The borough was formed in 1965 by the merger of the former area of the Municipal Borough of Mitcham, the Municipal Borough of Wimbledon and the Merton and Morden Urban District, all formerly within Surrey. The main commercial centres in Merton are Mitcham, Morden and Wimbledon, of which Wimbledon is the largest. Other smaller centres include Raynes Park, Colliers Wood, South Wimbledon, Wimbledon Park and Pollards Hill.
The borough derives its name from the historic parish of Merton which was centred on the area now known as South Wimbledon. In a borough with a broad socio-economic range between generally affluent Wimbledon and less affluent Mitcham, the name was seen as a compromise.
In 1236 Henry III met his Barons at the priory to agree the Statute of Merton, an important foundation of modern English common law. The king also brought Queen Eleanor to be crowned at the priory in the same year. Henry VI, the only king of England to be crowned outside of Westminster Abbey in the last 1,000 years, held his coronation ceremony at Merton Priory in 1437. Among those educated at the priory were Thomas Becket and Nicholas Brakespeare, who was the only ever English Pope. As Pope Adrian IV, Brakespeare granted the English king Henry II the lordship of Ireland in 1155. Also educated there were Walter de Merton, a future Lord Chancellor of England and Bishop of Rochester. He is also famous for being the founder of Merton College at Oxford University in 1264. The priory by the river was dismantled in 1538 as part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and only a few remnants survive off Merantun Way.
The area soon passed from the hands of royalty into those of successful tradesmen. Industry expanded on the banks of the Wandle, whose fast-flowing waters provided ideal power for the milling process. Flour, snuff, copper, iron, leather and dye works all flourished on the river at points like Mitcham Bridge and Phipps Bridge. By 1750, Merton Abbey and Mitcham had become the main centres of calico cloth printing in England. Increased industrial output in the Wandle Valley led to the construction of the world's first public railway, the horse-drawn Surrey Iron Railway, which opened in 1803.
In 1881, William Morris opened a factory at Merton Abbey producing high quality goods: printed and woven fabrics, stained glass, furnishings, tapestry and carpets. Morris is famous as a founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, which rejected the mass-produced workmanship of the industrial age. His company continued trading until 1940.
Abbey Mills was also the base for Arthur Liberty, another eminent Victorian and founder of the famous Liberty department store. The Liberty works produced thousands of yards of hand printed silks that made the company a household name.
Admiral Lord Nelson moved into Merton Place House off Merton High Street in 1801. The highly respected sailor loved his country home in Merton, and wrote in his diary as he departed for the Trafalgar campaign: "At half past ten I drove from dear, dear Merton where I left all I hold dear in this world to go and serve my king and country". Nelson and his family worshipped at the 12th century St Mary's Church in Merton Park.
London's gentry began to populate Merton soon after the railway reached the borough. Shops such as Elys in 1876 opened to cater for the tastes of the new suburban residents. In 1868 the All England Croquet Club was founded in Worple Road. Its name was changed in 1889 to the now world-famous All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, and it later moved to Church Road. Merton expanded as London grew to become the largest city in the world.
Trams came to Mitcham and Wimbledon in 1906 and 1907 respectively. Motorbuses picked up their first passengers from Raynes Park and dropped them off at Liverpool Street in 1914. The London Underground reached Colliers Wood, South Wimbledon and Morden in 1926. These transport improvements turned Morden from a small farming community of 1,000 in 1900 into a residential suburb of 12,618 within thirty years.
World War II caused considerable damage to Merton. Housing was in great demand in the post-war era and new estates were constructed at Phipps Bridge, Pollards Hill and High Path in Wimbledon. Recovery from the war was painfully slow and food shortages did not end completely until 1956. Redevelopment schemes were remarkably successful and the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 marked the beginning of a new era.
Affluence had settled in by 1965, when the creation of the new borough provided impetus for more growth. Five new town centres emerged to form the Merton we know today: Colliers Wood, Mitcham, Morden, Raynes Park and Wimbledon. They are all primarily residential areas, each with their own commercial and shopping centres. People are entertained by theatres, cinemas, greyhound racing, football teams, the international tennis tournament, and cricket played on the world's oldest cricket green at Mitcham.
The political split of council wards between parties parallels almost exactly the division of the borough between its two parliamentary constituencies. The eastern and southeastern wards in the Mitcham and Morden constituency held by Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh are represented by Labour councillors. The northern and western wards in the Wimbledon constituency held by Conservative MP Stephen Hammond are represented by Conservative councillors, except for West Barnes where former Conservative councillor Angela Caldara is now independent, together with the three Merton Park Residents councillors.
Only in the south western ward of Lower Morden which is part of the Labour held Mitcham and Morden parliamentary constituency but is represented by Conservative councillors is there a difference between the political affiliation of councillors and MP.
Since May 2006, Cllr David Williams has led a minority Conservative administration. The following have served as leaders of Merton Council since its formation:
The longest serving member of Merton Council is currently Cllr Sheila Knight who was first elected in 1964 and has served continuously since 1971.
At the Annual Council Meeting, each Mayor elects a ceremonial mayor to serve for a year. At the same time, it elects a deputy mayor to serve alongside the mayor. Since 1978, each Mayor must also be an elected councillor. Cllr Martin Whelton who is a Labour councillor and represents Pollards Hill is currently the Mayor of the London Borough of Merton.
The Mayor also acts as the ceremonial and civic head of the borough during his/her year of office and the post is non-political. Each year the Mayor also chooses two charities which will benefit from a series of fundraising events throughout the mayoral year.
The following have served as Mayor since the formation of the Borough in 1965 and reflects their status on the council at the time they were elected as Mayor:
The main local newspaper in Merton is The Guardian with two editions, Wimbledon along with Mitcham and Morden. This newspaper was founded in 1977 by a former Conservative councillor on Merton Council, since then the paper has been sold on and it's now widely published in different editions across South London. The main difference between the papers is the front page.
The Wimbledon Post is another local newspaper published weekly.
Both newspapers are available free, though there is a charge if bought from a newsagent. They are published each Thursday.
According to the council's comparative assessment of wards made in 2004, the most deprived wards within the borough were in the south and east where unemployment rates, educational attainment and the quality of health were worst. The most affluent wards were in the north and west of the borough.
Comparative crime rates appear to be unrelated to the deprivation ranking of wards. The wards containing Mitcham town centre are ranked highest for crime within Merton with the wards containing the smaller commercial centres of Colliers Wood and South Wimbledon also featuring high in the ranking.
By London and national measures, deprivation and recorded crime are low with only Mitcham an area affected by high crime.
Merton currently operates a Police Cadet scheme under the Metropolitan Police Service.
Each year the All England Lawn Tennis Championship (referred to as Wimbledon and one of the four tennis Grand Slam tournaments along with the US, French and Australian Opens) is held at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Church Road Wimbledon. Each year, the event takes place over a fortnight at the end of June and beginning of July and is the largest annual sporting event to take place in the United Kingdom with over 200,000 visitors during the Wimbledon fortnight.