A walk into the past

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It is quiet on the Common, and very beautiful. The sun is shining warm and mellow out of a clear blue sky, gilding the trees with gold. The grass is still green and patterned with the gold and silver of fallen leaves. A bird calls, a squirrel rustles amongst the trees. It is autumn now - the time of year that I love best, especially when I can be out for a walk on the Common.

Perhaps it was a day as beautiful as this when, nine hundred years ago, Gilbert the Norman first viewed his new estate of Merton. He was an important man at court, and King Henry I had given him many honours - made him Sheriff of Surrey and Sheriff of Huntingdon and also given him the Manor of Merton. Maybe it was Merton’s beauty that made him decide to live here  - because, unlike other lords of the manor, Gilbert did live on his estate.

Gilbert was also a devout man, and in 1117 he founded Merton Priory with the help of the Canons of Huntingdon. Hence Canon Hill, the origin of the name of my Common, Cannon Hill Common. It has nothing to do with guns, though antiaircraft guns were installed here during the Second World War.

The Canons did not like the site chosen by Gilbert, and moved the Priory to the banks of the river Wandle. Gilbert used to take a great personal interest in the Priory - he would visit the Canons frequently, always making sure that they were never in want. He ensured an increase in the Priory’s wealth and lands through his contacts at court. It was said that Queen Matilda herself had visited the Priory with her son - who was later drowned at sea while trying to save his sister’s life. Gilbert finally became a Canon himself and joined Merton Priory, where he died. Strangely though, he is not buried here.

Today nothing remains of Gilbert’s beautiful Priory except a single archway. Merton Priory was destroyed in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII. 

Henry VIII broke away from the Pope and set up the Church of England with himself as its head.  This made it possible for him to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. It also made him rich, because he could now claim for himself the wealth of the old monasteries, most of which he demolished. One such casualty was Merton Priory.

The Priory was pulled down and its stones used to construct the foundations of the Nonesuch Palace at Epsom. Henry VIII built this palace for his third wife, Jane Seymour and lost interest in it after her death in 1537. More than a hundred years later, Charles II gave the palace to one of his various mistresses. This lady had no use for it, and the building was torn down. The stones used to build Merton Priory were used for other buildings one of which is the bandstand at Epsom.  And that is where they are today. On the original site of the Priory there now stands a large supermarket.

The lands of the Priory passed into rich private hands. One Richard Thornton bought the area where the Common is today as well as the adjoining lands in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Richard Thornton was called the ‘unknown millionaire’ - when he died he left behind a fortune of three million pounds, most of which went to his relatives and was soon wasted. Richard Thornton built a large mansion, Cannon Hill House in 1770 for himself, his ‘housekeeper’, his children and his sister and her family. The earth for the bricks came out of the Common - Thornton filled the hole he had dug with water and stocked it with fish. The lake still attracts ducks and geese and sometimes swans, though fishing is no longer allowed there. Cannon Hill House was demolished towards the end of the 19th century.

Richard Thornton’s origins were humble. His father was a poor Yorkshire farmer, and Richard himself made his money running the blockade imposed upon British ships by Napoleon. He supplied hemp procured from the Baltic to British ships. His great opportunity came in 1812 when he became the first person to know of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia through one of his ships. He sold his hemp at very high prices and made his fortune before the news of Napoleon’s retreat brought down the price of hemp in Britain.

Thornton was a generous man and did much for the villagers and the surrounding areas. However, he is remembered today only by a single road named after him, Thornton Road, in Wimbledon, where he had held some property.

In 1924, George Blay, the man who is responsible for what the area looks like today, bought the estate. He undertook to build two thousand houses in the area, leaving seventy-five acres of open ground as a common. He received a government subsidy of £75.00 for every house that he constructed. The houses were designed by an architect called Taylor, who has not been heard of before or since. The housing estate was completed in 1939.The houses sold for £700.00 to £910.00. Each house had a front and rear garden, but the kitchens were small and not very well designed. I ought to know - I live in a Blay house! Blay had sold 54 acres of open ground to the local authorities for £17,500 in 1925 - and it is this land which is called Cannon Hill Common today. Blay disappears into history with his fortune - no records tell where he went or what he did after this project.

Today Cannon Hill Common is owned and managed by Merton Council. It is not a common in the strictest sense of the word, but more an unfenced park. It consists of woodland, meadows and the lake created by Richard Thornton. Oak and horse chestnut, willow, birch and ash are some of the trees that grow here. Many species of birds live and breed here. The red fox can also be seen, usually in the evenings but sometimes during the day as well.

The Common lies behind my house, and has given me many hours of peace and beauty.


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2 Responses to “A walk into the past”

  1. Just to let you know there are more remains of Merton Priory than you think. Parts of the boundary walls still exists and the foundations of the Chapter House are preserved under Meratun Way in the subway between Sainsbury’s and Merton Abbey Mills. Unfortunately it’s not open that often but check the web site http://www.mertonpriory.org/ for more details.
    My site, is an ongoing reconstruction but its not been updated for a while due to pressure of work.

  2. Paul,

    Thank you for this, and the Merton Priory website link http://www.mertonpriory.org/

    I am delighted to know that more of Merton Priory remains than I had thought. I always used to think it such a pity that it had gone so completely. I need to find out more and see if and when I can visit the site.

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