Though I’ve strolled past the Wandle many times when I lived on the dodgy end of Wimbledon (usually a rather brisk stroll late at night after the bus service had become erratic, because that path is dark!), I didn’t know much about it. My knowledge of it was limited to the facts that it runs through Merton and Collier’s Wood in southwest London, and that they found a headless body in there a few years back (which you better believe made my strolls all the brisker yet). I discovered the Wandle Industrial Museum by chance when I was browsing through my local library’s website, and thought a visit would be a perfect way to enlighten myself on the history of the Wandle.
The museum is only open on Wednesdays and Sundays, so visiting can be a bit tricky, which isn’t helped by the lack of parking. The museum is inside what one of the volunteers described as a “Scout hut” in the middle of a field, so we ended up parking on a nearby street. I would imagine it might be easier to take the tram or a bus and walk over, but the tram is irritatingly slow and crowded, so I avoid it when I can. At any rate, the museum’s current location is intended to be a temporary one until December 2013, when, as the volunteer told us, either they’ll have a new, larger museum, complete with a waterwheel, to move into, or they’ll learn that no new museum will be forthcoming, and they’ll be stuck there. I’m rooting for them to get the new museum, as the waterwheel thing sounds neat.
Bearing all this in mind, I’m not really sure what to say about the Wandle Industrial Museum. I don’t like to be hard on a small museum that is trying its best, but the volunteer essentially admitted to us that the museum is mainly intended to be a stopgap until they can expand, operating primarily for the benefit of schoolchildren who visit to learn about print-making. It is indeed largely aimed at children, with fairly big type and basic wording on all the signs, and a few little activities for them to take part in. Nonetheless, I managed to spend a good half an hour in there (the museum is just one modestly-sized room), mostly conversing with the volunteer, who was gregarious and clearly knowledgeable about industry on the Wandle.
Like all local museums, it did have a few gems, in the form of a story about a Ms. Margaret Thompson who loved snuff so much that she requested to be buried in a coffin full of it (effectively turning her casket into the world’s largest snuff box) and the information about the squirting cucumbers that were once a favoured crop in the area. Frankly, the cucumbers sound horrible, as they apparently randomly squirt out some kind of fluid that burns the skin and eyes (hence the name), which left me wondering both why on earth people would cultivate such a thing, and if perhaps Roald Dahl used squirting cucumbers as the inspiration for snozzcumbers. I also enjoyed learning more about Merton Priory, which I first read about in Stephen Smith’s Underground London (which is a cracking read); the ruins of it are meant to be hidden away beneath the Sainsbury’s carpark in Collier’s Wood, though I’m not sure how you obtain access to them. Merton Priory was the size of Westminster Abbey in its heyday, and I find it incredible that it could have disappeared so cleanly. I blame Henry VIII.
The rest of the museum was given over to miscellany on various defunct industries around the Wandle, including the Ram Brewery, snuff making, lavender growing, and one of William Morris’s factories. Everything had accompanying pictures, but the museum was nearly all just signage, with a real dearth of artefacts, probably due to the confines of the space. You can literally see the entire museum space in the above two pictures, which should give you some idea of its small scale.
Keeping in mind that it is a temporary museum, and that it will likely improve if given a larger space, since the staff are obviously passionate about the Wandle, I’m giving it a 2/5. I don’t think it’s any kind of a destination museum, but isn’t a bad diversion if you live nearby and want to get out of the house for a bit on a Sunday afternoon. If they do move to a bigger location, and correct the typos (especially referring to Cardinal Wolsey as “Cardinal Worsley”), then I’d definitely be happy to visit again, because I can see they need all the support they can get.