Dennis Bros. Ltd, established by John and Raymond Dennis in 1901, are one of the most famous manufacturers of fire engines and other specialist vehicles. The most famous of Dennis Vehicles is the fire engine, variations of which were exported around the world, including to the fire services of Singapore, Athens, Brisbane, Barbados, Cairo, Penang and Shanghai.
The records of Dennis Specialist Vehicles Ltd form one of the largest collections at Surrey History Centre. They document the history of the company and the products made.
The early days of Dennis
In 1895 John Dennis (1871-1939) opened his ‘little cycle shop’, otherwise known as the Universal Athletic Stores in High Street, Guildford. He was soon joined by his brother Raymond Dennis (1878-1939) and they began producing the ‘Speed King’ and ‘Speed Queen’ bicycles and expanded into motor tricycles (1899), a motor quadricycle (1900), to Dennis cars (1901-1902).
In 1900 the business expanded into the old barracks in Friary Street, and In 1901 Dennis Bros. Ltd moved into a factory designed for the production of their motor vehicles on the corner of Onslow Street and Bridge Street, in Guildford. This building was later known as Rodboro Buildings, after the Rodboro Boot and Shoe Company who bought the building from Dennis in 1917. The brothers launched their first motor car in 1902, buses in 1903, followed by vans and lorries, and fire engines. Though enlarged in 1903 and 1905, the premises were still too small for the company’s needs, so in August 1905 the first workshop was built on a site at Woodbridge Hill. A further 10 workshops were built between 1910 and 1936 on what became a 31 acre site. In 1911 the entire factory moved to Woodbridge Hill leaving the offices in Onslow Street until 1919 when the building was sold to the Rodboro Boot and Shoe Company. The company remained at Woodbridge Hill until 1990 when it moved to Slyfield Industrial Estate, Guildford.
Dennis Brothers Limited, a private company, was formed in July 1901 with 4 directors, 7 subscribers, and a capital of £7500, increased to £100,000 in 1906. Dennis Brothers (1913) Ltd was floated as a public company with £300,000 of share capital in March 1913. In 1918 the company returned to its original name of Dennis Brothers Ltd. John and Raymond Dennis were joint managing directors. Raymond, who was knighted in 1920, was an inspired sales director, making Dennis vehicles known throughout the world.
Read more about Dennis Brothers during the First World War on the Surrey in the Great War website.
In 1919 a ‘fusion of interests’ amalgamated Dennis with White and Poppe, the Coventry based engine manufacturers, much of whose output of engines had been used in Dennis vehicles since at least 1909. A J White and P A Poppe joined the Dennis board and the Dennis capital was increased to £600,000.
In 1920 a subsidiary company, Dennis Portland, was floated to market the 2/2½ ton chassis, and in 1929 another subsidiary, Dennis Contracts, was created to operate a hire-purchase scheme. In 1933 White and Poppe engine manufacturing was moved from Coventry to Guildford. In 1934 land was acquired for Dennisville, just west of the factory, with the aim of providing housing for workers. In 1962 the Fire Appliance section of Alfred Miles was acquired and in 1964 the Mercury Truck and Tractor Company. Between 1969 and 1972 company rearrangements and competition failed to keep the business in profit, despite continuing large orders, and this ended with a takeover by Hestair in 1972. The Hestair Company had been formed in 1970 by the takeover of the former Heston Airport Company by David Hargreaves, backed by Bankers Trust International. Hestair had previously acquired Yorkshire Vehicles Ltd, makers of tankers and road sweeper bodies, and Eagle Engineering, manufacturers of tankers and refuse bodies.
In 1973 the firm was called Dennis Motors Ltd and from 1977 to 1985 Hestair Dennis. The company concentrated on the export market, winning the Queen’s Award for Export in 1977. By the late 1970s Hestair Dennis successfully entered the home market again. In 1984 Hestair Dennis decided to concentrate on building just chassis, relying on other firms to build the bodies of the vehicles. The following year the company was renamed Dennis Specialist Vehicles. In 1985, John Dennis, grandson of the founder, started his own works in Guildford, known as John Dennis Coachbuilders.
In 1989 Hestair’s vehicle building business was bought by a new company, Trinity Holdings. In 1990 Dennis Specialist Vehicles moved to new premises on the Slyfield Industrial Estate, in Guildford. The company was subsequently acquired by the Mayflower Corporation. The Mayflower Corporation formed TransBus International in January 2001, comprising Walter Alexander Coachbuilders, Plaxton and Dennis. The Mayflower group went into administration on 31 March 2004. Plaxton returned to independent ownership, and the remainder of the company was bought by a group of independent businessmen in May 2004, and was henceforth known as Alexander Dennis.
The company has produced many types of vehicles during its history. Cars were produced from 1901 to c.1913, buses from 1903, vans and lorries from 1904, fire engines from 1908 (the first one being supplied to the city of Bradford), ambulances from 1909, cesspool and gully emptiers and refuse vehicles from 1921, lawn mowers and trailer fire pumps from 1922.
New models in all these fields appeared frequently and there were many variants with for example different wheelbase lengths and engines. During both world wars production was devoted to the war effort, and the factory produced over 7000 subsidy vehicles supplied to the War Office in 1914-1918, and army lorries, Lloyd Bren gun carriers, agricultural vehicles, and Churchill tanks in between 1939 and 1945.
A pattern of experiments and development went on continually. A worm-driven rear axle was patented in 1904, ensuring a long-lasting and smooth transmission. New models appeared almost every year, including for example the E type low line bus chassis (1925); the 12 ton 6 cylinder chassis for big buses (1929); Lancet bus chassis (1931); diesel engine (1931); F1 and F3 fire engines (1946); Paxit Major refuse collector (1952); forward entrance Loline double deck bus (1958); dust-less refuse collecting vehicle (1959); F26 fire engine and the Delta chassis (1961); F117 ‘Snorkel’ fire engine (1963); R series fire engines (1976); Dart bus (1989) and Rapier fire engine (1991).
An important feature of Dennis production was the making of all vehicles to order. The company established a reputation as ‘a highly specialised producer of quality vehicles to specific requirements’. Each vehicle had its own individual features as specified by the customer, as the works production orders make clear.
How to trace a Dennis vehicle
The easiest way to trace a Dennis vehicle is by its chassis number. It is also possible to trace a vehicle by its engine number, although this depends on knowing the type of engine the vehicle was fitted with. The chassis books (1463/CB/1-6) and engine books (1463/EB/1-7) should be consulted first. The chassis book gives type of vehicle, chassis number, date vehicle left the works, engine number, customer name, and order number. The engine book gives engine details, chassis number, customer, order number, and date vehicle left works. The order number can be used to find further information in the customer order books, which gives brief details of the vehicle(s), including price and the number of vehicles ordered. Works production orders give details of the vehicle and equipment fitted. After c.1945 there were two forms of WPOs, one covering the chassis, the other the work from the body shop. Further information relating to individual vehicles or vehicle types may be found in the photographs, drawings, brochures and handbooks. Records less than 30 years old are closed to public inspection.
Above, Dennis fire engine works production order for vehicle supplied to Merryweather, March 1944 (SHC ref 1463/WPO/FE/E/13/50963 (2 images – click on the images to larger copies)).
Dennis photographs and drawings catalogue
The Surrey History Centre catalogues of the Dennis drawings and photographs collections provide documentation of many of the vehicles made by the company since it was first started by John and Raymond Dennis in Guildford in 1895.
There are nearly 12000 drawings comprising general arrangement drawings of different vehicle types and drawings of parts. Many of the vehicles were photographed as they came off the production line, often painted in the livery of the company which had ordered them. The collection comprises nearly 14000 photographs, a large number of which were originally photographed onto glass plates, from which prints have been made. Other photographs survive as prints, stored in a series of albums.
The PDF catalogue of the drawings is sorted by product type (eg fire engine) and then by vehicle or engine type (e.g F2 fire engine).
The PDF catalogue of the photographs is sorted by customer name (e.g Aberdeen City Fire Brigade) and then by type of vehicle (e.g fire engine).
The Dennis drawings and photographs can also be searched on the Surrey History Centre on-line catalogue.
The following abbreviations have been used in the catalogues:
F/C – Forward control
N/C – Normal control
GB – Gearbox
WB – Wheelbase
HP – Horse power
WPO – Works Production Order
Abbreviations used as part of a Dennis plan number:
AR – Arrangement
SK – Sketch
B – Body
V – sometimes used for a small part
Archive sources for Dennis held at Surrey History Centre
The archives of Dennis Specialist Vehicles are held at Surrey History Centre. They are a vital source for the history of Dennis vehicles and are frequently used to assist in the reconstruction of vehicles. For the principal catalogues see 1463, 5016, 7180 and 8886, which include:
Directors’ minute books, annual reports and accounts, 1901-1974; financial records, 1901-1967; property records, 1905-1954; royal warrants, patents and trademarks, 1895-1972; personnel records, 1902-2001; sales records, c.1915-2000; customer order books, 1905-1984; vehicle production registers, 1908-1995; chassis books, 1921-1966; engine books, 1920-1974; works production orders, 1910-1995; vehicle handbooks and brochures, 1902-2001; press reports, 1907-2002; engineering drawings, 1903-2001; photographs and films, 1908-1970s.
Other records can also be found on the Surrey History Centre on-line catalogue.
Published Works for Dennis Specialist Vehicles
For a full bibliography of works relating to Dennis Specialist Vehicles held at Surrey History Centre click here (pdf of bibliography). Other works may be found on the Surrey Libraries online catalogue.
For a recent company history see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Dennis
For the company website see http://www.alexander-dennis.com/
Click here for Dennis Specialist Vehicles pamphlets and postcards that can be purchased from the Surrey Heritage online shop.