“Dulwich appeared to me as the Promised Land appeared to Caleb when Moses sent him to “espy it out from Kadesh-barnea”. I had come to the land of Peace, and quiet purposes. I had begun to know the meaning of civilisation, in its strictly social sense; the build up of a concise community, whose values, customs, ceremonies, and created and natural possessions could enrich the mind of the individual and discipline his emotions into an appreciative sense of historical perspective, through humility to joy.”
Richard Church, Over the Bridge
A while back Hamlet supporter Tim Williamson alerted me to ‘Over The Bridge’, the first of three volumes of autobiography by poet and author Richard Church. Church spent his formative teenage years in rural South London just off Half Moon Lane in the idylls of Herne Hill, and attended the Dulwich Hamlet Elementary School from 1905, “…where, for the next three years” he says, “I was to find an almost impossible happiness.”
I quickly obtained the books – Over The Bridge, The Golden Sovereign, The Voyage Home – and marked every reference to Dulwich Hamlet School, and there were plenty of them. The latter part of the first volume especially is littered with anecdotes and descriptions of life in the Boys department of the school in the Village. We are quickly informed that although Dulwich Hamlet was not a ‘Higher Grade’ school the standard of work was apparently more advanced than many of the other schools in the borough.
Now, you may need me to tell you at this point that Dulwich Hamlet Football Club has its foundations in the aforementioned school of the same name. It may also be worth mentioning that one or two characters in Church’s book feature prominently in the early history of the club. So it is with some interest that we can pick up a few titbits here and there that can help us build up a better picture of the personalities of these men.
Headmaster, Mr Charles Thomson Hunt is described as “a plump little man with full jowls and iron grey hair… and cool blue eyes.” Church liked him and he liked the youngster very much. They hit it off from the moment they met when his father brought him for an interview. Very soon C.T. Hunt became the chief influence on twelve year old Richard Church. He had a “calm severity, and his personality was a constant force.” He also made the lad begin to realise the quality in the books he read. In fact this was something that Hunt had picked up on in that that very first meeting, and he constantly encouraged the youngster to expand his reading matter.
Hunt sounds like a wonderful man, and the sort of teacher we all wished we’d had. Instead of the boys being merely receptive to instruction, he made them stand up before the whole class and get them to say something. (Colin Welland’s character in the film ‘Kes’ springs to mind.) The whole regime at Dulwich Hamlet was very positive. The boys, particularly Church, were enriched with a new found confidence and faith in themselves. The Headmaster and his staff shared in their enthusiasm and took pride in their students. It wasn’t long before Richard Church took a lead in Art and in English, the two subjects he excelled in. His skill in the former helped him eventually win a scholarship to Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. Such a gifted scholar was he that he even managed to impress Mrs Isabell Hunt, and was invited on a number of occasions to the Hunt’s home in East Dulwich, where he was permitted to thumb through portfolios of engravings and prints of the great masters like JMW Turner.
Although C.T. Hunt had only been Headmaster since 1901, like many of the staff at the school he had been around for years and was almost a permanent fixture. He actually started at the school in the 1880s, and was a senior teacher when a certain Lorraine ‘Pa’ Wilson, asked him if he would allow him to use the gymnasium apparatus in the school playground. Pa Wilson, who was running a bible class at the school, was granted his wish and thus began a very successful gymnastics class. It was still going strong at the outbreak of the First World War.
In the latter part of the Victorian era much was made of ‘Muscular Christianity’. Indeed, not a few of our top professional clubs began life as football sides associated with Sunday schools and churches of one denomination or other. Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Birmingham, Bolton Wanderers, Blackpool, Everton, Fulham and Wolves to name just a handful from the Premier League alone. And even the Hamlet’s third eleven played under the name of Dulwich St Barnabas. Pa Wilson was a pioneer in Dulwich, and was once said to be the backbone of the athletic life of the school. The College Chapel Committee enjoyed his presence and he is sometimes found quoting the New Testament in his speeches at club functions. He and his great friend Canon Daniell, the chaplain of Dulwich College, went out of their way to involve the local youths in active sport.
Years later Pa Wilson went on record saying that Canon George William Daniell “taught me the mainspring of right action.” And that right action, or moral obligation I suppose, showed itself throughout Wilson’s wonderful career in his goodness, integrity and nobility. Daniell returned the compliment when he said, “The quiet thoroughness of a life like Wilson’s was not without effect upon the people among whom he dwelt. He was an inspirer of many. His sterling qualities won him esteem and admiration.” Wilson’s ‘philosophy’ literally drove him on, and he claimed he was never happier than when he was striving for a thing. Yes, there was much pleasure in the accomplished work, but the greater happiness lay in the doing of it.
It was thus with such a motive that he agreed to become actively involved in the formation of an old boys club at the Dulwich Hamlet School. He was originally approached by a couple of the lads with a handful of loose change and the challenge was too good to turn down. A meeting was called and sixty old scholars showed up. Others who couldn’t make the meeting sent in apologies and expressed their approval of the proposal and gave their names as members. A committee was appointed comprising of prominent staff members and local dignitaries. Initially Daniell and Wilson took on roles as patrons, with Hunt in the secretary and treasurer’s seat, but this would soon change.
Also at that formal constitution the Headmaster of the school, Mr William Brenchley, was appointed as the Club President. However, Brenchley who had only been at the school for the previous eighteen months or so, declined this lofty position which was instead taken up by Canon Daniell, or lowly Reverend Daniell as he was at the time, with C.T. Hunt as Vice President.
Interestingly, Canon Daniell’s grandfather (John Frederic Daniell, 1790-1845) was a noted scientist, and has a crater on the moon named after him! It is located in the ‘Lake of Dreams’ where it now rubs shoulders with the John Lennon Peace Crater. William Brenchley’s tenure as Headmaster lasted throughout the 1890s – and therefore he witnessed the rapid growth of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club. After that he had an illustrious career at Camberwell Borough Council as Alderman and was hugely influential in the establishment of the Camberwell New Cemetery at Honor Oak, Brenchley Gardens.
On his walk to school from No.2 Warmington Gardens, Richard Church was sometimes overtaken by Mr Hunt on his pushbike. One day the ruddy youth with his head in the clouds and making free poetic gestures of word and movement, and feeling at one with nature, made a boastful pass at the universe, and the pale gold autumn foliage of a great elm tree responded. The Head pulled up alongside and severely asked, “My boy, what are you doing?”
“I am an elm-waif, sir.” replied Church.
“I see.” said the Head cautiously. “Well, don’t let it make you late.” And he rode on.
“[Dulwich] was the same Garden of Eden which had caused Edward Alleyn, three hundred years before me, to fall on his knees in prayer, thanking God that at last he had found the place where he could build his college, the thank offering of a successful man of the theatre, colleague of Shakespeare, husband of John Donne’s daughter.”
The spirit of Edward Alleyn, Richard Church felt, lingered in Dulwich. The Elizabethan and Shakespearian associations touched the boy’s imagination. The more he listened to the easy discourses of Mr Hunt, the more he identified himself with the environs of the Village, the more he began to appreciate the eloquence of the past – and the tragicomedy of Shakespearian drama. He absorbed the whole atmosphere through his skin and developed a way of reading a book whereby he would contemplate “a physical presence, the author in the flesh”, a sensation which he found both natural and reassuring. But that’s poets for you.
Along with the Headmaster there was one other member of staff that Church greatly appreciated. It was the Assistant Head and master of the top standard, where he spent most of his time in the school. Mr George C. Wheeler was an extremely modest and kind hearted man in every way. He had a humility and grace that always deflected any praise that was given to him. He also happened to be the Secretary of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club, which was continuing further up the ladder of success and into the Isthmian League, and with a ‘proper’ ground secured at Champion Hill where they had played since 1902. This is more or less the same site where the present DHFC team play today, over a hundred years later.
A brief article on George Wheeler appeared in a June 1897 issue of the South London Press. He was only one of the many teachers prominently involved in sporting legislature and organisation, slaving away in “the true interests of sport and training up the young mind to the essential value of athletics.” He held a place on the committee of the South London Schools Cricket Association, and was an active exponent himself at the crease for Thurlow Park Cricket Club, the side which he captained. One of his most memorable matches was a 94 not out in the drizzling rain against the Hermits at Norbury. “Mr Wheeler” the article continued, “is never forgetful of trying to assist a player anxious to improve his cricket, and this trait in a sportsman is one to be universally admired. No wonder he is so popular amongst his members and friends.”
And he just couldn’t stop himself. Speaking of Wheeler’s teaching practices during Scripture and History lessons, Church commented:
"Much of our classwork was interspersed with demonstrations of batting technique, or how to bowl breaks, so that today I still recall the Acts of the Apostles as taking place in the neighbourhood of an English cricket field, in perpetual summer weather, and the Magna Carta being staged between Association goal-posts."
By his own admission the youngster was useless at football, and little better as a batsman. He put this down to his increasing short sightedness. But we can’t all be a Doddy Wight or a Teddy Booker, Dulwich captain and Cambridge blue respectively. Still, Wheeler did not hold this against him. In fact it worked in the boy’s favour:
He treated me with a jocular familiarity that warmed my timid nerves and brought me out as a member of the small community. He soon saw to it that I was made captain of the school, though no sportsman; merely a paint-slinger and a book-worm, as he not infrequently remarked, to the amusement of my school fellows: but no ill feeling on either side. I would sit there grinning at these almost affectionate sorties, and go on my own gait unperturbed.
In adulthood Richard Church entered the civil service, but later worked for the publishers J.M. Dent & Sons and became editor to Dylan Thomas, the famous Welsh poet. On the one hand he encouraged the younger poet to publish his verse, but on the other he refused some works by the same author, on the grounds they were too obscene. He is also noted as the first critic to recognise the greatness of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Other feathers in his cap included a stint as President for The English Association, and Director of the Oxford Festival of Spoken Poetry in the 1930s.
He spent just three years at Dulwich Hamlet School, “my most kindly nurse”, and left as a fifteen year old. Yet his time at the feet of such luminaries as C.T. Hunt and G.C. Wheeler made a deep impression on him which the poet and author was to write so fluently about in his memoirs fifty years later.
Along with Pa Wilson and several others, these two men were just as much of an influence in the lives of the young players and officers of the football club throughout the first thirty years. The greatness that the club achieved between the wars is due to these firm foundations it was built upon.
When George Wheeler was first introduced to Pa Wilson in the mid 1880s, he was told, “This gentleman is very fond of sport.” Quite an understatement! And the feeling was mutual. Separately they both would have undoubtedly achieved great things in some sport or another, but together they were a dynamic force – ‘the mainspring’ that drove things along.
Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Tim Williamson whose grandfather James Ross Williamson was one of the founder members of DHFC. Sources: Teachers and Football – Schoolboy Association Football in England 1885-1915 by Colm Kerrigan; Over The Bridge by Richard Church; The South London Press, DHFC handbooks.
Original article from HH23 Summer 2011.
Copyright © Jack McInroy