John Dennis Bricklayer  1842-1912

The letterhead of John Dennis, Midlothian’s superefficient bricklayer-contractor in the 1880s and 90s.  The company he founded continues to this day.  With his younger brother Cammack Dennis’s companion business in Bury, Lancashire, the two contractors specialised in chimneys, retorts, furnaces and boilerhouses, working rapidly with teams of bricklayers hired-in by press adverts from all over the British Isles.  The John Dennis letterhead shows some of his best-known work: Y&B (Young & Beilby) retort benches and the elegant stalks of Dennis corniced chimneys.   Many of them were to grace the papermills up and down the Esk Valley.   The Dennis brothers original surname was Murphy and they came from a chimney-sweeps family at Navenby in Lincolnshire.  The 1861 census records Cammack Murphy as a 13 year old chimney sweep in the village: John Dennis Murphy was already away from Navenby seeking his fortune elsewhere.   Tradition has it that John Dennis arrived at Leith in the 1860s with just a bricklayer’s trowel, and the business started  from there.  John Dennis’s associates in his Scottish enterprise were his site organiser Downie Brown and his Eskbank Penicuik brick and tile works manager John Toynbee, a brother-in-law from Navenby. These Lincolnshire Toynbees were distantly related to the well known historian/journalist family. Alice Toynbee laid the foundation of Penicuik’s Salvation Army Hall.  Other Dennis buildings were probably Penicuik Post Office (now Pen y Coe Press), Clippens Oil Co Headquarters (at Straiton Sainsbury Roundabout), Glenkinchie Distillery, as well as miners housing all over the Lothians.   John Dennis worked closely with oil and gas engineer and retort designer William Young, the two men were said to have been served dinner on top of a Dennis-built chimney or retort.   John Dennis construction teams were active as far afield as France, Australia and the Ukraine in the company’s early days. 


Pictures below show some of John Dennis’s younger brother Cammack’s chimney stacks in Bury from the steeplejacks pages at .


All from show 2 Dennis chimneys at Pilsworth, Bury, and construction metalwork under a corniced Dennis chimneyhead at Elton Cop hundreds of feet up..


Demolished Dennis chimneys Top of 300ft stack at  Bury Sewage Works, Blackford, Bury.  Another Dennis chimney in Bury prepares for demolition: the right at Harvey’s tannery 1905


BRICKLAYERS WANTED for Cottage and Retort Buildings.— Apply Downie Brown, Clippens Pentland Oil- works, Loanhead, by Edinburgh ; or address John Dennis Dalkeith. 6981 --Advertisement in York Herald - Wednesday 25 April 1883 and Manchester Evening News - Thursday 26 April 1883 and Nottingham Evening Post - Thursday 26 April 1883


BRICKLAYERS WANTED, Uphall Oil Works, Uphall, near Bathgate, Scotland.—Apply, DOWNIE BROWN, Foreman Bricklayer, or JOHN DENNIS, Dalkeith. Advertisement in Nottingham Evening Post - Monday 31 March 1884, Lincolnshire Chronicle - Tuesday 1 April 1884 and Friday 4 April 1884 and Friday 11 April 1884 ; Worcestershire Chronicle  Saturday 12 April 1884 and Saturday 19 April 1884 and Saturday 26 April 1884 and Sat 3 May 1884; and Lancaster Gazette Wed 9 Apr 1884


Adapting an earlier structure, John Dennis built himself an elaborate brick-and-stucco mansion in the 1880s.  Called Brixwold  to acknowledge his Lincolnshire roots, it lies east of Bonnyrigg on the road to Dalhousie Castle.  Four stations away from his brickworks at Eskbridge and convenient for the company’s Dalkeith yard,   John Dennis lived there with  his wife, Rebecca Fieldsend, mother, Sarah Machin, and neice Martha Jane Elliot.    John Dennis died in 1912 and his Toynbee relatives inherited the business..   Extended with a porch and outbuildings in recent years,  Brixwold has been described as an 18th century or even medieval building and sometimes known as Dalhousie Courte.



The well-tiled Brickworks Cottage Eskbridge, and characteristic John Dennis upper-access Burnside Cottages across the line   Pictures Jim Neil



John Dennis buildings in distress at Valleyfield Mill: Engineering Shops & Rag Stores during 1980 demolition, Watertank during 1893 flood



Newcraighall miners housing (Bill Douglas: My Childhood)                                                             Shottstown miners housing, Penicuik



John Dennis buildings at the Clippens Company’s Pentland Oil Works, Straiton (demolished November 2012) : Company offices; shale miners & refinery workers housing


Newtongrange miners housing                                                                                                                  Pictures Dougie Barnett



Penicuik Estate Upper Walled Garden: THE LOST GARDEN OF PENICUIK



© Rob Brettle                                                                                                    .

Salvation Army Hall, & Alice Toynbee stone   Eastfield Co-op Branch Penicuik in the 1950s    Penycoe Press  (old Post Office & Commercial Bank)

John Dennis

Awaiting further research –contact     

Kosmoid technology

Valleyfield Demolition

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Milestones in the Great Polish Map of Scotland

Penicuik Co-op

Pen-y-Coe Press –a community business

Saltire Society 1936-2011

Scotland’s Planning Legacy

100 Penicuik Displays


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