For 20 years Bell House was the home of the Master of Dulwich College before it became a boarding house for the same school.


In 1926 Bell House was taken over by Dulwich College. Since 1869 the Master had been living in rooms in the new College, designed by Charles Barry Jr, but it was agreed that these rooms, unchanged since the College opened, were unfit for purpose. At the time the Master was George Smith and he and his family moved to Bell House. He found the four-acre garden ‘a little overpowering’. Their old quarters at the College were turned into classrooms.  George Smith’s daughter Hilary was born in Bell House and grew up to marry Ronald Groves, Master of the College from 1954-1966.

After Smith the next Master was the scientist Walter Reynolds Booth (1891-1963) who moved in to Bell House in 1928 aged 37. He had been a prisoner -of-war in WW1 in a notorious PoW camp in Germany. He was described as ‘a man without fads’. While head of the school he introduced a number of rules such as no cinema in term-time, no upturned collars and no hands in pockets when speaking with a teacher; he later became irritated when the press reported on these rules. His staff at Bell House included a chauffeur/butler, cook, housekeeper, parlour maid, two housemaids, one full-time and one part-time gardener, and a page, though he did suggest economising by buying a goat and cow to keep the grass down. One of the junior servants had the task each morning of stoking the boiler and going down into the cellar to pump water from the well. Booth moved in to Bell House as a bachelor and married soon after. His mother would often come to stay and in good weather she used to sit in the garden. When the sun moved round, casting her into shade, she would ring the little bell beside her chair whereupon a servant would come out and move the chair back into the sun for her.

Booth loved horses and would ride up College Road to watch school games on his horse, cantering around the perimeters of the pitches. He was an extravagant host and would hold parties at Bell House where it is said that guests were served from a silver salver carried by a page-boy. He also stood outside the house to take the salute when the cadets marched to the chapel.

In the 1930s Austin Vernon, the Estate architect, made some alterations to Bell House for the College. The school was evacuated during WW2 though the Master lived here until Bell House was so badly damaged by bombs that he had to move to the South Block of the College. Bell House was then used as a furniture store. After the war it was proposed the Picture Gallery use it as a temporary display space and store while the Gallery was being rebuilt. The stored furniture was moved to the small undamaged part of the Gallery in readiness and some pictures were restored on site but the plan came to nothing but the plan came to nothing.

In 1941 Christopher Gilkes (1898-1953), whose father had also been Master of the College, was appointed Master and suggested a smaller house might be more appropriate, given the war-time economies which needed to be made by the College. He lived in The Chestnuts on Dulwich Common (where coincidentally the Gowans had also lived) until Elm Lawn, given to the College by a generous and anonymous old boy of the school, became available. The Master then moved to Elm Lawn and in 1947 Bell House became a boarding house for the College.