Archaeology and Ancient Religions

Britain’s Biggest Mosque – A 2000 Year History?

The redevelopment of the Baitul Futuh Mosque complex in Morden, UK, the biggest mosque in the UK, gave opportunity for archaeologists to investigate its foundations.

The Baitul Futuh Mosque in Morden, Britain’s Biggest Mosque (source: baitulfutuh.org)

Rizwan Safir, UK
Editor, Archaeology Section

The story of Britain’s biggest mosque in Morden, UK, known as Baitul Futuh (or ‘House of Victories’ in English), has been unrelenting. Since opening in 2003, it has regularly reached full capacity – over 10,000 in number – whilst hosting everything from Peace Conferences, exhibitions and sports activities to local school exams, weddings and even an episode of Question Time on BBC Radio 4. These are aside from its core central duties; the five daily prayers, the weekly Friday Sermons, the bi-annual Muslim celebration of Eid and the endless spiritual programmes to serve its congregation.

The Mosque has continued to welcome visitors and worshippers from around the world, but the world of the Mosque ground to a halt on September 26, 2015. A blazing fire ripped through its administrative complex, with 70 firefighters and 10 fire engines taming the flames following a battle that ensued several hours.

The mosque portion of the complex was untouched by the fire and within a week, the Mosque had reopened its doors. Bruised but resolute, it resumed its activities and flourished once more. Now seven years on, a stunning redevelopment nears completion that has transformed its façade and created a state-of-the-art complex accommodating an even larger capacity.

Perhaps the title ‘House of Victories’ is perfectly suited to this enduring monument. But the story of the Mosque and the site which it occupies stretches much further back than 3 October 2003 when it first opened its doors. It sits on a crucial pathway of the Roman Empire, was witness to the presence of Anglo-Saxon communities, remained a rural field for farming up until the 20th century and housed one of the most advanced dairy processing plants in the world in the 1950s. Here, we explore the 2000-year legacy of the site as it prepares for its new future.

An Ancient Roman Road Passing Below

The redevelopment of the complex provided an opportunity for archaeologists to examine the site and investigate what may have survived below. Planning regulations in the UK require any new development to allow archaeologists to examine a site – to record any evidence of ancient history before it is consumed and engulfed by modern construction. The investigation revealed that the site of Baitul Futuh sits directly between a major Roman pathway, which connected London (or Londinium as it was known by the Romans) to the city of Chichester.

Example of a well-preserved Roman Road in Britain © Copyright Nigel Homer

The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, almost 2000 years ago, quickly establishing cities and capitals and creating an intricate network of roads across the land. Many of these routes remained in use and went on to form part of the UK’s national road network. It was not until the establishment of the Ministry of Transport in the early 20th century that a new national highway system was formally established.

Those familiar with south-west London will know of and pass through parts of this network daily, including much of the A24 main road which navigates through Clapham, Balham, Tooting, Colliers Wood and Morden, where Baitul Futuh stands today.

When archaeologists arrived at the site, they found the soil beneath to be heavily disturbed by previous construction activity – from before the construction of the Mosque – which severely damaged the foundations of the building. The disturbance meant no Roman artifacts were found but evidence of the road does exist at nearby points such as High Street Colliers Wood and along the adjacent London Road. If the road ran in a straight line between these two points, it would cross the current Baitul Futuh complex.

Map of Morden, showing the line of the Roman Road crossing through the site of Baitul Futuh (source: https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/romangl/map.html)

What this suggests is that thousands of years ago, this site would have been witness to traders, families, scholars, wayfarers, tribesmen and Roman soldiers, passing back and forth between London and the wider network of Roman Britain.

Medieval Morden

By 410 AD, Roman presence in Britain had faded. Emperor Honorius in Rome, fraught with domestic and external issues across the European continent, wrote to Romans in Britain instructing them that the central administration would support them no longer. The vacuum left behind invited tribes and raiders such as the Anglos, Saxons and Jutes to carve territories within Britain into their control.

It was in this period that the name ‘Morden’ first appears, referenced as a gift of lands in 968 AD. Morden grew as a Medieval village centered around the church of St. Lawrence some 600m to the south of Baitul Futuh today. An Anglo-Saxon cemetery was also found north of Baitul Futuh nearby Morden Hall Park and excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, indicating a good-sized community must have resided here in the Medieval period.

Human remains from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery found nearby Morden Road, excavated in the early 1900s © London Borough of Merton www.merton.gov.uk/memories

Not much is known about the site of Baitul Futuh from this period – it most likely lay as open ground to the east of the Roman road that was still used extensively at this point. Fast-forward to 1762 and the introduction of more detailed maps indicate that it remained an open field, and persisted as such up until the 1950s.

Milk in Morden

In 1951, the site would transform from a sleepy suburban field to a central hub of constant bustle and activity. Construction began on a bottling and pasteurising plant by the Express Dairy Company, becoming one of the leading facilities of its kind. A film of Express Dairy’s network from 1954 shows its operation from within, fully equipped with cutting edge technology and hundreds of workers. A quote from the film describes the dairy facilities as, ‘the most modern of its kind in the world.’

The façade of Express Dairy from 1954 (source: https://www.yfanefa.com/record/24288).

The façade of Baitul Futuh, retaining much of the original shape of the Express Dairy building (Wikicommons)

View of Express Dairy from South Morden station in 1992 © London Borough of Merton www.merton.gov.uk/memories

View of the Baitul Futuh mosque from South Morden station in the current day © Marathon

Remarkably, the site had its own railway station. Those familiar with Baitul Futuh can see the same tracks below today from the norther barrier of the Mosque complex. It was here that 3000-gallon tankers would arrive day and night, accommodating 14 tanks at a time. 120,000 gallons of pasteurised milk could be processed here in 24-hours, equating to 1 million bottles of milk per day. It was a constant operation that would form a focal point within Morden for several decades.

The Express Dairy railway line at the South Morden Plant on 14 April 1977 © Kevin Lane 

With the rise of supermarkets and steady decline of bottled milk, Express Dairy and its showpiece Dairy Plant fell into disuse and ceased operation in 1992.

From Milk to Mosque

In 1996, the site was purchased by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and work commenced on repurposing the site. Funded entirely by members of the community, the Mosque and its wider complex opened in 2003, becoming not just the biggest mosque in Britain, but the biggest mosque in Western Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of people have since filtered through the complex. Pre-fire and pre-Covid, it regularly hosted the largest Eid gathering in the UK. Thousands of marriage ceremonies have been held within its halls. Requests to book the complex would often extend beyond a year, with a non-stop roster of religious programmes, external seminars, academic conferences, martial arts classes, basketball and badminton practice, fitness sessions, charity dinners, careers guidance meetings, clothing and food stalls, training days… the list could go on.

As the Mosque enters a new dawn, recovering from the traumatic events of the fire almost 10 years ago, it can stand proudly and reflect upon the heritage, history, and legacy of the ground on which it sits. From 2000 years in the past, perhaps the ‘House of Victories’ can persevere through 2000 years of the future?

The new façade of the Baitul Futuh Mosque comple (source: AMA UK)

About the Author: Rizwan Safir is the Archaeology section Editor for the Review of Religions and currently serves as the Chairman of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Research Association in the UK. Professionally, he works as the Head of Research for Barker Langham, a cultural consultancy that develops museums and archaeological research projects, specialising in the Middle East region. He has worked on archaeological projects across the Middle East for over 10 years. 

ENDNOTES:

  1. https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-1124-1/dissemination/pdf/preconst1-357238_1.pdf
  2. https://photoarchive.merton.gov.uk/
  3. https://www.yfanefa.com/record/24288
  4. https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/romangl/map.html
  5. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/romans/