The Dennisons of Leeds: Pioneers of Penny Slot Machines

Curator Kitty Ross reveals the story behind the popular 1930s ‘Murder in the Museum’ penny slot machine at Abbey House Museum!

‘Murder in the Museum’ (1934 model made by Alice
and Eveline Dennison)


One of Abbey House Museum’s star objects, the penny slot machine ‘Murder in the Museum’ has recently been restored to full working order. The comically macabre automaton is subtitled ‘Who Killed the Man in the Chair?’ and the suspects in this 1930s murder mystery include a woman with a large handbag, a man lurking behind a display cabinet and a man hiding inside the Egyptian sarcophagus.  

The Dennison dioramas and automatons 

The machine was made in 1934 at the height of the Golden Age of crime fiction and was the work of two Leeds sisters, Alice and Eveline Dennison.
The family association with macabre penny slot machines started with their father, John Dennison (1847-1924) who was born in Leeds. He displayed his first working his first working models, demonstrations of a drilling machine and a hand lathe, at the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition, which were well received by the public. He soon began building both mechanical fortune teller machines and working model dioramas for installation at exhibitions, fairs and bazaars. 

The French Execution, designed by John Dennison in 1894 and now
on display at Abbey House Museum (P
hotograph by Norman Taylor)

 

John Dennison 1917. (Copyright John
Ledden. REPRODUCTION OF THIS
IMAGE IS PROHIBITED)

By 1884 John had a small exhibition (possibly already in Blackpool). His machines had melodramatic subjects, such as the Dying Child, Drunkard’s Delirium, Haunted Miser and of course the French Execution (now owned by Leeds Museums), pictured above.

John Dennison first exhibited in the old Aquarium in Blackpool in 1891 and he became a fixture in Blackpool Tower when it opened in 1894. It was a family business, including John’s brother William and his son George from his first marriage. 

The talented Dennison sisters 

The three daughters from John Dennison’s second marriage, Florence, Alice and Eveline, started by helping their father with his models but soon began to develop ideas of their own. John Dennison valued their contribution and seems to have fiercely discouraged them from marrying out of the family business!

Alice Dennison (1890-1966) initially worked as a governess and then as a dress maker, and was the inspiration behind the costumes for the models. She also turned her hand to the machinery side of the business and was behind the decision to move from clockwork to electricity. 

Eveline Dennison (1896-1970) had been an art student who won a scholarship and she was the artistic one, intricately creating the models out of wood and clay. Their elder sister Florence seems to have been more in charge of the business of running the Blackpool enterprise.
Extract from Alice and Eveline Dennison’s notebook

The Mechanics of Murder

The Dennisons left Blackpool Tower in 1944 and sold the machines to the Tower Company, from where they have been dispersed around the world. 

Quoted in the Blackpool Gazette in 1963 the Dennison sisters stated: 

“The most popular models we created were always those with a morbid flavour – “Supper with Death”, “Midnight in the Haunted Churchyard”, “Murder in the Museum”. Anyone who imagines that children prefer fairy stories are way off beam. During the 20 years we held the business we learned a lot about human nature”.

The cast of ‘Murder in the Museum’ in the Still Room at Temple Newsam House.
(Photograph by Danny Young of Target Productions)

You can try out ‘Murder in the Museum’ at Abbey House Museum, now lovingly restored by Robert Hind-Smith. An accompanying film which fleshes a live-action version of the story has been produced in collaboration with Target Productions and features local amateur acting talent. It can be viewed in the gallery at Abbey House museum, and also on the Leeds Museums You Tube channel


By Kitty Ross, Curator of Social History
(Unless otherwise stated, all photographs published here were taken for Leeds Museums and Galleries and are licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA.)

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