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The history of Morden Hall Park 

Snuff Mill and the River Wandle in Morden Hall Park, London.
Snuff Mill and the River Wandle in Morden Hall Park | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Since the 1700s Morden Hall Park has been home to snuff mills, hospitals, a remarkable rose garden and plenty of parties.

Gilliat Edward Hatfeild, the last private owner, inherited Morden Hall as a young man in 1906, but never made it his home. He lived in the more modest Morden Cottage which he thought more suitable to his bachelor needs.

The Morden snuff mills

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Morden Hall estate’s prosperity depended on its snuff mills. Snuff was introduced to London’s elite in around 1700 and its use was almost universal by the end of the 18th century.

Snuff is made by grinding tobacco to a fine powder between two millstones. The powder was left natural or perfumed with flower essences or spices. Gentlemen, and sometimes ladies, sniffed pinches of snuff from the back of their hands for a swift nicotine buzz - which often made them sneeze.

At Morden, most snuff produced was the most common brown type, with small amounts of very dark, strong snuff and a perfumed variety.

Running the Morden mills

The Morden mills are sited on the River Wandle, a prosperous area for milling since the time of the Domesday Book (1086). During the 19th century, the Wandle valley became a ‘hub’ of tobacco and snuff manufacture.

The eastern and western mills were built in 1750 and 1830 respectively, while the Manor of Morden was held by the Garth family, who had owned the estate and title since the 16th century.

In 1834, a tobacco firm, Taddy & Co, part-owned by Alexander Hatfeild, was granted the mills’ lease. In 1867, the Hatfeild family bought the estate. The snuff was blended and processed in the Taddy & Co factory in the Minories in London. Acquiring the mills completed the production line and enabled Hatfeild to greatly expand his successful business.

The mills at Morden produced 6,000lbs of snuff each month, in conditions described by millworkers as extremely dusty, noisy and uncomfortable.

The decline of the snuff mills

By the late 19th century, snuff taking was declining, considered ‘flamboyant, vulgar and offensive’, and cigars had become reasonably priced. In addition, the watermills were being outdone by steam-powered mills.

In 1922, the workers in Hatfeild’s tobacco company went on strike. No doubt motivated by declining profits, Gilliat Hatfeild, Alexander’s grandson, closed his factory and mills.

He had been left a large fortune, however, and the running of the Morden Hall estate. As the millworkers had not joined the strike they were rewarded with jobs on the estate.

The mills in modern times

After the mills closed they were used mainly as the estate workshop. Until the 1930s the waterwheel powered tools such as drills, planes and saws. The only piece of machinery preserved was the large cast-iron wheel, currently in the stable yard.

In 1989 the western mill opened as a classroom and education centre, and has an interactive exhibition on the life of Morden’s Victorian millworkers.

Garden volunteer pruning roses at Morden Hall Park, London
Garden volunteer pruning roses at Morden Hall Park | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Morden Hall estate in wartime

Gilliat Edward Hatfeild allowed Morden Hall and the grounds to be used as an auxiliary military hospital and a soldiers’ convalescent home during the First World War. He was personally interested in the patients and often treated them to tours of the grounds by punt. (A punt is a long, narrow, flat-bottomed boat, usually propelled by a pole).

The Hall was also used as a hospital after the war, particularly for women and children. Gilliat Hatfeild financed the facilities, run by the Salvation Army.

Peter Kingston remembers being a patient for four weeks between the wars:

‘I had appendicitis and boys just didn’t survive then. I started getting better when I got here as I didn’t have to eat the horrible food we were given at London hospital.’

- Peter Kingston

The Second World War took its toll on the estate. Many buildings were damaged by bombs, several glasshouses were demolished, and air raid shelters and trenches were built. The Hall luckily remained unscathed and in use as a convalescent home for east London’s largest hospital.

The Rose Garden at Morden Hall Park

Thought to be the only major alteration that Gilliat Hatfeild made to his father’s Deer Park, the two-and-a-half-acre rose garden was created around 1921. It’s a very unusual example of an inter-war rose garden, featuring a design well ahead of its time.

Historical images show the garden’s layout of 48 irregular rectangular and circular beds of standard and climbing roses on poles. Its two halves, separated by a small stream, were originally connected by rose-covered rustic bridges.

It’s possible that the stream was there in Saxon times, and defined the parish boundary of Mitcham and Morden. There’s still an old cast-iron boundary marker under the large London plane tree just outside the garden.

Local people who visited as children remember the rose garden as a favourite spot of Gilliat Hatfeild’s. He was often seen deadheading roses on summer evenings, with his basket, secateurs and gloves secreted in a hollow tree.

One of several noteworthy trees here, the Taxus baccata ‘Dovastonia’ or Westfelton yew, is immense and probably many centuries old.

Old roses, modern techniques

There are no historical records of the original rose varieties. All that remain are two old labels identifying the varieties ‘Mrs AR Waddell’ and ‘Caroline Testout’.

Between 1997 and 1999 we replaced the roses with old varieties chosen for their colour and hardiness. In 2013, we reviewed the restoration plans and now roses are chosen to reflect the period and for reliability, including some heritage varieties.

We’ve reintroduced standard roses and in 2017, thanks to support from Wimbledon National Trust Association, we added a rustic pergola to give more of a sense of the original garden. We currently have around 1,600 individual roses and about 40 varieties.

Children looking at roses in the Rose Garden in June at Morden Hall Park, London
Children in the Rose Garden in June at Morden Hall Park | © National Trust Images/John Millar

The children’s parties

Gilliat Hatfeild was passionate about making the park available to local children who had little opportunity to enjoy nature. So began the tradition of the annual children’s parties in the grounds, held until his death in 1941.

Every school in the area was treated to an afternoon summer outing. Estate workers staffed attractions and punted the children through the grounds to Gilliat Hatfeild’s Mill Cottage where the waterwheel turned and Gilliat would greet each punt.

This would be followed by tea in a marquee staffed by estate employees’ wives. Each child received a gift before going home, such as fruit from the orchard or a rose from the garden.

Olive and Tom remember going to the parties:

‘Both of us were from working-class families and we didn’t have a lot. It was a magical day! There were marquees full of trestle tables with party food like sandwiches and cakes.

Inside the park was a fairground attraction with helter-skelters and swing boats and punts going up and down the river taking people for rides round the islands. When we left we were given a goody bag of an apple.’

- Olive and Tom, childhood visitors

Gilliat Hatfeild also held a garden fete for the villagers. The fete boasted swing boats, roundabouts, coconut shies, slides and prizes for best blooms, cakes and jams, inside a fenced-off area to keep the cows out.

Film stars and fundraising

In 1947, new life was breathed into the estate with the Film Stars’ Garden Party. Held every year until 1951, this was a very glamorous event.

The Sunday Pictorial newspaper (later the Sunday Mirror) worked with the British film industry to organise the parties in aid of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and the Church of England Children’s Society.

Nearly 150 British and American stars attended these fabulous garden parties, along with 25,000 fans. It was the chance of a lifetime for many a Londoner to meet their screen idols.

Fred, a local resident, recalls: ‘The film star parties were the highlight of the year. I couldn’t get tickets but one year I sneaked in over the gate. I bumped into Margaret Lockwood who just shook my hand and let me carry on. I had heard of her, but didn’t realise how famous she was. I can’t remember what she was wearing except that she was very glamorous with a large hat.’

Gilliat Hatfeild’s legacy

Upon his death in 1941, Gilliat Hatfeild left Morden Hall and its estate to the National Trust. His obituary remembered him as ‘gifted with kindness and great generosity. He was a friend of children and earned the love and respect of all those who came in contact with him.’

He stipulated in his will that the park should be available to the public for free, which is of course the case today.

In 2016 we celebrated the 75th year of his legacy with ‘Mr Hatfeild’s Party’, a joyous family affair. At arts and crafts stalls children made paper boats to race down the river like the punts of old and paper flowers to echo Gilliat Hatfeild’s beloved rose garden.

Today you can still share that sense of fun and celebration in this urban haven that Gilliat Hatfeild has enabled us to preserve.

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