A Brief History of DMGS as written by E.C. Ezekwesili:
In dealing with this subject. let me admit my limitations right away. I must say, like St. Paul, "I know in part and I prophesy in part." I expect that in due course more capable historians, many of whom have been produced by the school, will find time to consult documents and archives both at home and abroad and give us a more definitive history of this great institution.
I wish to begin the first phase by making a rather controversial statement. This is that the two factors dominant in the founding of the Dennis Memorial Grammar School are the presence of the Holy Ghost Fathers at Onitsha and the thirst of the lgbo people for education.
Although the Church Missionary Society began her activities at Onitsha in 1857, it took her sixty-eight years to build the first Grammar School in Igboland. This long delay indicated that it was not the intention of the early missionaries to introduce gammar school education into Igholand. Their aim was to evangelize the people, and they did not believe that secondary education was necessary for the propagation of Christianity. Bishop Crowther began his evangelization work in the Niger Mission with yeomen who had "little or no formal education - farmers. carpenters bricklayers, shoemakers, messengers and' stewards on lordships."
Therefore such men laid emphasis on vernacular education. They were satisfied with bush schools and junior elementary schools, where the vernaculars became the medium of instruction. This policy naturally led to the production of vernacular" agents. catechists and clergymen, to whom the teaching of English language and secular subjects was abhorrent. The arrival of the Holy Ghost Fathers. a Roman Catholic Church missionary organization at Onitsha was ultimately' to change the situation. These Fathers opened schools at Onitsha in which the English Language became the medium for their instruction. The products of their schools very easily secured jobs in the British government offices and in the commercial houses. When the local people realized, therefore, the economic advantages of literacy in the English language, they clamored for it The C.M.S. schools were deserted by the converts who flocked into schools established by the Holy Ghost Fathers.
The British government, by its Proclamation No.19 of 1903, published the Education Code of the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria and indicated that English should be taught in all schools. that religious instruction should no longer be compulsory and that grants-in-aid would be paid to schools on the basis of report from Government Inspectors of Education. The C.M.S. Niger Mission. for fear that this code may lead to the secularization of education. rejected it, drew up its own code in 1905, revised it in 1910 and set up an education department In 1911 The Holy Ghost Fathers, on the other hand: accepted this code and received substantial grants-In-aid.
With these they increased the enrollment in their schools, raised the academic standard by teaching English themselves and made education free for their, converts'. Moreover, in 1901. they opened a High School at Onitsha. where industrial, education and a much higher standard of education was pursued. Asa result, the quality of education given in their schools and their prestige, both in government circles and among the lab() in and around Onitsha, soared high. The Niger Mission (C.M.S.) refitted to accept grants-In-aid; continued to charge fees and teach English through their poorly qualified African teachers only in the top classes of her few central schools.
The result of this difference in the policy and method of running their schools between the Holy Ghost Fathers and the C.M S Niger Mission was that many converts from the latter switched their allegiance to the Roman Catholics or transferred their children to the Roman Catholic schools. Bishop H. Tugwell summarized this situation in a letter he wrote to Dr. G. T. Basden in these words, "There is no denying the fact that at the present moment nearly all the young people of Onitsha town and Waterside who attend school are to be found in the Roman Schools."
The C.M.S. Niger Mission authorities were, therefore, forced to modify their attitude towards higher education. Among the advocates for a higher education was Archdeacon T.J. Dennis. who in 1899 advocated the inclusion of English in the curriculum of primary schools, and even urged the opening of a secondary school at Onits/m, in which the English would be the medium of instruction. In 1910. Bishop Tugwell proposed that the Awka Training College, founded in 1904. should be moved to Onitsha, and there a secondary school should he opened alongside the teacher training college. This proposal was not accepted as such, but the authorities of the C.M.S. Niger Mission, continuing in their drive towards higher education, introduced the teaching of English and some other secular subjects in their primary schools. The members of the Executive of the Niger Mission, under the leadership of Archdeacon T. J. Dennis. pressed in 1911 for the opening of a well equipped central school at Onitsha with elementary and secondary departments. to be headed by a European, preferably a graduate with experience in educational matters. This proposal unfortunately had to wait for another fourteen years because the Parent Committee of the C.M.S. was in great financial difficulties arid, therefore. unable to support the project. However, various preparations were made in spite of lack of funds. A lease was taken in 1914 with the government approval on a piece of land, which was to be the site of the school. The local church committees and well wishers made donations towards the project. The plan of the new building was approved at the Executive Committee meeting of February 1914. and a name. "The Onitsha Grammar School' was agreed upon. Even a tentative curriculum was suggested.
On August 1, 1917, Archdeacon T. J. Dennis died when the Germans torpedoed his boat. At a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Niger Mission which met on 19th September, 1918. in the Christ Church School room at Onitsha under the chairmanship of Bishop Tugwell, it was resolved that a fund be opened with the object of perpetuating the memory of the late Archdeacon Dennis and that the fund should be used for the furtherance of education in the Niger Mission. later, it was proposed with the approval of the Parent Committee of the C.M.S. to use this fund for building a secondary school to be dedicated to the memory of Archdeacon Dennis.
In February 1919, the Grammar School Building and Business Committee was inaugurated with the Rev. S R. Smith, Secretary of the Niger Mission. as the Chairman and the Rev. Dr. G. T. Basden, Rev. W. E. Blacken, Rev. G. N. Anyaegbunam. Chief Mba, Chief EzeOkoli and Mr. C. A. Barnes as members. Dr. c. c. nemesia. later Mr. M. T. Nottidge and, on his arrival in 1922. the Rt. Rev. B. Lasbrry, joined as members. Under this committee. contributions and donations flowed in regularly and generously from various church councils and individuals. The Onitsha.. District Council donated N100; the Enugu Ngwo District N25. Chief EzcOkoli of Nnobi N20. and after Bishop Lasbrey had reconciled the Niger Archdeaconry and the Niger Delta Pastorate in 1923, generous donations dame from the Niger Delta Pastorate. Under William Watson. a New-castle-on-Tyne businessman, an appeal for funds was launched in England. Mr. C.A.A. Barnes, a Gold Coast civil Engineer and a member of the committee. offered to draw the plans and erect the buildings-free of charge. Labour for the construction pf the building was supplied fret by the church members who took their turns in providing the water and sand and in earning the burnt bricks and cement with which the school was built.
The foundations of the building were laid in 1920. but the problem of collecting building materials from overseas, and other attendant difficulties which followed the first great war, led to the postponement of building till 1921. With the arrival of Bishop Lasbrey in 1922. work was resumed and, by the end of that year. about N3.000 had been spent on half of the two storey building that is the main block of this school (which had been finished).
On February 2nd, 1923, Col. Moorhouse. the Lieut. Governor laid the foundation stone. A management committee was formed, made up of four members appointed by the Executive Committee of the C.M.S. and three members appointed by the Church Council Board.
The year 1.924 was spent in putting finishing touches to the building and the Rev. F. H..Taylor..B.A. was appointed Principal designate. Thus everything was set for the opening of the school in the following year.
(Excerpt from "A History of Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha [1925-1975]"
Prepared by: E. Chukuka Ezekwcsili (Deceased, 2001)
B.A., Econs. Lend. Dip. Ed.
Former Acting Dean of Students Affairs University of Nigeria, Nsukka