Morden College almshouses were founded in 1695 by Sir John Morden on part of the Wricklemarsh estate he had bought in 1669. A merchant who traded in the Middle East, the almshouses were built to benefit 'elderly and decayed merchants'. The red-brick buildings were laid out as a quadrangle, with landscaped grounds, which remain much as they appeared in the mid C19th. In 1992 the former burial ground in the grounds was laid out as a Garden of Remembrance. At the main entrance on Morden Road is a Lodge and fine railings, with views of the fine lawns, shrubs and specimen trees making a notable contribution to the road frontage.
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John Morden (1623-1708), son of a goldsmith and freeman of the City of London, was apprenticed as a young man to Sir William Soame, a merchant who held positions with both the Levant and the East India Companies. At Soame’s behest Morden travelled to the Middle East and traded on behalf of the Levant or ‘Turkey’ Company, returning to London by 1660. He married Susan Bland, daughter of a wealthy Suffolk wool merchant, her dowry enhancing his own fortune as well as his social and business status. Through this connection he joined a leading group of Puritan merchants and Whig parliamentarians, and also joined the Boards of both the East India and Levant Companies. In 1669 the Mordens purchased the estate of Wricklemarsh in Charlton, which comprised 200 acres of parkland and a mansion. Morden was knighted in May 1688 by James II, and in 1693 he became a Trustee of Bromley College (q.v.), an almshouse founded in 1671 for widows of poor clergy.
In 1695 Sir John founded Morden College as an almshouse for 'poor, honest, sober and discreet merchants who shall have lost their estates by accidents and perils of the seas, or by any other accidents, ways, or means, in their honest endeavour to get their living by way of merchandising'. Morden College was designed as a quadrangle of red brick buildings, of a similar layout to both Bromley College and the Royal Hospital Chelsea (q.v.), the latter designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
When Morden died in 1708, he endowed Morden College with large tracts of land all over England and left its governance to a panel of Trustees drawn from the Levant Company. By his Will, he stipulated that should that Company cease trading, Trustees were to be appointed from the East India Company, and that if the same circumstance occurred to that company, Trustees were to be chosen from the Aldermen of the City of London, who have now been its custodians since 1874. An early C18th engraving of the College by Johannes Kyp shows gardens to the north and south of the building; there were areas of the grounds set aside for the Treasurer and Chaplain, who lived on the premises and ran the day-to-day business of the College after Sir John's death. In the C18th the site was surrounded by open fields as shown on the John Rocque map of 1746. In the 1720s Daniel Defoe gave a detailed description of the College but only referred briefly to the grounds: ‘behind the chapel is a handsome burying ground wall'd in; there are also very good gardens’. The burial ground referred to was closed in the C19th and the graves moved to Charlton parish church of St Luke (q.v.); in 1992 part of the former burial ground was laid out as a Garden of Remembrance, a courtyard garden around a small pond with a fountain, planted with roses, clematis and wisteria.
From 1825-74 Morden College Trustees were from the East India Company and many changes took place during this period, enabled as a result of the sale of c.3 acres of the site to the South-Eastern Railway Company for the extension of the line from London through Blackheath. The grounds were almost completely redesigned, opening up the gardens to provide sweeping lawns, with numerous trees and shrubs, and island bedding, much of which remains in place today. The archives show purchases of numerous trees, shrubs and flowering plants including species recently introduced into Britain, such as Mahonia, as well as garden tools. There was a kitchen garden and glasshouses situated in an area called the Morden Plantation, separate from the main site.
The site changed considerably during the C20th and continues to evolve, with the addition of further buildings, including a residential nursing home, as well as modern plumbing and a central heating system. Women are now admitted as residents and facilities include a club house with a snooker room and bar, whilst outdoor activities include boules and a putting green, laid out on the east front lawn. In 1936 a report on the trees stated that the lime trees on the site were ‘deteriorating badly’ and they were consequently felled, later replaced in 1937 when a short avenue of 16 limes, as well as a flowering cherry and a London plane were planted in celebration of the Coronation of George VI.
In a niche above the main entrance, which is at the west front of the quadrangle, are statues of Sir John and Lady Susan Morden, and from here an arch leads to the central quadrangle, which is now planted with circular flower beds containing species that reflect the time when Morden College first opened. Also in the quadrangle is a handsome late C19th cast iron lamp standard, with attached fire bell, in the form of a Roman Doric column with an urn on top. From the west front, the front lawn sweeps down to the boundary with Morden Road where there are fine railings and a red-brick Lodge, the almshouses hidden from public view by a bank of trees.
Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South (Penguin) 1999, p253; Daniel Defoe, 'A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain' (1st published 1724-6), p.114; Platts; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993); Barbara McGee 'Morden College, Blackheath: A Home for ‘Elderly and Decayed’ Merchants' in The London Gardener, vol 15, 2009-10