vintage postcard of Dulwich with a road in the middle, red-brick buildings to the left, a water fountain to the right and trees in the distance

Dulwich is first mentioned in 967AD, as a hamlet granted by King Edgar to one of his nobles. The name is said to come from dill and wihs, two old English words which together mean a meadow where the dill grew. In 1127 Dulwich was given to Bermondsey Abbey, which held it for 400 years. In 1333, Dulwich’s population was recorded as 100 people.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII sold the Manor of Dulwich in 1538 to goldsmith Thomas Calton for £600. In 1605, debt forced Calton's grandson, Sir Francis Calton, to sell 1,400 acres for £5,000 to early modern actor, playhouse owner and entrepreneur Edward Alleyn. Alleyn lived here with his wife Joan Woodward and together they ran his various businesses while entertaining extensively from their manor house. In 1616 Alleyn built a chapel and a burial ground. Three years later he established a charitable foundation, the College of God's Gift, which consisted of a school for twelve poor boys and an almshouse for six poor men and six poor women. The pupils and almshouse residents were drawn from four London parishes with which Alleyn had a special connection: 

- St Botolph’s Without Bishopsgate, where he was born and baptised;
- St Giles, Cripplegate Without (now St Luke’s, Finsbury), where he built his Fortune Theatre;
- St Saviour’s, Southwark, where he married and was churchwarden; and 
- St Giles, Camberwell, where he lived and set up his foundation. 

During the English Civil War the Roundheads were quartered in the old College but after that Dulwich quietened down. People came from London to take the waters which were considered to be healthy. In 1704 John Cox, who kept the Green Man tavern, cut an avenue through the woods up to Sydenham Hill, now known as Cox's Walk, to attract customers to his pub. Later the Green Man became Dr Glennie's Academy where Lord Byron was a pupil and following that it reopened as a pub called the Grove Tavern. 

In 1741, a free school was established in Dulwich Village by James Allen, then Master of Dulwich College, where boys could learn to read and write, and girls could learn to ‘read and sew’; it later became known as James Allen’s Girls’ School. Dulwich Picture Gallery opened to the public in 1817, the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery. Designed by Sir John Soane, its innovative roof lanterns allowed the paintings to be viewed using natural light. 

In 1850 Dulwich was still a small village with some large Georgian houses scattered about. The impetus for development came with the expansion of London, the building of the railways and the reform of Edward Alleyn’s charity, which still owned most of Dulwich. The financial windfall of £100,000 from selling 100 acres to the railways led to the rebuilding in 1869 of Edward Alleyn’s 1619 school, now known as Dulwich College, by the architect Charles Barry Jr.

Dulwich’s population grew from about 1,700 in 1861 to 4,000 ten years later but the greatest period of housebuilding was the twenty years from 1890, when Victorian and Edwardian streets were laid out. Dulwich Park opened at the same time, designed by Charles Barry Jr and Lt Col Sexby, the latter also designed Battersea Park. By 1920, Dulwich had been transformed from a rural hamlet into a London suburb.

In World War Two, Dulwich was hit by V1 and V2 flying bombs. Military intelligence expert RV Jones, who attended Alleyn’s School, helped supply the misinformation which led to the Germans, thinking they were overshooting central London, adjusting the range of their weapons. They then dropped them short, with Dulwich and South London becoming the unintended casualty of the deception. Dulwich College, the Picture Gallery and the chapel were particularly badly hit.

After World War Two, demand for more housing and pressure from local authorities led to the building of council estates on Dulwich’s periphery while the Dulwich Estate undertook a building programme in Dulwich Woods, the last big development of housing in the area. However, the population at the end of the 1960s was still under 20,000 and is less than 40,000 today.

The charity founded by Edward Alleyn has expanded over time to encompass Dulwich College, Alleyn’s School and James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, as well as the Central Foundation Schools and St Saviour's and St Olave's School elsewhere in London. The almshouse is still on its original site but the schools have expanded and been rebuilt. The charity's modern successor, The Dulwich Estate, still owns 1,500 acres in Dulwich.