Bill Rennison, 1929-2017
by John Dixon, assisted by Bill's son Peter
Tewkesbury History Society (THS)
Bill Rennison was a founder member of and Treasurer to THS, author of articles and an invaluable Historical Reference Book. In his spare time, he was a Scout Commissioner, Mayor of Tewkesbury and voluntary gardener at Bredon Manor. Much of that was achieved in his fulfilling retirement; all shared and enjoyed by his wife and consort, Ruth. He was probably the last of the generation of teachers who managed to combine a demanding career with civic service in their 'spare time'.
Bill was officially known as ‘Jared William’ when he was born in 1929 – named after a grandfather who paid for his difficult birth in a private clinic. Bill’s father was a shipyard worker who survived the slump - and saved up for marriage – by working for a year in Venezuela.
His father took the family to work in railway engineering in Doncaster where Bill was reared. There he thrived and one of his Grammar School teachers encouraged him to apply for a place to read History at Oxford. At a time when not many children from Doncaster went to University, let alone Oxbridge; as Peter commented, “he certainly did his bit for social mobility”.
However, in 1947 an 18 year’s enforced priority was National Service which he spent – possibly because he had been a Sea Cadet - working in Haslar Naval Hospital in Portsmouth. He then entered St John’s College where his passion for history flourished. It was during this time that he met Ruth - a New Zealander who had sailed over “looking for adventure”. They were introduced and the rest, as they say, was history.
They married in Newcastle, after a spell of teaching in Scotland and Huddersfield, where he had to teach French.
The Town Mayor and Mayoress in 1979
In his memoirs, the late Gordon Kaye, star of Allo, Allo recalled that it was Bill who provided him with his first French lesson; and the rest was “Franglais”! They enjoyed their early married years teaching in Cambridgeshire where Janet was born in 1957 and Peter in 1960.
It was in 1967 that Bill won promotion as Second Master at Tewkesbury Boys’ Grammar School in what was to be its final five years at Southwick Park. 1972 was a year of educational revolution when Bill moved to the new comprehensive school as head of Upper School and of course teaching history where I met him as the 'Head of Department' in 1983. He retired in 1985 and I remember celebrating with them, dining on a river boat on the Avon.
During this time he and Ruth were keen leaders of the Scouts and Guides and he was a member of the Tewkesbury Choral Society. If this was not enough service, he was a Councillor being elected Town Mayor in 1979. Both he and Ruth thoroughly enjoyed their civic duties but, as a principled Liberal politician, he resigned from the party in 1997, disagreeing with the proposed, but ill-fated, 'Lib-Lab Pact', which Tony Blair saw as a means of obtaining power.
At its foundation in 1991, this Society was fortunate to be supported by Bill who rotated as treasurer with his neighbour, Bill Camp – they proved very safe hands in those pre-computer days. Bill also teamed up with Cameron Talbot to use their precious skills as Latin scholars – a pre-requisite then for entry to Oxford – to transcribe 16-17th century wills, written in Medieval Latin. These have been preserved as a bound volume in the Library and transcribed onto the Society’s database for the benefit of posterity. The History of the Society in its 10th year was written by Bill.
Ruth looked after me with her famous Pavlovas and it was a sad loss when she died at so young an age - and just before the 2007 floods which so afflicted him. Shortly afterwards, he left Tewkesbury for a comfortable retirement home in Reading. It was an honour for me to represent the Society, and join Bill and Ruth’s family at the funeral in Reading of this Life Member - and to learn that he had settled so well in his adopted area, partly because his love of choral music had even extended to a Groovy Kind of Love.
Soham Grammarian Spring 1961
We extend our warmest welcome to Mr Ades, Mr Scott and Mr Sherrington who all joined us in September, and to Mr Rennison who took over the History department in January this year. Let us hope that their stay is long and enjoyable.
Soham Grammarian Summer 1967
We also said farewell to Mr Rennison, who goes to Tewkesbury Grammar School as Senior Master, and to Mr Royal-Dawson, who goes to the Leventhorpe School, Sawbridgeworth as Senior English Master. To both the thanks of all are extended for all their multifarious services, and our best wishes for their future happiness and success: we shall miss the quiet efficiency of the one and the equally quiet untidiness of the other.
We welcomed Bill to our 2007 reunion, brought by Warwick Ellis.
1965 school photo: Warwick Ellis - Norman Sherrington - Bill Rennison
At Soham Grammar School, he - Jethro - taught History at from January 1961 to July 1967.
His contribution to the Scouting life of the school was recognised when he was invited to return in 1968 to open the new Scouting hut.
Educated at Doncaster Grammar School and St John's College Oxford, in 1954 he went to teach History at King James's Grammar School Almondbury, Huddersfield.
As their website says "He lost no time in proposing a School Scout Troop, the investiture of which - as 46th Huddersfield troop - took place on 9th March 1955 with himself as Scout Master". The actor Gordon Kaye was in one of his Forms.
From Soham he went to be Deputy Head at Tewkesbury Grammar School where he spent five "happy and I think productive years" until the four Tewkesbury secondary schools were combined in 1972 to become Tewkesbury School. For thirteen years he was head of Upper School, taking early retirement in 1985.
The Rennisons decided to stay in Gloucestershire, in Tewkesbury, which is about the same size as Ely, but "much more friendly and interesting". Bill was on the Town Council for seventeen years and was Mayor in 1979-80.
In retirement he retained his Scouting connection, serving as District Commissioner and finally President. He sang in the choir of St Nicholas Ashchurch and with the Tewkesbury Choral Society.
He was a founder member of the Tewkesbury Historical Society and was Treasurer for many years and helped with the editing of the Annual Bulletin.
In 2006 he was widowed. His wife Ruth was a New Zealander and at one time he seriously considered emigrating there but the right post never came up. In retirement they had two long holidays in New Zealand and visited "most parts of that beautiful country".
In 2007 his was one of the homes devastated by the flooding that affected large parts of Gloucestershire.
At the 2007 Dinner: Gareth Woods - Bill Rennison - Peter Scott - Warwick Ellis
The Hole in the Ceiling Gang
Scouting at SGS
Richard Brown 60 writes appreciatively of Bill in an autobiographical note on the History Zone which he edits:
At the beginning of the third year, history was taught by Bill Rennison: the Tudors and Stuarts and then British and European history 1815-1945 for O Level. He was a hard task-master and a stickler for detail and we argued continuously about history and politics from then until he moved to Tewkesbury Grammar at the end of my second year in the sixth form in 1967.
Bill was an excellent teacher, interested and interesting with a detailed knowledge and understanding especially of the seventeenth century. His lessons were discursive in nature and students were encouraged to express their own views on the issues being discussed though you had to be prepared to argue your case and Bill would not tolerate sloppy thinking.
When examining the Armada, I suggested that the English had been very lucky not to lose. Bill asked me to explain my thinking and then systematically debunked each point I’d made: an exhilarating experience since I probably learned more about the Armada as a result.
He was extremely encouraging bringing books and articles from his library and suggesting that I read and note them. I still refer to these on occasions as he had annotated my spidery notes with pithy comments again correcting poor reasoning and thought. Both orally and in writing, he contributed significantly to my development as a historian and I will always be grateful for the time he was prepared to expend on my ideas and writing.
Advanced Level was grounded in studying the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Britain and Europe with a special subject on the reign of Charles II. All the reading I’d done in the years before this paid off and I found an increasing pleasure in examining the complexities of the period.
The focus may have been on the political and diplomatic, a characteristic of much school history at this time but, for the first time there was a detailed examination of the social, economic, cultural and ideological dimensions of the past. This, combined with a heightened awareness of history as a discipline and as a set of ideas and methods made these three years a period of self-exploration and personal historical development.
I especially enjoyed the depth study of Charles II and remember giving class papers on the personality of Charles II and the political development of the Cabal, the governing group from 1667 until 1672, both lasting over two hours each. The school library had copies of the relevant State Papers that proved an invaluable source of information and ideas.
© Richard Brown 2010, reproduced here with his permission.
If you have photos or anecdotes to contribute to this page please contact the editor
3/4/20 David Woodroffe SG60: Sobering to think that I only saw one small facet of such an interesting man.
3-4/4/20 Lindsay Hancock SG59: I always liked Mr Rennison. I remember one particular history lesson especially, when Mr Rennison explained the agricultural revolution to us, as a class. So impressed were Nick Ruczaj and myself by the invention of the seed drill, that we nicknamed Mr Rennison 'Jethro'... Subsequently, Jethro and Slug were the masters that took us on Scout Camp to Edale Peak District Scout Camp. A thoroughly enjoyable experience! Bless them both ...
4/4/20 Gary Dew SG62: I remember Bill as as a very good and fair teacher.
5/4/20 Richard Vince SG64: Most of my school History was learned from Mr. Taylor and Mr. Abbott, but I do remember that Mr. Rennison always seemed a genial man (as was Mr. Abbott, whereas 'Rat' Taylor often had a harsher approach). I remember Bill Rennison’s nickname as 'Jethro'. Teacher’s nicknames are often passed down from one form to the next without explanation as to their origin, but I imagine that in this case it has something to do with Jethro Tull of agricultural fame (or the rock flautist?).
6/4/20 Jeffrey Easingwold 64-65: I was only at Soham GS for one year (64-65) and was not taught by him. Both 1A and 1 Alpha were taught History by Mr Taylor. I nearly always sat on his table for lunch, though. If memory serves my brother, who is 4 years younger than me, was in the same class as his daughter at St Mary's Primary School on Silver Street, Ely.
19/4/20 Ralph Dunham SG59: One thing
we from Cambridgeshire and Gloucestershire agree on was that Jethro
was well liked and also respected as a person and teacher; he always was
fair and affable.
Regarding his nickname I, like others, believed it to exist because of the well known farmer of seed drill fame Jethro Tull, and I seem to recall an overuse of this name once in a lesson; I didn't realise Bill was actually Jared William Rennison.
He encouraged many of us to be interested in History by his own quiet enthusiasm (I do not recall any discipline problems). In my own case he was a pivotal factor in History being my main subject when training to be a certificated teacher, whilst my later degree dissertation researched a child's understanding of historical changes in society.
With reference to Scouting there are, I'm sure, a considerable number of us who were kept on the straight and narrow by him as our Skip in the Senior Scouts , and of course by Lionel Hart in the Scouts. Having organised numerous educational visits in my own career it must have taken a vast amount of planning, plus trust in us as young adults to behave ourselves, to enable us to enjoy far ranging opportunities such as a few days camping in Skye.
We travelled up there in a VW minibus, the
sort with only two small opening windows at the rear; our heavy gear was
on a large roof rack. I was in a corner back seat and having extended my
hand a few times through the small gap realised the whole load was
gradually moving backwards. I drew Skip's attention to this,
mentioning foolishly that stopping on a motorway was only in a case of
emergencies. I received an understandably sharp rebuke that this WAS an
emergency! I wonder if the other responsible adult was another equally
effective and popular teacher, Warwick Ellis? On our return journey we
deviated via Skip's parents' home (near Huddersfield?) where us
dozen or so lively teenagers were warmly welcomed and devoured a most
enjoyable and, having cooked for ourselves for a week or so, a "proper"
After Friday Senior Scouts those of us from Ely had to return home early evening by bus, but Skip always seemed to find room for a lucky foursome in his (overloaded?) old Ford Prefect(?) being most apologetic to those unfortunates left behind!
For some of our Senior Scout badges we had to show an ability to undertake certain practical tasks, which "coincided" with a few jobs requiring attention at Skip's home on Lynn Road, Ely - not far from Gordon Hemming's home. All went well, with Ruth also providing a warm Kiwi welcome. However what none of us envisaged was that the photographs of New Zealand on the wall calendar in the kitchen were helping sow the seeds for my eventual emigration as a £10 Pom, treading a path in the opposite direction to Ruth. It was interesting to read in the Tewkesbury History Society's obituary that Bill also considered emigrating, but eventually only spent two long holidays there.
We continued to be in touch sporadically over the years and when I returned to England in about 1980 for a long holiday with my wife and three young children, Bill and Ruth invited us to spend a day with them at their Tewkesbury home (later to be flooded in 2007). It was a glorious Summer's day in the school holidays and Bill kindly took us to Tewkesbury High School where he was second master - and thus we enjoyed the swimming pool, as well as reminiscing about SGS, Scouting and, of course, New Zealand.