Thomas Dennison (1874 - 1962)

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Nicknames: "Tommy", "The Highwayman"
Birthplace: Derbyshire, UK
Death: Died in Pretoria, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa
Managed by: Donovan Paul Penaluna
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About Thomas Dennison

In 1912 the 2nd Zeederberg Coach robbery took place on Pilgrims Hill. The Highwayman was Tommy Dennison. Dennison had come out to South Africa as a private during the Anglo Boer War. He was a bugler and despatch rider for the Earl of Athlone and was discharged after being wounded on active duty. He somehow found his way to Pilgrims Rest and started work as a barber. A more efficient barber put him out of business so he employed some black women and started a laundry service. It was during this time that he thought up the idea of robbing the coach obviously inspired by the success of the 1st robbery. Mr.A.P.Cartwright in his book Valley of Gold mentions that he actually met Tommy Dennison, who quite willingly spoke of his escapade. On that fateful day the coach was stopped by a masked rider on the well recognised grey horse that Dennison had recently bought from the Reverend Maurice Ponsonby.

When Piet du Plessis the coach driver was ordered in a fake accent to throw down the money boxes, one box fell and burst open scattering silver half crown and florins on the ground.

The highwayman was heard to yell "You fool I thought you said it was gold sovereigns". The coins were scooped up into a bag and the robber took off. The next day during his laundry delivery Dennison started paying all his debts in silver coins, which aroused suspicion. He was arrested and admitted his guilt saying that it was a practical joke, hoping for leniency. The judge saw nothing funny about this and laid down a five year jail sentence in the Pretoria Central Prison. After serving his term he returned to Pilgrims Rest and worked as a cartage contractor for the mines He one day decided to open a garage, his sense of humour came to the fore and when people saw his sign "The Highwayman" there was much laughter. He mentions that Dennison referred to his days in prison as his college days. When offered a copy of this interesting book he asked the author to please sign it.

http://www.mpumalangahappenings.co.za/pilgrimsrest_characters.htm

The passage below appears in the book The Golden Escarpment (text edited by Peter Joyce).

"A few years after the turn of the century, a curious case was heard in Lydenburg's courthouse. On trial was one Thomas Dennison, known to friends and creditors alike as Tommy. He was accused of holding up the Zeederberg mail-coach on the road between Lydenburg and Pilgrim's Rest, armed with a pair of carved wooden pistols of his own manufacture.

The robbery took place on the evening of 7 June 1912. The coach, drawn by mules, was making its leisurely way through the pass at the crest of the long hill which runs down to the Blyde River and Pilgrim's Rest. It was at this point, thirteen years before, that there had been a notorious and successful highway robbery. Now, on this mild June evening, history appeared to be repeating itself. One of the passengers, Peter Williams, reported that a masked figure placed its foot on the back step of the carriage and levelled two pistols into it, one of them pointing directly at Williams' chest.

Then a strange voice, with an American accent, barked out instructions. They were all told to put up their hands, and the driver to throw out 'that box of gold you loaded up in Lydenburg this morning!' A moment later, the passengers heard a thud as something hit the ground. The robber hopped off the coach, and in the same curious voice ordered the driver on. He was last seen standing beside his booty, watching the coach as it rattled away into the dusk.

Two things had impressed the passengers: the highwayman's obviously faked accent, and the startling resemblance of its timbre to that of well-known local character, Tommy Dennison. A cockney by birth, Dennison had come out to South Africa as a private in the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War. For a while he had been a dispatch rider to the Earl of Athlone. After the war, reluctant to go home, he had gravitated to Pilgrim's Rest. There he had worked as the village barber before becoming a kind of general laundryman to the unmarried men of the village. His cheerfully feckless character and an addiction to the Royal Hotel, however, had led him into debt. Memory of the earlier hold-up had prompted him to try his own luck.

In the event, it proved to be a small haul. Dennison got away briefly, with £129 in silver and florins and half-crowns, but his common sense seemed to match the extent of his ill-gotten gains, for the day after the robbery he was seen in Pilgrim's Rest, frantically paying off his debts in coins. It wasn't long before he was tracked down and apprehended in the Royal Hotel, where he was busy drinking down the last of the loot. The court took him more seriously than he professed to take himself. He was found guilty as charged, and sent off for five years as a guest of the State in Pretoria Central Prison. With a year remitted from his sentence, he emerged unrepentant, his American accent intact. Returning to Pilgrim's Rest, he opened 'The Highwayman Garage'. The wooden pistols used in the robbery were defiantly nailed over the door for all to see and admire.

The hero of the last mail-coach robbery in South Africa, Dennison earned himself a small but secure place in the cast of local eccentrics. Even in his own day he was regarded as a human nugget; a character to be prized."

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Thomas Dennison's Timeline

1874
May 7, 1874
Derbyshire, UK
1962
April 24, 1962
Age 87
Pretoria, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa
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