Reviewed by Patrick Darby
Not counting a slim booklet by A. W. P. Gayford published in 1950, there have been only two published histories of Dulwich College. The first, by a College (and Estates) Governor, William Young, was a massive two-volume work published in 1889, when the College had barely begun its rise to become one of the country’s great Public Schools, hence Young’s major concern being the College’s progress (or lack of it) as an educational institution in the 238 years before its reformation in 1857. The second, Sheila Hodges’ ‘God’s Gift’ of 1981, was highly readable but perhaps lacking in substance. Now we have Dr Jan Piggott’s book, which not only brings the story up to date, but does so with the elegant prose-style one would expect from a former Head of English at the school, and can boast an astonishing depth of scholarship and attention to detail.
Dr Piggott, until 2006 also Keeper of the Archives at the College, begins with a description of the early life and career of Edward Alleyn leading up to his acquisition of the manor of Dulwich and his endowment of that and other London properties on his ‘Hospitall’ for the poor, both young and old, in the centre of the Village. Alleyn’s wish that the former might, in the words of the Founder’s Prayer, be “brought up to Godliness and good learning”, was sadly frustrated by his indolent successors during the remainder of the 17th and 18th centuries (the latter covered in a chapter contributed by Allan Ronald), so that by the 1840s Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift at Dulwich had become (in the words of a journalist writing in 1873, cited by Dr Piggott) “a mere nest of sinecurists, in close connection with a joyless almshouse and a feeble and ineffective charity school”. Local, and indeed national, dissatisfaction with this Trollopian regime led in 1857 to the dissolution of the ‘old order’, and its replacement, under Dr (later Canon) A. J. Carver as Master, by an ‘Upper School’ since known as Dulwich College, and a ‘Lower School’ which soon became Alleyn’s School, with the almshouses henceforth managed separately. In 1870 the College moved to its present magnificent - and expensive - premises designed by Charles Barry (another of the author’s heroes, and one on whose work he is a particular authority) on Dulwich Common, the building of which was largely funded by various sales of land to railway companies, and the increase in rental income from incoming tenants that was consequent on the coming of the railways.
Under the Mastership (from 1885 to 1914) of A. H. Gilkes, for whose character and achievements Dr Piggott clearly has great and well-deserved admiration, the College grew in numbers and prestige, and with alumni such as P. G. Wodehouse, Ernest Shackleton, G. E. Moore and Raymond Chandler, enjoyed a ‘Golden Age’, as described in fascinating detail by Dr Piggott. Near bankruptcy during World War II was averted by the ingenuity and financial prudence of the then Master, Christopher Gilkes (son of A. H.), and his later ‘Dulwich Experiment’ allowed boys from less privileged backgrounds to enjoy the benefits of a Dulwich education, funded by their local authority. It became the basis for the national Assisted Places Scheme, and although that ceased to operate in 1997 much of Dulwich College’s enduring success can, as Dr Piggott shows, be attributed to it.
Finally, there are chapters on the Dulwich College International franchise operating in the Far East (contributed by the present Master, Graham Able, with assistance from Dr Colin Niven), and on ‘Games & Sports’ at the College, in many of which Old Alleynians have excelled at national and international level (contributed by former Deputy Master, Terry Walsh).
Beautifully produced, with some stunning photographs (both from the College archives and specially commissioned from John Hammond) and other apposite illustrations, and an appendix of copious Notes and sources, ‘Dulwich College - A History 1616-2008’ should be required reading for anyone directly or indirectly associated with Dulwich College - and that would include every member of The Dulwich Society.