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British Industrial History

William Denny III

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William Denny (1847–1887) of William Denny and Brothers and Denny and Co

1847 May 25th. Born the son of Peter Denny

Educated at St Helier's School in Jersey and the Royal High School in Edinburgh

Married Lelia, eldest daughter of Leon Serena of Venice, with whom he had a son and three daughters

1868 Became a partner in Denny and Co and William Denny and Brothers

1870 William Denny began to experiment with piece-work for the iron trades in the yards to improve productivity, which was eventually extended to all the firm's trades. He also established an awards scheme — the first of its kind in Britain. He also introduced speed trials over a measured mile for all vessels built in the yards. This led to an interest in hull forms and contact with the well-known naval architect William Froude. Denny published many papers on this subject and on the techniques of construction.

1881 William persuaded his father to build the first commercial test tank in the world at Dumbarton, with assistance from Froude's son, superintendent of the Admiralty test tank in Torquay. This investment was part of a massive extension of the yard, which included a new wet dock, longer berths, and heavier cranes.

1882 With the Hendersons, the Dennys took a large share in La Platense Flotilla Company, to operate river steamers in Argentina and Uruguay

1887 March 17th. He committed suicide in Buenos Aires after the failure of La Platense Flotilla Company.


1887 Obituary [1]

WILLIAM DENNY, F.R.S.E., was born in Dumbarton on the 25th of May, 1847.

He was early sent to the Academy in his native town, and by the rapidity of his progress in the ordinary branches of education, gave ample promise of future ability and thoroughness.

At the age of nine he went to Jersey, partly for the sake of his health, and partly for fuller training in special subjects. of study. He remained there four years under Dr. Carter and the late Rev. A. J. Murray, and at the close of his stay paid, with the latter, a short visit to the East.

He was next sent to the Edinburgh High School, where, under the guidance of Mr. John Carmichael, a celebrated educationist, he was very thoroughly grounded in a knowledge of the classics.

At the age of seventeen he returned to Dumbarton, and in 1864, entered his father's shipyard as an apprentice. He had resolved to become a shipbuilder, and with a wise prevision for his future usefulness, his father made him go through a very real course of training, in the several departments necessary to equip him for that occupation. He came and went with the other workmen to work and meals, and made himself from the first one with them in all their interests. Subsequent events in his history as the working head of the firm only showed how valuable this discipline was, not for him only, but for all employed in the yard.

While he thus gained a knowledge of his business, he also learned to know and how to handle men. Understanding, by daily contact and personal friendship with the men, what were their hardships and aims and difficulties, he was all the better able, when he assumed the responsibilities of a partner, to deal with them.

In 1868, at the age of twenty-one, he was admitted by his father as a partner of the shipbuilding firm of William Denny and Brothers. (The firm derived its name from his uncles and father, by whom it was started in 1844; and for many years the business had been carried on in the yard from which his grandfather, also named William Denny, had turned out pioneer vessels in the era of steam navigation.) Later on he became a partner in the engineering firm of Denny and Co.

As the administrative head of a large business he soon took an active interest in the labour question, and few men in this country have proved better able, or tried more successfully, to grapple with it in all its bearings. The problem of piecework was one of the earliest which engaged his attention, and in which to the last he took a special interest.

In 1871, in conjunction with Mr. Ramage, then general manager of the yard, he organized a system whereby the iron departments were placed on this footing with satisfactory results. Later on the system of payment by results seemed to him capable of being introduced into other departments with advantage both to the workmen and to the firm. A lecture given before the Dumbarton Philosophical Society in November 1876, and afterwards published in pamphlet form, entitled 'The Worth of Wages,' gave rise to much discussion and difference sf opinion at the time. At that period his belief was that piecework rates regulated themselves as time-wages did, but larger experience proved that this was not the case. Still, believing the principle to be right, he continued to extend it, the results being effectively controlled so as not to be depressed to too low a point to recoup the workmen for the extra exertion and initiative induced by the very nature of piecework.

He had a profound belief in conferences for the prevention of strikes and the settlement of differences between masters and men. In 1884 he arranged for a conference to be held with the men for the purpose of revising the mode of collecting and dividing file subscriptions made by them to the various institutions and charities which they supported. There were present two delegates from each department in the yard, and the meetings were so pleasant; and mutually helpful, that they were carried on during 1884, 1885, and 1886, the labours concluding with a complete discussion and revision of the yard rules.

The spirit which thus animated the managing partner of Leven Shipyard soon made itself felt upon all who had to do with him. As a notable outcome of this, it may be mentioned that during the very busy times of 1883, his was probably the only shipyard on the Clyde in the affairs of which the Trade Union of Iron Shipbuilders did not seek to interfere.

As a special stimulus to the thinking and initiative powers of his workmen, Mr. William Denny in 1880 founded an Awards Scheme, its object being the granting of money awards to any worker employed by the firm for inventing or introducing a new machine or hand-tool; for improving any existing machine or hand-tool; for applying any existing machine or hand-tool to a new class of work; for discovering or introducing any new method of carrying on or arranging work; or generally, for any change by which the work of the yard is rendered either superior in quality or more economical in cost. The effect of this scheme has been most beneficial, partly in causing improvements to be made, but chiefly in making the workmen of all departments into active thinking and planning beings, instead of mere human flesh and blood machines at so much per day or weak. Since its introduction seven years ago, claims have been considered valuable and worthy of award to the number of 196, while rather more than three times this number have been considered altogether. Awards have been granted to the amount of £716.

In 1884 he introduced the system of premiums, granting to any workman who had made five successful claims an additional sum equal to the aggregate of the five claims. The total premiums paid in three and one quarter years amounted to £217, the grand aggregate disbursed by the firm for awards and premiums up to date being £933. The benefits of this scheme have been recognized, and the scheme itself adopted, by many employers of labour both in this country and abroad. In every instance the origin has been gracefully recognized.

In December 1863, Mr. Denny read his first Paper before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Dumbarton, the subject being 'Dimensions of Sea-going Ships.' This was followed in January and February of 1870 by a series of four public lectures on the subject of iron shipbuilding, treating - lst, The strains to which ships are subject; 2nd, The means of resisting these strains; 3rd, Strength of iron and its distribution; 4th, Iron workmanship. In order that these might instruct as well as interest, he supplied an incentive to the apprentices of his yard to follow them carefully, by offering prizes for the best essays written by apprentices from notes taken at the lectures.

In 1870 he first carried out the practice upon one of his steamers of trying her at progressive speeds upon the measured mile, and obtaining for her the data for a curve of speed and power - a practice which has since become widespread, and been recognized as important in throwing light upon the intricate questions of steamship propulsion. His first Paper on this subject was read in Dunbarton in 1871.

The further experience and knowledge obtained during the four succeeding years from trials of steamers built in that interval led up to the Papers read by him in 1875 before the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, and before the British Association at Bristol.

In 1875 he corresponded with the late William Froude, M.Inst.C.E., and supplied the results of the trials of the 'Merkara,' 'Taupo,' and 'Hawea, (steamers built by his firm), and of the 'Arbutus' and 'Pachumba,' (built by A. and J. Inglis). This correspondence resulted in the production of Mr. Froude’s well-known and often quoted Paper, read before the Institution of Naval Architects in the following year, on 'The ratio of indicated to effective horsepower as elucidated by Mr. Denny’s measured-mile trials at varied speeds.'

Another Paper on this subject ('On Mr. Mansel’s and the late Mr. Froude’s methods of analysing the results of Progressive Speed Trials') was read at the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, in December 1884, the material of it being derived partly from trials of the steamers of his firm and partly from the investigations of the late Mr. Froude and of Mr. R. E. Froude, M.Inst.C.E. He threw himself with much earnestness into the matter, under the sense that it was alike his duty and his privilege to contend for the honour and originality of Mr. Froude, an investigator in whose steps he was content to be a humble follower, and whom he was proud to regard as both master and friend.

His next two Papers, following those read in 1875, were one, 'On Lloyd‘s numerals,' read before the Institution of Naval Architects, at Glasgow in 1877, and the other, 'On Lightened Scantlings,' read in London in 1878. They proposed a displacement basis upon which to fix the scantlings, in place of the numerals upon which Lloyd’s rules are at present based. One of the objections taken by Mr. William John, then chief scientific adviser to Lloyd‘s Committee, to the proposal, was the arbitrary nature of the load-line to which a vessel might be immersed, and the consequent uncertain basis which load-displacement would present. It is noteworthy, both that this particular objection afterwards disappeared in view of the Tables of Freeboard, compiled by the Load-Line Committee, and that Mr. Robert Duncan, in the Watt lecture for 1887 at Greenock, reiterated the principle that the load-displacement 'ought to be the measure of the vessel’s strength for her work.'

During the course of Mr. William Denny’s professional career he twice came into serious conflict with the Board of Trade. The first occasion was followed by the production of a Paper read before the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland in 1878, drawing the attention of engineers and shipbuilders to what he regarded as the undue interference of the Board in the matter of fitting outlet-valves through the sides of a ship, and of demanding drawings under certain circumstances of portions which the builders intended to fit.

The second conflict took place in the same year, and has proved of far more importance than the first, though there is no published record giving an account of it. It involved the question as to whether the tonnage of a structural cellular water-ballast boat should be measured, as was done by the Board, to an imaginary boundary representing what the top of the ceiling would be if the vessel had ordinary floors, or whether it should not rather be measured, as Mr. Denny contended it should be, so as to give the internal capacity of the boat, entirely neglecting the space below the inner bottom. The result of this conflict was a decision in Mr. Denny’s favour, but only after he had instituted an action in the Court of Session did the Board of Trade agree to his contention, and the action was withdrawn.

When the Load-Line Committee was appointed by Mr. Chamberlain, then President of the Board of Trade, Mr. William Denny was one of those invited to act upon it. The work was of a very laborious nature and lasted for many months, and into it he threw himself with his usual energy ; but though he compiled much, he has not left any separate published account of the Committee’s labours.

In 1876 he began his first acquaintance with the use of mild steel. The 'Taeping' was built in that year of Bessemer steel, for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company.

In 1878 another vessel was built for the same company of Siemens steel, and this led to the building of the 'Rotornahana' in 1879 for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand, the first merchant ocean-going steamer built of mild steel. The 'Rotomahana' was succeeded in the same year by the 'Buenos Ayrean,' built of similar material. The experience gained at Leven Shipyard from the building of these and other steamers was put by Mr. William Denny into a Paper read before the Institution of Naval Architects in 1880, 'On Steel in the Shipbuilding Yard,' and the next year (1881) he followed up the subject by a Paper before the Iron and Steel Institute 'On the Economical Advantages of Steel Shipbuilding.' Another communication, 'On Local Education in Naval Architecture,' read also in 1881, was the outcome of a desire to make the work of the Science and Art Department more useful to students of Naval Architecture, by getting rid of the requirement in the course prescribed by the Department of a knowledge of wooden shipbuilding. This Paper led to a deputation from the Institution of Naval Architects to the Government to point out the unsatisfactory nature of this requirement, and the fruit of the deputation’s work is that students have now the alternative of a course of shipbuilding in wood or of one in iron.

In 1882 he delivered the Watt lecture before the Philosophical Society of Greenock, his subject being 'On the Speed and Carrying power of Screw Steamers.' One of the practical results of this lecture was the determination by those responsible for the depth of the James Watt dock to make it 32 feet at high-water.

At the meetings of the Institution of Naval Architects the same year he read two Papers. One was 'On Launching Velocities,' and gave results of observations upon the speed with which ships launched in Leven Shipyard pass down the ways. The other was ‘On the Reduction of Transverse and Longitudinal Metacentre Curves to Ratio Curves, whereby the work done upon a series of known ships can be made of practical value for estimating the stability and trim of proposed new forms.

The sinking of the 'Austral' in 1882, and the capsizing of the 'Daphne' in 1883, made a deep impression upon him, and, amongst other lessons, he was impressed with one, teaching the need of the greatest possible simplification of matters relating to stability. This feeling led to his conception of cross-curves of stability, the construction of which for any ship would simplify the complete treatment of the matter for that ship.

In 1884 he read a Paper to the Institution of Naval Architects 'On Cross Curves of Stability, their uses, and a method of Constructing them, obviating the Necessity for the usual correction for the Differences of the Wedges of Immersion and Emersion.' The Paper took the form of a description of the methods suggested by two members of his staff for the purpose of carrying out his wishes in the construction of the curves. At this meeting, in speaking in reply to the discussion on his Paper, he made use of words expressive of the desire he had ever present before his mind of stimulating those who came under his in0uence to effort and achievement, taking pleasure in his power of instigation without the shadow of a desire for any of the credit belonging to them.

He said: 'What I did wish to claim in the Paper was the originality of these two methods of Mr. Couwenberg's and Mr. Fellows', in so far as those gentlemen were concerned. I am able to guarantee for them that these methods were worked out independently by them with no suggestion from any other person - that they are the fruit of their own brains, and I may say this to the Institution, because it is an advisable thing that in this Institution we should not only discuss technical questions, but questions of morale, in the treatment of a staff. The principle on which my firm act with their staff is this: that every particle of credit which belongs to a member of our staff in doing any original work is put to his credit, and carefully kept to his credit. I think he must recognize more and more who has the honour to preside - as I have - over an extremely able staff that he is presiding over gentlemen in many points of greater capacity than himself, and that he has to deal with them, not as with servants, but as with equals and friends.'

Into the discussions at the Institution of Naval Architects he often brought a freshness of view, and always a generosity of heart and manner. For those who appeared to be outstripping his own efforts he had nothing but encouragement, and to young or new speakers who had something to bring forward he paid patient attention himself, demanding for them also the patient attention of others. In not a few instances Papers read at the Institution of Naval Architects were directly prompted by his own personal influence, sometimes exerted on members of his staff and sometimes upon others. In one case, Mr. Heck, a gentleman on Lloyd's staff of surveyors, was encouraged to spend several weeks at Dumbarton in order to carry out his views to the full in the construction of a balance which should fairly test his method of dealing with the stability of ships. This was followed by Mr. Heck's Paper in 1885 before the Institution of Naval Architects.

In the work of the professional and scientific institutions of his country Mr. Denny took a constant interest. He was elected a Member of this Institution on the 7th of March, 1876, and was also President of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, a Member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Member of Council of the Institution of Naval Architects, Member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and Member of the Iron and Steel Institute.

Mr. William Denny was ever a scientific student and an investigator, but he differed from many such in giving his profession and the public the benefit of his experience. In doing this he never lost the grasp of the yard management, nor did any lack of discipline or want of knowledge of what was being done in all departments result from such scientific and social work.

Finding as he did special pleasure in carrying on a business which in the hands of his father had become deservedly famous, be was anxious that its capabilities and fame should still further increase under his own management. His native town being entirely dependent upon shipbuilding and its branches, he felt this was a duty essential to the welfare of all the inhabitants.

When opportunity offered of purchasing additional ground adjoining his works, extensions of a very thorough character were decided upon by the firm. These were commenced in 1881 and embraced an increase of area of 23 acres, viz.:- from 19 acres before to 42 acres after the alterations, together with all necessary appliances, including new wet dock and cranes for tonnage of the very largest class. Special railway, hydraulic, electric, and telephonic systems were laid down, also a number of new departments added. These latter were for the purpose of completing vessels built in all details within the gates, and in more than one instance for the purpose of teaching the daughters of his workmen honourable trades, and helping the town to that extent.

There was also added an experimental tank, similar to that owned by the Admiralty, in which many interesting experiments on the hulls of vessels are constantly being carried out. For its construction and appliances he was very greatly indebted to the assistance and advice of Mr. R. E. Froude, who succeeded his father, Mr. William Froude, as Director of the Admiralty Experimental Works. The importance attached to this branch of investigation is gradually receiving more recognition. This is evidenced partly by Professor Jenkin's recent remarks to his class, suggesting, in the interests of the shipbuilders on the Clyde, the establishment of a similar tank in connection with the Chair of Naval Architecture, and partly by the many requests made to Messrs. William Denny and Brothers by private individuals and representatives of foreign governments, to have experiments conducted for their benefit and information.

Another matter entered upon at the same time as the extensions of the shipyard, but of wider interest as affecting the other shipbuilders and general welfare of the town, was the improvement and deepening of the River Leven. The administration of the Harbour was transferred from the Town Council to a newly constituted Harbour Board, brought into existence by special Act, in the framing and promotion of which Mr. William Denny took a large share. He was a member from the first, and rendered valuable assistance in the preparation of the design, and in the construction of the dredger built by Simons and Co, for the Board in 1885. It was his foresight which caused her capabilities to be largely in excess of present needs so as to meet future developments.

The thought and worry involved in the carrying out of the yard extensions in all their branches was largely added to by the exceptionally busy times which shipbuilders experienced in 1882. This was cheerfully faced, but Mr. Denny’s frame, though strong, was unequal to the continuous pressure.

In the autumn of 1882 it began to tell upon him, so with his wife he at that time took a prolonged holiday on the Continent. On their return journey, at the end of that year, they were both overtaken by typhoid fever. The attack was a very severe one, but fortunately the symptoms did not fully manifest themselves until they reached this country. Mrs. Denny was prostrated when she arrived in London, and was too feeble to travel further. Her husband, however, who, on account of pressing duties, was wishful to reach home, went on to Dumbarton, but was unable to free himself from the disease. He lay for many weeks in great weakness at his father’s house, and it was while recovering from this illness that his own house, Bellfield, with its valuable library, the accumulation of many years, was burned to the ground. This loss grieved him very deeply, though, as was characteristic of him in times of personal misfortune, he did not speak much about it.

It was many months ere he regained strength sufficient to allow him to resume his duties in the yard, the trouble from which he had chiefly to recruit being the specially serious one of an overworked brain. It was patent to his friends, and he himself felt, that he was not quite the same in bodily health after that long illness. During 1883, after their recovery, he and his wife spent a considerable time travelling on the Continent.

On the 16th of June, 1886, he left for South America, partly in connection with business of La Platense Flotilla Company, of which he was a Director, but mainly in the hope that his health would be benefited. It was his intention to remain but a short time, but the work demanded more attention than he had anticipated. His headquarters were at Buenos Ayres, and there, as at home, he soon made the impress of his kindly and enthusiastic personality felt. The separation from home and business was very trying to him. Instead of his sojourn proving in large part a holiday, as it was meant to be, it gathered anxiety and overwork as time went on. This told greatly on his constitution, but no mention of this was allowed to appear in his home letters. He had not given himself sufficient time to regain his strength, and the end came on the 17th of March, 1887.

William Denny was more than the scientific naval architect to those who came much in contact with him. He was essentially many-sided ; and while science and philosophy were his strong points in all things, he was a first-rate man of business, with a clear head and immense energy - amounting almost to impulsive enthusiasm - and an indomitable will, that allowed no difficulties, physical or intellectual, to stand between him and his purpose.

Just and honourable himself, he had a noble scorn of anything that savoured of the opposite, and did not hesitate to express it, but always with a courtesy that disarmed antagonism while it extorted admiration and respect. Essentially fair and liberal in his opinions on all subjects, and free from dogmatic bias, even on those he held most strongly, truth and justice were ever with him the first and chief considerations. Whatever did not conform to these requirements found in him an uncompromising opponent, though honest doubters could count on him as a sympathising and generous friend. To all these eminent qualifications he added a thoroughly cultured intellect, a richly stored mind, and a large and well-balanced judgment.


1887 Obituary [2]

WILLIAM DENNY, F.R.S.E., was born at Dumbarton on 25th May 1847, and went to school first in his native town, then for four years in Jersey, and afterwards to the Edinburgh High School.

In 1864 at the age of seventeen he entered his father's shipyard at Dumbarton as an apprentice, and went through a complete practical course of training in each of the several departments. The extraordinary tact, generosity, and prudence which he always showed in his subsequent relations to his work-people were the results of his intimate association with them during his apprenticeship.

In 1868 at the age of twenty-one he was admitted by his father as a partner in the shipbuilding firm. The problem of piecework was one of the earliest which engaged his attention in the administration of the business; and in 1871 the iron departments of the yard were placed upon this footing with satisfactory results.

Having already in 1869 written a paper embodying his views on the dimensions of sea-going ships, he gave in 1870 a series of public lectures on the subject of iron shipbuilding. In the same year also he first carried out trials of one of his steamers upon the measured mile at progressively increasing speeds, obtaining thereby data for a curve of speed and power; and the results so obtained led to Isis writing successive valuable papers on steamship propulsion.

In 1875 he supplied the results of the trials of steamers, constructed by his own firm and other builders, for the production of the late Mr. William Froude's paper in 1876 to the Institution of Naval Architects on the ratio of indicated to effective horse-power.

In 1876 his experience in the use of mild steel began with the building of a river steamer of Bessemer steel, which was followed in 1878 by another of Siemens steel; and in 1879 the first ocean-going merchant-steamer was built of mild steel.

The works at Dumbarton were gradually so extended as to enable vessels to be completed there in all details; and there was added an experimental tank, similar to that devised by Mr. Froude for the Admiralty, for the purpose of constantly carrying out many interesting experiments on the hulls of vessels.

Simultaneously with the extension of the shipyard, another matter in which lie engaged, of wider interest as affecting the other shipbuilders and the general welfare of Dumbarton, was the improvement and deepening of the river Leven.

His numerous professional and scientific papers, in addition to the few already mentioned, show the very wide scope of his investigations and the very large amount of work which he performed. Almost his last public work was done on the load-line committee, which completed its labours in August 1885.

Already in 1882 the strain of work had begun to tell upon him, necessitating a holiday absence; and in the summer of 1886, having again to travel for the sake of health, he went to South America, partly also on business.

While there, his death took place at Buenos Aires on 17th March 1887 in the fortieth year of his age.

He became a Member of this Institution in 1882, and was a Member of Council from 1885. He was also President of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, besides being a member of numerous kindred societies, to which his many original and valuable papers were so liberally contributed in such rapid succession.



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1887 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  2. 1887 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  • Biography of Peter and William Denny, ODNB [1]