Story of Dilworth

Dilworth is a legacy, the vision of one man who has changed the lives of nearly 5,000 boys. His name was James Dilworth, and in 1894, he bequeathed his considerable wealth and his Epsom estate to establish a school for the sons of “persons of good character of any race in straitened circumstances”, so that they might become “good and useful” members of society. Over a century later, his extraordinary legacy is still transforming boys’ lives.

James Dilworth - who was he?

Although Dilworth School was founded in 1894 and opened in 1906, the Dilworth story may actually be said to have begun in 1815, with the birth in Donaghmore, Northern Ireland, of James Dilworth, the Ulsterman who, with his wife Isabella, founded the School. James Dilworth was educated at the Royal School Dungannon in the county of Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He was profoundly influenced by his education there, an opportunity that was afforded him by his great aunt, Anne Dilworth, a single woman of means. Anne Dilworth had identified James as a young man of considerable promise. She wanted him to be the flag-bearer of the extended Dilworth family, the main beneficiary of her wealth and the one who would ensure that other family members profited from his talents.

When Dilworth completed his education, his Great Aunt arranged for him to work in the Northland Bank in the town of Dungannon. Here he acquired the business expertise, which was to prove fundamental to his highly successful career. Although the Great Famine was still a decade away, in the late 1830s Ireland was experiencing an increase in rural poverty, violence and civil disorder. Facing a climate of growing unrest, Anne Dilworth decided to send young James to the Antipodes, so that he could invest in land there and, eventually, support other family members, who would follow in due course. Thus, Dilworth left Ireland in the late 1830s, one of many to leave their homeland, in successive waves of emigration, many to settle in North America, but significant numbers also made their way to new lives in Australia and New Zealand.

Dilworth arrived in Sydney in 1839; a young man, just 24 years old. He found work west of the town, in the post office at Windsor. In those days, Windsor was very much a frontier town and the young Dilworth did not enjoy the crude conditions, the outback atmosphere or the harsh climate. Eventually, hearing accounts of good land for bargain prices, he decided to visit New Zealand and see what possibilities were offered there.


Dilworth arrives in New Zealand

Dilworth arrived in Auckland late in July 1841, on board the schooner Planter. There was no landing wharf in the harbour, and passengers were obliged to come ashore in the ship’s boats, as far as they could go, and then wade ashore, through mud and water up to their knees. It was hardly an auspicious arrival for the young pioneer! However, sustained by his aunt’s wealth and driven by his own ambition and energy, James Dilworth wasted little time in establishing himself.

Initially, Dilworth found work under Governor Hobson serving as Clerk to the Governor’s Council. Soon, however, he returned to his initial profession, as a banker with the New Zealand Banking Company, and was sent up to Russell (Kororareka), to deal with growing financial problems there. He made the first of his many land purchases in Parnell in 1842, and eventually went on to become a significant Auckland farmer and landowner, also owning large tracts of farmland in other parts of the country. By 1849, Dilworth had acquired some 230 acres in Epsom and present-day Remuera, bounded by Newmarket, Remuera Road & Mount St John, sweeping around three sides of Mount Hobson and extending south, almost to Remuera Village. This land came to be Dilworth’s ‘home farm’ and the heart of his many land holdings.


James and Isabella

In 1853 Dilworth married Isabella Hall, a young woman whose widowed mother had left Ulster in the mid 1840s and settled with her large family in Otahuhu. The Dilworths were pillars of St Mark’s Church in Remuera, and contributed generously to its upkeep and expansion over the years. Perhaps as a testament to the lasting strength of their affections, in the 1870s the Dilworths had their portraits painted by the noted artist Gottfried Lindauer – these two paintings are among the very few surviving Lindauer portraits of married couples, and are treasured by the School today.


Dilworth the Entrepreneur

In late 1840s, Dilworth became a founder of both the Auckland Savings Bank and the Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Society; his involvement in each organisation clearly illustrating the two principal aspects of his career: those of landed gentleman and keen businessman. In his later years, Dilworth served as an elected member of the Auckland Provincial Council (which was effectively a provincial government). In this context, Dilworth revealed a keen interest in education, serving on both the Auckland Provincial Council’s educational subcommittee and the Auckland University College Council. Serving in these two very influential organisations, he came into contact with some of the leading educators of the day, and was likely to have been influenced by their thinking. In addition to his contact with the leading settlers of the Auckland Province, Dilworth was likely to have been affected by his own life experiences, both in Ireland and in New Zealand, and in particular, by severe economic depression, which brought great hardship to Auckland in the 1880s.


Dilworth’s Philanthropy

It has often been accepted that the principal catalyst in inspiring Dilworth to found a school was the Reverend George MacMurray, a fellow Ulsterman and product of the Royal School Dungannon, whom the Dilworths met in 1885, on a return voyage from Britain. However MacMurray’s own account of his meeting with the Dilworths reveals that Dilworth had already considered the possibility of bequeathing his considerable wealth, to establish a school for boys left disadvantaged by the 1880s depression. There were, in fact, a number of educators in Dilworth’s circle long before he met MacMurray, in particular those with whom he served on educational committees. One of these was Dr Robert Boyd Kidd, the first Headmaster of Auckland Grammar School. While evidence remains thin on the ground, there are clear suggestions that Dr Kidd was something of a sounding board for Dilworth, when first he began to formulate his plans for Dilworth School.

Like the Dilworths, Kidd was another native of Northern Ireland, and, in fact, Dilworth surrounded himself by Ulstermen, as if he needed to be insulated from the rest of the mainly English and Scottish settlers. The first trustees of his bequest were all from Ulster: his wife Isabella, his brother-in-law Robert Hall (Isabella’s brother), Saint Mark’s’ vicar, the Reverend William Beatty, Archdeacon George MacMurray, Sir Maurice O’Rorke and James H. M. Carpenter. Many successive Trustees were Ulstermen, and his private secretary was another Irishman, Gerald O’Halloran.


Dilworth's Death and Will

Dilworth died on December 23rd 1894, aged 79 years, without children of his own and with little faith in the few relatives who had followed him to New Zealand. His earlier Will of the 1870s makes it clear that he had wrestled long and hard, with the question of who should inherit his wealth. When his will was read and the main clauses published in the New Zealand Herald, Aucklanders were astonished to learn that he had left the bulk of his considerable estate, to establish a School, which was to be called the Dilworth Ulster Institute. This, however, was to be a school unlike any other. The Will stipulated that the school, once established, was to provide ‘the sons of persons of good character, of any race, and in straitened circumstances’ with such ‘maintenance, education and training,’ as to enable them to become ‘good and useful members of society' and to raise them in accordance with the ‘tenets of the Church of the Province of New Zealand’ (the Anglican Church)....'

This was the vision, but it was to be twelve long years before dream became reality. Dilworth left very exacting instructions, as to just how his trustees were to proceed, requiring them first to develop the value of the estate, so that the School could be established using revenue rather than capital. Further complications arose, when the newly established Dilworth Trust Board was obliged to endure a lengthy and very costly legal battle with the government of the day, over the right of the Dilworth Trust to claim exemption from enormous death duties.

Not until a decision of the Privy Council in London upheld the charitable nature of the Dilworth Trust and its consequent right to exemption from death duties, were the Trustees able to proceed. Even then, further delays may have ensued, had not Mrs Dilworth offered to move out of her large and very comfortable home, in order to begin the school – albeit on a temporary footing – before she too departed this life, in faith and fear.


The vision becomes a reality

Finally, the school was opened on 12th March 1906, in the old Dilworth homestead, adapted for the purpose, with just eight small boys, aged between three and five, and with one teacher in charge, Marion Ashton-Bruce, the daughter of former Auckland Grammar School headmaster Robert Kidd, and the owner of King’s College. In addition to her role as teacher, she also served as Matron and Housekeeper, because then, as now, all the boys were boarders. Further boys arrived later in the year, including the first of twelve Irish boys. An important clause in Dilworth’s Will required the Trustees to seek applications from Ulster families, who might benefit from sending their boys to New Zealand to be educated at Dilworth Ulster Institute. Accordingly, William Dunwoodie and John Bushe arrived from Ulster and were admitted to the School in September 1906.

Fortunately, the opening of the School was well documented, with photographs published in the New Zealand Graphic magazine. The dining room, classroom and dormitories all appear in these early images, as do the first eight boys, whom we see in class, in their best uniforms and in their day-to-day outfit. For the youngest boys, the first uniform was a sailor suit and hat, but this was eventually replaced, by the more traditional New Zealand garb of navy shorts and shirt. As, year after year, more boys were admitted to the School, another teacher, Miss Isobel Maud Peacock, was engaged.