Skip to content

At Morden College

September 3, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my tour throughout September & October



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.

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.

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”





Mulberry tree c.1700





The college fire engine was presented by Richard Chiswell in 1751

Morden College, 1755

Sir John Morden (Courtesy of Wellcome Foundation)

You may also like to read about

At Trinity Green Almshouses

At the Charterhouse

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Milo permalink
    September 3, 2022

    Is there a waiting list i can pop my name on?

  2. Bernie permalink
    September 3, 2022

    It looks idyllic and I do hope that its residents enjoy their existence. Such a retirement home is, in theory at least, just what I need at present!

  3. Cherub permalink
    September 3, 2022

    It looks so peaceful and calm.

  4. Andy permalink
    September 3, 2022


  5. September 3, 2022

    Having spent my first 50 or so years in London I thought I at leask knew where all the ‘bits’ were … Thank you!

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 4, 2022

    What a gorgeous place… and yet another hidden London treasure.

    My immediate reaction on seeing the photos was that it reminded me of the Bethnal Green Chest Hospital, especially the main entrance with its mixture of red brick and white stonework.

    And lo and behold there was another veteran mulberry tree – spooky!

  7. William Martin permalink
    September 4, 2022

    We have a similar institution–stemming from the early 19th cent.–called Sailors’ Snug Harbor here on Staten Island in New York City. But once pensions and social security began to be prevalent, it was no longer needed and now it houses art galleries, gardens, a Chinese scholars’ garden etc. We were just there with the dog this AM.

  8. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 8, 2022

    Would be more than happy to spend out my remaining days here

  9. Bryan Stevens permalink
    September 30, 2022

    So fascinating. I lived in Blackheath for 4 years in the late “60’s, and never knew about Morden College. Thank you for “discovering” it for us.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS