DENNIS, JOHN, shipbuilder; b. 1758 in Pennsylvania, son of Henry Dennis and Martha Lynn; m. 1781 Martha McLaney, a widow, in New York City, and they had five children; d. 25 Aug. 1832 in York (Toronto), Upper Canada.
The Dennises were a prosperous family of Philadelphia Quakers. During the American revolution Henry Dennis, a shipbuilder, sided with the British. Consequently, when the British evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778, the family fled to New York City where Henry and John Dennis found work refitting and re-equipping British ships. Dennis quickly tired, as he later put it, of “his Father’s peaceable employment” and joined the British army. He saw action at the taking of St Lucia in December 1778, contracting a fever there which left him with a game left leg and thus rendered him “incapable of Hard service.” He returned to New York and shipbuilding.
After his father’s death in 1782, Dennis emigrated with his young family, eventually settling in New Brunswick. In 1795, when fire destroyed their property, Dennis moved to Alexandria, Va. The following year he was back in British territory, attracted to Upper Canada by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe*, who wanted him to build gunboats. Just west of York, at the mouth of the Humber River, Dennis established his stocks and turned out ships, among them the government schooner Toronto, which the Upper Canada Gazette deemed in 1799 “one of the handsomest vessels, of her size, that ever swam upon the Ontario.”
Dennis’s evident talents won him the position of master shipbuilder at the government dockyards in Kingston. Receiving the appointment in January 1803, he filled it for some ten years and, during his tenure, he built a number of naval vessels. In the summer of 1812, after war had broken out with the United States, he was transferred back to York to complete a ship under construction there. When the Americans seized the provincial capital in April 1813, they destroyed the ship. The Provincial Marine decided to close the vulnerable York yard and offered Dennis a post back at Kingston. He refused, however, because he did not wish to be subordinate to recently arrived Royal Navy personnel. He was dismissed from service.
Undeniably, Dennis’s work had given satisfaction, but his talents were not of such a high order that he could dictate his rank. In fact, he had some blemishes on his record. Though he described himself as a “naturally diffident” person, he had had several confrontations with colleagues. In 1806, during an unseemly affair at Kingston involving missing material, he was criticized by a panel of inquiry for eagerly making unfounded charges against others. Later, at York, his bickering with a draftsman reached the ear of the commander-in-chief, Sir George Prevost*, who determined to “get rid” of him. Having been persuaded that Dennis was not at fault, Prevost relented in September 1813. Still, by this time, the builder had proven himself a difficult fellow, and there could not have been much hesitation among officials in releasing him. Dennis felt hard done by, and must have relished the opportunity soon afforded of reminding his ungrateful former employers of the value of his work. In 1814 the military approached Dennis, the only competent person available, to build gunboats at Penetanguishene. Though unemployed at the time, he declined the offer, explaining that skilled workmen would not be available there.
John Dennis spent the rest of his life at York, where he had acquired property. He continued building ships – out of financial necessity, he said in 1826. He took an active interest in local and provincial politics, aligning himself with the reformers and voting for Robert Baldwin* in the election of 1830. His long and useful life came to a close in the summer of 1832 when he fell victim to the cholera epidemic then ravaging the province. His grandson, John Stoughton Dennis*, was Canada’s first surveyor general.
AO, MU 1131, W. W. Duncan, “Narrative of the Skirving and Dennis families, by a descendant” (typescript, Toronto, 1967), Dennis family section. PAC, RG 1, L3, 149: D1/5; 151: D4/61, D5/20; 158: D15/4; 159, pt.i: D16/22; RG 8, I (C ser.), 84: 222, 228, 246, 254; 108: 72; 110: 32, 37–38; 732: 10. Town of York, 1793–1815 (Firth), 88, 96, 147; 1815–34 (Firth), 128, 267.