Local History

A Brief History of Dulwich

  Carl Evans

I own a specialist HMO letting agency that lets HMOs in Dulwich and have always been fascinated with the area. Located south of London’s center, Dulwich offers residents and visitors a refreshing and idyllic getaway from the hectic rush of central London. Covered by wide-reaching stretches of green space, the land which comprises Dulwich has changed ownership several times over the last 2 millennia and serves as the home for several historic structures and British legends.

The Anglo Fields of Dill
First mentioned as “Dilewisc” in 967, the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers who named this area summed it up in succinct terms. “Dilewisc” means “dill fields” in Old-English, indicating the rural and agrarian character associated with the area at that time; one can see the slight similarities between the Old-English dubbing and the modern one, Dulwich.

Dulwich Woods

25 acre ancient woodland in Dulwich today

These chroniclers first wrote of Dulwich in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The chronicle states that King Edgar the Peaceful, monarch of the Anglo-Saxon realm at that time, had just granted the land to the Earl Aelfheah. Importantly, Edgar the Peaceful’s reign bears a legacy that is relevant today. The procedures of the modern UK coronation ceremony are rooted in the crowning Edgar the Peaceful, first performed in 973. It should be noted that this was first performed about 14 years after Edgar had ascended the throne, and was first intended to celebrate the culmination of his reign, rather than the initiation of it.

In the reign of King Harold II, on the eve of the Norman conquest, Dulwich was transferred back to the regency. After 1066, William the Conqueror snatched the title to the land, and it stayed in the possession of the royals until King Henry II granted Dulwich to Bermondsey Abbey in 1127.

Located a few miles to the north of Dulwich, Bermondsey Abbey thrived throughout the Middle Ages. It is also during this period of Bermondsey Abbey’s ownership that the well-known Lordship Lane was constructed. This was the first major road constructed through Dulwich. By the 1530s, the Abbey earned over £400 of annual income, or £7 million today. However, King Henry VIII seized all of Bermondsey Abby’s land holdings in 1537 with the Dissolution of the Abbeys order.

In 1544, King Henry VIII sold Dulwich to Thomas Carlton, for the price of £609. 61 years later Carlton’s grandson, Sir Francis Carlton, sold the land for almost £5,000 to the famous Shakespearean actor Edward Alleyn. Alleyn then began the first major developments in Dulwich.

Alleyn and the Old Alleynians
Edward Alleyn, a renaissance man of the late 1500s and early 1600s, found fame as an actor, performing plays written by both Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Many regarded Alleyn, who retired in 1600 to open the Fortune Theatre Company, as one of the paramount performers of the age. After the purchase of Dulwich in 1605, Alleyn contemplated how to properly develop his newly acquired land.

Alleyn also wished to commence the establishment of a school, burial ground and a chapel, which would comprise a charitable foundation to educate children and accommodate the elderly, calling it Dulwich Estate. First Alleyn commissioned the construction of Dulwich Chapel now known as Christ’s Chapel. Completed in 1616, this was the first major building erected in Dulwich. Alleyn back in the 17th Century compassionately allowed homeless people to reside within the confines of the chapel. The chapel stands to this day, and Alleyn’s remains are buried in the chapel; he passed away in 1626.

Christ’s Chapel Dulwich

Christ’s Chapel Dulwich

In 1619, the builders laid the final bricks of Dulwich College. Students attending Dulwich College became known as “Old Alleynians” (OAs) paying homage to the originator of the college.

Several historically important OAs attended Dulwich College throughout its 400-year history. Probably the most famous Old Alleynian to graduate from the college is Sir Ernest Shackleton, captain of the HMS Endurance and savior of her crew. In 1914, just as the first shots of World War I rang out across Belgium, Shackleton and his crew set off in the Endurance to reach Antarctica. Once there, he and his crew would attempt to be the first humans to cross the frozen continent.

Unfortunately, Shackleton did not accomplish this lofty goal. After reaching the Antarctic, Shackleton and his men hit serious adversity. In early January of 1915, Antarctic sea ice severely damaged and paralyzed the Endurance, forcing Shackleton and his crew to abandon ship. By November of 1915, Endurance, heavily damaged from months of being battered by the ice sank beneath the frigid waters, forcing Shackleton and his crew to camp on the icy landscapes of Antarctica.

For the next two years, Shackleton demonstrated an iron will to survive along with flawless leadership. After a daring mission in a small lifeboat over the unforgiving Southern Ocean, Shackleton reached South Georgia Island, notifying a rescue party that saved the Endurance’s crew. Miraculously, only three crewmembers of the Endurance perished.

Sir Raymond Priestly, another renowned explorer, best summed up Shackleton in this quote; “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.

Shackleton is not the only Old Alleynian hero. Five World War I and two World War II veterans have won Victoria’s Crosses; another World War II veteran won a George’s Cross; all these heroes call Dulwich College their alma mater.

Dulwich College

Dulwich College

In addition to heroes, one of the greatest comic writers of the 20th century, P.D. Wodehouse, was an Old Alleynian. In 1919, Wodehouse created the memorable butler Reginald Jeeves, or Jeeves, the main character in several comical short stories. It is from this early 20th Century creation that the 1990s TV series Jeeves and Wooster is based; in this series, Jeeves is played by the renowned actor and author Stephen Fry.

Not just limited to producing geniuses in the arts, Old Dulwich College also produced one of the greatest cricketers in English history, Trevor Bailey. Boasting a long career that started in the 1940s, Bailey holds a record that remains unbroken to this day: 2,000 runs and 100 wickets taken in one first-class season.

Also included in Alleyn’s 1605 purchase was Dulwich Wood, which is now owned and maintained by the Dulwich Estate. Before the outbreak of the English Civil War, King Charles I would visit this forest for relaxation and hunting excursions. However, by 1647 Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads occupied Dulwich College thus Charles I could no longer safely enter the area.

Finally, Alleyn commissioned the construction of a vast graveyard which is still in use today and became known as Dulwich Burial Grounds. Although the clearing of land to make way for the burial ground began in the early 1600s, it was not until 1720 that graves were first marked. However, experts estimate that there are over 100 unmarked graves scattered throughout the Dulwich Burial Grounds; they also estimate that at least 35 of these are victims of the London Plague, which struck the city and surrounding areas in 1665.

Georgian Era
During the mid 18th Century, several wealthy families built Georgian style houses near Dulwich College, in what is now known as Dulwich Village. Some of the most notable and beautiful residences include Lonsdale Lodge (1750, the oldest house in Dulwich), Bell House (1767) and Belair House, (1785). While all three houses lodged upper-class families, the Bell House had the most notable tenant, Thomas Wright, its original builder.

Bell House Dulwich

Bell House built in 1767

Wright, born in 1722 and coming from modest means, gradually built a career as a wealthy printer. In the 1780s, Wright became the Lord Mayor of London. Building the house as a retreat from the hectic and crowded London atmosphere, part of the property near the house that remained forested became Dulwich Park, established in 1890. The 29-hectare park contains historical gardens, including the American Garden which features a rhododendron garden. Queen Mary, who reigned from 1910-1936, was a frequent visitor and appreciator of the rhododendron garden.

One of the most historically significant places in Dulwich is the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the world’s first public art gallery which opened its doors in 1817. The gallery contains pictures dating to the 1600s and among the works on display are masterpieces by Rembrandt, Poussin, and Canaletto. One particular work, Rembrandt’s Jacob III de Gheyn, holds a particularly interesting world record: since 1966, art thieves have attempted to steal it four times.

Frankenstein and the Iron Lady
Several developments and buildings sprung up between the late 1800s to the 1920s, as Dulwich’s population grew to over 10,000 by the turn of the 20th century. This includes the Dulwich Hospital and Library, built-in 1887 and 1897, respectively. To this day, Dulwich Library still functions as its intended namesake, and Dulwich Hospital has since become a smaller clinic. One of the developments includes an inn, constructed in 1892, which would later become the Crown and Greyhound, a popular pub restaurant operating today.

Dulwich also was the birthplace of movie star William Henry Pratt, better known as Boris Karloff. Karloff, an early horror-movie actor, is best known for playing Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 classic Frankenstein, as well as the monster Imhotep in the 1932 film, The Mummy. Adapting to the children’s movie genre, Karloff also voiced the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’s 1966 television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Finally, one of the most towering figures of the late 20th Century to spend a decent amount of time in Dulwich was the Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher; the first female Prime Minister of the UK serving from 1979-1990. Though she spent most of her time in Downing Street, she and her husband, Sir Denis Thatcher, had a home in Dulwich from 1986-1990. Denis, however, was a regular visitor to Dulwich as he frequented the Dulwich and Sydenham Golf Club.

Amazing 17th and 18th Century architecture, large tracts of green space and several notable British figures, contribute to Dulwich’s unique heritage and aesthetic beauty.

If you feel as though I have missed anything about the history of Dulwich feel free to contact me here. Alternatively, if you own a HMO in Dulwich feel free to view our services and find out how we can help you.

Carl Evans

Carl Evans

I live just down the road from Dulwich and am the Managing Director of HMO Letting Agent. My hobbies include combat sports, exploring the beautiful landscapes of Kent and Surrey with my dogs, teaching my son to play the piano and reading and writing about history.

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