He Served: Dennis Silk

Dennis Silk has died at the age of 87. This is an extract from ‘Somerset Cricketers 1946-1970’ by Stephen Hill and Barry Phillips, written when Dennis Silk was 85 years old and two years before his death.

Dennis Raoul Whitehall Silk was born on 8 October 1931 in Eureka, California. His father, Claude Whitehall Silk, was married to Louise Emelda Dumoret. Often referred to as Louisa, she had been born in Spain but had emigrated with her family to the USA at the age of fourteen. Claude had opted for a career as a minister in the Episcopal Church (the North American branch of the Anglican Church), working in Montreal and then California, where Dennis, his fourth child, was born. Claude’s work was primarily with the Native American communities and, having trained as a priest, he had returned to university to study medicine once he realised that his flock required medical help more than they needed spiritual guidance. He was never in one place for long, crossing continents while ministering to the needs of parishioners and patients. Claude would become a widower while Dennis was still a child, although he would be remarried in 1941, to Frances Annie Wesley (née Binder), a widow. Dennis was sent to England as a five-year-old and brought up by his grandmother in Bognor Regis. His connection with Somerset began when his grandmother died and an aunt was appointed his new guardian. She had retired to Kingston St Mary, near Taunton, and Dennis would spend his vacations with her while an undergraduate. His father, Claude, emigrated to Northern Rhodesia in 1959 with his second wife, Frances.

If Claude left his mark around the globe then his son, Dennis, would bring his considerable drive and energy to bear largely within the confines of England, which he would make his permanent home. Educated at Christ’s Hospital, near Horsham, he won a place at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, to study History. An accomplished batsman and occasional leg-break bowler, he played regularly for Cambridge University, completing five centuries for them and winning blues each season from 1953 to 1955. Two of his centuries came against Oxford in successive years, a feat that ensured near-legendary status among the Cantabrigians. He also played rugby – variously at full-back or centre three-quarter – for Cambridge University and Bath and, in 1951, for Sussex. He won a rugby blue and a half blue for rugby fives.

Dennis was committed to a career in teaching, appearing as an amateur for Somerset while a schoolmaster at Marlborough College. Not steeped in the class system as many amateurs were, but equipped for life as a leader of men, he enjoyed a rare positive reputation amongst both the starchier members of the committee and the undervalued and underpaid pros. David Foot would describe him as ‘a man of gentle voice, charm and authority; and if he hadn’t put education first, he’d have been unanimous choice as captain of Somerset’. His ability to bridge the divide came to the fore when Somerset sacked four players including captain Maurice Tremlett and wicket-keeper Harold Stephenson after their ‘scandalous’ behaviour at the Grand Hotel, Swansea. Used to handling seemingly intractable problems, Dennis was able to engineer Tremlett’s reinstatement and, perhaps having been quietly informed that the onus was now on the skipper to make a point, the players performed out of their skins the following season.

Between 1956 and 1960 he would appear for Somerset on thirty-three occasions, averaging 33.54 with the bat and scoring one century but failing to take a wicket with his occasional leg-breaks. He would also take part in MCC tours, the first to East Africa in 1957-58 under the captaincy of Freddie Brown, another in 1960-61 when Dennis led a tour of New Zealand and his last in 1967 when he was captain on a tour to Canada. His was thus a voice of experience when he became a prominent figure in the heated debate when MCC stood firm over South Africa’s refusal to play a side that included Basil D’Oliveira. His stated position was that ‘we do not stand as the social conscience of Great Britain’. He was of the view that economic considerations are sometimes paramount, that to sit on a high horse is to risk an unpleasant fall. The counter arguments were led by Rev David Sheppard. The two men – Sheppard and Silk – would subsequently bury the hatchet and the Apartheid regime would in time collapse. A satisfactory outcome had ensued. Dennis would later serve as President of MCC, who had relinquished management of Test Matches to the TCCB shortly after the D’Oliveira Affair. He would also chair the TCCB from 1994 until 1996.

Able to articulate the complex with great clarity, Dennis would write two books aimed at encouraging young cricketers. Sport for Schools: Cricket was published in 1964 and Attacking Cricket: A Coaching Manual followed a year later. Pelham Books had the good sense not to have asked Dennis to complete a companion volume on Defensive Cricket.

It is perhaps for his career as a teacher that he has gained most renown. Having established his reputation as an inspirational teacher at Marlborough College, he left in 1968 to take up his post as Warden of Radley College (his official title as headmaster). Many of his fellow head teachers regarded him as the finest principal of his generation and there is near-universal agreement that he transformed the school from a moribund institution to a public school of the first rank. In a history of the school, his twenty-three-year reign is recounted in glowing terms. After an unpromising conversation with the senior prefect on day one, where he was told that ‘You’re not going to find this school very easy, Sir,’ we are informed that:

His energy blew away the country-club complacency of the past, and his dedication to hard work and all-round excellence proved infectious to masters and boys alike. If he remained formidable he was also approachable, and boys became used to the summons to a drink and a one-to-one chat on their birthdays. Academic standards rose; the arts flourished and so did rugby, cricket and rowing; parents queued to enter their sons.

Throughout his sojourn, his wife, Diana Merylin (née Milton), whom he had been married to in 1963, would prove a tower of strength. A market research assistant and the daughter of a company director, she would have four children with him.

For a great leader to be so judged, what follows him is as much a part of his legacy as his achievements during his tenure and Dennis played his part in securing Radley’s future by setting up the Dennis Silk Foundation to fund or subsidise the education of talented pupils from poorer backgrounds who would not otherwise be able to attend the school. In 1995 he was awarded a CBE for services to cricket and education and he was made an Honorary Life Vice-President of MCC in 2000. At the time of writing, he is also President of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, having enjoyed a long friendship with and written widely about the poet. He retains an active interest in his beloved Somerset CCC and is an Honorary Life Member. Dennis is able, at the age of eighty-five, to look back on a full and hugely fulfilling life in which he has brought vision and drive to everything he has turned his hand to and where personal success has been a bonus for a man who has endeavoured to enrich the lives of others.