Such was the social sensibilities of the C18th that no matter how wealthy a person was a fortune made in “trade” was frowned upon. This was the time of Jane Austen and the unfavourable position of “trade” in English society feature in many of her novels. In a small corner of Blackheath two important buildings have curious links with “trade”.
Tucked away in an incline in the south east corner of Blackheath is Morden College designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Built in 1695-1702 as Almshouses for “decayed Turkey Merchants” nothing to do with Christmas fowl but rather The Levant or Turkey Company. This was a chartered company formed in 1581 to regulate trade with Turkey and the Levant. A member of the Company was known as a Turkey Merchant. In the mid C17th John Morden was residing in Smyrna as a Turkey Merchant. There is an interesting story about the loss and recovery of his fortune which motivated him to build the almshouses.
The family were returning to live in England and Sir John shipped his merchandise on board three of his ships and sent them on a trading voyage after which they would proceed to London. Sir John and his family arrived safely in England to learn that the ships were missing. This loss plunged the family into poverty and Sir John was forced to work alongside a “tradesman”. For someone of his rank this was really demeaning and he was obliged to visit customers to get their orders.
Whilst waiting in the hall of a gentleman’s house he overheard an account of the arrival in the Port of London of three ships thought to have been lost for over ten years. He rushed to the docks to discover they were his ships. With his recovered wealth he commissioned Morden College to provide accommodation for merchants like himself who had fallen on hard times. It continues to provide this service for retired people who have been in a profession or trade. Statues the Founder and his wife, in decorative arches and flanked by scrolls, are above the main entrance.
Sir John Morden Walk is a public path running through the grounds that follows the course of the Upper Kidbrooke long since lost in a culvert. There are three boundary stones still visible demarcating the old parishes of Charlton, Kidbrooke and Blackheath a two dated 1890. Across from the college is The Paragon a significant and visible landmark on the heath.
The Paragon is a crescent of 14 semi-detached houses linked by single storey colonades. Built between 1795 and 1806 by John Cator and designed by Michael Searles. The houses were designed to attract wealthy merchants who wanted to leave the dirt and the noise of London behind. The leases were prohibitive and prevented anyone involved in the “art and mystery of trade” from renting them. The exclusion of tradesmen was successful and notable residents included; Quarles Harris the co-founder of The Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Sir John Simon first officer for Health in the City of London and McGregor Laird the explorer.
But fortunes are won and lost and after the 1st World War the Paragon began to deteriorate as they became multiple occupancy, converted to boarding houses or hotels. Looking at these elegant houses it’s difficult to think that they were once thought to be “seedy”. During the 2nd World War they were severely damaged by bombs then later restored by the architect Charles Bernard Brown.
So there you have it two distinctive buildings one designed to house tradesmen and the other designed to keep them out.