The Beginnings of the College, Expansion, and The Great War
The oldest buildings of the current site of Wimbledon College were originally part of Wimbledon School. They were designed by Samuel Sander Teulon (1812-1873), a talented architect, who was a keen student of the Gothic Revival. Wimbledon School was built following the procurement of the site by Reverend John Matthew Brackenbury M.A. in 1859. Brackenbury had previously headed Nelson House Military School (now ‘Eagle House’ in Wimbledon Village) and his decision to establish Wimbledon School was largely a result of the success of the former institution.
Like Nelson House, Wimbledon School was a military school, known formally as the Anglican Preparatory Military Academy. It prepared students for future careers in the Army, Navy and the Indian Civil Service. The School’s grounds included a large cricket field north of the main buildings - lying between them and the Ridgway, as well as a botanical garden, which was so popular that it was open to the public once a week.
Wimbledon College started its life in the parlour of the presbytery of a newly established church - based in house number 3 of Cranbrook Road. The first school day was the 18th January 1892. Only two boys were enrolled - the Lloyd brothers - and only the eldest, Thomas, attended, as his brother was ill. Father James Nicholson SJ was the first headmaster. Six more pupils joined after the first academic year, but not before the School had moved twice: briefly to a house in Darlaston road, and then to a building adjoining the All England Lawn Tennis Courts. Finally, in 1893, Wimbledon College moved to where it remains, toward the top of Edge Hill. This was a result of a shrewd move by Father John Clayton S.J, Provincial of the English Province. Father Clayton had spotted that Wimbledon School was up for sale, and immediately telegraphed to England from Loyola, instructing the Jesuit Fathers to acquire the property.
The transfer to the new site was completely by June 1893. School numbers grew quickly with over 100 pupils in attendance by 1900.
Much to the disappointment of the students, the large cricket field to the north of the property was not included in the sale, and therefore the school had to rent a field in Raynes Park for cricket in the summer. Football was at first the primary winter sport, though the remaining school field at the front of the school was barely sufficient, given its steep gradient. Later on, Father Pye oversaw the levelling of the front field. Excess clay resulting from excavations for housing construction elsewhere in Wimbledon was taken up Edge Hill over a period of 3 years to address the slope. The first recorded cricket match on the flat field was in 1902, when Army students broke two windows.
Rugby became the main winter sport much later in 1922. Mr S. Austin, a former Harlequins player and old boy, was the first coach.
The Army class had been established in 1898, and was much like the Anglican Military Academy that preceded the College. The College had nineteen boarding rooms that were of no use to day students, and hence the Army Department took boarders, providing an essential source of income to sustain the College’s operations. The Army Department was run primarily by the Jesuit Fathers, who also taught pupils of the main School. Some pupils, such as William Lloyd, went on to the Army Class after having finished Senior School at the College. Most of the students of the Army Class went on to the Woolwich or Sandhurst before joining the Armed Forces, or the home or indian civil service.
Academically, Wimbledon College was very strong. In 1914, it dominated the Senior, Junior and Preliminary Oxford Locals, holding first and second place in the Seniors (out of 8,321 pupils) and Juniors (out of 7,186 entrants), as well as two of its pupils coming joint first in the Preliminaries (out of 2894). This was testament to the high standard of teaching provided by the Jesuit Fathers, as well as the ethic of hard work instilled in students. The Debating Club was established in 1907, set up by the students themselves without official sanction. Father Horn, after hearing the racket generated by the impromptu gatherings, then formally established the debating society - which soon saw regular prize debates.
The Great War
During the Great War, the College increased rapidly in size, with 201 boys in 1916-17. This figure included 50 Belgian Catholic refugees who had fled their home country due to the German occupation. According to records under July 1916, 140 Belgian boys had either passed through the College or were being educated there. The sudden influx of students strained the College’s resources, but the Jesuit Fathers still managed to provide a solid education to all its students.
Though the College’s operations continued relatively unabated during the First World War, 129 former pupils of the school and the Army Department paid the ultimate sacrifice. Two students, Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Captain Gerald Robert O'Sullivan, received the Victoria Cross for gallantry.
On 18th February 1922, the War Memorial was unveiled in the college chapel to commemorate those who had lost their lives. The inscription reads: ‘To the greater glory of God and in the triumphant and loving memory of those who went from the College to die for King and Country’.