November 07, 2023
When I first started to research the life of Robert Keable almost 25 years ago, I began by reading his obituaries written back in 1927. All of them mentioned that he taught at Dulwich College in South London. I was surprised therefore when I came across a letter from the then archivist at the school WJ Wright to Dr Douglas dated 26th October 1959.
I cannot find a trace of him, no mention in the Alleynian, nor is he included in the list of Assistant Masters in the year book or in the old Blue Books. Mr Handscombe, the only one here who was at school at the time, has no recollection of him.
It seemed odd that that Dulwich had no evidence of his teaching at the college and over the following years I began to gather evidence. I knew that Robert Keable had trained to be a priest after he left Cambridge University with a First in history in 1908. He spent his curacy in Bradford and then worked overseas first in Zanzibar then Basutoland (from where he travelled to France as chaplain to the SANLC). It was in Basutoland, while still a priest, that he wrote his first novel Simon Called Peter. He finally returned to England – having left the priesthood - in 1920 and spent almost a year trying to forge a career as a writer and to get Simon Called Peter published. In April 1921 Constables finally took the risk of publishing the novel. A big risk since the book was about a military chaplain having an affair with a nurse during the war and contained graphic (certainly for those times) descriptions of a weekend the couple spent in a hotel together while on leave. Unsure of the response to the book the publishers did not offer Keable an advance and he knew he would have to wait many months before receiving any royalties.
I managed to track down some of Keable’s letters. Just after Simon Called Peter was published, he confessed to his friend and publisher Michael Sadler: ‘I’m gloriously financially embarrassed owing to the fact that my wife is a perfect lunatic for paying bills’. On May 14th Keable wrote to Sadler to say he had agreed ‘to go and fill a temporary vacancy on the staff of Dulwich College for a few weeks.’ I have a few letters from Keable sent on Dulwich College notepaper addressed 14 Park Road, Dulwich. Two were sent to Basil Dean, a friend from his school days.
Finally there is a letter from Keable to his Cambridge friend Arthur Grimble in September 1921:
So I went to Dulwich to teach in the summer term (with old Jepson) and there I met Scarlett (back from Brazil) and McConnell and got on rather well. I made £100
Having put all the evidence together I wrote to the then Dulwich College archivist, and asked her to see if she could find any evidence that he taught at the college. She kindly searched for his name for me wrote back:
I’m sorry to have to tell you that I have drawn a blank. I took as the range 1919 to 1923 and Robert Keable’s name does not appear in our Archives database, the Class and Form Lists in which all staff members were listed, the Governors’ Minutes which contain lists of staff and entries about the employment of additional staff, and the Accounts Books for the period. It seems unlikely that if he taught here, his name would not have been included in at least one of these sources.
With regards to 14 Park Road (now Park Hall Road) I haven’t come across anything to confirm whether or not the house was used as staff accommodation. We don’t even have the lease for the property. It was not uncommon for new members of staff to lodge with local families including the families of existing staff. There is always the possibility that your grandfather lodged with a member of college staff but actually taught elsewhere.
I could only think of two reasons why Keable would not feature in any of the Dulwich records. The first is that he was employed under a loose arrangement as a supply teacher, perhaps for another teacher taking a term’s sabbatical, and it was felt there was no need for any paperwork. The other could be that because that summer there was so much adverse publicity about Simon Called Peter, and Keable, Dulwich decided to cover up his appointment and time at the College. Could that possibly be true? Were the governors and senior teachers at Dulwich so embarrassed by the fact they had employed Keable as a teacher they destroyed all evidence?
Perhaps I needed more proof. So, I waited for the results of the 1921 census to be published. And there was the evidence I was looking for. The census shows that Keable was indeed living at 14 Park Road, as a boarder in a house owned by a 79-year-old retired hotel keeper from Devon called Frederick Fry. And his occupation was listed as ‘School Master Dulwich College’ and his employer as ‘Gov, Dulwich College’.
With the new proof I contacted the new archivist at Dulwich. She had recently discovered that Raymond Chandler had worked as a substitute teacher at the college for a couple of terms so felt confident she could find something.
And she has. In the Master’s Termly Grant A/C No. 2 ledger she found a payment entry of £122 to R Keable for ‘substitute’ dated 25th July 1921.
The mystery is finally solved. Keable definitely taught for a term at the College in the months after he published Simon Called Peter. Did the students and other teachers know? And if so, did they care? And did he teach anyone who became famous? At the school at the time, if Wikipedia is to be believed, were illustrator Walter Hodges, actor Richard Caldicot, film director Michael Powell, bandleader Ray Noble, and classicists William Guthrie.
With huge thanks to the Dulwich College archivists Mr WL Wright, Mrs Soraya Cerio and Mrs Calista Lucy