DULWICH COLLEGE BOARDING HOUSE 

After WW2 Bell House welcomed some of Dulwich College's youngest boarders. For the next 45 years the house played host to hundreds of young pupils.

 

In 1947 Bell House opened its doors to around thirty-five junior boarders of Dulwich College. The house worked well as a boarding house. The original 1767 rooms on the second and third floors served as the housemaster’s family home with a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor and four bedrooms above them on the top floor. The housemaster’s study was on the ground floor off the hall and the rest of the house was given over to the boys, at one time there was even a snooker table in the hall. The boys’ common room looked out over the garden and had a table for homework and a table tennis table. There was an adjoining door through to a television room where the boys could watch TV after school and at weekends. In the cellar there was a model railway, a table tennis table and an old sofa. One dormitory (for the youngest boys and the house captain) was on the ground floor and known as the garden dorm, with another four dorms on the first floor. The tutor’s dorm, next to the tutor’s bedroom was also known as the ‘naughty’ dorm.

At first most of the boys were boarding because their fathers were still serving in the armed forces in some capacity following WW2. There were also College connections with Thailand and South America so some pupils came from those countries.

Bell House’s first housemaster in 1947 was physics teacher E. W. Tapper, known as Bill to his colleagues but (for reasons unknown) Ernie to the boys. He organised a Sunday evening film show using his own projection equipment and continued to do this even after he had given up being housemaster. On Coronation Day 1953 the whole house wanted to watch the ceremony on television but there was not enough room to accommodate them all at the same time. Bill had the idea of giving those boys waiting to watch the job of digging a hole for an ornamental pond on the south side of the house, they could then take turns watching the small TV and letting off steam digging in the garden. It might have been better to site the pond where a WW2 bomb had fallen in the garden: no matter how often the hole was filled in and the lawn levelled, the ground would always sink slightly in this area. Most of the garden was lawn, with a wilder part at the end (where Frank Dixon Close is now). There was a kitchen garden to the north side maintained by the family and the College with an enormous greenhouse down the middle and housing every kind of fruit imaginable. Gardening was the responsibility of the house master and Patricia Knight particularly tended the beautiful herbaceous border that runs against the wall separating the two parts of the garden. Bill Tapper was a keen gardener and kept the kitchen garden immaculate. In the summer his house tutor, Terry Walsh, often came back to his room after duty on Sundays to find a dish of strawberries or raspberries fresh from the garden and a small jug of cream. He was unable to help however, the day Terry was marking books in his bedroom and a swarm of bees covered the window. A call to the head of biology proved an inspired idea as he turned out to be a bee expert and came equipped with protective overalls and a ladder. He moved the bees off the window, found the queen, popped her into a sack and when the rest of the swarm had followed her in he took them to a beekeeper friend in Kent.

A boarder at this time remembers that the boys woke at 7am when they washed in cold water They had breakfast in the buttery at school then went back to Bell House before returning to school for assembly at 9am. Evenings were occupied with prep and finished with a bath bun and a quarter pint of milk or a hot drink. At the weekend there were lessons on Saturday morning, sport in the afternoon and more prep at night. Sunday’s routine was chapel in the morning with the afternoon being the only significant free time the boys had during the week. And then a real treat of Mr Tapper’s film show on Sunday evening.  The boarder remembers, ‘What today seems extraordinary is that our shoes were cleaned every night by Mr Roly, inevitably nicknamed Boots’. The shoe pigeon holes are still in place at Bell House as is the walk-in cupboard where matron dispensed the weekly quotas of starched and ironed shirts with detachable collars so stiff they sometime drew blood when they cut into the neck.

One of the boarders had lost an eye as a baby and had a glass replacement which led inevitably to him being given the nickname Popeye. When the boy joined Bell House Terry Walsh was instructed in how to put the eye in and take it out again. On the boy’s first morning there came a knock at the house tutor’s door and Terry assumed he needed help with his eye. No sir, the boy said, I can’t tie my tie. As the boy grew the glass eye didn’t and so became loose. It was used in pranks like being dropped at inopportune moments or being rolled across desks to distract teachers. When Matron made her dormitory round late at night the boy would take the glass eye out and, shining a torch through it, slowly move it round above his bed.

Bill Tapper worked tirelessly for the Science Masters Association and was awarded the OBE. His wife, Barry, gave her time to the Distressed Gentlefolks Association. After ten years at Bell House in 1957 he was succeeded by David Verdon Knight who had been a pupil at the College and school captain. In 1942, after Cambridge, he returned to teach at Dulwich, his plan to join the army having been scuppered when it was discovered he was diabetic, a condition not so easily treatable in those days. He was asked to join the school ‘for a term or so’ and stayed for thirty-eight years. He had always longed to have the post of housemaster and was delighted to take over one of the most gracious buildings in Dulwich. He said that the twelve years he spent as housemaster of Bell House were some of the most enjoyable years of his life and his wife, Patricia, also remembers her time as ‘housemistress’ of Bell House as a time of ‘happiness and fulfilment’. 

David and Patricia Knight would hold celebrated New Year’s Eve parties in the ‘garden dorm’ (what was the drawing room in earlier times) for around seventy people. Members of staff were offered accommodation for the night in the upstairs dorms. Once Patricia and the housemaster, Geoff Waterworth, climbed up onto the roof to ring ‘a few mellow notes’ on the bell which gives the house its name. Knight once had a visitor who told of her childhood at Bell House in the 1870s. This must have been either Alice or Annie Gowan and she told of climbing over the roof of the coach house (always known as the groundsman’s cottage) and also of peeping over the banisters to watch footmen usher in the guests at her parents’ parties. She particularly remembered a small copper beech tree which she pointed out to Knight was now over seventy feet high. This same tree was often climbed by the boarders of Bell House too, and on occasions by Patricia herself when she wanted to avoid particular people.

Sickness at Bell House

During the Asian flu epidemic of 1957 one of the dormitories in Bell House had to be turned into a sick bay, as the school sanatorium was full. The doctor would solemnly progress through the dorm, followed by Matron and Patricia Knight. Following in their wake came Domino, the Knights’ blue-roan spaniel, ‘gathering up as many slippers in his mouth as he could’.  Domino was expelled when he nearly tripped the doctor up. Boarders ate all meals, even breakfast, up at school rather than at Bell House although food for the invalids was brought down from the school but usually given to Domino as it consisted of ‘gristly slices of cold meat and even colder potatoes’. Patricia would supplement rations for the sick boys from her own purse.

A night to remember

On Bonfire Night that year the houses of Frank Dixon Close (which run along the back boundary of Bell House) hosted a joint fireworks display. The sick boys were allowed to watch from the windows and everyone else leant over the garden fence as an enormous cardboard box filled with fireworks was ceremoniously carried to the grass circle in the middle of the close. The first firework was lit to the usual oohs and aahs and as it died away one of its sparks fell into the cardboard box and set off all the fireworks at once causing ‘a magnificent Vesuvius-like explosion’. Knight describes it magnificently:

'…fiery streaks, whistles, flashes and bangs. Rockets shrieked waist-high above the ground, richocheting off walls and trees; squibs bounded about the place; golden rain showered imperiously upwards while Catherine Wheels swivelled frantically on the ground; Jacks in the Box shot stars into the dark and parachutes hung in the branches above. Children screamed whilst parents picked up their offspring and ran. From the Bell House garden it was a tremendous spectacle, though brief. That no one was hurt was a miracle.'

The only casualty that needed medical attention was a boarder who had been absent-mindedly chewing one of his coat’s large buttons when the violence of the explosion caused him to swallow it. He was slapped on the back, turned upside down then taken to hospital from where he returned with instructions to wait for the button to pass through of its own accord. The button appeared within a few days, to the relief of Matron and of Knight who had not relished telephoning the boy’s parents in Venezuela to explain the incident. In the meantime one of the Frank Dixon Close residents had dashed down to Mr Green’s toy shop in the Village, bought up all the fireworks and taken them back for a show which most of the spectators watched from the safety of their houses. In other years Bell House hosted Bonfire Night parties when the scouts came to join the boys in building a bonfire and cooking sausages.

Bell House housed around thirty boys and the Knights had warm relationships with them. Patricia would help them with their ties and their stiff detachable collars. When a boy’s birthday fell in term-time, she would personally give him a small gift. One boy, who went on to fight in the Falklands Conflict, took time to send Knight a photograph of Ernest Shackleton’s grave on South Georgia, knowing that Shackleton (also a Dulwich boy) and his epic journey were passions of Knight’s. Not all the boys were so fondly remembered, one boy leaned out of his dormitory window and sprayed weed-killer over Matron’s window-box below. After that she blamed him for any and every misdemeanour she came across. She was even less forgiving the time he hid a mouse in her handbag. One boy discovered a chimney-like shaft accessible from an outside wall of the house. He climbed into it, finding that it went up to the first floor then crossed the space between the ground floor ceiling and the floor of the rooms above. He got stuck and needed some smaller boys sent after him to pull him out. He emerged protesting that he was just about to explore further, despite the rat he encountered, but Knight forbade him from trying again. His father, a thriller writer who also wrote screenplays for some of the James Bond films, agreed with Knight that he was ‘an absolute rascal’. Described as a ‘Just William’ character, this boy returned as an adult to visit Bell House in the late 1960s, every inch the responsible adult, immaculately dressed in a suit, bowler hat and with a tightly-furled umbrella.

That the Knights succeeded in creating a home-from-home for the pupils is illustrated by the eleven-year-old who, in the Sanatorium for a minor illness, decided he preferred to be at home in Bell House so left at 12.45 am, in just his pyjamas with nothing on his feet.  The Knight children, Roger and Cheryl, grew up at Bell House and remember the happy times they all had there, including sliding down the banisters and even climbing out of their bedroom windows to explore the roof, much to the consternation of their mother. Their father built a rock garden culminating in a waterfall into the pond outside the study. Roger was responsible for mowing the lawn which took two and a half hours and also for stoking the boiler, always a temperamental machine. They remember their mother ringing a handbell from the first floor to call them in from the garden for meals; they still have the bell. Roger and Cheryl went to Dulwich schools and both had happy parties at the house. Roger went on to teach at Dulwich College and was captain of Surrey cricket and president of the MCC.

There were lots of extra-curricular activities at Bell House. Knight liked the boys to be fit for the annual rugby matches against the other houses so would take them on pre-breakfast runs in Dulwich Park though after the first one or two he realised the boys were much fitter than him so took his bicycle after that. He encouraged them to put on sketches and shows and helped with rehearsals. After the regular ‘boarders’ suppers’ he arranged for masters such as John Heath, who taught Classics and Music, and Alan Morgan, head of music, to perform for the boys; the musicians on the first-floor landing with piano and other instruments and down in the hall below sat the guests on chairs and the boys on the floor. Christmas carols were always sung around the Christmas tree in the hall with one of the boys precariously carrying a candle lantern on the end of a pole. Knight also made his own films for the boys’ amusement, recording ordinary life at Bell House such as boys doing their homework or walking down to the chapel on Sundays, interspersed with tricks such as a dorm’s beds being made in a flash, or tiger skin rugs coming to life. Outings were arranged, by train to Brighton or by boat to Hampton Court. Roger had an elaborate model railway which had run around his bedroom, later it was transferred to the cellar and used to film elaborate crashes using Knight’s cine camera. Patricia also used it to distract homesick boys.

At the end of his time at Bell House Knight was presented with a silver salver inscribed with the word Bell. The Knights moved to Hollybrow, at the top of Sydenham Hill and described by Knight as a ‘mini-Bell’.

Terry Walsh joined Bell House as house tutor in the summer of 1955. His salary was £700 p.a. including a £75 p.a. supplement for having done two years National Service and for holding a diploma in education. With bed and board paid a young house tutor had next to no outgoings so the salary was all disposable income. The tutor’s room overlooked the carriage drive at the front of the house and he shared use of a ground floor bathroom with Matron. The ‘private side’, the part of the house reserved for the housemaster and his family, was generally out of bounds, unless invited in by the family, and there was a door with a doorbell separating the private side from the rest of the house. The house tutor, Matron and the boys would use the back stairs and the side door on a day-to-day basis: the front door and main stairs were reserved for the family and parents. In the morning David Knight did not like the boys waking to the bell; he preferred to go round each dorm and wake them up himself. The boys got ready then assembled for the walk up to school for breakfast; boys were always escorted to and from school at this time. The corridor between the back stairs and the back door was filled with indoor and outdoor shoes, coats, caps, bags. Slippers were also stored here, to be changed into whenever the boys came back to the house.

London smogs

Terry Walsh remembers the London smogs when cold weather combined with pollution from coal fires to form a thick mixture of smoke and fog which turned day into night and was thick enough to cause him to lose his way between school buildings. At that time the masters wore stiff white collars which got so filthy that they were given permission to use paper disposable collars instead. These were replaced at lunchtime when they were already black with soot.

Daily life at Bell House

At this time there was school on Saturday morning followed by compulsory games in the afternoon. Boys not playing in a match for the school or their house were expected to support the first team and there was a register taken before and after games to ensure nobody sloped off early. On Sundays the boys had breakfast an hour later following which they all went back to Bell House to get ready for chapel. They would line up in the corridor leading to the back door and file past the house tutor who would check each boy had a prayer book, a clean hankie and a penny for the collection. Some boys had to be reminded that sterling was the only acceptable currency for the chapel collection, lest they were tempted to keep the penny and offload a coin from another country. In the evening there were prayers and the boys took turns to read a lesson which they would choose themselves, though it had to be approved by a master.

In 1969 John ‘Spud’ McInley, who had been a pupil at Dulwich College and returned to teach French, became housemaster and moved in with his wife, son and daughter. He ran Bell House in a much more relaxed way than the other boarding houses and when he stopped being housemaster there was a huge turnout for his leaving party.

Generally speaking, house tutors were young and in return for their free accommodation were given something of a crash course in dealing with energetic young schoolboys; the boys sometimes tested the rules to the limit. A chair just outside the housemaster’s study awaited miscreants, and punishments (known as fatigues) such as weeding the drive were handed out for minor misdemeanours. More serious offences were dealt with by corporal punishment or a transfer into the ‘naughty’ dorm where the tutor could keep a closer eye.

Dorms held anything from four to twelve beds. Each boy had a small amount of space to call his own: a chair to hang his clothes, a tuck box and the space under his bed for storage; sports kit and shoes were stored downstairs in the long corridor leading to the side door, trunks in the cellar. Tuesday was laundry day and Friday was pocket money day: boys would line up outside the housemaster’s study to collect their weekly pocket money. The 1970s were a less monitored time and boys had a large amount of freedom to move around London or even to travel home alone at the end of term. The freedom even extended to boys arranging their own tickets home from the travel agent in Dulwich Village. To let off steam boarders would play ‘British bulldog’ in the large garden, a fairly brutal game with flexible rules involving large numbers of boys and a lot of running around. More civilised games of table tennis and billiards were played in the cellar. The TV room had wooden chairs lined up in rows, nothing as comfortable as a sofa, though oddly, down in the cellar was a small room furnished with sofas for the older boys to use.

Design & Technology teacher Tony Salter took over as housemaster in 1977, moving in with his wife Judith and daughters Emma and Joanna. He was heavily involved in the school cadet corps and would organise camping trips in the Brecon Beacons. He was also a member of the Territorial Army and helped organise the Lord Mayor’s Show. He was described as a ‘fine soldier whose service to Queen and country will not be forgotten’. In his spare time he was interested in clocks and would spend hours taking them apart and putting them back together in perfect working order.

The last housemaster of Bell House was Ian Senior who moved here with his wife, Astrid and two sons in 1987. Matron, the house tutor and around thirty 7-13 year olds completed the household. There was a fair amount of marshalling of boys, as the South Circular stood between the boarding house and the school. Each morning the boys would be woken by the prefect with a hand bell. When they were ready two members of staff would take the boys up to school for their breakfast. The boys had to take with them everything they needed for their school day as they were not allowed back in to the boarding house before the end of the school day. At the end of the day they were allowed to come back on their own but at 6pm they were gathered together again to walk up to school for their supper before being shepherded back to Bell House again. They then did their homework and got their bags ready for the next day. Some boys were more responsible than others and so could be given a little bit more leeway: one boy, who learnt to fly before he could drive, would hire a plane at Biggin Hill and fly himself home to Luxembourg at the end of term.

Weekly boarders would go home for the weekend but termly boarders needed to be entertained and Ian remembers plenty of culturally enriching trips to galleries and museums which, together with sports practice, matches and Saturday morning school lessons, kept most boys out of trouble. At Christmas the great and the good of Dulwich were invited to join the boarders for their last meal of term. These meals were a particularly stressful time for Ian and his staff. They were exhausted from the term just finished, the boys were exuberant at the thought of the holidays to come and the masters had a hard time keeping the boys well-behaved in front of the Dulwich dignitaries. The next day, after chapel, the boys were collected by their parents or guardians until eventually, towards the end of the afternoon, Ian would notice a hush had descended on Bell House. He would make a tour of the rooms to find the house was now empty save for him and his family. For the next few weeks, with the large house and huge gardens to themselves, Ian felt like ‘a country squire’. He remembers what a great environment it was for his own family to grow up in: always playmates to be found, other adults around if needed and spacious family quarters if privacy was required. The family had their own living rooms and kitchen on the first floor and the whole of the second floor was for their private use, though Astrid was surprised one day when she came out of her bedroom to find a boy’s mother waiting to give her an Easter egg. Ian and Astrid’s sons, Tom and Edward loved living in the house. When they were very small Ian would spread his academic gown on the floor in a corner of his ground-floor study and Tom would curl up on it and go to sleep while Ian worked. The boys were adopted from Thailand and in the school holidays Bell House provided a wonderful venue for the huge reunions Ian and Astrid would hold with other families who had also adopted children from Thailand. 

Matron had the job of keeping the boys looking reasonably neat and tidy while Bill would come up from the College to clean the boys’ boots and shoes. Matron organised bath rotas and there was a line drawn in the bath to ensure boys did not waste water. After rugby the three slipper baths would be filled and boys would jump into each one in turn, the first bath would get rid of most of the mud with the next two being used to get properly clean. Matron would organise their uniforms and every few weeks would arrange for a barber to come in who would set up a chair in one of the dorms and give every boy the same haircut: a short back and sides. She also gave flu jabs and dealt with minor ailments while the nurse and doctor at the Sanatorium dealt with more serious illnesses. Matron had a bedsit on the ground floor with a kitchen next door where she would prepare snacks for the boys and treats such as pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.

Housemaster David Verdon Knight in his study. Source: Cheryl Spray

Housemaster David Verdon Knight in his study. Source: Cheryl Spray

Boarders playing table tennis, 1950s. Source: Cheryl Spray

Boarders playing table tennis, 1950s. Source: Cheryl Spray

View from a rear window showing the garden and Frank Dixon Close. Source: Cheryl Spray

View from a rear window showing the garden and Frank Dixon Close. Source: Cheryl Spray

View from front window. Source: Cheryl Spray

View from front window. Source: Cheryl Spray

Housemaster David Knight's children: Cheryl at the door with Domino, Roger on the roof. Source: Cheryl Spray

Housemaster David Knight's children: Cheryl at the door with Domino, Roger on the roof. Source: Cheryl Spray

Tutor's dorm. 1967. Source: Cheryl Spray

Tutor's dorm. 1967. Source: Cheryl Spray

Boys playing snooker. Source: Cheryl Spray

Boys playing snooker. Source: Cheryl Spray

Patricia Knight mowing the lawn. Source: Cheryl Spray

Patricia Knight mowing the lawn. Source: Cheryl Spray

Boarders and Knight family in the garden. Source: Cheryl Spray

Boarders and Knight family in the garden. Source: Cheryl Spray

View from Frank Dixon Close, late 1950s. Source: Cheryl Spray

View from Frank Dixon Close, late 1950s. Source: Cheryl Spray

Bell House monitors in the kitchen garden, 1958. Source: Cheryl Spray

Bell House monitors in the kitchen garden, 1958. Source: Cheryl Spray

View of the pond dug for the Queen's coronation in 1953. Source: Cheryl Spray

View of the pond dug for the Queen's coronation in 1953. Source: Cheryl Spray

Patricia Knight with Domino. Source: Cheryl Spray

Patricia Knight with Domino. Source: Cheryl Spray

Label from the linen cupboard

Label from the linen cupboard

Last ever bath rota from Bell House

Last ever bath rota from Bell House

Trustee Fabienne Hanton with former residents Roger Knight and Cheryl Spray

Trustee Fabienne Hanton with former residents Roger Knight and Cheryl Spray