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News > Memories > Track and field record breakers at Oswestry School in the 1960s: Tim Dennis (1959-71)

Track and field record breakers at Oswestry School in the 1960s: Tim Dennis (1959-71)

The remarkable CTH Dennis, BA (Medical Tripos), Vet MB.BSc (Applied Medicine ) MA (Paracitology) MRCVS was born in 1952.
19 Dec 2023
Written by David Pickup
Memories

Cyril Timothy Hawke Dennis was born in 1952 and it was not until many years later, when at Oswestry School, that he would discover that his paternal background was one of aristocratic privilege and wealth. 

Tim's parents met some time before their marriage when his father, Lance, a former Spitfire pilot with a penchant for fast cars, was involved in a life-threatening car accident following a party, which left him in a coma, and he was nursed back to health by the woman he would later marry. However, far from living a life of luxury, Tim's early years were bedeviled by domestic strife and a family shortage of money, and it was not until much later that he learned that his school fees had been paid out of a trust fund set up by his grandfather. Unknown to everyone around him, he was dyslexic, a condition not commonly recognised at the time, and as a result his schoolwork suffered quite badly. 


Lance, atop his Spitfire. 

Tim's mother was one of 11 children, and his father, Lance, was the second son of Charles Cyril Dennis, an Oxford MA and Chairman of James H Dennis and Co Ltd, who lived at Oakley Hall and its surrounding estate in Shropshire. In 1940 Cyril was appointed High Sheriff of Staffordshire. By contrast, Tim was destined to grow up in rather less grand circumstances than his father, moving regularly from house to house as part of a dysfunctional family in which he and his brother, largely left to their own devices, ran wild and free, living feral lives.


Oakley Hall.

When their troubled lives were further added to by the sad death of their father in 1960, the outlook did not bode well for the brothers who were already having an increasingly difficult time at Oswestry school. Roger, Tim's older brother, ever conscious of their father's absence, took it upon himself to act in loco parentis for Tim, always watching his back and checking on his academic progress. A natural dislike of authority often brought the boys into conflict with the powers that be, and the trashing of 'Bagwash's' greenhouse just over the playground wall, as seen in the picture below, for a refusal to hand back their tennis ball was just one of several incidents that brought them to the attention and wrath of Headmaster, Major Frankland. 


Stoker in the snow.

Tim's first visit to the Oakley estate occurred circa 1961 when he and his brother were picked up from the school playground by an immaculately uniformed and behatted chauffeur, who emerged from a large impressive black car, one panel of which was escutcheoned with family heraldry. Open-mouthed contemporaries who were also awaiting collection by their parents for the holidays gawped on in disbelief.

Cyril Dennis, their grandfather, was waiting when they arrived at Oakley Hall. This was a far cry from their own more lowly domestic circumstances, and they were to be shown the other side of life. "Is this really where we come from?" Tim inquired earnestly. His brother just nodded.


Cyril and May outside Oakley Hall.

But, to rewind a little - on arrival at Oswestry in 1959, Tim was a free spirit and street savvy, but the odds were stacked against him. Dyslexic, and the product of a dysfunctional family, this natural rebel was bound to fall foul of authority at some point. After a couple of years, he and eight members of the Prep Department moved from the green hut to the Quarry at the top of the hill, and came under the wing of Dominick Spencer, who became very influential in his life. They remained friends, and kept in touch long after Tim left school, as shown by the letter below. Tim was a boy with natural sporting ability, and it came as no surprise to learn that his first sporting success came when winning the 'throwing the cricket ball' competition (and, incidentally, the wheelbarrow race, with his mother) in the Prep Sports. Later, in the mid sixties onwards, his sporting prowess was in demand from a variety of activities, but his ability to bowl a cricket ball at high speed compelled Tim to opt for the first eleven cricket team where he terrorised the opposition with his 'yorker'.


Dominick's letter, dated 2002.

 


View of the Green Hut from the Paddock.

Dominick Spencer's appointment as Head of the Prep Dept by Headmaster Dick Sale turned out to be an inspired choice, and under his leadership the number of pupils, in what became known as The Junior School, soared to more than 100 up at The Quarry. Tim was struggling with his dyslexia at this time, but his report, which can be seen below, showed potential, and with encouragement from Dominick Spencer his work and confidence began to improve, and he ended his time in the Junior School as Head Prefect. To quote Tim, "Dominick Spencer saved my academic life". A slight exageration perhaps, as you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Some time later, a grateful Tim donated The Spencer Cup to the school to be awarded annually.


Tim's school report under the regime of Dominick Spencer.

It was Dick Sale who introduced rugby football to Oswestry Scool in the early sixties, and this game eventually brought Tim's sporting activities to a close following a nasty rugby tackle some time after leaving school. However, it was to be the javelin at which Tim excelled, and he recalls the day he broke the school record, which still stands, with a throw of 201 feet, 10.5 inches. The record holder (just over 148 feet) on that day in 1970 was contemporary Duncan Marshal, and throwing conditions were very favourable as Tim Dennis began his approach run. As soon as the javelin left his hand he knew he had thrown it well. The slight, uplifting, facing wind immediately took it up and Tim was thrilled to see it floating longer in the wind than usual, knowing it would be a long shot. The record was his. He was surprised that he could only manage to achieve a distance of 190 feet the following year at Colwyn Bay High School but, as Tim said, "It's all about how the wind lifts it, but all aspects must be right to ensure a long throw."


Duncan Marshall in action.

Tim's success with the javelin also led him into trouble. One day on the Maes-y-Llan, spurred on and goaded by his athletics friends, he could never turn down a challenge, and when they bet him that he could not get the javelin over the four power lines that ran above the field he rose to the bait. As the javelin soared over the cables the tail end of the projectile just touched the last of the lines and instead of it continuing down to the ground it bounced up to rebound again and again. Sparks flew everywhere, and all the lights in the area went out as power was lost. The boys all scattered as pieces of liquid metal fell around them, and they sheepishly left the field to face the music. I am not quite sure whether Tim was deemed to have won his bet, but it was certainly a moral victory. 

Tim was always in demand for his multiple sporting abilities, and the picture below shows him in action during the Steeplechase, wearing his Shropshire colours, but he was a team man at heart, and never happier than when playing cricket, rugby or football. In 1971 he collected the much coveted Victor Ludorum trophy jointly with David Gough, a fitting reward for his sporting efforts at Oswestry School. During the sixties, the tradition of playground sports saw an upgrade with markings on the quadrangle, and break time games are captured below for posterity.


Tim crossing the Morda river during the Steeplechase.

 


Fun and games on the playground.

Dennis Junior laughingly regaled me with numerous exploits from his time as as a boarder, too many to mention them all here here but he vividly remembers the now legendary 'putsch' against the Frankland administration which signalled the end of Headmaster Frankland's brief three year reign. Needless to say, when matters finally came to a head at School House towards the end of the summer term of 1961, both brothers were involved and are pictured in the photo below; Tim is the small boy on the right, and Roger is on the wall.


The triumphant rebels assemble for the team photograph.

He was in the Green Hut looking through the window during lessons in 1961 as a terrific explosion was heard throughout the school when a laboratory experiment went badly wrong, and he witnessed the wires running from the lab to the Prep flapping wildly about in the turbulent air, followed by pandemonium on the playground.

In the mid sixties there was an arsenist loose in School House, and on two occasions form 5A was mysteriously set alight, and boys gathered at the senior dorm windows to view the spectacle of smoke and flames billowing from the long school corridor. Tim Dennis left school in 1972 shortly before the arrival of the first batch of girls, and he went on to pursue a very successful career in veterinary science.

I found an immediate rapport with Tim Dennis, and liked his open and candid approach to my article and I can not commend him highly enough for allowing me to tell his story. In the concluding part I will take you on the rest of his remarkable journey.

 

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