There has been shipbuilding at River Leven in Scotland as early as the 15th Century and none were more famous than than William Denny & Son.
As time went by 1500 ships were built in the Wood Yard as it was called, which was situated just below the rock at the mouth of the River Leven. William’s oldest son, John, assisted him in the business and he built the first steamship, the Margery, to cross the English channel in 1814. When William died in 1833 the firm was renamed William Denny & Sons and became the most important yard on the Leven. Always innovators, they built a number of ‘firsts’. In 1878 the Rotomahana was the first all steel merchant ship, in 1901 the King Edward was the first commercial turbine steamer, in 1934 the Robert the Bruce, a car ferry on the Firth of Forth, was the first welded vessel as well as the first diesel-electric paddle. The company flag had a blue elephant against a white field, symbolising the strength and solidity of the firm’s products.
From 1845 the company was renamed Denny Brothers with William junior, Alexander and Peter then it was reconstituted as William Denny & Brothers Limited with William, James and Peter at the helm. Peter was responsible for the office management side of the business. In partnership with McAusland and Tulloch he formed a marine engineering company, which complemented Denny’s shipbuilding operations. William Denny junior died in 1854, and James retired leaving Peter as the main partner in the business. Tulloch also retired in 1862 and there was yet another name change to Denny & Company. As a member of the Free Church of Scotland he contributed towards the Free Church in New Zealand and came in contact with Paddy Henderson & Co. He became a partner in their shipping interests, which resulted in orders for Denny’s new ships.
In 1859 Denny’s expanded into North Yard and the engine works were enlarged. In 1864 some ground was obtained directly opposite the original shipyard which remained the property of William’s estate. Denny’s also engaged in the profitable business of constructing blockade runner ships during the American civil war and purchased large shareholdings in the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company and Albion Shipping Company. This led to further orders for ships specially designed to operate in Burma’s shallow Irrawaddy River.
Peter’s eldest son, William Denny, became a partner in the company in 1868 and eventually took over its management. He was very interested in hull design and was responsible for the the forming of several companies which built trialled models of hull designs before construction. Peter in the meantime diversified his interests becoming a director of many shipping companies and he also sought out orders from foreign governments including Spain, Portugal and Belgium and took a financial interest in encouraging local industry. He donated large amounts of money to local hospital charities and established educational scholarships. In 1890 Glasgow University awarded him an honorary doctorate (LLD) in recognition of his charitable works for education and in 1876 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
In 1886, his son William Denny committed suicide in Buenos Aires because he made some disastrous investments in La Platense Flotilla Company four years earlier. Overwhelmed with grief, Peter retired further from his business interests and died at the family home, Helenslee, in Dumbarton on 22 August 1895. He left an estate of only £200,000 so he must have given much away because his lifetime earnings were in the region of £1.5 million.
On 31 August 1895 the Hawkes Bay Herald broke news of Peter’s death that had occurred the previous day. It announced that the flags at the shipping offices and on ships in the harbour were flying half mast as a tribute to the memory of Peter Denny whose name was a household word in shipping circles all over the world. The firm that William Denny founded ceased to exist in 1963. (DEIRDRE ROELANTS)