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At Morden College

May 1, 2018
by the gentle author

At the southeast corner of Blackheath Park stands a red-brick nineteenth century gatehouse with a drive curving beyond and disappearing into the trees. You might wonder if this is the London retreat of a reclusive plutocrat, yet a sign announcing ‘Morden College’ disabuses you of this notion. So then you assume it must be an exclusive private school and you look for errant pupils in uniform, yet you are wrong again. Morden College is one of the capital’s best-kept secrets.

It was founded by Sir John Morden (1623-1708) in 1685 as a charitable home for ‘decayed merchants’ of the Levant Company and constructed in the style of Christopher Wren by Wren’s master-mason Edward Strong. Remarkably, it is still going strong and now offers good quality retirement accommodation to four hundred people, including a nursing home.

When I visited recently, I walked up the sweeping drive to pass through the main entrance beneath the statues of Sir John & Lady Susan Morden and arrive at the central quadrangle, which looks as fine today as it did three hundred years ago. It was my privilege to enjoy lunch in the dining hall, sitting beneath the portrait of Sir John, followed by a stroll around the well-kept gardens just as the wisteria was coming into flower.

Sir John Morden administered the college himself in his final years and it flourishes today as a inspirational and far-sighted example of philanthropy. Born into a modest family in the parish of St Bride’s, Fleet St, he rose by his own ability through an apprenticeship to a Committee Member of the East India Company. After a successful posting to Aleppo, he later became Deputy Governor of the Company and a Board Member of the Levant Company. Yet he also lived through the Plague and the Great Fire, causing him to move from the City to Greenwich where Charles II held court and many distinguished Londoners sought refuge at the time. As his friend Daniel Defoe noted, “The beauty of Greenwich is owing to the lustre of its inhabitants.”

Without children, Sir John had no heir for his fortune and decided to use his wealth to found a college for, “Poor Merchants and such as have lost their Estates by accidents, danger and Perills of the Seas or by any other way of means in their honest endeavours to get a living by means of Merchandizing.”

Defoe wrote describing the venture.

“I had it from his own mouth that he was to make apartments for forty decay’d merchants to whom he resolv’d to allow forty shillings per annum each, with coals, a gown (and servants to look after their apartments) and many other conveniences so as the make their lives as comfortable as possible.

Each apartments consists of a bedchamber and a study, or large closet for their retreat, and to divert themselves with books etc.

They have a public kitchen, a hall to dine in. There is also a very good apartment for the chaplain, whose salary is fifty shillings a year, there are also dwellings for the cooks, butlers, porter, the women, and other servants, and reasonable salaries allow’d them. Behind the chapel is a handsome burial ground wall’d in, there are also very good gardens. In a word, it is the noblest foundation and most considerable single piece of charity that has been erected in England since Sutton’s hospital in London.”

While enjoying the benefits of good fortune, John Morden recognised that it was equally possible to suffer ill-fortune and – with startling insight and generosity – left his inheritance to support to those who needed it, in perpetuity. When William Morris campaigned to save the Trinity Green Almhouses in Whitechapel in the eighteen-eighties, he argued that we need them as a reminder of the enduring spirit of fellowship. I came away from Morden College uplifted by the same thought, humbled and touched by John Morden’s open-handed appreciation of the needs of others, and with a renewed recognition of the responsibility we all have to support those who are vulnerable in our society.

Anagram & acrostic in memory of Sir John Morden over the entrance to the dining hall

At the southeast corner of Blackheath Park stands a red-brick nineteenth century gatehouse

Constructed in the style of Christopher Wren by Wren’s master mason Edward Strong

“His statue in stone set up by his lady and since her death her own is set up near by the trustees” - Daniel Defoe commented on the statues of Sir John & Lady Susan Morden when he visited in 1725

Entrance to the quadrangle

“And that there be a Sun Dyall set up for Keeping the Clock right w’ch often goes wrong.” The motto reads “Sic Umbra, sic vita,” comparing the transiency of life to a fleeting shadow.

“the chaplain, whose salary is fifty shillings a year”

“a handsome burial ground wall’d in”

The Edwardstone bell from the church where Lady Susan Morden worshipped as a child

Mulberry tree c.1700

“there are also very good gardens”

Purple sprouting and wisteria in the allotments

The college fire engine was presented by Richard Chiswell in 1751

Morden College, 1755

Sir John Morden (Courtesy of Wellcome Foundation)

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At Trinity Green Almshouses

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15 Responses leave one →
  1. May 1, 2018

    How splendid. Long may it survive.

  2. May 1, 2018

    What a fantastic place! Valerie

  3. Hélène permalink
    May 1, 2018

    As I lived nearby in the late seventies, I probably strolled past it a few times. Beautiful place and nice article.

  4. Richard Smith permalink
    May 1, 2018

    ‘William Morris campaigned to save the Trinity Green Almhouses in Whitechapel in the eighteen-eighties, he argued that we need them as a reminder of the enduring spirit of fellowship.’ I agree 100% with William Morris. Thank you for telling us about this wonderful place and the generosity of its founder GA.

  5. Malcolm permalink
    May 1, 2018

    I’ve been inside Morden College a few times, an old friend of my Dad’s lived there until he passed away. It is a truly beautiful and inspiring place and it is a glorious reminder that there were once people, like John Morden, who actually cared about other people and used their wealth to help those less-fortunate than themselves. Where are the philanthropists today? Where are the great visionaries like the father of modern philanthropy, George Peabody?Undoubtedly there are people, like Bill Gates, who endow various charities and foundations around the world, and this is a good thing, but nobody builds and endows institutions like Morden College anymore. There are no more libraries being provided by people like Carnegie or Passmore Edwards. Indeed, many of the beautiful buildings they provided are being sold by greedy and ignorant local councils, not only here but in America as well.
    I can only hope that Morden College continues to survive and be a place of refuge and beauty for the residents for as long as possible.

  6. Sarah B Guest Perry permalink
    May 1, 2018

    So pretty. I wish I could retire there but I’m on the wrong side of the pond-

  7. May 1, 2018

    Cue the harpsichord music! What a place of grace, dignity and purpose.
    Wonderful photos — I felt like I could hear the bird song, the rustle of leaves, and your footsteps on the paving stones.
    A wonderful tour.

  8. Helen Breen permalink
    May 1, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, it is truly remarkable that Morden College, founded in 1685 as a charitable home for “decayed merchants” survives after these 333 years. The setting reminds me of one of my favorite books – THE WARDEN by Anthony Trollope.

    Beautiful pics of the grounds in spring dress too …

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    May 1, 2018

    I just noticed Malcolm’s reference to the philanthropy of George Peabody (1795-1869). His statue by William Wetmore Story graces the Royal exchange in London. Peabody, a poor farm boy from Danvers, Massachusetts (later renamed “Peabody” in his honor) made a fortune in trade, settled in London, and build/supported the first public housing in that city.

    Queen Victoria showed her appreciation for his largess in many ways, including the option to be buried in Westminster Abbey. But Peabody chose to return to his native soil. His body was returned to Peabody accompanied by a royal cortege led by Victoria’s son Prince Arthur – a very interesting story.

    The now city of Peabody in next my town of Lynnfield, MA …

  10. Paul Loften permalink
    May 1, 2018

    I like the term “decayed merchant”. One could almost picture a group of withered old men with ear trumpets and fould tempers on the lawn, attended in their bathchairs, by the resident nurses .

  11. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    May 1, 2018

    What a blessing it must have been for men to retire from the sea to such a place! I don’t know much about merchant vessels, but on a ship-of-war a sailor had about 16” of personal space – that was how far apart their berths were hung. So these modest apartments were palatial by comparison! And peaceful. I could live very happily in a place like that, not that I am ever very likely to.

    God bless the memory of Sir John Morden. Long may it, and his legacy, endure.

  12. Sally cox permalink
    May 1, 2018

    It’s a magical place, I’m lucky enough to have a friend that lives there and I find the whole place wonderful, from The gardens to the actual buildings themselves, there is so much history attached to the college it fascinates me

  13. John Cooper permalink
    May 1, 2018

    I lived on the new Greenwich Council housing estate, built next to Morden College in Fulthorp Road from the age of nine, in the late 1950s and early 60s and always wondered what was behind the gates and past the red-bricked gatehouse. I must confess that, as a kid, when I was told that it was a home for ‘retired turkey merchants’, I thought they had traded in the winged variety. Thanks for the enlightening article and photos – 60 years on and my boyhood questions are finally answered.

  14. May 1, 2018

    A beautiful place to retire to, when one is weak and weary. A noble man, well remembered.

  15. Roy Edward Havery permalink
    August 22, 2018

    I had the very good fortune to visit the College again this year and was enchanted by the beauty of the grounds and buildings its well worth a visit if your near. If only all accommodation for the elderly was of such a high standard as the College offers its residents. Try and visit the College chapel if you can the peace calm and serenity is a wonderful experience as is the very friendly and warm welcome I received from every resident and staff member I met during my all to short visit.

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