1939 Harry Mount Remembers 1870s Mitcham


In the year 1870 about the same time that Maurice Maeterlinck was beginning to study water spiders in his grandfather’s garden, and my old friend Tom Francis was beginning to sit up and take notice in what was then the centre of Mitcham, I was doing likewise on the outskirts of the village in what is at present called the Phipps Bridge Ward.

To be correct, I slept about six feet within the Merton boundary on the bank of the brook that runs from the Wandle at Phipps Bridge till it joins the river again at Merton Abbey.

The stream at that time was clear running water which was used for drinking and cooking purposes by all people on each side of the brook.

On the Merton side there were old willow trees from which old Tom Sherman, the famous Surrey bowler, obtained many a splendid cricket bat. At certain periods the river gates would be opened and the brook flooded. When the water had abated, roach, gudgeon in great numbers and a certain quantity of trout could be easily caught. A twelve years old schoolgirl on one occasion waded into the stream and scooped up a fine trout in her pinafore, and one of the clerks at Harlands, the varnish makers, gave her half a crown for it. Mr. Robert Harland spent much of his leisure time near Phipps Bridge fly-fishing for trout.


My home was what would now be called a two-roomed wooden bungalow, but was then called for postal purposes, Rose Cottage. It was known locally as Rats Castle, and it did not belie its latter name, for many a night, while I was reading by candlelight I had one eye on the book and the other on a huge water rat under the table eating the crumbs.

I ought to say that there was only my father and me living in the cottage from the time I was nine years of age.

Mitcham in 1870 contained only seven thousand inhabitants, of whom it would be safe to say that five thousand of them were unable to read a book or newspaper. The Education Act was introduced that year, but had very little effect until some years after.

I first attended school at the National School opposite the cenotaph. The only thing I remember of that time is that we boys made wooden swords, and, dividing ourselves up, fought the Franco-German War in our playtime on the green.

One of us was lucky enough to have a tin sword in a scabbard, and he was made commander-in-chief, but of which Army I now forget. I was at that school only a few months, when the “powers that were” found out that I was Mertoner and sent me to the Lower Merton Schools, near Old Merton Church.

I stayed there till I was eleven years old, and then went as tearboy for my father, who was silk handkerchief printer at Littler’s factory, which is now owned by Liberty’s.


I do not remember learning anything at either school, as my father had been my teacher from a very early age. He had a “Book of Useful Knowledge,” with questions and answers, opening like this: “What is the World?” “The Earth we Live On.” “Who made It?” Our Great and Good God.” “Are there not many things in you would like know about?” Yes.” “ What is Bread?” and on, with hundreds of questions, which he would set me to learn a page at a time, and then put me through it with the book in his hand. I was also fairly good at arithmetic. Newspapers were very scarce in our neighbourhood in those days. Lloyd’s Weekly and the Police News were the standard of the reading public.

One number of the latter paper I shall never forget. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had been very ill with typhoid fever, early in January. 1872, he began to recover and that week the “Police News” came out with a full page picture of the Prince’s bedchamber with a lovely female figure floating over the Prince’s bed and Old King Death with his scythe running out of the door. Underneath was the inscription :

“The Angel of Mercy at Sandringham.”

As a boy of nine it made a lasting impression on me.

Phipps Bridge was at that time truly rural district, with the exception of about six factories. There was a wide expanse of mint, peas, beans, liquorice and hay fields from Tooting Junction to Old Merton Church and from Merton High-street to Mitcham Cricket Green.

The Messrs. Littler’s were three brothers — Billy, Jimmy and Teddy. They were our employers and also our landlords and when there was no work they didn’t trouble us for rent. Billy Littler was a keen sportsman with a gun and would spend much of his leisure time shooting snipe and other birds in the fields surrounding Merton Abbey. The first job I remember doing was supplying beer (good beer at fourpence a quart) in a tin pot to the thirsty haymakers. I spent a very happy time during the years I am writing about.

My work as tearboy was to spread colour evenly on a sieve for the block to pick up and transfer it to the handkerchief.


Littler’s supplied the world with thousands of beautiful silk handkerchiefs and I have often wondered what the owners of these would have thought had they known that the beautiful colours were obtained through a solution of cow dung!

My next job was at Butler’s floorcloth factory, now enclosed with Messrs. Harland’s works, as a tearboy at six shillings a week.

Mitcham in the early seventies, with plenty of haymaking and other work in the fields during the Summer, was a lovely place, but in Winter when the factories were slack and there was scarcely anything to do in the field, life was very different. Had it not been for the soup kitchens in Mitcham and Merton, hundreds of children would have gone hungry very often. These kitchens were supported by charitable people who would dispense tickets with which a child taking a jug with a penny could get a quart of soup. With some bread it made a good dinner for a family. An unemployed man with family would have to walk to Croydon and break a bushel of granite stones and walk back with a four pound loaf under his arm and two tickets. One of the tickets would entitle him to a piece of meat from a butcher in High-street, Merton, and the other to some grocery in Lower Mitcham.


Rent was fairly cheap, a four room cottage being three and ninepence a week. One reason for the low rents was that many the houses were always empty and it did not cause a man much surprise to find that his next door neighbour had flitted to another part of the village during the night

After leaving Butler’s I went to Harvey and Knight’s floorcloth factory in Morden-lane, still as a tearboy at seven shillings a week, and as my father had gone to Lancashire, calico printing, and we had disposed of our home. I had to keep myself on that amount, paying two shillings lodging and washing, and feeding and clothing myself on the remainder.

I had no relations anywhere near me. While I was at Harvey and Knight’s the Russo-Turkish War started and the man I worked with, being unable to read, used to bring “Lloyd’s News” on Monday afternoons for me to read it to him. This continued week after week until the war ended. By that time I was quite familiar with “Plevna,” “The Shipka Pass.” “General Skobeloff and “Osman Digna.”

During that time I saw Mrs. Dempsey’s cow turned out of her field and a big floorcloth and linoleum factory built there by Daniel Hayward and Son of Newington Causeway, London. I started there as the first tearboy as soon it was ready and within a few weeks was linoleum printing, which was trade for eighteen years.


While there I got to know an Irishman who was foreman of the trowellers and floorhands. He possessed a watch but could only tell the time twice a day just on the stroke of six o’clock he would shout “Time, boys—upright and down straight.”

On one occasion he went into a building and shouted to the men aloft: “ How many of you up there?” “Three” came the answer. “Half of you come down,” he said.

So in 1878, dear reader. I will part company with you for the present and add that my life and motto are well summed up in the following lines:

In this world I’ve gained my knowledge
And for it I’ve had to pay,
Though I’ve never been to college
Yet I’ve heard that poets say—
Life is like a mighty river
Flowing on from day to day.
Men are vessels cast upon it
Sometimes wrecked and helpless lay;
Then do your best for one another
Making life a pleasant dream.
Help a worn-out weary brother.
Pulling hard against the stream.

Source: Croydon Advertiser and East Surrey Reporter – Friday 04 August 1939 from the British Newspaper Archive (subscription required)

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