Sunday, April 24, 2016

Origins of the Dennis Surname

Where does the Dennis surname originate? Someone asked me this recently. Back in 2008 I pondered the question myself, on pp 12-13 of my book From Buryan to Bondi (available through BookPOD).

My conclusions then and now are:
The origins of the surname Dennis have been described in various published histories of surnames. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was also the first name of the first Bishop of Paris, in the 3rd century AD. Once he was sanctified, and the French city of Saint Denis was named after him, the name became popular as a first name in France. A town near St Austell in Cornwall also bears the name St Dennis.
Or it could come from Danais, the old French word for Danish. The Norman name was originally Le Danais. Sir Henry Le Danais was the administrator of the Pomeroys, the right hand man of William the Conqueror. Members of this family are still highly placed in the French Civil Service. Some Le Danais family members came to England with the Norman invasion. One of the earliest records of the name in England was in the county of Lancashire.
The name Dennis is also found in Ireland, and in a twist on the Irish joke routine, a 'wag' on the internet suggests the original Irish Dennis was thrown out of the country because he sinned and had to change his name - backwards! Jokes aside, a Dennis who is famous in Australia, the poet C J Dennis, is a descendant of an Irish Dennis family.
Although not listed as a Cornish surname in White's book*, Cornish historians such as CraigWeatherhill recognise the surname Dennis as distinctively Cornish, derived from the prehistoric word 'dynas' meaning fort, and originating in the St Colomb Major area between Newquay on the Atlantic coast and St Austell on the English Channel. The word 'Pendennis' in the famous Pendennis Castle site at Falmouth means 'fort on the headland'.

* G. Pawley White, A Handbook of Cornish Surnames (G.P. White, Camborne, 1972)

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Emma Sophia Dennis weds Alfred George Towndrow

This happened 112 years ago today:

John Dennis
A wedding was solemnised by the Rev. Rainsford Bavin at the Methodist Church, Newcastle, on Wednesday, October 21, when Miss Emma Dennis, of Cook's Hill, was married to Mr. Alfred G. Towndrow, of Wickham. A large number of friends assembled to witness the ceremony, the church being prettily decorated by friends, the chief feature being a bell of flannel flowers.

The bride, who was given away by her uncle (Mr. John Dennis), was attended by the Misses May Sampson and Muriel Towndrow and two little children. Mr. S. W. O'Neal acted as best man, Mr. Leslie Towndrow being groomsman. Tho bride was dressed in soft white silk, trimmed with lace, silk applique, and chiffon. She also wore the customary wreath and veil and a gold brooch, and carried a shower bouquet, gifts of the bridegroom. Miss May Sampson wore eau-de-nil voile, trimmed with cream guipure. Miss Muriel Towndrow, the second bridesmaid, was in pale pink voile, trimmed with string-coloured lace and medallions. Each wore a picture hat. The two little girls were dressed to match. The bridesmaids wore gold brooches and charms, gifts of the bridegroom.

After the ceremony a reception was hold at the residence of the bride's uncle, Bull-street, where about 30 guests sat down to breakfast. Afterwards Mr. and Mrs. Towndrow left for Sydney for their honeymoon. The bride's travelling dress was electric blue hopsack, trimmed with medallions, white satin, and chiffon, and a white and buttercup hat. (SMH Sat 31 Oct 1903 p 9 col f)

John Dennis was Emma's uncle by marriage, Emma's mother Catherine being the sister of John's wife Elizabeth. Catherine died young and Elizabeth stepped in to help care for the children. Emma's father Charles Dennis remarried and it appears that John and Elizabeth reared Emma and her sisters. I've written a book about John Dennis and his extended family (From Buryan to Bondi - the Dennis Family of West Penwith, Cornwall and some Australian Descendants, available through BookPOD) and have traced Emma's Dennis forebears back to a William Dennis who died in 1818, but I don't know how the Charles Dennis and John Dennis strands of the Dennis family connect. I'd love to hear from any of Emma's descendants.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Dennis Family in Queensland, Arrived 'Flying Cloud', 1864

In 1864 a large family group from Cornwall arrived in Moreton Bay, Queensland aboard the Flying Cloud. The leaders of the extended family were John Dennis and his wife Mary Ellis, who married on 27 November 1830 at Morvah parish church, near the Lands End tip of Cornwall. Their picture was taken around 1860.

I've just discovered this online story about that same Dennis family. Apparently an excerpt from a book by an uncited author, the story relates to three of John & Mary's grandchildren. The infants were buried within a couple of years of the family's arrival in Queensland, in the God's Acre Cemetery at Beatty Rd, Archerfield, Brisbane.

Another story about the same immigrant family, those who eventually settled at Brisbane's south-eastern suburb of Daisy Hill, has been published by Veronika Farley, Archivist, Queensland Memory, State Library of Queensland.

Further information about the Dennis family in Queensland, their family of origin in Cornwall and their Dennis relatives in NSW and Victoria is contained in my own book. Published in 2008, From Buryan to Bondi, the Dennis Family of West Penwith, Cornwall and some Australian Descendants is available online from BookPOD. The articles cited above add a great deal of flesh to the bones of the 'Queenslanders' in my Dennis book, and in several cases provide an updated version of death records.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Cleon Dennis, RAN

One hundred years ago today, the first convoy of ANZAC troops sailed from Albany for the battle grounds of the Great War. Aboard HMAS Sydney, one of 4 naval escort vessels, was one of its young founding officers, my grandfather Engineer Lieut Cleon Dennis, soon to take part in Sydney's memorable victory against the German raider SS Emden ..............

Read Cleon's story

This is an update on the story in 'From Buryan to Bondi, the Dennis Family of West Penwith, Cornwall, and some Australian Descendants'. Copies of the book can be purchased through BookPOD

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Someone I met recently at an Australian Society of Authors training course suggested 'Goodreads' as a great place for promoting books to a world-wide market place. 'Goodreads' attracts a readership base well beyond the extended family network I currently reach. So this week I joined the site as an author and entered five of my publications to their listings, bringing those five books to the attention of international readers for the first time.

'Goodreads' is a fascinating website which is easy to join. I enjoyed thinking about the books I like to read, mainly non-fiction, histories, biographies and historical romance, and it took just minutes to give some of my particular favourites within these genres a four or five star rating. I've also now rated two popular titles which I disliked ('The Slap' and 'Eat, Pray, Love'). It's a fun exercise, bestowing one's instant judgment at the click of a mouse, and it's an exercise which is easy and quick to perform, as you know instinctively what you think of a book as you turn the last page.

Once you belong to 'Goodreads', I invite you to rate and/or review From Buryan to Bondi. I know I might regret issuing this invitation, but I hope you'll be kind!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Facebook 'Likes' and Blog 'Followers'

I’m trying to learn how the world of social media works. Younger people take all of this in their stride, but this Facebook stuff still makes me feel like a bit of a dunce. I don’t fully understand its structure (it seems very messy to me) and I'm cautious about doing much 'posting' in case mayhem breaks out. 

My confusion has been that my 'writing' Facebook page (its URL is runs off my personal Facebook page (its URL is . To date, I've been unsure whether people have elected to become my 'personal' friend or my friend as an author. Today I took a giant step forward by deciding to distinguish the two. I'm now using my own 'portrait' photo only on the personal page, and I've renamed the other page 'Louise Wilson, Author', with a 'logo' image replacing my picture.

The experts keep advising website owners and bloggers to interlink with Facebook and Twitter (the latter is not my scene - yet!) and I always wondered why, until I realised the potential power of 'Like' votes, and 'Followers'.

My 'ah hah' moment started with the Dennis family, for which group I have a WEBPAGE   and a BLOG The blog provides for (irregular) updates related to ‘From Buryan to Bondi’. My website ranks highly on Google (a pleasing result which everyone with a website aims to achieve) and the site statistics for my Dennis blog prove that it has a substantial  readership. However, no-one from the public would know that, without some kind of evidence.

That is when I began to try to understand the world of 'Likes', and 'Followers'. I've discovered that these numbers are becoming increasingly important to prove your ‘credibility’ in the online world, a world of crucial significance to authors, since so many people now buy their books over the internet. In a crowded market place, I need to demonstrate publicly that I have a loyal following of readers.

Trouble is - once you expose yourself to the glare of measurement, you have to measure up. So far, my published statistics look very sad. My readership base far exceeds that which is indicated by my current levels of 35 ‘Likes’ and a handful of ‘Followers’. SO - I’d really appreciate it if you would act on the following requests (if you've not already done so) –

1.       If you have a Facebook account, while you have Facebook 'open', I invite you to click on to my WEBPAGE   and then click on the ‘Like’ button (bottom left hand side). The counter should immediately move up by one. I will receive a message from Facebook. I will then try to send you a message of thanks, which seems to be an easier process if I am also your 'Friend' on Facebook. So, if you are not already my 'Friend', I'm happy if you send me a 'Friend' request at the same time.

2.       Likewise, if you have a Google account (ie a gmail address), a Twitter account or a Yahoo account, and you are interested in receiving an occasional update relevant to Dennis family history, I invite you to click on to the top right hand side of this blog screen and sign up as a member. I'm still learning about the implications of 'following', but as far as I’m aware of the process, you won’t be deluged with messages, due to my infrequent postings to the Dennis blog.

(NOTE - You can also sign up by joining Google and obtaining a new gmail address. It doesn’t mean you have to use this address - I have a gmail email address myself which I don’t actually use.)

Thanks in advance to anyone who helps out by clicking on the 'Like' or 'Follower' buttons. Alerting friends and family to support my 'cause' would also be a big help.  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

It's a Small World - Stephen Penn Dennis

You'll find this story hard to believe.

My cousin Frank Dennis and his partner Leonie McGuire often work overseas as English teachers and one of their recent postings was to Cambodia in 2011. Leonie is also a keen student of French. She took the opportunity for extra French tuition while in Cambodia, as she and Frank were planning a visit to Neuville Vitasse in France, where Frank's father, Stephen Dennis, was shot down in 1943, during the Second World War. He was flying a Hawker Typhoon, a ground-attack aircraft used for destroying ground installations, communications, transport and tanks.

It came as quite a shock when Leonie's French tutor in Cambodia turned out to be very familiar with that part of France. He made some enquiries and soon contact was established with Philippe Dubron, the grandson of the French farmer who rescued Stephen Dennis after he crash-landed. Philippe initially thought that a phone call from Cambodia about a crash that happened 70 years ago was a prank. Philippe was 7 years old in 1943 and remembered the commotion in his household on that fateful morning.

When Frank and Leonie visited Neuville Vitasse in January 2012, they received an incredible welcome. Philippe Dubron and his wife Evelyne had organized a civic reception hosted by the mayor of Arras. Also present was the mayor of Neuville Vitasse, who accompanied Frank and Leonie on their tour that day, plus a media scrum of local and regional print and radio journalists.

Like many men who suffer in war, Stephen had never said much about his wartime experiences before his death in 1988. The story as his sister Julia knew it was that Stephen had been in action over France, and was turning for home when he was attacked by six Messerschmidts and engaged in a dogfight. Frank says that records show that Stephen had destroyed 5 trains that day, and no wonder the Germans were angry. The last view of Stephen’s plane from an English perspective was that it was seen going down.

The next part of the story has been re-told by my sister Cathryn Gillespie-Jones, Stephen's niece, who has a photographic memory for all the stories told by our grandmother Thea, Stephen's mother:

For some time all that was known back in Australia was that he was missing in action, presumed dead. One day Thea was dusting when she suddenly felt quite strange and dizzy, and sitting down, she experienced what she described as a vision. It was as if she were watching a camera pan down a long hospital ward, where the patients were nursed by nuns wearing very distinctive habits. At the very end of the ward it was as if the camera zoomed into a patient whose face was entirely covered in bandages, and in the close-up, the patient’s eyes were recognisable as Stephen’s. Thea, not unnaturally, was quite overcome by this experience, which she related to her friend and neighbour Woolly (Mrs Willoughby). Woolly asked for a description of the nuns’ habits, and armed with this information, rushed off to see her priest. The priest was able to identify them as being worn by a particular order of nuns in France, and through this information, the Red Cross was able to trace Stephen. He had, indeed, been a patient in the hospital staffed by this order.

Prior to Frank's visit to France, the other information we had was that the German pilot who had shot Stephen down later came to visit him in hospital, bringing Stephen a gift of cigarettes and a pot of honey.

So Frank's visit to Neuville Vitasse was a very moving experience for him, and he gained a lot of new insights into what happened on that fateful day. For a start, Frank discovered that Stephen’s injuries were extensive and a local farmer named M. Guislainn Plomb placed him on a horse-drawn cart lined with straw and took him back to his farm house, a kilometre away. Stephen was placed on a mattress on the kitchen floor and given basic care by Philippe's grandmother and a neighbour. Frank and Leonie visited that farm house where they saw the kitchen where Stephen lay on a mattress until the Germans came. The farm house is unchanged on the outside from how it would have been in 1943.

Frank discovered that two local French historians had obtained eyewitness accounts of his father’s crash. They are adamant that his plane was not on fire and that he made a perfect landing – they report they saw the wheel ruts in the field and that he hit railway tracks, which caused his plane to nose-dive, bringing him to a very sudden stop. He was badly injured but managed to get himself out of the plane without assistance and he staggered 50 metres where he collapsed unconscious

Frank says: It seems likely Dad remained unconscious the whole time he was with the French. They reported that there was nothing to identify Dad, other than a number they found on the collar of his jacket. They claim they used this number to make enquiries at the hospital as to his wellbeing and to later contact Dad in Australia after the war. M. Barbier, who found this number on the jacket (Dad's war service number), was a good friend of Philippe’s grandfather M. Guislainn Plomb, and he helped M. Plomb and Dad maintain regular contact once a year for many years because he spoke good English and translated for M. Plomb. I was previously unaware of this contact.

Some of the press articles about Frank's pilgrimage are online - I found the following stories by Googling "Neuville Vitasse Stephen Dennis". The stories are in French, but rough English translations are available on the web.

When they returned to Australia, Leonie and Frank did an interview on their local ABC radio station about their recent trip to France. That interview is online. It is also featured on the ABC's Mid North Coast  website and the ABC's Mid North Coast Facebook page.

Frank tells me that his father's wartime experiences have inspired him to research them fully and write them up for the family's benefit. (Stephen Penn Dennis' life as a child is mentioned on pp 278-286 of 'From Buryan to Bondi', available online at BookPOD.)