It is so sad to announce the passing of someone who can quite rightly be described as a ‘St. Helens Institution’
Denis Whittle has left us at the age of 85, after recent declining health, writes Alex Service.
A remarkable man in so many ways, he possessed a veritable encyclopaedic knowledge of his home town, its people and St.Helens R.F.C. in particular.
He first saw the light of day in Clyde Street in the town centre, close to the famous ‘Bruk’, an area of waste ground over the way from the former Beecham’s factory where, according to Denis, “many young men cut their rugby league teeth”. He always readily recalled players from that area, including Walter Delves, Roy Robinson and Josh Gaskell. Denis was educated at nearby Lowe House School and remained in touch with many of his classmates over the ensuing years.
He was a Saints’ diehard since his schooldays during the Second World War, when he used to carry the team changes board around Knowsley Road. His boyhood hero was the great centre Jimmy Stott “St. James of Parr” as he used to call him and he always rated Alex Murphy as the greatest player he had ever seen, although Tom van Vollenhoven was his favourite overseas star!
He began his working life as a newspaper compositor and was involved with the compilation and publishing of the first edition of the Rugby Leaguer from where he worked at Lockie Press at the age of 16.
He spent 30 years with the St Helens Reporter, before joining the St Helens Star in 1989 in a purely journalistic capacity. He was also the Saints’ correspondent with the Star, replacing Ron Barker and his match reports in the early Super League era were typified by his fastidious attention to detail and a unique writing style that endeared himself to the reader.
His flamboyant, descriptive prose was undoubtedly his trademark and quite unmistakable. Indeed, his ‘one-on-ones’ with the coaches of the time, including Mike McLennan, Eric Hughes, Shaun McRae and Ellery Hanley were eagerly awaited. He was straight to the point and the supporters loved it!
My own favourite moment was with Eric Hughes, when both joined together for their weekly column Hughes’ Views. “Many ex-players tend to expand physically when they hang up their boots but that does not appear to be the case with you,” offered Denis. “What is the secret of your gazelle-like appearance and pace?”
Absolutely priceless that one and typically Denis. He remained the Saints’ correspondent until Mike Critchley took over in 2001. He was, quite naturally, upset to leave, although he regularly contributed numerous nostalgia pieces for the rest of his life.
Denis undertook his National Service in the Royal Engineers and served in Cyprus and Egypt. One of his most cherished occasions was Saints’ first-ever Challenge Cup victory in 1956, when he was able to get leave to go to Wembley on that famous day.
He thought the world of that team and remained close to several of them through the years, such as Glyn Moses, Austin Rhodes, Steve Llewellyn, Roy Robinson and the legendary centre Duggie Greenall. The venerable Duggie was another of Denis’s favourite players and he produced a superb biography about him – A Rugby League Saint – in 2006.
It was very much his piece de resistance and Duggie remained a valued close friend until his own demise several years later. Nothing gave him more pleasure than sharing a “pictorial pearl” or two with people who came to the famous “rugby room” at his home.
Denis always looked forward to meeting up with old friends at the Annual Saints’ Players Association Dinner and attended the last event at the Totally Wicked Stadium in 2018. It should also be mentioned that Denis had a hand in Eamonn McManus’s original involvement at St.Helens R.F.C. For that alone we should be eternally grateful!
He married somewhat late in his life to Margaret, who sadly pre-deceased him. As fate would have it, they met at Knowsley Road near the half-way line and had their wedding reception there. She was a primary school teacher [and a rugby league coach!] and he thought the world of her. Denis never really recovered from Margaret’s death. They were both huge Saints’ fans and toured Australia and New Zealand together watching the rugby league test matches. Many happy memories indeed. The Whittle Cup, competed for by local primary schools, remains her legacy.
Denis was a generous man reflected in his involvement with Willowbrook Hospice. He was also a mover and shaker behind the Gus O’Donnell Fund in the early 1990s and helped with testimonials. He was also one of the first people to visit Steve Prescott when news of his tragic illness broke in 2006. He was also a keen cyclist and table tennis player, with an interest in railways and Gilbert and Sullivan.
Denis respected authority and achievement, and delighted in regaling anyone who cared to listen with tales about the celebrated characters of our town and its rugby league players in particular. His obituaries were superb. He invariably knew them all and painted a true picture of their lives for us to celebrate.
On a personal note, I enjoyed a long friendship with Denis. We produced several publications together, [Saints’ 50 Greatest Matches and Marching On, celebrating St. Helens R.F.C. in the new Millennium] where his supreme knowledge came to the fore.
He was quite a character in his own right too. But how could you not like a man who at one time played a cassette tape in his car with just two things on it: ‘Happiness’ by Ken Dodd and the ‘Vollenhoven Calypso’. What an absolute legend!
Everyone connected with St.Helens R.F.C. sends their condolences to Denis’ family at this time. He was a true rugby league diehard and will be sadly missed by so many people. Our town will never be the same again, for sure.
Denis Whittle: April 30 1933 – January 4 2019.
Pictured are Denis (right) with another Saints stalwart Paul Loughlin.