By Brian Green

This year, the Dulwich Club celebrates its 250th anniversary with a dinner in the Great Hall of Dulwich College. Founded in 1772, the club today comprises a maximum of fifty members who are residents of Dulwich and six members who are non-resident. Members are elected with an understanding that they have great affinity with Dulwich.

Dulwich, at the time of the Club’s foundation, was a place undergoing considerable change. It was partly a rural agricultural community, continuing to lease farmland from Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift (now the Dulwich Estate), but also becoming an embryo commuter suburb whose newcomers were heads of manufacturing businesses in the City and Southwark. These, together with a smattering of lawyers and civil servants, brought a new type of resident. All were attracted by the beauty of the ‘village in the valley’, its clean air, accessibility and orderly management.

It is not surprising that such a coterie were usually at ease with one another, willing to gather socially with their equally comfortably off- neighbours. They brought considerable benefit to the existing, less well-off, long- term residents whose livelihood would be threatened by changes in farming methods. Farm labourers could be taken on as gardeners, even as coachmen, their wives as laundresses, their daughters as maids in the new brick-built houses springing up. Local tradesmen like carpenters and builders found their order books nicely full with the spate of house-building then underway.

The new residents brought with them a culture of allegiance to organisations, most commonly the City’s livery companies and guilds. The era was also the golden age of the foundation of clubs to cater for all whims and interests, from chess playing to music. Men (and it was invariably men) would ‘club’ together to share the expenses of meeting. And it was always in taverns that even the grandest of clubs met. Certainly, Dr Johnson considered the atmosphere of the tavern ideal for such gatherings and defined clubs as being "an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions." These ‘certain conditions’ determined the conduct of meetings; for example: who was to organise and supervise them. Such persons were generally termed ‘stewards’. Lists of rules, determining the number of members, the location of meetings, frequency and times of dinner were similarly introduced. Whilst conversation was the life-blood of such meetings, formal speeches constituted an essential part of the event.

According to the diaries of Richard Randall, the College Chapel organist from 1763 to 1783, there were several clubs already in existence in Dulwich before the arrival of the Dulwich Club. As Dr Johnson noted, their meetings were held in taverns, which in Dulwich’s case included the French Horn and the Greyhound. Randall informs us that in 1768 there was a singing club called a ‘catch’ club which met at the Greyhound, where rounds were sung. Randall also went to the Disputing Club, probably in London, where he might have been employed as a singer. There were monthly Assemblies in Dulwich where dances were held and whist was played.

In 1768, Robert Boxall, mine host of the Greyhound and local developer, sent the following petition to the Surrey Justices of the Peace:

The Humble Petition of Robert Boxall

Sheweth

 That your Petitioner has been an Inhabitant of Dulwich in the Said County for some years and your Petitioner has lately at a great Expense fitted up a large commodious Room in his House the Greyhound there fit for the entertaining a large Number of Gentlemen and Ladys.

That your Petitioner has been lately greatly favoured with the Countenance of the Gentlemen of the said Village and

 That your Petitioner has great Reason to believe they will honor him in Subscription to an Assembly for Music and Dancing at his House the next Summer provided this honourable Court will favour him with a license for that purpose and in Testimony of his Character your Petitioner humbly begs leave to refer to the Paper annexed Signed by all the Gentlemen of the Place.

 Your Petitioner therefore humbly prays this Court will be pleased to grant him a License and he will be Duty bound to Pray & etc.

 Robert Boxall

Surrey

We whose Names are hereto subscribed 

Inhabitants of Dulwich do recommend Robert Boxall Master of the Greyhound Inn there as a Sober industrious careful Person and fit to be intrusted with a License for an Assembly at his House Given under Our Hands this 12th Day of September 1768,

Wm Swanne, Brass Crosby,Thos. Williams, Edw. Russell, Geo: Thorp Thos. Treslove, Richd Randall, Tho: Adams, Wm Heathcote, C Lawson, Rob. Woodmass Wm. Watts, Sam. Waring, Wilm. Kay, Joseph Waring jnr, Tho. Bullard, John Waring Tho. Allen, Jo. Carey, R Taylor

(The list of Robert Boxall’s supporters includes the Warden of the College, together with the 1st Fellow (preacher), 2nd Fellow (schoolmaster) and 4th Fellow (organist). Some of the other names will also strike chords for local history buffs, such as Edward Russell who applied for, and was granted permission to fish in the Millpond in 1764 at a rental of 2/- p.a. or the Warings who invited Richard Randall to their ‘Harvest Home’. Or Brass Crosby who became Lord Mayor of London in 1770.)

Not everyone who lived nearby was so enthusiastic about the marketing of the Greyhound’s new facilities; Edward Browne who lived opposite to the inn (in a house still standing) complained in a letter to the College in 1776 and requested that ‘trees be planted in front of the inn to screen it’. Boxall was swift to respond saying that it would prevent people seeing the inn. In the event a clump of trees was planted. 

While assemblies at the Greyhound became a regular feature of village life, a rival and grander establishment was built soon after and named Great Denmark Hall and stands on the site of the present pub, The Fox on the Hill, on Denmark Hill. This was an enterprise by the possibly shifty but certainly talented woodcarver Luke Lightfoot. Lightfoot was anxious to capitalise on the mania for assemblies which were a feature of London’s emerging West End. At these assemblies card playing, as well as dancing and music was another essential ingredient of success. 

It is therefore no surprise that wealthy newcomers to Dulwich in the second half of the 18th century formed a club. It met four times a year and so was named the Dulwich Quarterly Meeting. Over time, probably because of the pressure of business of its members, it reduced its meetings to three times a year and so changed its name to The Dulwich Club. The first meetings were held at the French Horn (opposite the Fountain roundabout in the Village) but soon transferred to the more commodious and, due to its extensive refit, the more attractive venue of The Greyhound after 1776.

The arrangements for the dinner were laid down in the club rules and remain the same to this day. The responsibility for the dinner belongs to the two balloted stewards at each dinner. The rules require a number of speeches to be made and on occasions entertainers might be engaged for added enjoyment. Membership was originally restricted to twenty-one, but guests were, and remain, a key element of the club.

A menu dating from 1782 is reprinted. This kind of Bacchanalian feast actually was short-lived; the level-headed businessmen among the club’s number voted to restrict the number of dishes placed on the table, to put back the time for dinner from the original time of 3.30pm, in stages, until 6.30pm, presumably, to allow them to conduct their businesses.

Although the frequency of its meetings was limited, and its membership small, nevertheless the members of the Dulwich Quarterly meeting were seemingly often quarrelsome, and the original club was dissolved and reconstituted in 1791. In 1807 there was sufficient disagreement amongst its members for ten of the then twenty-one members to resign. Perhaps they fell out over an early version of a Low Traffic Neighbourhood!

Minute books covering the long history of the Dulwich Club survive. From its pages we learn that however serious the disagreements might have been, in times of crisis its members often took a lead in organising solidarity among all the inhabitants of the hamlet. Thus during the French Revolution -

December 15th 1792 

Proposition recommending the inhabitants of Dulwich form themselves into an Association upon the plan of those that were daily forming up in the Metropolis and its Environs for the purpose of testifying their loyal attachment to the King and Constitution.

6th December 1800 

Resolved unanimously that the members of the Quarterly Meeting and other gentlemen residing in the Hamlet now present do pledge themselves to each other, to observe strictly in their respective families, the exhortation and injunctions contained in His Majesty’s Proclamation dated 3rd day of this instant December recommending the greatest economy and frugality in the consumption of bread and in the use of every species of grain.

Resolved: That the gentlemen here present will do their utmost to enforce in the neighbourhood the observance of the existing law to prevent the consumption off bread.

(On December 3rd 1800, King George III issued a Proclamation requesting families ‘to practice the greatest economy and frugality in the use of every species of grain and to reduce consumption of Bread by at least one third consumed in ordinary times’ and ‘being persuaded that the prevention of all unnecessary consumption of corn will furnish one of the surest and most effectual means of alleviating the present pressure’).

After fourteen more years of hardship and the final victory over Napoleon in 1814 the “gentlemen of the Dulwich Quarterly meeting resolved unanimously to entertain the Ladies of the Hamlet with a Ball and Supper at the Greyhound in consequence of the late auspicious Peace and that a committee of seven persons members of the same and also other gentlemen of the Hamlet to cooperate with them in carrying the resolution into effect.”

Around the middle of the nineteenth century the membership numbers increased substantially, the name changed to the Dulwich Club and some dinners were held outside Dulwich with Greenwich and Richmond being favoured as a summer excursion; a horse-drawn omnibus being hired for transport. After the opening of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, thirty members of the club enjoyed a dinner there in 1857. Moral obligations felt by its members towards the community led to frequent gifts of coals to the poor in this period. With the opening of the ‘new’ buildings of Dulwich College in 1870 and the consequent increase in population, such was the pressure on the club to accept new members that it formally voted to limit the membership to the present total of fifty plus a further six who might reside outside of Dulwich.

In 1894 the club’s final dinner was held at the Greyhound, the old inn being demolished soon after to make way for the building of Aysgarth and Pickwick Roads. With the arrival of the new century and the influence of the Suffragette movement there was pressure on the club to invite ladies to dinners and not just to the occasional (but very well-attended) ball, and ladies became invited guests to one of the meetings each year.

Although the rules of the Dulwich Club did not actually restrict membership solely to men, in practice ladies had never been admitted. In 2022, in acknowledgement of the ambiguity of its position, the current membership voted to formally extend membership to women and rephrased one if its toasts from ‘The Hamlet of Dulwich and the Ladies thereof’ to ‘The Hamlet of Dulwich and the Residents thereof’.

The Dulwich Club meets at least once a year in Dulwich and once a year elsewhere, usually in London. At its last dinner the guest of honour was former resident and head of MI6 2014 - 2020, Sir Alexander Younger. He amused his audience by recalling that the security services had considered his home in Frank Dixon Close vulnerable to attackers and moved him and his family “to the safer environs of Winterbrook Road!”