The remains of an important monastery broken up by King Henry VIII and almost lost to history can be found underneath a busy road in south London. It’s also open to the public, having recently added a new visitor centre and mini-museum.

The significance of Merton Priory and the Chapter House is evident in the ecclesiastical, royal, and government activity that was conducted at the priory and in the meetings held in the Chapter House itself. King Henry III called a council meeting in January 1255 to discuss how to meet his expenses abroad at Merton. The king also had private chambers at Merton Priory.

The Statutes of Merton, the basis of common law in England for centuries and seen as a forerunner for modern parliament, were signed at Merton and Walter de Merton, founder of Merton College in Oxford and Chancellor of England was also educated at the Priory.

The priory was abandoned in 1538 during the Dissolution under Henry VIII. Ironically, most of the stones were taken to build the King’s Palace at NonSuch, and while the palace was later utterly destroyed, the priory remains still exist.

Although the remains of the monastery were discovered in the 19th century, the current “museum” was created in the 1980s when a new superstore was built and a new dual carriageway road was built over the top of the ruins.

Until a few years ago, the only way to see the remains was to go into the underpass, where a metal door was unlocked, letting people into a dark, gloomy space to see Chapter House’s foundations.

From my previous visit in 2011.

Now, though, there’s a much more obvious entrance and a lot more daylight flooding into the low-ceilinged space, which makes it far more appealing to visit.

From my latest visit in 2024.

The central space, which you used to have to walk around, remains, but they’ve also filled in the central area with some wooden decking, so you can now, for the first time in centuries, step inside the Chapter House.

A nice addition to the space, thanks to the new entrance, is a lot more interpretation boards telling the history of Merton Priory and its significance in English history. They also don’t stop with the priory but take in the area’s history after the monastery was closed down, covering everything from William Morris, the old railway and the Liberty silk-printing works.

I rather liked the model of what they think the priory church might have looked like. It was apparently about to be thrown out by another museum and rescued to go here.

It’s a mixed space: a museum for the old priory and, in the corner, a local history museum-style space with post-priory history.

Although candidly, the ring of stones in the ground isn’t hugely exciting to look at from a purely visual point of view, the display boards do a good job of showing what the building might have looked like. The additional history ensures the visit lasts rather longer than you might have expected and is more informative about the local area.

Merton Priory Chapter House is now open on Sundays from 11am to 4pm until late October, when it closes for winter.

Entry is free, but donations are appreciated.

The entrance is next to the Sainsbury’s car park, about a ten-minute walk from Colliers Wood tube station on the Northern line.

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4 comments
  1. Laurence says:

    There is connected history across the area, Ian, so great to see this is now going to be open once again for regular visitors and not just school parties.

    What with a museum at AFC Wimbledon supported by Wimbledon in Sporting History (WiSH), there is a growing number of places to visit under the Merton Heritage Trail banner, which includes that little tennis tournament up the hill.

    https://wimbledoninsportinghistory.org/

  2. JW says:

    Thanks for this great news item. Merton Abbey is not particularly well known, at least to non-locals, so great to shed light on this site, it’s history, conservation and visitor centre. Even though current surface level developement does not sound great, at least the archaeological layers sound relatively intact and perhaps one day can be fully accessible. I’ll plan to visit.

  3. Pastabites says:

    How interesting, I love medieval ‘stuff’ so this is really good for me – a day trip beckons!

  4. Jim Sanddancer says:

    I was there a few years ago before this work, and I found it very interesting and well worth the visit. There is also one of the small side gates to the abbey (of which most people are unaware) on the other side of the road.
    Thanks for this, Ian.

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