To the Guildfordians of the 1890s who knew him, the go-getting drive of the newly arrived young businessman from North Devon must have been very evident. John Dennis trained in Bideford in the hardware trade and then took a position with the reputable firm of Filmer & Mason in Guildford High Street. Very soon he was purchasing cycle parts through his employers which he assembled in his own time and sold. This led to his seeking employment with a company of well-known specialist cycle manufacturers in London before returning to Guildford to set up the Universal Athletic Stores at premises at the bottom of High Street making bicycles under his own name. He was later joined by his brother, Raymond, in a partnership that was to last for some 45 years. Expansion of the business was rapid and although a move to the old barracks in Onslow Street was intended to remedy their lack of space, the brothers were overtaken by their own success and larger premises were again required.
Thus it was that within a year of purchasing the old barracks, a site on the corner of Bridge Street and Onslow Street was acquired and by 1901 Dennis Brothers, as the company was now called, had moved into Phase 1 of a purpose built, three-storey factory.
Such was the urgency to expand that the first bay (that nearest the present Electric Theatre) was in use whilst the rest of the building was still under construction. The original plans by the architect John Lake designated the building a ‘cycle and motor factory’ but by the time it was occupied, the cycle-producing aspect was in decline since for some time the brothers had been turning out motorized tricycles and quadricycles. With the advent of the first true motor car, bicycle production ceased.
The following year, 1902, an account of a visit made to these works was published in the Gentleman’s Magazine. In this, Dennis Brothers were described as ‘probably the principal pioneers of the motor industry in this country’ and that ‘the firm was one of the very first in England to devote its attention to automobilism’.
The report goes on to extol the commanding position of the building and its proximity to the railway station, claiming that it is one of the handsomest buildings in Surrey before giving a detailed description of its layout:
In the basement were all the stores. On the ground floor were the registered offices of the Company along with the engine room containing a Crossley engine and dynamo (the primary source of power to the works) and showrooms capable of accommodating twenty cars.
The next floor contained the machine shops, polishing shops, the plating department with the latest state of the art electroplating tanks and the body shop. As car bodies were assembled from aluminium and timber (in particular, ash), carpenters were obviously essential to motor car production.
The third floor housed all the remaining departments which went towards producing the final product:: furnaces and appliances for smiths and fitters, painters’ shop, upholsterers, enamelling department and, of course, erecting shops.
Connecting all the floors was a large single lift, the sole means of moving the finished vehicles from the assembly line to the showroom and thence to the waiting world. This lift may be viewed as the vertical path to fame and fortune for Dennis Brothers: in the words of the Gentleman’s Journal ‘the higher grade motors can only be turned out in such a factory as we have described’. The works at this time had 100 employees, occupied 27,000 square feet of floor space, and was producing 300 vehicles (including motor-driven tricycles and quadricycles) per annum.
And what of the vehicles produced at Onslow Street? By 1901 models were being produced which were powered by 8hp De Dion engines. This is an indication of the acumen of the company in going for a French product which was already being made in large quantities and which was well tried, rather than setting out to make their own engines, a potentially very expensive exercise. The policy of buying in engines was one pursued by the Dennis brothers for many years.
In this same year, one of these cars outshone all its competitors at the Tilburstow Hill trials near Caterham when it was not only one of the few to reach the crest of the 1 in 10 gradient but did it in the fastest time. Many eye-catching events such as this raised the image of their products in the minds of the motoring public – and the Dennis brothers were never slow at capitalizing on publicity.
1903 was a particularly significant year, for Dennis Brothers developed the worm-drive transmission which in time was to replace the ubiquitous chain-drive on most makes of cars. It was also the year in which the Company did especially well at the Motor Show held at Crystal Palace, receiving orders of almost £30,000 for vehicles ranging from 16hp tourers at 550 guineas to motor tricycles at 115 guineas.
Such successes led in 1904 for the need to extend the factory. The change in roofline of the Bridge Street side of the factory indicates the size of this addition which took six months to complete at the cost of £4812. This year also saw the first indications of a change in the output of Dennis Brothers which, within 10 years was to radically change the nature of their business: this was the introduction of commercial vehicles into their range of products. Their first 15-cwt box van was displayed at the Motor Show and subsequently sold to Harrods and the first Dennis bus, a horse-drawn bus body on a motorized chassis, went into service between Kingston and Richmond.
Significantly, as the enlargement of the Onslow Street works was coming to fruition, the Company was looking again to the future and an expansion of the business. This became reality in 1905 when a 10-acre site was acquired at Woodbridge Hill, and a redundant London mission hall with a floor space of 25,000 square feet was re-erected there to become the No.1 shop of the new works where it had a further life of some 80 years.
Although the work at Onslow Street was eclipsed somewhat from this time, the factory still had a role to play. One of the most memorable milestones in the Company’s history came in 1908 when the first fire engine left the works destined for the Bradford City Fire Brigade. This was followed shortly after by a large purchase of similar appliances by the London Fire Brigade, and over the years fire engines must have accounted for a very large proportion of vehicles produced by the Company.
In 1913 Dennis Bros made an astute decision to cease the production of motor cars in order to concentrate on commercial vehicles. This seems to have been based on the premise that the car-owning population was of finite size, but commercial sales could be limitless. This decision presumably spelt the beginning of the end for the Onslow Street factory. It was used as offices and storage space for a time and, interestingly, the Surrey Advertiser in late 1914 carried advertisements that the garage at the works (doubtless previously a facility for servicing Dennis-made cars) was now open for any make of car! The works were finally closed in 1916 and the building eventually sold to the Bates family of the Guildford estate agents Crowe, Bates and Weekes.
Little is known about the occupancy of the building in the intervening years, but in 1919 the Rodboro’ Boot and Shoe Company moved in and thus it became the Rodboro’ Building as we still know it to this day. The production of footwear continued until 1927 with a number of the workers coming from the traditional shoemaking areas of Northants and Bedfordshire. In 1930 the emphasis on engineering returned to the building with its occupancy by Webber’s (who manufactured hand barrows of the type then used by milkmen etc) and Blackburn Engineering of Godalming. Just prior to the Second World War, the tenants were Dowdeswell’s stationers and printers, and Taylor’s Photo Finishers (a subsidiary of the Kodak Company).
With the onset of the hostilities the building was initially given over to the Red Cross for the preparation of parcels for prisoners of war and then, for the duration, was devoted to the manufacture of munitions. With the coming of peace, Dowdeswell’s and Taylor’s returned and were joined by Keefe & Lewis Knitwear who produced sweaters for county and international cricket teams.
An interesting sideline on the building is that back in 1901 Dennis Brothers initially planned to let the small units surrounding the building at ground level but permission was refused. However, these were occupied from the 1930s by such well-known tenants at the time as Ernest Roberts the barber, the Pet Shop, Clare’s Motor Spares and Stanley Godfrey’s car show room.
From the 1960s, the bulk of the building housed dancing schools, as well as night clubs of dubious repute and by 1980 the fate of the Rodboro’ was in the balance with demolition in the cause of road-widening looking increasingly likely. And so the building lingered on: boarded up, neglected and unloved for the next fifteen years.
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