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Edmund Francis (Tim) Denny (1920–2008)

Tim Denny, who died on February 24 aged 87, was a wartime air observer who rescued a gunner from a burning bomber and was awarded the DFC and Bar; he later forged an international reputation as the leading expert on lavender and the distillation of essential oils.

At the Bridstowe estate in Tasmania, a lavender plantation founded by his father in the 1920s, Denny propagated new more productive strains, developed improved husbandry techniques, designed and built the world's first lavender-harvesting machine and designed steam distillery equipment which improved both the quality and yield of lavender oil and the productivity of the stills.

He based his designs for distilling equipment on basic research which he had carried out into distillation techniques. In 1978 he was the first to show that the orthodox theory of essential oil distillation defied the second law of thermodynamics and to discover that transference of latent heat is the principle which governs the recovery of oils by steam distillation. He enunciated this theory in his 270-page Field Distillation of Herbaceous Oils (2001), which has become the bible for distillery design engineers.

His work in this field brought him invitations to advise on and oversee the design and construction of essential oil distilleries throughout the world. As well as helping to transform production of eucalyptus, tea-tree and Pelargonium graveolens oils in Australia, he advised on sandalwood distillation in Timor, essential oil production in Papua New Guinea, distillation of Mentha arvensis in Pakistan, Anise sp and other Umbelliferae in Saudi Arabia, Eucalyptus smithii in Swaziland, Tagetes minuta in the Ciskei, Eucalyptus australiana in South Africa, orange petitgrain and neroli in Spain and citrus petigrain in Italy. His proudest claim, however, was to have designed the "Yak Pack", a portable still that could be carried up a mountain by a yak for essential oil production in remote regions of Bhutan.

Edmund Francis Keith Denny (always known as Tim) was born at Shepperton in Middlesex on September 14 1920. His father, Charles Denny, had trained initially as a chartered accountant but turned to manufacturing and became a skilled perfumier. He obtained seeds of Lavandula angustifolia from the southern French Alps and sailed with his family to Australia in 1922, hoping to go into production of lavender oil. He settled at Lilydale in northern Tasmania as it was roughly on the same latitude in the southern hemisphere as the south of France is in the northern hemisphere. The lavender plantation he established was named Bridestowe, after his wife's home town in Devon. Tim was educated at schools in Tasmania and Victoria and in 1938 he returned to Britain to read Engineering at Christ's College, Cambridge. During his time at Cambridge he became involved with the perfume trade in London and in the Grasse area of France. During the summer of 1939, he was attached to Roure Bertrand Fils et Justin Dupont SA, where he studied distillation in the lavender industry in the French Alps.

Denny joined the RAF in June 1940 and trained as an air observer. He joined No 114 Squadron, which was equipped with the Blenheim bomber flying from an airfield in Norfolk. On the night of April 26 1942, Denny and his crew took off to bomb the airfield at Eindhoven. As they left the target a German night fighter attacked them and their aircraft was badly damaged. One of the two engines was put out of action but the Australian pilot was able to shake off the enemy fighter. As the Blenheim approached the Suffolk coast, the bomber's second engine began to fail and the pilot made a crash landing on a disused airfield near Diss. Denny and his pilot scrambled clear just as the aircraft burst into flames. Denny quickly realised that the gunner was trapped by twisted metal and could not escape and he returned to the burning bomber where he managed to break open the escape hatch and help free the wounded gunner.

On the night of May 30 Denny and his crew flew on the first Thousand Bomber Raid, which targeted Cologne, when the Blenheim force attacked enemy airfields to disrupt the German night fighter force.

In November 1942 No 114 flew to North Africa via Gibraltar and Denny and his crew supported the British 1st Army during Operation Torch, the Allied landings in Algeria. Flying from the airfield at Blida near Algiers, Denny flew many sorties in support of the ground forces. In March 1943 he was loaned to the US Army Air Force Tactical Bomber Force to train American crews. On his return to his RAF squadron, he flew as the lead navigator of large formations of Allied bombers during the Tunisian campaign and in July 1943 he was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

Denny joined No 18 Squadron, equipped with the Boston light bomber, in September 1943. Flying from rough airfields in Sicily, the squadron attacked targets in Italy before moving to the mainland, where it was able to attack rail and road targets in northern Italy.

After three years of continuous operations, Denny was rested in November 1944 when he returned to England. He continued to fly on non-operational sorties and was eventually released from the RAF as a squadron leader in August 1946.

He returned to Tasmania in 1946 to assist his father on the family farm. But the farm had never been financially viable and urgent action was needed if it was to survive. Using his knowledge of lavender growing and distillation techniques, he worked to improve production and yields on his father's farm and simultaneously set about establishing his own farm 30 kilometres away at Nabowla.

The Bridstowe plantation became the largest commercial lavender farm in the world, accounting, at its peak, for some 20 per cent of world production of premium quality lavender oil for the cosmetics industry. Among other developments Denny undertook patient botanical trials of thousands of Lavandula angustifolia genotypes which led to the propagation of better strains; pioneered modified contour cultivation and specialised planting techniques to conserve water and minimise soil erosion and implemented strategies that largely dispensed with the need for insecticides and weedkillers; in the 1940s he designed and manufactured the first mechanical harvester for lavender in the world and later designed specialist cultivation equipment for weed control and other tasks. His mechanical planter came into more general use by farmers for planting vegetable crops and tree seedlings.

The Bridestowe plantation became a popular tourist attraction and Denny set about developing facilities for visitors, including a range of souvenirs. At the time of his retirement in 1989, it ranked amongst the most popular tourist venues in northern Tasmania, catering for thousands of visitors in the summer months and providing much-needed employment for local people.

Apart from lavender production, Denny founded and promoted mint and mint oil production in Tasmania. After importing American root stocks of Mentha x piperita (peppermint), he volunteered his horticultural expertise to assist Tasmanian farmers in undertaking trial plantings and made his distilleries available for processing and extraction of the peppermint oil. Subsequently, large plantations of peppermint were established, mainly in Tasmania's Derwent Valley where the soil type and access to irrigation provide ideal conditions.

Denny's pre-eminence in the field of extractive steam distillation of essential oils was acknowledged in a series of citations and awards from essential oil producers and cosmetic chemist groups. He served on many industrial and professional organisations, such as the International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades, the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists, and the Standards' Association of Australia.

He was actively involved in Tasmanian community life and served as a councillor on Lilydale municipal council, where he was instrumental in the installation of improved waste water and sewage treatment and campaigned for better roads and other services.

Tim Denny married, in 1945, Joan Markham, with whom he had a son and a daughter.

Original publication

Citation details

'Denny, Edmund Francis (Tim) (1920–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 September, 1920
Shepparton, Middlesex, England


24 February, 2008 (aged 87)

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