D is for Dennis

by Maganjeet Kaur

Image Credit: Dennis Ong

The Dennis Fire Engine on the grounds of Muzium Negara bearing registration BE 3842 was donated by the Fire Service Department of the Federal Territory on 6 January 1982.

The pleasure of digging through archival documents to get more information on BE 3842 will have to wait until the pandemic is over. However, one can picture this vehicle tearing down the streets of Kuala Lumpur, sirens wailing, in a race against time to save lives and properties. We do not know how many fire incidences it participated in but it was in service for a good 22 years and we do know that the Dennis engine is a good workhorse. Please do share with us any photos you may have of the BE 3842 in action at a fire site, racing down the streets or simply at rest.

The engine was purchased on 24 December 1958 from Dennis Brothers Limited, a manufacturer of commercial vehicles based in Guilford, Surrey, England. Established in 1895 by brothers John Cawsey Dennis and Herbert Raymond Dennis, they started the business producing bicycles and later made motorcars. They subsequently moved to manufacturing heavy-duty commercial vehicles including buses, trucks and dustcarts; fire engines were first produced in 1908. The commercial vehicles manufactured by the company were made-to-order based on customers’ requirements and were stronger than the mass-produced vehicles of their competitors. An example of their hardiness comes from Singapore where a Dennis fire engine is said to have worked non-stop for 87 hours to put out a huge fire at a copra godown on Havelock Road in February 1929; this surely must have been a record of sorts!

Loyal fans of Dennis vehicles have established their own society. Made up of owners and enthusiasts, they provide useful advice for anyone wanting to restore a Dennis vehicle. Their website has a page listing Dennis fire engines that are being preserved and Muzium Negara’s fire engine is on this list, specified as having an F2 body type with chassis number 4416. The museum’s display board identifies it as Dennis RR B80-50A, thus indicating it has a Rolls Royce (petrol) engine.

BE 3842 has a Rolls Royce petrol engine and F2 body type.

During the time it was in service, BE 3842 was likely housed at the Central Fire Station at Shaw Road (today Jalan Hang Tuah). This fire station was built in 1955 to the tune of $750,000 and it replaced the old fire station on Church Street (Jalan Gereja). Designed by Eric Taylor, Municipal architect, it had push-button doors that opened instantly. The new station accommodated married firemen in self-contained two-room flats. It was equipped with two Dennis engines, BE 3842 undoubtedly one of them.

The Central Fire Station on Shaw Road (Jalan Hang Tuah), home of BE 3842 when it was in service. This building has since been replaced with a new structure. Image credit: National Museum of Singapore

“Most Powerful in the East”

The first Dennis fire engine in Kuala Lumpur was purchased in 1911, arriving in October on the steamship Benavon. This petrol vehicle had a 500-gallon capacity, and, with a horsepower of 70, it was claimed to be the most powerful engine in the East. However, there is no pleasing everyone. Alexander Simpson, Engineer of the Selangor Fire Brigade, considered the horsepower “a little in excess of the needs of Kuala Lumpur and District under prevailing circumstances”.  Simpson had the task of putting the engine together, which was done at the Works of the Federated Engineering Company. He had other minor grouses as well, albeit valid. Nevertheless, a test done at half power on 30 October showed the engine worked well and was ready to be put in action.

It kind of saw action very soon. On the night of Saturday 11 November, a prankster, probably very eager to see the new fire engine, pulled the fire alarm on nearby Weld Hill (Bukit Kewangan). The fire brigade was out the door in their new Dennis fire engine in just five minutes (with one member of the team still in pyjamas). Although they saw no signs of fire, just a smashed fire alarm, the incident showed that the Dennis fire engine was quicker compared to the 15-20 minutes required to get the old steam engine ready.

Bellamy’s Brigade

History of the Fire Brigade in Kuala Lumpur dates to 28 May 1884 when Captain Harry Syers was tasked by the British Resident to round up members for a Volunteer Fire Brigade. Thirty-odd people signed up and they became the founders of the brigade. The members comprised government officials and residents of Kuala Lumpur, Thamboosamy Pillai and Yap Ah Loy were among the prominent locals. H.F. Bellamy, the Superintendent of the Public Works Department, was appointed Chief Officer. His passion was the driving force behind the brigade, which came to be known as Bellamy’s Brigade.

The Fire Brigade was headquartered at the Central Police Station, which at the time was located on Cross Street (Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin). The Brigade only had a manual engine, which they dragged by hand. They later obtained Merryweather’s Greenwich Gum steam pump, also dragged by hand. It must have been quite a sight to see the pillars of society – brigade members included the likes of H. Conway Belfield, Magistrate & Revenue Collector; A.R. Venning, the State Treasurer; and A.C. Norman, the government architect – racing down the street, dragging a steam pump!

This image, sourced from Pinterest, purports to show the Volunteer Fire Brigade in front of the Police Station in the 1880s. If indeed in Kuala Lumpur, this Police Station would have been on Cross Street (Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin), near where Mydin Sinar Kota is located today; the Police Station on High Street (Jalan Tun HS Lee) was only constructed in 1895. In any case, it shows a Volunteer Fire Brigade, together with their manually-dragged pump.

In 1893, Kuala Lumpur’s first fire station was built on Church Street (Jalan Gereja), and officiated on 30 November. In the same year, Shire horses were imported from Britain for the onerous task of pulling the steam pump. The horses were stabled in stalls on either side of the station’s central bay. They were trained to move to their place in front of the engine at the sound of the fire alarm. Bellamy himself drove the horses. In 1895, the Volunteer Fire Brigade was disbanded and the Fire Brigade became a paid unit.

Selangor Fire Brigade Station on Church Street (Jalan Gereja), date unknown. The building was demolished in 1956 after the Fire Brigade moved to Shaw Road (Jalan Hang Tuah).
1895 map of Kuala Lumpur. The Central Police Station, which initially headquartered the Volunteer Fire Brigade, is shown in green. The first Fire Station, built in 1893, is shown in blue; a bus stop marks its location today. Base map: Gullick (2017, 47).

By 1902, the Brigade had purchased their very first motor fire engine – the earliest model of Merryweather’s Fire King. They were the first in the East to have such an engine. When Penang purchased their Fire King in 1906, Kuala Lumpur showed off, “They move slowly in the northern settlement, and sometimes a good deal slower in the southern.” Perhaps they should have waited for the next model because their Fire King did not perform as well as the later model obtained by Singapore.

The Fire King was a steam engine and it was replaced by the Dennis petrol engine in 1911. By this time, Bellamy had returned to Britain (in around the around the mid-1910s).

References

Gullick, J.M. (2017). A History of Kuala Lumpur: 1856-1939. MBRAS.

Simpson, Alexander. (1911, December 14). Letter from Alexander Simpson to E.G. Broadrick. ‘Report on Dennis Motor Fire Engine, K. Lumpur’. Arkib Negara 1957/0159945.

Dennis Society. Preserved Dennis Fire Engines. https://www.dennissociety.org.uk/preserved/fire/index.html#anchorbe3842

Jabatan Bomba dan Penyelamat Malaysia. Latarbelakang. https://www.bomba.gov.my/index.php/pages/view/4?mid=165

(Untitled). (1906, 7 February). Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 3.

Selangor’s Fire Engine: Most Powerful in the East. (1911, October 17). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 4.

(Untitled). (1911, November 16). The Straits Times, 8.

Selangor Fire Brigade. (1913, February 24). The Straits Times, 10.

A Record? (1929, February 13). Malaya Tribune, 10.

$750,000 Fire Station. (1955, May 16). The Straits Times, 4.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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