Dulwich College, that time honoured seat of learning built in 1619 by the actor Edward Alleyn, (1566-1626) owes more to blood sports than his thespian qualities although he was acknowledged by Ben Johnson as second only to the Elizabethan actor, Richard Burage. Alleyn first trod the boards as a member of the Worcester Men in 1587 but later sort patronage with the London Admiral’s Men at the capital’s Rose theatre run by Philip Henslowe.
He became the troupe’s leading actor playing masterful roles to perfection like Marlowe’s Tumberlaine and the Jew of Malta; so much so, Alleyn was made a partner in the administration of the theatre and also granted the hand of Henslowe’s step-daughter, Joan Woodward. The theatre partnership flourished as Alleyn played Greene’s Orlando Furrioso but he and Henslowe saw easier returns by joining the increasingly popular blood sports of bull and bear baiting and Alleyn left the theatre in 1597.
The partnership then built the Bear Garden on Bankside which opened to enthusiastic crowds in 1600 but when the Globe theatre on the south bank of the River Thames achieved success with their theatrical performances, the pair decided to build the Fortune Theatre on the North bank of the river. Alleyn rejoined the Admirals Men in 1604 achieving much acclaim for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus but it was short lived for he and his business partner were appointed Masters of the Royal Game of Bears, Bulls & Mastiff Dogs. Alleyn and Henslowe did not turn their backs on the theatre for they saw their new appointment as an ideal opportunity to diversify.
Instead, they built the Hope theatre in 1614 on the site of the original Bear Garden; the new theatre being designed to appeal to wider audiences for it had a portable stage that could be rolled away leaving an amphitheatre for blood sports. Henslowe died shortly after the Hope opened and Alleyn inherited his estate and also his famous diaries of renaissance theatre which are still available to students of the theatre. The combined fortunes of the men provided Alleyn with sufficient funds to consider building something by which he might be remembered and therefore, he set about acquiring suitable land.
It was no secret Sir Francis Calton, the ex-Lord Mayor of London and a prominent member of the exclusive Goldsmith Guild was in financial difficulties. He had inherited 1,100 acres of Dulwich Common at the age of ten from his father Thomas Calton in 1575; it having been granted to him by Henry VIII in 1544. Alleyn offered Calton £717,600 in today’s money to be paid over seven years for the Dulwich estate which extended from Denmark Hill in the north to Sydenham Hill in the south and as far west as Croxted. Later, he purchased several acres and houses on the estate that had been acquired by his neighbour, Sir Edward Bowyer, Sheriff of Surrey. Alleyn’s intention was to build a hospital to cater for epidemics such as the plague that ravaged the country several years earlier but he was persuaded instead to provide a seat of learning.
Dulwich College was built by John Benson of Westminster in 1613 as an independent boarding school for boys over 7-years of age and was sometimes known locally as the Alleyn School. The chapel, consecrated on the owner’s 50th birthday by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the first building to be completed followed by the school-house and a dozen almshouses; the original letters patent relating to the College were signed by James 1 and bore the Great Seal of England; the historic document can still be viewed by students and academics in the College.
It had been saved for posterity by being stored with examples of College plate in an oak chest bound by iron bands and studded with huge nails which had been placed in the treasure chamber above porch in the College tower. Alleyn lost his wife Joan seven years after his partner’s death and immediately married Constance, the daughter of the yet unpublished poet John Donne but alas, survived only a few months before passing away himself on Christmas Day 1626.
In 1857, the New College designed in the Palladian and Gothic style by Charles Berry, eldest son of Sir Charles Berry the architect, was built of red brick and terracotta on a site a half-mile from the original college. The estate, still constituting some 60 acres, is in more demand than ever for not only is it a leading seat of learning but a location for shooting 21st century films, documentaries and advertising promotions.
The Great Hall has been used as the dining hall in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts College while other parts of the interior and exterior have graced feature length films including the Tomb Raider and Legally Blonde; while scenes from the Toyota series of tv car adverts and even DVDs and record covers for pop groups owe much to the structure of the College and its grounds.
Inside the Master’s Library are two painted panels, allegedly dating from Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind which later graced the State Barge of Elizabeth I and were subsequently purchased by Alleyn. Elsewhere, an impressionist painting of the College by the French Danish artist, Camille Pissarro, 1830-1903, graces its walls. From 1870, Pissarro lived for some years in a house on Westow Hill, Upper Norwood where today, a Blue Plaque records his residence on the site of 77a where he painted twelve oils of local scenes around Norwood, Crystal Palace and Sydenham.
Other artefacts in the College include a wooden whaler and sledging equipment from Shackleton’s ill-fated expeditions to the Antarctic so visitors to the many conferences, exhibitions, sporting events and weddings have plenty to take their interest. Although the original 1,100 acres are much reduced, the College grounds still boast a synthetic running track, twelve rugby pitches; eight football pitches, eight cricket squares, two astro-pitches and several all weather tennis and squash courts.