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News > Memories > An appreciation of Headmaster R Williamson MA, with personal memories: Part 1 - The Road to Recovery

An appreciation of Headmaster R Williamson MA, with personal memories: Part 1 - The Road to Recovery

In 1918 Britain was broke and by 1920, as the country was beginning its recovery following one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, Oswestry School was teetering on the brink of disaster.
14 Jun 2021
Headmaster Ralph Williamson MA
Headmaster Ralph Williamson MA

The School's fortunes had taken a tumble and pupil numbers had fallen to a dangerously low point. In 1909 Headmaster John Lloyd-Williams left Oswestry School to take up an appointment as Head of Ruthin School taking many of his boarders with him, and none of the three Headmasters who followed him in quick succession was able to repair the damage. Losing heart, one by one they also moved on.

As a result, student numbers were down to about forty and it was obvious that for the school to survive the level of pupils would have to grow to make it a viable proposition for anyone brave enough to take it on.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and salvation was about to arrive in the form of a tall elegant gentleman with a quiet disposition. We may never know what prompted Ralph Williamson, a mild mannered, benign looking gentleman, to take on the challenge of restoring the fortunes of Oswestry Grammar School in 1920, but take up the challenge he did and he went on to devote the rest of his life to the restoration of the fortunes of the school he loved.

Each of us who has benefited from the Oswestry School experience during the last one hundred years owes a special thank you to this man who wielded an iron fist inside a velvet glove, and it is to him, in no small measure, that we are indebted for its survival and revival.

It is a little unclear how Mr Williamson came to arrive at School House, but having started his teaching career at Oundle he soon obtained a post at Hereford Cathedral School where he taught alongside DGW Felton, a fellow Cambridge graduate. They became firm friends and Ralph evidently persuaded Duncan to move with him to Oswestry School as his second in command. This duo were to work side-by-side for 38 years; in fact, Duncan Felton continued teaching (after Ralph Williamson retired in 1958) until 1962 when 
he stepped up to the plate for a term as Headmaster before the arrival of new Headmaster Dick Sale following the ignominious, long overdue departure of Frankland in the summer of 1961.

'Woof', as he was affectionately known to us all, arrived at Oswestry with impeccable academic qualifications. He was an MA and Senior Wrangler when leaving Cambridge and his speciality was Mathematics. Realising that lack of numbers was the main problem, the Headmaster immediately began to rebuild the reputation of the School with a view to recruiting more local boys as boarders, and within a short time the good work being done at the School came to the attention of people in the surrounding area. 

Involvement with the local community became a priority and along with the promotion of the Preparatory Department a series of school concerts became popular annual events at the Victoria Rooms, thus broadening the profile of the School.

 The Victoria Rooms circa 1963 

A deeply religious person, Mr Williamson also established friendly links between the School and St Oswald's Parish Church and his personal reputation began to grow throughout the town.

Gradually over the years the plan began to pay off and, as the number of pupils began to rise, the old schemer turned his attention to the formation of a spine of Masters which would become the backbone of the School for several decades to come. Unfortunately the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 was another setback for the dogged Headmaster and it was not until 1946, with the appointment of David 'Stoker' Lewis and JF Tilley OO, that the last two pieces of the jigsaw fell into place and Mr Williamson had finally found his dream team.

The Old Man was obviously a good judge of character and with the help of DGW Felton, Dai Lewis and JF Tilley, the School was able to move forward, albeit slowly, during the rigours of the forties and fifties. The photographs below show R Williamson in 1957 and his 'dream team' alongside their new Headmaster R Sale in the early sixties.

Ralph Williamson in 1957   


JF Tilley, DGW Felton, R Sale and David Lewis

The next problem confronting the School was a shortage of accommodation as by 1947 numbers were beginning to outstrip the capacity to house them. When Oswestry Cottage Hospital came up for sale in 1947 the shrewd Mr Williamson acquired it for £5,OOO and it was renamed Holbache House. This action, along with the purchase three years later of the freehold of the Maes-y-Llan was the master stroke that allowed the School to expand so rapidly in the 1970/1980s.

More immediate expansion took the form of the construction of the Memorial Hall in 1954 and a block of three classrooms on the Lower Paddock in 1958 behind the Laboratory.

Early on during his tenure the Headmaster prompted the revival of the Old Oswestrian Society, a tradition that had elapsed and which is thriving today.

He was also responsible for the establishment of that once great institution 'The Triangle' in 1936, but, sadly, this popular road race was discontinued owing to safety concerns in 1962.

The old cricket pavilion which had been built circa 1901 was given a much needed face lift and it became home to the honours board for both cricket and football teams.

Arriving as I did at Oswestry School in the summer of 1952 for a stay of eight years, I was witness to much that went on during the final six years of Mr Williamson's thirty eight year long reign (1920-1958) and in the second, and final part, I recall some of those memories. 

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