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Coal & Calico - The Bennetts & Leaches of Merton & Wandsworth

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  • Edmund Leach (1815 - 1888)
    Edmund Leach was born in Wimbledon, Surrey (now part of Greater London), on 13 August 1816. His father was John Leach, his mother is uncertain. It is known he had one brother, William, 15 years his jun...
  • Hugh Cook (1776 - 1793)
    Hugh Cook, of Christ's College, Cambridge, who died on the 21st of December, 1793; aged 17 years. Goodman, Judith (Ed): ‘Coal & Calico, Letters & Papers of the Bennett & Leach Families of Merto...
  • James Batts (deceased)
    Goodman, Judith (Ed): ‘Coal & Calico, Letters & Papers of the Bennett & Leach Families of Merton & Wandworth’, 2008, Wimbledon, Merton Historical Society. Queries: Tony Leach
  • Midshipman Nathaniel Cook (1764 - 1780)
    Midshipman Nathaniel Cook lost with the Thunderer Man of War, under Captain Boyle Walsingham, in a most dreadful Hurricane, in October, 1780 Goodman, Judith (Ed): ‘Coal & Calico, Letters & Pa...
  • Commander James Cook (1763 - 1794)
    James Cook, Esq; Commander in the Royal Navy, who lost his Life on the 25th of January, 1794; in going from Pool, to the Spitfire Sloop of War, which he commanded; in the 31st Year of his Age. ...

Objectives of the project

The objective of this page is to attempt to collect and expand the links between the Leach, Bennett, Heath and other families who operated or were otherwise associated with the print works and other industries in the villages of Wandsworth, Wimbledon, Merton, Morden and Mitcham, along the Wandle River, South of the Thames in Surrey during the 1700's and 1800's.

The primary source for the compilation of the initial trees linking these people, and from which the project takes its name, is:

  • Source: Goodman, Judith (Ed): Coal & Calico, Letters & Papers of the Bennett & Leach Families of Merton & Wandworth, 2008, Wimbledon, Merton Historical Society.

The map, right, shows the area as recorded on J Cary's 1786, 1 inch to the mile, map which is currently available from Motco at

My own interest is that my great-great grandfather was Edmund Leach, born in 1816 in Wimbledon, Surrey (though record of his birth is so far untraceable), who was an engraver by trade, moving first to Dartford, then Manchester. His sons included engravers and calico printers, and his father John was also an engraver - so there are strong links to the fabric printing trade, and a place of origin where Leaches ran print works. It seems most likely that he was the son of Bishop Leach, brother of John, a print works owner. His wife was Sarah Heath, a surname also linked with printing along the Wandle - a Mr Heath rented the Merton Abbey works in the 1820's. So I want to try to make connections! Please collaborate and add information or send me queries - Tony Leach

Summary of River Wandle print works and Leach-Bennet involvement

During the 1600’s printed or dyed cotton cloth called ‘calico’ started to be imported from India. After the passage of an act of parliament in 1700 banning the import of already printed cloth (to protect the English woollen industry), print works were established in England. The process involved first bleaching the cloth, then printing – first using hand-cut wood blocks, then from the 1750’s engraved copper plates, and later copper cylinders. The rivers divulging into the Thames from the chalk uplands of Surrey and Kent provided an ideal motive and water source to develop this industry in the 1700's (prior to the development of coal-fired industry in the north). In Surrey this industry developed along the Wandle River, with Wandsworth on the Thames acting as a port, or terminus, for moving materials into and out of the valley.

In 1724 a calico print works was established at the old Merton Abbey on the east bank of the Wandle River, at which time John Leach senior, born 1708, was involved, as was John Hudson - the result being several Leach and Hudson children inter-marrying. A second calico works was established in 1752 within the Merton Abbey walls (never part of the Leach-Bennett operation, though later used by William Morris). Most of the Abbey site and grounds were owned by the Mansfield or Smith families and were rented for the print works.

Other print works were established at various other sites along the Wandle at this time, with large areas of fields taken over for bleaching. By 1805 there were reported to be 40 industrial businesses operating along the Wandle River, over the 10 miles between Wandsworth and Croyden, of which 12 were calico printers, supported by 3 bleaching works.

John Leach, born 1742, followed his father in the calico print trade and took over the Merton abbey print works from the Arbuthnot family in 1784, and in 1785 was trading as ‘Leach and Howard’, changing to ‘Leach and Co.’ in 1786. Various partner changes followed up to 1811, with the company names including ‘Newton, Leach and Co.’, ‘Newton, Hodgson & Leach’, and ‘Newton, Leach, Greaves and Hodgson’. They reportedly carried on a very extensive trade and brought the art to a great degree of perfection, renting the print works and buying large chunks of land in Wimbledon, including the house (Merton Place) and much of the estate of Sir Richard Hotham in 1792. Newton and Leach lived in and ran the print works, while Greaves and Hodgson handled the marketing side of the business. By 1792 the various works within Merton Abbey/Merton Priory (including the two calico printers and a copper mill) employed a thousand people.

The Bennett family were coal merchants during the mid 1700's, supplying coal by boat up the Thames to Wandsworth to feed the industry up the River Wandle, and would have supplied large amounts of coal to the Merton print works, during the course of which Thomas Bennett met and married John Leach's daughter Sarah in 1797.

In 1799 the partnership Leach, Newton, Greaves and Hodgson broke up on the death of C Greaves with Hodgson retiring and Newton and Leach dividing the works between them. Greaves' house, Merton Place, was sold to Lord Horatio Nelson. John Leach operated alone, building further print and dye houses on the west bank of the Wandle, and on the east bank to the rear of the original Merton Abbey works (now run by Newton, Langdale, Simpson & Co) – later known as “Bennet’s Mill”. Leach pioneered new methods of madder dying here in 1802.

About 1801 John Leach brought his son-in-law, Thomas Bennett, in as a partner (his brothers remaining in the coal business), leaving him to run the business in 1812, which was then producing popular colourful handkerchiefs, and the firm became known as Bennett & Son. After Thomas Bennett’s death in 1827 it was run by his son John Leach Bennett until 1833, when he was finding it hard to profitably run a calico printing business in southern England in competition with the larger industrial mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

It was then taken over by Edmund Littler, a silk printer, who had previously taken over the original Merton Abbey works. These works all remained with Littler and his descendants, becoming the printers for Liberty’s, until finally taken over by Liberty’s in 1904 who ran it until 1972.

During the 1820's the original Merton Abbey works run by Newton, etc., was leased by a Mr Heath, who took on the Garrett print works on the Wandle towards Wimbledon after Littler's acquisition of Merton Abbey.

After selling the print works John Leach Bennett appears to have developed other business interests including directorship in a large insurance company, and was also the executor of Elizabeth the widow of Captain James Cook, a great-aunt of his wife's, from whose estate he recieved several items related to Cook's travels.

Still to find a place for on the tree from this area:

Related Sources & Documents

Coal and Calico by Judith Goodman is available via the The Merton Historical Society

Information on the connection between Lord Horatio Nelson and Merton can be found in Nelson at Merton