As members of the Dennis Society we are all aware that Dennis has been a vehicle manufacturer based in Guildford since the late 1890s and that it has made a significant contribution to the history of the town. It has also proved spectacular, by surviving, when other famous marques such as AEC, Leyland, Guy and other commercial vehicle manufacturers have been absorbed into foreign ownership.
Guildford has been the home of Dennis for 118 years with The Rodboro Building in Bridge Street the first purpose built factory for the production of Dennis vehicles. It was opened in 1901 and soon became the largest employer in the town. By 1905 the success of the company demanded more space and the factory commenced the move to the new premises in Woodbridge Road. By 1911 the entire business had been transferred to the new factory, where they remained until 1991, when it was relocated to the Slyfield Industrial Estate in Guildford.
The Rodboro Building has a chequered history, following the departure of Dennis it was used by a wide range of other businesses until 1986, when it became derelict for 15 years , followed by Wetherspoon developing the site as a public house. It is now a Grade II listed building and during the last few weeks Wetherspoons have been refurbishing the interior with the theme demonstrating the historic connection between the building and Dennis.
Wetherspoon were determined to demonstrate that they recognised the importance of the Dennis connection by presenting a strong Dennis related presence during the re-opening of the building, held on 6th September 2013. John Dennis, the grandson of one of the founders, was invited to speak during the opening ceremony, as well as display his Dennis 8hp car, which was built in the Rodboro Building in 1902. In response to his suggestion that the Dennis Society might wish to be represented and add value to the event by displaying some vintage Dennis vehicles, members of the Dennis Society were invited to participate. As a former Dennis student apprentice, an active member of both the Dennis Society and the DOGs, (the group comprising former Dennis apprentices and employees), as well as a joint owner of a Dennis vehicle, I immediately volunteered to attend and display the former Aldershot & District 1956 Dennis Falcon P5 bus. As I am still unable to drive the Falcon due to ill health, Tony Waller of ADBIG kindly volunteered to drive. Keith Morton of FoKAB also volunteered to attend and display the former King Alfred 1931 Dennis 30cwt bus, affectionately known as the Little Dennis. However due to a previous engagement Keith was unable to attend, so FoKAB were represented by James Freeman and Dan Finnegan who drove the Little Dennis, accompanied by Stephen Bigley, Melvyn Lovelock and Roger Harris.
As the two buses set out for Guildford from their respective garages there was rain in the air, with the occasional light shower. The Little Dennis departed Winchester at 8.30am and the Falcon left Medstead at 9.15am. The Falcon caught the Little Dennis up on the A31 at Bentley and they travelled in convoy until the Little Dennis stopped in a lay-by on the Hogs Back just prior to the Puttenham Turning, at which time it was overtaken. The intention was for the Falcon to overtake on the incline following the junction of the A331 with the A31, some distance before the lay-by. However that wasnt to be, because in spite of the throttle on the Falcon being depressed to the floor, the Little Dennis just accelerated away. This was a revelation and it was only later that we learned from that Dan, who was driving at the time, that he had successfully advanced the ignition without promoting any associated spark knock with a resulting increase in power.
Both vehicles arrived at the Rodboro Building at 10.15am followed by John Dennis driving his Dennis car a few minutes later. Because of the limited space outside the building, the buses had to be parked on the adjacent paved forecourt of the Electric Theatre. For many years earlier the same area had been part of the Friary Bus Station and the terminus for some former A&D local services. However there were concerns that the paving would not withstand the weight of the buses and it was therefore necessary to distribute the load by parking on plywood. This required the buses to be carefully reversed into position along sheets of plywood progressively placed under the front and rear wheels. As each bus slowly moved from a given sheet onto the next, the sheets then not in contact with the tyres were removed and replaced in the direction of travel, avoiding contact with the paving. To spectators this task undertaken by the Wetherspoon management team and the bus crews proved to be an amusing exercise, especially as it was raining and we all got quite wet. An even more amusing episode followed a few minutes later when the Guildford Mayoral Jaguar car, which was probably heavier than the Little Dennis, just drive onto the paved forecourt without any consideration for the need of plywood.
The opening ceremony, started at 11.00am, with the members of the Dennis Society, regaled in their respective King Alfred and Aldershot & District uniform, standing in line together with the Wetherspoon staff to form a guard of honour. Then as John Dennis and the Mayor of Guildford prepared to make their respective speeches, there was a sudden downpour of heavy rain. Unfortunately this persisted throughout the entire 10-minute duration of the speeches and since none of us were dressed to combat rain, we all got a further soaking. Fortunately the Mayor and John Dennis received some protection from the umbrella held by a member of Wetherspoon staff.
John Dennis, the special guest, recognised the effect of the rain on his audience and responded with a shortened introductory speech. He congratulated Wetherspooon on preserving the fabric of the historic building. He also reminded his audience that Dennis was probably the only commercial vehicle manufacturer in Europe who had continuously produced vehicles during the 19th, 20th and 21st century and continues to do so today. This was followed by a speech by the Mayor of Guildford, Cllr. Diana Lockyer-Nibbs, who officially opened the building. During her speech she recalled that as a girl in Guildford she had always associating Dennis with fire engines. At which point she looked around, noted and commented that there weren't any fire engines on display. I was similarly disappointed. I had hoped to see the 1914 Dennis N Type fire engine from the ADL collection on display, because as a student apprentice at Dennis I was a member of the team who carried out the initial renovation programme on the vehicle. However, she did thank Dennis Heritage for providing the buses. On completion of the speeches and with the rainfall still heavy, the Mayor moved forward to cut the tape extended across the entrance to formally declare the building open. A photo-shoot of the principals admiring the veteran Dennis car followed. This provided an opportunity for the Dennis Society, in the form of James Freeman, to make a gallant contribution by securing an umbrella and protecting the Mayor from the rain.
Following the cutting of the tape we all moved into the bar on the ground floor. The interior was very impressive, with the plain bricks and steel girders now exposed. A further attractive feature was the balustrade either side of stairs connecting each floor and used as the safety barrier along the edge of each floor. However there were two very striking and memorable features, which were pleasing to the eye. The first was a time line extending along one wall, which detailed the name of all the different occupants of the building. The other was an illuminated panel extending the entire length of the bar, which was set in the fascia and depicted stylised technical drawings of components. On the walls were Dennis related scenes from the past, as well as further historic technical drawings of components. As I stood at the bar drinking my coffee, I recalled being told how during the Dennis days the ground floor had been used as the registered offices of the Company. In addition there was a showroom for displaying finished vehicles, as well as an engine room, where a Crossley engine and dynamo provided the power for the works. The central area of the building was now an atrium, created partially by the space formerly occupied by the large single lift, which had connected all floors and enabled finished vehicles to be moved from the assembly line on the second floor to the showroom. The machine, polishing and body shops were also located on the second floor, with the blacksmiths, furnaces, fitting, paint, upholstery, enamelling and Society contingent enjoyed a complimentary lunch.
My impression was that there were very few people present during the opening ceremony. Those attending were mainly Wetherspoon officials, staff and members of the Dennis Society. There was very little evidence of the presence of members of the general public, until noon, when it got very busy. Following lunch, with the rain having stopped, the bus crews moved the buses from the Electric Theatre car park. As we departed at 1.45pm, Dave Smith expressed his thanks and appreciation for the support provided by the Dennis Society, as well as the added value provided by the displayed buses. We thanked him and his staff for the kindness and courtesy they had shown us and we departed.
I believe the participation in the event provided an opportunity for the Dennis Society, as well as FoKAB and ADBIG, to gain valuable exposure to the public. It also provided the chance for FoKAB and ADBIG members to meet up.