Jerry Cornes

The Daily Telegraph 25th June 2001

Colonial officer and schoolmaster who narrowly failed to win a gold medal in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932

Jerry Cornes, who has died aged 91, followed up a career in the Colonial Service by becoming headmaster of West Downs Preparatory School; in his youth, however, he had been more widely known as a superb middle-distance runner, the winner of an Olympic silver medal in a world still undarkened by professionalism.

Cornes’s athletic prowess began to attract notice at Oxford, not that he allowed training to exclude other university pursuits. He played a full part in the life of his college, Corpus Christi, and enjoyed the distinction of being rusticated for pelting the dons on the college’s high table with a bread roll.

In the Oxford University Sports of 1930, the mile was won in a time of 4 min 28 sec. Cornes came third, but realised that he could have done rather better. Competing a fortnight later in the Varsity match, he won the mile in 4 min 22.6sec.

Four months afterwards, Cornes found himself representing the British Empire against the United States at Chicago. Running with an Australian, a Canadian and another Briton (Reg Thomas) in the 4 x one mile relay, he helped to set a new world record of 17min 2.4sec. The next year, 1931, representing Great Britain against Germany, he was a member of a relay team which established another world record by recording a time of 15min 55.6sec in the 4 x 1,500 metres.

Cornes gave the appearance of running with great ease. He liked to turn on the pressure in the third lap, so that the opposition had nothing left at the finish.

In 1932, when he was President of Athletics at Oxford, he won the Varsity cross-country race, beating the previous the previous record by almost a minute, and also triumphed against Cambridge in both the mile and half-mile. In a typically generous gesture he paused at the end of the mile to allow Jack Lovelock, a New Zealander who was second string in the Oxford team, to dead heat with him and thus gain a Blue.

Later that year Cornes went out to Los Angeles to compete in the Olympics. As he came into the home straight in the last lap of the 1,500 metres final, he felt he had the race in the bag. The crown rose, as he thought, in his honour; in fact, though, they were cheering another runner, an unknown Italian called Luigi Beccalli. By the time that Cornes apprehended the danger, it was too late. The disappointment nagged him for the rest of his life. “I did not represent the United Kingdom to collect silver,” he said.

After Oxford Cornes went into the Colonial Service, though he still managed to run when on leave, and in 1934, finished third behind Lovelock and Sydney Wooderson in the Empire Games mile at the White City.

He took a nine-month sabbatical from the Colonial Office to train for the Berlin Olympics of 1936. In the final of the 1,500 metres, Lovelock ran the race of his life to carry off the gold. Cornes returned the fastest time of his life for the distance (3 min 51.4sec) but this only sufficed to gain him sixth place.

John Frederick Cornes (always known as Jerry) was born on March 23 1910 at Darjeeling, the son of a judge in the Indian Civil Service; he had a twin sister and a younger brother. Partly due to the First World War, after the age of three he spent his childhood away from his parents with relations and friends in England. Sent to school at Clifton, he excelled at work, games (especially cricket) and athletics

Having left Oxford with a Second in Modern History he chose the Colonial Service in preference to the family firm of Cornes & Co of London, Kobe & Yokohama. In 1932 he was sent to northern Nigeria where he rode from village to village collecting taxes and assessing incomes.

In 1937, Cornes was transferred to Palestine, where as terrorism began to increase during the Second World War, to took to sleeping with a pistol under his pillow. He was lucky to escape with his life when the King David Hotel was blown up in June 1946, having just left the hotel to investigate the effect of diversionary bombs in front of the building.

Shortly afterwards Cornes returned to Britain. With his young family growing up, he refused further postings abroad, and found an agreeable job as supervisor of the Colonial Services courses at Oxford. This involved helping visitors from overseas to acclimatise to life in Britain; to this end he ran a hostel, the Colonial Services Club, and founded a cricket club, the Hartebeestes. He also enjoyed dining rights at Corpus Christi’s high table, formerly the target of his bread missile.

In 1953 he left the Colonial Office, and the next year, after teaching for a couple of terms at the Dragon School, bought West Downs preparatory school at Winchester.

West Downs was then a highly traditional boarding school for about 100 boys. Cornes proved a breath of fresh air, encouraging all kinds of activities, including film shows, musical productions, pets and computers. There were visits to plays and concerts – but also to a telephone exchange, a butterfly farm, and a chocolate factory. Games players were encouraged, but so were non-games players, and even school haters. And while horizon’s were being widened under Cornes’s liberal regime, the Common Entrance and scholarship record became one of the best in the country.

In the 1970s the demand for boarding places began to decrease; and although Cornes’s decision to introduce day boys, and day girls, meant that the number of pupils reached a peak of 165 in 1978, he was unable to make the school permanently viable. When he retired in 1988, West Downs closed. Six years later, the site was sold to King Alfred’s College, now part of Southampton University.

Jerry Cornes married, in 1937, Rachael (Ray) Addis, youngest daughter of Sir Charles Addis, formerly chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. They had four sons.