making statements as to their long-term commitment
to the Works. No one really took them seriously any more, and the following months certainly did not fill
everyone with confidence. In fact, the following 18 months of Merton Printers Ltd had the appearance, so
long as you were one of the chosen few, of ‘making hay while the sun shone’.

The Maintenance Shop soon acquired the name of ‘The Garage’, due to the continual repairing and respraying
of cars and vans. All were done during the working day without any objection from the owners or our
management team.

All items of non-essential metal were collected up and sold for scrap. It reached such a frenzy that it resembled
a ‘Scrap for Victory’ campaign of the last war, except I don’t think that this time it was for the benefit of all,
just the pockets of a few.

The Machine Shop boiler quickly succumbed to the scrap man. Its function had been to power a machine to
blow hot air into the workshop during the winter months and suck hot air out through the summer. While it
could blow hot air in, albeit along with many dust particles, it never really achieved its alleged potential of
sucking out the hot air. However, it was most certainly better than nothing, as we would very soon find out.

The new air-conditioning system consisted of fans blowing air heated by steam from the main boiler. It could,
of course, heat the shop during the winter (well, it could for a while, anyway) but it could in no way remove
hot air in the summer.

Our own maintenance engineer put in the system, but he left out one vital part, a drainage tank. Condensed
water eventually built up and, with nowhere to go, it simply blocked the entire system. Previously we had an
inadequate air-conditioning system, now we had none at all. This type of in-house maintenance was not
unusual at this time. Fortunately the printing machines were very complex and had to be left to outside experts
to service and repair them.

There were still plenty of large print-orders around. Stretch-nylon orders for one kept rolling off the end of
our printing machines. Liberty still favoured us with their 350,000-yard autumn varuna wool order, and I have
often wondered whether Liberty stuck with us out of loyalty to their former employees, many of whom still
worked here.

The summer of 1976 turned out to be one of the hottest on record. The unsuitable design of the Machine Shop,
along with its now inability to suck out hot air, made it extremely uncomfortable to work in. Temperatures
often exceeded 100The summer of 1976 turned out to be one of the hottest on record. The unsuitable design of the Machine Shop,
along with its now inability to suck out hot air, made it extremely uncomfortable to work in. Temperatures
often exceeded 100 F (38o C). Windows were meant to be kept shut to stop dust particles drifting in and
depositing themselves onto the screens, where they caused blockages. As fast as the foreman closed the
windows, they were opened up again.

The Water Mill opened during 1976 as a shop selling fabrics and other associated items. There was the added
attraction of the turning water wheel, and all very picturesque. No one seemed to realise that the turning wheel
generated power, and that this power required to be used. The inevitable happened. The power on one
occasion reached a peak and, having nowhere to unload, transferred it to the building. A quick action with
a large piece of wood prevented the entire mill from being demolished.

Against advice a new Roubustelle semi-auto hand-printing carriage with a 50-yard table was installed in the
Machine Shop. The idea had been to print silks which could command a high price. The table was not suitable
unless the silks were combined with a backing cotton. This could have been done as the skill was still there
in the hands of some staff. New machines would have been required as ours had been sold for scrap, but our
management were not experienced enough in the art of textile printing.

Buser Printing Machine
Staff – Monday 13th June
1977
David Luff – Harry Banks Kevin
Hobbs – Derick
Satterwhaite – Vince
Fernandes – and kneeling
Mark Gabrial. Foreman
Mick Reeves took the
photo.

MICHAEL REEVES

Processing staff –
Wednesday 22nd June 1977
Wilfred Spiller – John
Cawley – Ken Greene Harry
Green – James King
and Michael Stevenson

DAVID LUFF

One of the owners, most often Brian Whesley, made regular visits to the Works. He never appeared, to us
on the shop floor, to be making any direct interference in the day-to-day running of our Works. He would come
into the workshops and was always willing to speak to one and all. In many ways he reminded me of Oliver
Liberty, who was himself very approachable.

One of the owners, most often Brian Whesley, made regular visits to the Works. He never appeared, to us
on the shop floor, to be making any direct interference in the day-to-day running of our Works. He would come
into the workshops and was always willing to speak to one and all. In many ways he reminded me of Oliver
Liberty, who was himself very approachable.

In May 1977 the Whesleys announced that Merton Printers Ltd would close down in July. The reason given
at the time had been the large compensation payments to Libertys for prints with less than perfectly straight
threads.

Such compensation payouts were, and had always been, commonplace in industry. In fact, so common was
the practice that I would not be surprised if the printing price did not have in it an allowance for just such
payouts.

The Works would close down but the owners would talk to anyone interested in buying it. I do not know the
precise detail of what any sale would have entailed, but my feelings are that it would have been leasehold.
This could have been why Brian’s attempt had failed. In my view, the Works required too much money to
be spent on refurbishment to be viable.

Two companies did show an interest – Rustichina, who were at this time in the 1929 Shop and, to everyone’s
surprise, Laura Ashley. The Laura Ashley interest certainly stirred up some excitement, but were they
interested in the Works or just the order book? The Liberty orders were the jewel in Merton Printers’ crown,
which Laura Ashley could easily have transferred to their South Wales printworks.

A team from Laura Ashley South Wales works duly arrived, including Mr Ashley himself. They spent the
best part of the day looking over our Works. Speaking to one of the team, he did confirm what I would have
suspected, that Merton Printers just required too much money to be spent on it. They did not, to my recollection,
make a public decision that day. When it did arrive I do not think anyone was really surprised – disappointed,
yes.

This left Rustichina as the only interested party. Even here the negotiations progressed very slowly. As the
closure date approached all appeared to have been lost. Our machinery and equipment were put up for sale,
and various persons walked about the Works sticking ‘sold’ labels on items while we were still using them.

I had always assumed such auctions took place after closure, but someone certainly seemed more interested
in closedown rather than take-over.

Merton Printers Ltd finally shut down on 31st July 1977 and the name passed into history.

The Riselime Years 1977–1981

Rustichina eventually succeeded in obtaining a lease on the printworks. This involved the Workshop, the
Cottage and Front Shop, old Colour House, Coles, 1926 Shop, Machine, Screen and Long Shops and the Water
Mill. This took effect from 15th August 1977. An opening ceremony took place in the former surface air-raid
shelter, between Coles and The 1926 Shop, which had become the main Works’ office.

The Works was given the unusual name of Riselime Ltd. Rustichina retained its own separate identity, now
in the whole of The 1929 Shop.

Many of our former customers remained loyal and placed print-runs with us, including the most important of
all, Liberty. Liberty could not keep us in work for an entire year, but their orders were essential in keeping
the works viable. Some of Rustichina’s customers placed large orders with Riselime, along with a number
of completely new customers. Riselime would not print any orders at cost, so we lost all the really large stretch-
nylon print runs. At this time there were many other works chasing these orders, so there was no chance of
any increase in payments for these prints.

The working week returned to an 8-hour day, Monday to Friday. Overtime became very sporadic, one reason
being that we no longer printed the very large at-cost orders.

The working week returned to an 8-hour day, Monday to Friday. Overtime became very sporadic, one reason
being that we no longer printed the very large at-cost orders.

Many problems faced Riselime from day one, due to the lack of proper maintenance work done over the
previous 18 months. Hotspots were found on the outside of the boiler. An inspection revealed it had not been
cleaned out or serviced for some considerable time. Vita Tex admitted that their maintenance man on site
for Merton Printers had neglected his duties, and paid for its overhaul.

The full-width washing machine received a full overhaul. Such were the complexities of this machine that
a specialist electrician, familiar with this type of equipment, spent five days watching, checking and adjusting
the six electric motors until they were working in complete harmony with each other.

Many problems were totally beyond Rustichina’s control, such as the recession that hit the world during the
late 1970s. This was once again largely due to an increase in oil prices.

Autumn of 1979 through to the summer of 1980 was a particularly bad period. Rumours had it at the time that
there had been a change of landowner. The new owner of our Works’ site had attempted to close the Works
and redevelop with factory units. One thing he did do, and that was to allow the rerouting of the electric pylons
to run directly over the site. We were only told after it had been agreed. This is how I was told it had occurred,
and there being no time for any objections.

Roughly half the Screen Shop had a new concrete floor laid. The intention was to install new hand-printing
tables here. Unlike the Liberty tables these would have run east to west, not north to south.

The intended hand-tables and printing carriages were purchased from a Midlands company that had closed
down. Unfortunately, instead of this equipment being dismantled, it was removed as a factory clearance
operation. The printing surfaces were damaged beyond use, as all were simply cut off. Most of the printing
components had been damaged and the only items that looked intact were the printing carriages. None were
ever to turn a wheel at Merton Abbey. Some were extremely large and had possibly been used for printing
carpets. They appeared to me, and I never saw them working, to be either semi- or fully-automatic carriages.
The printer would have been more of an observer than physically printing. A return to table-printing was
certainly the right way forward, but I’m not too sure these tables were really the way to do it.

This equipment remained as it arrived, stored in the Screen Shop and around the yard, while an insurance claim
was fought out in court. They were eventually bought by a company who specialised in the refurbishment
and resale of redundant industrial machinery.

Whatever the long-term plans of Riselime, they all came to an end in June 1981. A missed payment for oil
to Charrington had led to them calling in the Bank, who in turn called in a Receiver.

The first we knew about it was when a Charrington’s pump and tanker arrived in the yard. They waited
patiently. Two suited men, both with briefcases, arrived and installed themselves in our office. As one of the
Works’ Union reps I was called to the office and informed that the company was now in Receivership. It
did not in any way affect Rustichina.

They were intending to run the Works for the time being and the pump and tanker duly left. They also informed
us that they would look into the possibility of selling the Works as an operating printers and we would be duly
informed. Unfortunately for us it had come at the end of the month. The Receivers told us that they were
not responsible for our month’s pay except from the day they had taken over. This would have to be claimed
from the government insurance, of which all PAYE employees were members.

Riselime 1977–1981

Riselime 1977–1981

Steamer
Flashager

Isotex full-width
washing machine
Rope wash
Screen store

Roubustelle hand-table
Buser 1
Buser 2
A The Cottage (not used)
B The Front Shop
C The Old Colour House
D Coles Shop
E The 1926 Shop
F The Machine Shop
G The Screen Shop
H The Long Shop

Stenter

I The Boiler House
J Toilets
K The Water Mill
L Water and oil tanks
m Pad mangle
n Boiler

o Conditioning racks
p Winches

The Works did not run for long. Some days later I was called into the office and told that the Works had closed
down. We had 15 minutes to collect our personal belongings and leave. We were given no payment of any
kind, and had to return the following Tuesday when this would be sorted out.

The Works did not run for long. Some days later I was called into the office and told that the Works had closed
down. We had 15 minutes to collect our personal belongings and leave. We were given no payment of any
kind, and had to return the following Tuesday when this would be sorted out.

Due to the fact that we had no pay for the month, and were not going to get any, the Receivers lent everyone
£120 which would have to be paid back when the government insurance paid out.

Riselime had now, like Merton Printers, passed into history.

Merton Fabrics Ltd 1981–1982

The Receivers were true to their word and they did manage to find a new owner for the printworks. Once again,
at the eleventh hour, it had been saved from total extinction.

The new owner had purchased the remaining lease on the site, which amounted to almost three years. There
was no possibility under any circumstances of the lease being renewed.

Our new owner already had a printworks, Daneshaw Products of Congleton, Cheshire. Daneshaw took over
as the main office, dealing with all wages, paid monthly, and all bills.

August 1981 saw the works reopened as Merton Fabrics Ltd. It immediately ran into a number of problems.
The Works now had a bad name with all former suppliers, due to the fact that they were owed money and
not due to receive any. They would not trade with Merton Fabrics Ltd unless they were paid all owed by
Riselime. This Merton Fabrics were not prepared to do. Charrington would not sell us any heavy diesel oil
and our new supplier, Shell, insisted on cash-on-delivery.

Gradually new suppliers were found and the Works settled down once more as if all the turmoil had never
happened.

Liberty continued to show their loyalty by placing regular orders for their varuna wool and furnishing cottons.
After all the uncertainties, the ups and downs, they were still supporting us.

More problems befell the Works as the winter of 1981 arrived. The exceptional cold spell of late December
gave us a white Christmas which continued off and on throughout January.

These cold and often damp days were a serious problem to the workshop. Just working an 8-hour day took
some time to heat up the workshop after a long cold night. The Machine Shop now had only the machine drying
units for heat. Sometimes hours were lost before the temperature reached the correct level. If the shop was
too cold and damp the fabric would not remain stuck to the printing-machine’s blanket. It might look stuck,
but then slip off in the middle of printing.

Once the warmer days of early spring had arrived, winter was forgotten for another year.

We now had a new Works Manager, Mr Timson, who became extremely popular. He had connections in the
textile world and succeeded in obtaining large print-runs of a single spot design.

He persuaded our owner of the merits of selling the smaller one of our two Buser flatbed-printing machines
and buying a rotary printer. By the early summer of 1982, negotiations were well advanced for the sale of
our smaller Buser to David Evans of Kent.

Before this sale could be completed, tragedy struck on the early hours of Thursday 15th July 1982. A fire gutted
the two printing machines, all wiring in the ceiling area and that which operated the steam chest, though the
chest itself and control panel were not damaged. Part of the hand-tables and various barrows of printed fabrics
had been burnt to cinders.

To us arriving that morning, the factory had been declared safe and we were allowed into the workshop. It
all looked very suspicious, with a number of separate fire points.

The fire destroyed both
printing machines.

The fire destroyed both
printing machines.
Looking down the
printing section of
Buser 1.

DAVID LUFF

The control section of
Buser 2.

On assisting a fireman to turn off the water feed to the printing machines, I asked if he knew how the fire had
started. He replied, “One of the printing machines had been left on, overheated, and caught fire”. As we all
clocked out close by the machines, everyone knew this to be untrue. I pointed this out to him, but he still insisted

On assisting a fireman to turn off the water feed to the printing machines, I asked if he knew how the fire had
started. He replied, “One of the printing machines had been left on, overheated, and caught fire”. As we all
clocked out close by the machines, everyone knew this to be untrue. I pointed this out to him, but he still insisted
an electrical fault, caused by one of the machines being left on.
I immediately informed our Works Manager, Mr Timson, who called in the police, who in turn called in a team
of forensic experts. Their conclusion was arson by person or persons unknown, with nine separate points of
fire identified.

The situation for the future of the Works was now very grim, as the printing machines were the only means
of bulk-production printing. The two 12-yard sample tables were not capable of long print-runs and, after ten
years of total neglect, these tables were in urgent need of complete refurbishment.

The following week saw the start of the annual summer holiday shutdown, which at least delayed an otherwise
hasty decision on laying-off all staff. A small group of volunteers came in over the holiday period and began
a clean-up where possible, while an evaluation took place over the future of Merton Fabrics Ltd.

There would be no problem in replacing the Buser printing machines, except that it would take around nine
months from ordering until they were installed and working. The secondary problem was the short,
unrenewable, lease on the works’ site. It did not make economic sense to refurbish the Machine Shop, install
the flatbed-printing machines and then have to move them within a period of one year.

Thoughts were given to relocating the works on a new site. This would not have been an easy task, due to
the complexity and large size of some of the machinery. Mr Timson did make a strenuous effort, but could
not find a site that was suitable. Once again, as with the printing machine, moving the entire Works could not
be done over a weekend. Had the Liberty Screen Shop hand-tables still been in use and undamaged by the
fire, then the new machine and move would not have been so urgent, as we could still have been able to do
some printing.

By the second week of the holiday shutdown, the decision had been taken to close down the Works. All those
on holiday were never to return and only three of the clean-up team survived redundancy.

Another idea, that had been seriously discussed but came to nothing, was to have our orders printed at
Daneshaw in Congleton, with the prints returning to Merton Abbey for processing and dispatch. Our own
machine-printers would have either done the printing there or supervised the runs. Our customers were
informed of the idea, but were not in agreement.

Liberty, for one, did not like the idea, and they transferred their work away, which included the eight new
designs for that year’s varuna wool range. These were being engraved and test-printed at the time of the fire.

The end of the printworks had not quite come. To assist a customer, who had lost his prints in the fire, a reprint
took place on the sample tables in Coles Shop during August. These were flags for the Gas Board showrooms.

Brian Gilbert made the last ever colours and, with the assistance of Ken Greene, I completed the very last
print-run at the Merton Abbey Works.

Once this was completed, the end had finally come, and this time the phoenix would not rise from the ashes.

All that was now left to do was to salvage and empty the workshops. This had been completed by the end
of the year and the final day of the Printworks was 24th December 1982 – Christmas Eve.

Some work had to take place in early January 1983, due to a customer’s requirement. This was the removal
of the steaming chest. It had arrived through the roof and it left the same way, on its way to its new home at
Park Adams.

DAVID LUFF
DAVID LUFF

DAVID LUFF
The flatbed-printing machine at Daneshaw, where it was proposed to print
our orders, returning them to Merton for processing. 1983

The years since 1982

The years since 1982

The year 1983 saw the formation of the Wandle Industrial Museum, from a Government temporary job
scheme. These schemes were not intended to create permanent employment, but simply to hide the true
number of the unemployed. All, with the exception of the Team Leader, could only be employed for a period
of 12 to 14 months. All these temporary schemes eventually came to an end, but the present Wandle Industrial
Museum evolved from it. The Museum Team made an attempt during the early years to establish a museum
on the Liberty site but, as time has shown, they were not successful.

Over the years from 1983 to 1989, the ownership of the land has changed and now belongs to a property
company that built the SavaCentre for Sainsbury. Promises were made at the time, in connection with the
SavaCentre and the refurbishment of the remaining Liberty-site workshops and conversion into what became
Merton Abbey Mills, that a museum would be incorporated. Sadly, to date no museum has ever seen the light
of day on site. The main problem, I expect, is that a museum, more often than not, does not make any money,
but usually does cost money to run.

Many artefacts have been saved from the Works, including a hand-printing carriage. In fact, enough exists
to set up a replica Liberty block- and screen-printing workshop, which could even become a working museum,
albeit part-time. Unfortunately, like a good bit of Merton’s history, these artefacts will eventually be lost
forever as time passes by.

Even attempts to extend interest in the Printworks have seen little success. My own written and photographic
collection, from which this brief history has been taken, was turned down by the Chief Librarian of Merton
in 1985 – he would not even look at them. Representatives from Sainsburys and their developers did view the
photographs and artefacts, but nothing ever evolved from the meeting.

Fortunately, eight of the Works’ buildings still exist, although none of those built by Mr Powell during the last
war. However, this is Merton Abbey Mills, and it is not my intention to deal with their history.

The water wheel, mill,
cottage and Front Shop
with a covering of snow,
sometime during the 1970s.

DAVID LUFF

THE WORKSHOP NAMES

THE WORKSHOP NAMES

Other names were long-lasting, due to the names on the key-fobs that the yardman and night-watchman used
for locking and opening.

In this instance, workshops could be known by two different names at the same time. Those working in them
would most often refer to them by the production taking place, while the yardman and night-watchman would
use the key-fob names.

During my eighteen years in the Works, the Long Shop was always referred to as such, regardless of what
took place within.

The Front Shop

Built 1912. Architect John Norman Randal Vining

This workshop, along with the cottage that adjoins it, were built in 1912 as a block-printing shop on the ground
floor, with the finished prints inspection department in the first floor and attic. This department became known
as the ‘Loft’, and this name stuck, regardless of where the finished prints were being inspected.

Back in 1983, the ten team members of the Wandle Industrial Museum were attempting to ascertain the
history of the Liberty workshops and their use. One team member had worked for Liberty during the early
1970s when the Studio was renting the first floor and attic of this shop. It was then wrongly assumed to have
been used as such since 1912, and built for precisely this function. The name ‘Showhouse’ was then given
to complement this new history, though it was never known as such during its working life.

Although the mistake was pointed out to the team-leader who replaced John Cook, he said he preferred this
version, although not correct, and would not change it.

Coles Shop

Built during the 1890s.

Built sometime during the 1890s by the site owners, the Littlers. It was built for block printing, which continued
on and off until the 1950s. Its final use was as the strike-off and sample printing shop on the ground floor, and
offices above. It was first known as the New Shop for obvious reasons, and then changed in the early 1950s
to Coles Shop. This name change came about due to equipment purchased from the closed-down Coles
Hackbridge printworks being set up and used in this shop.

The Old Colour House
and Coles Shop, with the
girder carrying the steam
pipes from the Boiler
House to the Machine
Shop. Photographed in
the early 1980s.

DAVID LUFF

The Old Colour House

The Old Colour House

1926 Shop.

Built 1926. Architect Stanley Hall

Its name comes from the year of its building, and lasted almost to the end, due to this being the name on the
key-fob. Apprentices were trained here for block-printing, and the name Apprentice Shop was picked up by
a member of an early group of the Wandle Industrial Museum. In my years from 1965 I had never heard this
name used, only 1926 Shop or Colour House.

The Long Shop

Built 1906. Architect John Norman Randal Vining

Named after its design, it was the only workshop to retain one name regardless of what took place within.
It was the second workshop built by Liberty, the first being the Wash House, built in 1905.

The Long Shop under
restoration for the Merton
Abbey Mills. Looking as
good as when first built, it
can no longer be viewed as
such due to adjacent
buildings.

DAVID LUFF

The 1929 Shop

Architect Messrs J Stevens Ltd

Another workshop named after the year it was built. For many of my years it was known as the Warehouse.
The name 1929 Shop also stuck, due to being the name on the key-fob. Rumours at the time of construction,
that it would be of four storeys, are possibly due to the extremely solid foundation that this, as all the buildings
close to the river, stands on. Having seen the original architect’s plans for this shop, there was never any
intention to build a four-storey construction, only two. This is my own personal favourite of the Liberty
workshops, but the present ramp and shops have totally destroyed its unique character.

The Block Shop

Built 1923. Architect Stanley Hall
Simply named after the location of the storage of the printing-blocks.

The Water Mill

Always known as such. Used by Liberty for many years as a stationery store.

The 1929 Shop,
taken in the 1980s.
DAVID LUFF
The 1929 Shop,
taken in the 1980s.
DAVID LUFF

DAVID LUFF

The 1938 Liberty
maintenance workshop
stands on the site of the
former wooden front-
line dressing station,
demolished for this
building. The boiler
house stood in the gap,
and beyond was the
Steam House. To the left,
the rear of the Parnall
office block can be seen.

The 1938 Liberty
maintenance workshop
stands on the site of the
former wooden front-
line dressing station,
demolished for this
building. The boiler
house stood in the gap,
and beyond was the
Steam House. To the left,
the rear of the Parnall
office block can be seen.
th April
1984

DAVID LUFF

The southern side of the
Screen Shop, minus
canopy.

Sunday 1st April 1984

DAVID LUFF

TRADE UNIONS

TRADE UNIONS

The block-printers were originally looked after by the Amalgamated Union of Block Printers of Great Britain
and Ireland. The Union was first registered on 18th September 1913. The then office in the rule book was 15
Cromwell Avenue, Gatley, Cheshire, and with Edward H Rollings as the General Secretary. Inside the rule
book the office was at 38 Station Road, Merton Abbey which, incidentally, was not the printworks. Edward
Rollings was still listed as the General Secretary. The two addresses, I would assume, were of a northern
and a southern office.

Up to and during my years, we were in the very capable hands of the Transport and General Workers Union.
Mr Charles Barlow was our area Union convenor. He oversaw all negotiations that our Shop Steward did
with the Works’ management who were, in reality, negotiating on behalf of the owners.

After Liberty sold the Works, all subsequent owners accepted the Transport and General Workers Union.
Mr Barlow retired in the late 1970s. The TGWU did not provide us with another area convenor and, although
Charles had taught us to stand on our own feet, his personal expertise was greatly missed.

ODDS AND ENDS

The Hospital

During my years at Merton Printers, I often heard the Old Colour House being referred to as ‘Lord Nelson’s
Hospital’. It was said that he had the wounded from his sea-battles treated here. A nice story, but not true.
Its distance from the naval ports of both Chatham and Portsmouth, along with the conditions of roads and
transport of the day, should have made the story a non-starter.

Saying this, there is always some truth in all legends. One of the former workshops on the Liberty site had
previously been a field hospital or, to be correct, a ‘front-line dressing station’. These had come into existence
during the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. They were collapsible structures that could be easily
set up, dismantled and moved around the battlefields. They became surplus to requirements when Napoleon
had been confined to St Helena. One was brought to the Merton Abbey Print Works around 1820 and
remained until demolished in 1937. It stood directly to the south of the Long Shop. It would appear that, once
demolished, its history had become transferred to the Old Colour House.

The Priory connections

The printworks stood within the grounds of the former Merton Priory. The Priory had a Hospice, although
the precise location is not known. It could have been in the vicinity of the Old Colour House. Again we have
a hospital connection, but I am sure it is the former that is wrongly associated with the Old Colour House.

The former eastern boundary wall of the Works, part of which was standing until the site was refurbished
to become Merton Abbey Mills, was often, in my years at the Works, wrongly called the Priory wall. It was
certainly not constructed of the same material as the still-standing section of the known Priory wall.

Roman Stane Street

Draw a straight line on a map from the known path of Roman Stane Street in Colliers Wood to that in Morden
and you pass directly through the Liberty Mill site. In fact the Old Colour House sits on a parallel alignment
to the street. It, of course, does not date from Roman Britain, but the original builder might just have taken
advantage of the former road’s high dry ground in an otherwise marshy area.

The Curse

The alleged curse involves land formerly held by Merton Priory. The origins and reasons for the curse seem
now to be totally lost in the mists of time. It has been said that anyone who owns former Priory lands will not
have a son who will inherit. From research done by a former Library local historian, this had been remarkably
accurate in the past centuries.

No Tales of Mystery

No Tales of Mystery

Keeping Watch

History is not just about the rich and famous, even though it always seems to be. We each have our own part
to play in the continuation of time, albeit anonymously and totally forgotten as the years pass by.

The Night Watchman’s job at the Printworks could not be described as the most glamorous. Working mostly
in the dead of night and never knowing if that bumping in the dark is an intruder or just a time-lost monk on
his way to prayers.

Home for the Night Watchman used to be a small hut by the Watermill, which he shared with the day Yardman.
The watchman’s position was normally taken by some elderly man, most often retired and supplementing his
meagre pension, or someone whose health prevented other forms of employment.

The Works also had its own dog, usually called Rex. He lived on site and, when I worked there, he wandered
around where he liked. One that I recall certainly had an eye for the lady dogs and often went missing.

There are photographs of two dogs, so
at least they have not all been forgotten.
None I have come across of the Night
Watchman going about his nocturnal
task, but not all have been confined
anonymously to history.

I end my brief journey through the history
of the Merton Abbey textile printing site
with one of the least-photographed
employees.

Thomas Bradfield worked as the Liberty
Night Watchman during the late 1950s. He
is seen here with his son Allan in 1957 or
1958, between Coles and The 1926 Shop. In
the background is Libertys’ own livery van.
The walkway at this time did not connect to
Coles as it does today. The Night Watchman
was employed by the Liberty Warehouse,
and one continued on site until Liberty sold
the Works in 1972.

CONNIE BRADFIELD

ISBN 1 903899 09 5
© David Luff and Merton Historical Society

Neither Merton Historical Society nor its Editorial Panel necessarily
endorses opinions expressed by authors of its publications.

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www.mertonhistoricalsociety.org.uk, or from Merton Library & Heritage Service,
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