Mitcham Herbal Industries

In an article in the New Scientist 1 December 2001, Fred Pearce reported the shocking fact ‘that Mitcham – a dormitory suburb of south London just off the end of the Underground map – was once the drugs capital of Britain. For through much of the 19th century, the water meadows of Mitcham were alive with white opium poppies. This little corner of Surrey was the largest centre of cultivation of the dreaded plant in Britain. It was the golden triangle of the home counties. The village of Mitcham, in the sleepy headwaters of the River Wandle, was for some 150 years the medicinal plants capital of England.’

It was less shocking to contemporaries such as J C Loudon, in his AN ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF GARDENING (1822, 4th edition 1826) p.1066, who wrote of the Herb and Physic Gardens [in Surrey] – ‘These are chiefly in the parish of Mitcham, where the soil is poor and gravelly. The oldest establishment of this description is that of Potter and Moore, who formerly grew most of the articles in the vegetable materia medica then in vogue. They now grow chiefly roses, lavender, chamomile, the mints, opium-poppy (Papaver somniferum), balm, blessed-thistle, borage, clary, hyssop, sage, scurvy-grass, angelica, thyme, fennel, pot-marigold, &c.’

(This book is downloadable from Internet Archive)

Thirty years before, Daniel Lysons in his THE ENVIRONS OF LONDON vol I – County of Surrey (1792) p.350, had made a similar comment in his entry on Mitcham: ‘About 250 acres are occupied by the physic gardeners, who cultivate lavender, wormwood, camomile, aniseed, rhubarb, liquorice, and many other medicinal plants, in great abundance; but principally peppermint, of which there are above 100 acres. The demand for this herb is not confined to the apothecaries shops, it being much used in making a cordial well-known to the dram-drinkers. Forty years since, a few acres only were employed in the cultivation of medicinal herbs in this parish. Perhaps there is no place where it is now so extensive.’

(This book is downloadable from Internet Archive)

Mitcham historian the late Eric Montague researched the Mitcham growers, distillers and distributers for his series of Mitcham Histories, especially in volume 2: North Mitcham (2001) and volume 3: Pollards Hill, Commonside East and Lonesome (2002), but he had always hoped that a substantial study of the subject could be produced. He particularly requested that the material he had collected during his research should be made more widely available for future researchers. Among his papers are several photocopies of extracts from contemporary books and learned articles on the subject. Some of these works are now available in digital format online, though the quality of the original typeface prevents fully accurate optical character recognition. We have therefore produced corrected copies, accessible from the links below, together with a separate link to the full online version where available. We are grateful to Merton Heritage Service for permission to reproduce the articles that Eric photocopied from their archives.

The earliest source that he used was James Malcolm: A Compendium of Modern Husbandry, principally written during a survey of Surrey III (1805) pp. 116-135.

(This book is downloadable from Internet Archive)

Other sources include:

Jacob Bell (Ed) ‘MITCHAM: ITS PHYSIC GARDENERS AND MEDICINAL PLANTS’ in The Pharmaceutical Journal and Transactions X 1850–51 (1851) pp.115-119.

(A digital version of the whole journal can be accessed from Google Books)

‘THE MITCHAM HARVEST’ in The Chemist and Druggist (15 October 1885) pp.562-3.

(A digital version of the whole journal can be accessed from Internet Archive)

‘IN THE MITCHAM FLOWER-FIELDS’ in The Chemist and Druggist (12 September 1891) pp.398-405.

(A digital version of the whole journal can be accessed from Internet Archive)

Leonard W Lillingston ‘SWEET LAVENDER’ illustrated by A D McCormick in Good Words (1899 ) pp.527–532.

(A digital version of the whole journal can be accessed from Internet Archive)

‘BRITISH INDUSTRIES AND THE MEN WHO MADE THEM WHAT THEY ARE No. XII: The DISTILLATION of ENGLISH ESSENTIAL OILS: Messrs. J. & G. Miller, Mitcham, Surrey’, scanned from a 1908 reprint by Messrs Miller from The Gentleman’s Journal and Gentlewoman’s Court Review 16 May 1908 p.356.

Ben Slater ‘MEMORIES OF MITCHAM’ in Old Mitcham I edited by Lt Col H F Bidder DSO (1923)

We have also scanned the entire Old Mitcham I by permission of Merton Heritage Service