Survey of London Monograph 10, Morden College, Blackheath. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1916.
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THE buildings of Morden College are justly famous for their beauty, and in the history of collegiate architecture the position which they occupy is one of no little importance. This position can be best defined by comparing the College with other examples and by briefly stating the development of this particular type of building.
The quadrangular plan, always a favourite one with mediæval builders, was early adopted as the most comely as well as convenient arrangement where a number of people were to reside together on a communal basis. The monastic cloister is the most striking historical illustration of this, and so widespread were the colonies of monks and so important their establishments that they exercised a profound influence on the secular building of their time. There is a reason, however, connected with another aspect of the life of the monastery, on account of which the courtyard plan was not at first adopted for the hospital or almshouse: for the monastic infirmary, designed to receive the sick and invalided, though sometimes attached to a small cloister of its own, as at Westminster, was usually arranged on the plan of a large aisled hall or dormitory, having a chapel at the east end. In this way it resembled the plan of a church, the chapel occupying the position of the chancel and the beds or cubicles the aisles. The first hospitals, being generally for infirm and bedridden patients, were therefore modelled on the infirmary plan, and several examples remain to the present day, notably the Hospital of St. Mary at Chichester.
A little later, when charitable institutions began to take the form of an endowment to provide the aged as well as the infirm with permanent lodging and maintenance, the grouping of separate dwellings around a quadrangle found favour, an arrangement adopted by the Carthusian order of monks, and to be found also in such foundations as the Vicars' Close at Wells. The quadrangle, with its own gatehouse, was self-contained, and within its four ranges of building included the common rooms, such as chapel, hall and kitchen, for the use of all the inmates. The almshouse being planned on a collegiate or semi-monastic basis, with a master, chaplain and brethren, found such an enclosure exactly suited to its purpose, since it made for protection and shelter, facilitated discipline and control, and promoted friendship and community of interest. The covered walk or cloister, which could easily be arranged against the walls within the courtyard, provided easy communication and added to the comfort and convenience of the almsmen.
One of the earliest of the mediæval almshouses of this type is to be seen at Ewelme, founded by Chaucer's granddaughter Alice, Duchess of Suffolk, in 1436. It adjoins the parish church, an aisle of which is allotted to it in place of a separate chapel. Not many years later the ancient Hospital of St. Cross, Winchester, was reconstituted by Cardinal Beaufort as the "Hospital or Almshouse of Noble Poverty," and its fine Norman church was linked to a new spacious quadrangle of dwellings for 35 almsmen (1445). At times the size of the building scarcely permitted of its extension round the four sides of a court; it became thus merely a group of cottages, such as the almshouse near Burford Church, founded in 1457, and this arrangement, occurring in later years with increasing frequency, may be considered as composed of various fragments of the courtyard plan.
Buildings of the infirmary type continued to be built in the 15th century, but with the Reformation they gave way finally to the quadrangle. A number of interesting examples date from the reigns of Elizabeth and James I., and in them can be studied many variations in the grouping of the common-rooms, the chapel, and the living-rooms. Leicester's Hospital, Warwick (1571), the almshouses at Cobham and the Whitgift Hospital, Croydon (both 1597), the three hospitals built by the Earl of Northampton at Clun, Castle Rising, and Greenwich (1613–14), Coningsby Hospital, Hereford (1614), Sackville College, East Grinstead, and Abbott's Hospital, Guildford (both 1619), are among the more important. Jesus Hospital, Bray, and Penrose Almshouses, Barnstaple (1672), are two fine examples at the beginning of Charles I.'s reign. In one way or another, they all show a tendency to retain the old mediæval character, although in their detail, and to a certain extent in their general grouping, they conform to the new canons of the Renaissance.
In the period known as the later Renaissance, following the Commonwealth, architecture assumed under Sir Christopher Wren's guidance a more rigidly classical character. Almshouses formed of grouped buildings, or an assemblage of dwellings in one block, became more frequent, but the quadrangular tradition persisted. Chelsea Hospital, the largest of these works carried out by Wren, consists in the main of an open or three-sided court, and Trinity Hospital, Mile End— the subject of the London Survey Committee's first monograph, and a building also ascribed to Wren—encloses a court, the front of which has an elaborate screen wall, and the further side is occupied by a detached chapel.
The closed quadrangle is, however, represented by several beautiful buildings, including Bromley College, Kent (1666), Trinity Hospital, Deptford (1670, now destroyed), Morden College, Blackheath (1695), and Collins' Almshouses, Nottingham (1709). The relationship between Bromley College and Morden College is a close one. Sir John Morden became a trustee of the former in 1693, and in the very year when he started building his own foundation he became treasurer at Bromley. The two plans are very much alike. In each the quadrangle is surrounded by a covered walk, separately roofed at Bromley, but beneath the upper story at Blackheath. In each the front elevation has projecting wings, in conformity with the taste of the day, and these wings contain the treasurer's and chaplain's rooms. Each building faces west, and the chapel stands opposite to the principal entrance and projects eastwards, this projection, at Bromley, being now surrounded by the buildings of a second and later quadrangle. The two designs differ in detail, for a space of about 30 years separates their erection, and Morden College had the advantage of Wren's skill in its inception. They are both, however, valuable witnesses to the essential beauty of the quadrangular almshouse and of the fitness of this type of plan for the special requirements of a sheltered home for the aged and the feeble. Morden College lacks the beautiful stone entrance archway of Bromley, but its courtyard is without rival in its restful proportions and the beauty of its architectural design.