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History of Dover College

Foundation and early years

Dover College Gatehouse

The Gatehouse was part of the original Priory

Dover College was founded on 15th September 1871 by a group of local businessmen, led by the Mayor of Dover Dr Astley, who considered that it would be beneficial for the town to have its own public school.

The College was sited in the grounds of a 12th Century Benedictine Priory, an idyllic site, which it still occupies. The first 15 boys occupied St Martin’s House under the guidance of the first headmaster, Canon William Bell. Bell was a large man born and brought up in Cumberland. Surprisingly, Bell did not have a public school background, having been educated at Carlisle Grammar School. He was a Cambridge undergraduate and subsequently taught at Lancaster Grammar School. Bell was a strict disciplinarian. His huge presence around College was balanced by his energetic wife, who cared deeply for the boys, looking after all their day-to-day needs. Mrs Bell died young; in 1892 the clock tower was added on to the chapel in her memory.

During Canon Bell’s 21 years as Headmaster the College grew substantially. Two new boarding houses, the old Priory House and School House, were added in 1877 and 1881 respectively; new classrooms were built; and the Priory Guest House – used as a barn since the dissolution of the monastery in 1535 – was restored and consecrated as the school chapel.

The Refectory and the Gatehouse, the other two original 12th century buildings, both in a considerable state of decay, were renovated and brought into use by the school within a few years of its foundation.

In 1892 the Reverend William Cookworthy Compton succeeded Canon Bell as Headmaster. Compton had been a Housemaster at Uppingham. In 1895 the fives courts, now used as the college’s maintenance department, were built; Middle Ground was levelled; and by 1896 the school had reached a total of 200 boys. More development followed. The tuck shop was added in 1898; the original sanatorium in 1901; and in 1902 the Science Block was built. At this time no less than 18 Old Dovorians were at Cambridge University.

Compton resigned his Headship of the College in late 1910 and was replaced by F de W Lushington. It was during his time as Headmaster that World War I began – this had a marked effect on the fortunes of the College, particularly because the College was located so near to the action. In 1915 Lushington decided that his time would be better spent serving his country than the College and so he left Dover College to become an Army Chaplain.

First World War

During the wars many Old Dovorians saw active service.177 former pupils of the College died in action in the First World War; later 102 died in the Second World War. Many of these former pupils served their country with distinction. Records show that during the First World War 50 Old Dovorians received the Distinguished Service Order Medal and 76 were awarded the Military Cross. Old Dovorians were also mentioned in dispatches on no less than 155 occasions. Lt Commander A L Harrison, who was killed in action at Zeebrugge in April 1918 aboard H.M.S. Lion, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Of all the feats of bravery and heroism none is better known than that of Captain Wilfred “Billy” Neville.

He led the famous football charge in July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. Whilst he was a boy at Dover College Captain Neville was an excellent sportsman. He had completed a year of study at Cambridge University before joining the army. He was killed by a sniper at the Somme whilst leading his men into battle, aged only 22.

The names of all the Old Dovorians who gave up their lives in service for their country are recorded on Honour Boards on the south side of the College Chapel.

Lushington’s replacement was in 1915 was W.S. Lee, one of the finest headmasters of Dover College. Lee was a boy, an Assistant Master and, after his period as Headmaster, a Governor at Dover College. Although relatively small, he was a good athlete [he won a “Blue” at Oxford] and a great character. He died at the age of 95. Always unfailingly courteous in his manner, he lived the life of a liberally minded Christian gentleman and was highly respected by all who knew him.

Lee took over at a time of falling numbers and when the College itself was under serious threat from aerial bombardment. In August 1917 The Close was damaged during an air raid and the decision was finally taken to evacuate the College from Dover. The College moved to Leamington Spa. On its return to Dover in 1919 there were only 150 boys in the College. Nevertheless in 1920 Crescent House and Leamington House were opened, the latter so named as a tribute to the spa town which had sheltered the College during the Great War. The full boarding fee in 1920 was £35 per term and the day fee £7 per term.


In 1922 ownership of the College passed to a Trust set up by the Old Boys and in 1923 a Royal Charter reconstituted the College. Indeed throughout its history Dover College has had links with the Royal Family. In 1909 Canon Compton was presented to the Prince of Wales, later to become King George V; in 1921 Lee welcomed to the College the Duke of York, later to become King George VI; and Her late Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was the College’s last Patron.

The 1923 Royal Charter, which is still in existence, defined the College’s specific educational aims as follows:

The object of the Corporation of Dover College shall be the conduct of a College for boys … in which they may receive a sound religious, classical, mathematical, scientific and general education and the doing of such things as are conducive to the attainment of this objective

Lee, or “Piggy” as he was affectionately known by his pupils, served Dover College as Headmaster for 20 years.

George Renwick became Headmaster in 1934. An ex-Olympic athlete he continued the expansion of the College and was responsible for the promotion of the College as a centre of sporting excellence.

World War II

During the Second World War the College was once again evacuated, this time to Poltimore House in Devon. On its return in 1945 the College had only 168 boys and the grounds and buildings were in serious need of repair. Renwick rose to the challenge magnificently. The College was successfully re-established in Dover and numbers slowly began to recover. Renwick is still held in great esteem for the excellent leadership that he gave the College in difficult circumstances.

1940s – 1970s

Renwick’s successor, ADC Peterson, was Headmaster for just three years but he made one very significant and innovative change to the College – in 1958 he opened an International Faculty. The College has subsequently maintained strong international links. Today it has a modern, well-equipped International Study Centre opened in 2001. Later in his career, Peterson was instrumental in creating the International Baccalaureat – an examination system now used world-wide – and subsequently became Professor of Education at Oxford University.

During the era of Headmaster Tim Cobb the Sports Hall and the Kent Block were added and the decision to admit girls into the College was taken. In 1974, by which time David Cope was Headmaster; Dover College became one of the first English Public Schools to go fully co-educational. Girls were introduced into Duckworth House and in 1993 into St Martin’s House, the College’s original boys’ boarding House. David Cope was a young innovative and dynamic headmaster. Appointed when only 28, he was one of the youngest private school headmasters in history. Under his leadership the College reached its largest size of 420 pupils. The decision to admit girls from the outset, throughout the entire school, contrasted with the more conservative approach adopted by other private schools, where in general girls were admitted reluctantly and only into the Sixth Form.

1980s to the present

During the 1980s, when Jack Ind was Headmaster, the buoyant British economy enabled Dover College to enjoy a period of relative prosperity.

The 1990s was a period of readjustment for the independent sector as a whole. Martin Wright, Jack Ind’s successor, had the task of leading the College during this difficult period of readjustment.

In 1997 Howard Blackett took over the reins and successfully steered the College through some slightly rough financial waters into the calmer pools enjoyed today. In 2004 Stephen Jones was appointed, moving to St Edward’s Oxford as Warden in 2011. Gerry Holden started in September 2011 retired in December 2014. Gareth Doodes joined Dover College in January 2015 and is still in post.