Magazine article The Spectator

'The College of God's Gift'

Magazine article The Spectator

'The College of God's Gift'

Article excerpt

DULWICH COLLEGE: A HISTORY, 1616-2008 by Jan Piggott Dulwich College Enterprises, £24, pp. 408, ISBN 9780953949328

The only man from Dulwich College I have ever known, or met, was a master at my school, M. H.

Bushby. A distinguished cricketer at Dulwich, he went on to captain Cambridge. Here he is described, in later life, as a 'much respected and much loved housemaster', so my attitude to Dulwich has always been entirely favourable, though all I knew of it was its vague outline on the edge of the South Circular road, a distant palazzo surrounded by extensive playing fields.

This monumental volume, beautifully produced by the college, leaves nothing out. Old boys of Dulwich are known as Old Alleynians because of its founder in 1619, Edward Alleyn, who played all those 'over-reaching' heroes in Marlowe's plays.

Alleyn's presence on the stage might even have prompted Marlowe to write these parts. It was Alleyn who first declaimed, 'Was this the face that launched a thousand ships . . . ?' Some say that a vision of the devil in this play so frightened him that he resolved to abandon his rakish past and devote the rest of his life to helping the poor. He retired at his peak at the age of 31.

The best actors of the time made fortunes, through investment in theatres, land and property. Alleyn concentrated on buying up land south of the Thames, particularly around the hamlet of Dulwich. A college was built, and the 'Poor Scholars' were taught by some Fellows (masters) who were meant to be graduates, but rarely were. Their salary was so poor that few stayed for long. Most of them were lazy, and despised the 'Poor Scholars'. Alleyn had set his heart on creating another Winchester, an education based on the classics, but no Greek was ever taught, and little Latin.

The Master and Warden were not required to be academic, but merely unmarried and with the same surname as his own, though Allen would do. Whenever a vacancy arose, numerous bachelors named Alleyn/Allen from a variety of professions would apply, as the positions were wellknown to be sinecures. Any surplus revenue from Alleyn's estate was pocketed by them.

Nothing was spent on the 'Poor Scholars' or the alms houses set up by the founder.

They entertained lavishly. The threat of litigation always hung over them. Any visitor to the college, such as John Evelyn, would be shocked by its melancholy air and contentious atmosphere.

This strange, idiosyncratic system meandered on somehow for almost two and a half centuries. By 1850, newspapers were demanding the reform of antiquated charitable institutions and endowed schools.

Trollope in The Warden highlighted Dulwich as a 'hotbed of peculation' (embezzlement). It took three great headmasters to turn it around and bring Dulwich in line with the other public schools emerging at the time.

'You leave Dulwich, not as you found it, a small and struggling school of less than one hundred boys, but one of the greatest education institutions of the century' was the tribute paid by the Common Room to Canon Carver on his retirement in 1883.

For the first time the headmaster was not an Allen. The college was rebuilt on a more elevated site, in a mixture of Gothic and neo classical styles. There was now a governing body, headed by a philanthropic Etonian who opposed every attempt by Carver to make the college in any way exclusive. …

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