There are at least five Montessori nurseries in Dulwich, in Barry Road, College Road, Croxted Road, Dulwich Wood Park, and Upland Road - and there are two more less than a mile away, in Half Moon Lane and on Herne Hill. Few people will appreciate how appropriate it is to have a large number of such schools in the area, as Dulwich was where Montessori education started in Britain. As many will know, the Montessori education system is a child centred learning environment and was started by Dr Maria Montessori in 1907 in Rome when she opened her ‘Casa del Bambini’ or ‘Children’s House’ in a low-income area in Rome. Her 1909 book ‘Il Metodo della pedagogia Scientifica applicato all’educazione infantile belle Case dei Bambini’ proved very influential, even more so when it was translated into English in 1913 under the rather more saleable heading of ‘The Montessori Method’.

The growth of Montessori in Britain was down to two influential ladies, one British and one Australian, Elizabeth Southern ‘Belle’ Rennie and Lillian de Lissa. Belle Rennie was the step-daughter of a wealthy doctor in Harrogate. and she developed a keen amateur interest in nursery education into well-informed and authoritative knowledge. She visited the Montessori Institute in Italy in 1911 and played a key part in organising the British ‘Conference of the New Ideals in Education’ conference at East Runton, near Cromer in Norfolk, in 1912, and Stratford upon Avon in 1915. It was here that she, and other like-minded and wealthy friends, suggested that a college for the training of Montessori teachers should be set up to reflect their views on nursery-infant education - and this is where Dulwich comes in, as Dulwich Wood Avenue and Kingswood Drive were the sites of the Gipsy Hill Training College, where most early English Montessori teachers were trained.

The selection of Dulwich was largely because there were a number of readily available substantial houses in generous grounds, many of which had already been converted into private schools. Belle Rennie’s first purchase, in January 1917, was Woolsthorpe, No. 10 Dulwich Wood Avenue, where the Estate agreed to grant a licence to use the house ‘as a college for the training of young children and students in the Montessori system of education.’ Her standing in educational circles was such that she was able to secure glowing references from Mr W C Kimmins, Chief Inspector of the LCC Education Department, and Dr Michael E Sadler CB, Vice Chancellor of Leeds University. The original plan was to provide places for about 20 small children from the neighbourhood, with two permanent staff and six student teachers.

Prior to this Belle Rennie had persuaded Lilian de Lissa, who she had first met at East Runton. to become its principal. The latter was an Australian and had been taking time off to travel through Europe to study the Montessori methods in more detail. She had been a founder member of the Kindergarten Union of South Australia, in 1905 - its aim being to establish free kindergartens in the poorer parts of Adelaide; and she was also later involved in the formation of the Kindergarten Union of Western Australia. She had been trained at the Sydney Kindergarten Teachers College, where she was influenced by the principal Frances Newton, an American from Chicago, who was a devotee of the methods of Friedrich Froebel, a German educator who based his educational philosophy on the recognition that children have unique needs and capabilities, and coined the word ‘kindergarten’. Lilian de Lissa travelled back to England in early 1917 just in time to take up her new post. She served as principal for 29 years and published several widely regarded books on early-years education including Life in the Nursery School (1939) and Life in the Nursery School and in Early Babyhood (1949).

Meanwhile in Dulwich, Belle Rennie had the funds and the Dulwich Estate were keen to let other large houses, and in June 1917, the College acquired the lease of Beaumont House, No. 1 Kingswood Drive - the site is now Baird Gardens, almost directly opposite the current Little Fingers Montessori Nursery. In 1918 it also took over No 38 Dulwich Wood Avenue to use as a student hostel, the Estate Minutes noting that there had been no complaints about the activities in the other houses already let to the College. ‘Homedale’, No 44 Dulwich Wood Avenue, on the corner with Dulwich Wood Park, was their next property - this house had been in educational use for some time being run as a ‘finishing school for the daughters of gentlemen’ by a Miss Anita Henkel. It had become the Lambeth Local Hospital in 1916, run by the Red Cross, and despite attempts to turn it into an army children’s home in 1919 (which the Estate rejected), it was happy for the College to take it over. The College also acquired No 40 in the mid-twenties and continued in Dulwich until, on the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, it was evacuated, first to Brighton, and then to a large house near Bradford.

There were some discussions about returning to Dulwich but the leases were almost up, and the houses were in poor condition - Nos 40 and 44 Dulwich Wood Avenue had been seriously damaged by a bomb which fell nearby, and the amount of money that would have had to be spent on them was prohibitive. In 1946 the College found a more suitable property on Kingston Hill and, in 1975, it became part of Kingston Polytechnic, later Kingston University.