John Bruce (1794-1875), manufacturer


Just over two years after the death of his father, James, John Bruce and Elizabeth Low announced their intention to be married. The proclamation is dated 23 August 1821 and reads (expanding the abbreviations) “John Bruce, Manufacturer, & Elizabeth, daughter of the late John Low, Shipmaster, both in this parish.” The two occupations mentioned show the Bruces and Lows were rising through the ranks of Dundee society.

Elizabeth was actually some seven years older than John, for she was baptised on 3 May 1787 to John Low and his wife, Janet Duncan. When her parents married, on 8 February 1785, her father was described simply as a sailor, but he must have risen through the commercial ranks to have been described as a “shipmaster”. Another sign of increasing wealth is that when his wife died in March 1813, John Low could afford to buy a stone for her grave that can still be seen today in Dundee’s Howff cemetery. However, it may be that John could only just afford it, for the stone is quite thin and suffering badly from splitting due to the weather.

John Bruce has also managed to rise a step up in the business world – whereas his father is described as a weaver, John is a “manufacturer”. However, this term has shifted in meaning over the years and needs explanation. Manufacturers were responsible for producing linen cloth from the raw flax supplied by a merchant. Often they did not directly employ weavers, at least not in these early years. Instead, they would supply the yarn needed to weave a length of linen to a domestic weaver, and agree a price for the weaving of the length. In 1812, the going rate for the completed 115 / 120 yards of linen was £1, and this would typically take from 10 to 12 days to complete.

Thus, much of the commercial risk lay with the merchants, for they would have to obtain the yarn, perhaps paying people to process raw flax and spin the fibres up to make the yarn. Even the woven cloth might not be immediately saleable for some would need bleaching. The cloth to be bleached would be treated, originally with simple chemicals like pigeon droppings and lime, and then simply laid out in the fields where the sun would gradually whiten the cloth. (On the old Ordnance Survey maps, names can be seen that hark back to this – Panmure Bleachfields, for instance, lie between Broughty Ferry and Monifieth, upstream of a flax spinning mill.)

Assuming that he didn’t lose too many lengths of cloth from the bleaching fields, the merchants then had to get his products to market and sell them. While the spinners, weavers and finishers could concentrate on a single, simple job, the merchant had to find a customer and sell the cloth – his income could therefore be much more volatile, so that while he aimed to make a profit, if he hit the wrong market at the wrong time, with spinners, weavers and finishers already paid, he would make a loss. Worse still, with capital tied up in cloth, for up to three months in the bleach fields, the merchant was often dependent on loans – if one person defaulted on a payment, the next could not pay off their own loan, and so the cascade went on.