John Bruce (1794-1875), manufacturer

The Watt Institution

Back in 1824, just over a year after Augusta Bruce’s birth, Dundee had seen the start of its Watt Institution. The genesis of the Institution had come from the desire to create a monument in London to the memory of James Watt, the engineer. This was to be paid for by subscription and before long it was suggested that subscriptions raised in Watt’s native Scotland could pay for a monument in Edinburgh. When the leading inhabitants of Dundee met to consider the idea, they agreed with the idea of a subscription but decided in their turn to use the money locally and create a “mechanics’ institute” in Dundee for the education of the working classes. A series of meetings culminated in the inauguration of the Watt Institution on 10 November 1824.

The annual subscription, entitling members to attend lectures and classes, and to use the library, was set at 10 shillings, while a donation of £5 secured life membership. It should be noted that a flax-dresser’s weekly wages at this time would be around 10 or 12 shillings, while millwrights could earn between 14 and 18 shillings per week. John became a member of the Watt Institution of Dundee during the first season, from November 1824 to May 1825, receiving ticket number 138 of the 460 tickets issued. His brother James also appears to have become a member at this time, just after John. For John, this was the start of what seems to have been a passionate involvement with the Institution, lasting some 18 years.

John attended the General Meeting of the Institution on 2 May 1825, at the end of the first season, proposing Edward Baxter in the election of Directors who ran the Institution, and acting as one of the two tellers in the elections.

We have no proof that John kept up his membership but it is highly likely that he did, for just 2 years later, on 7 May, 1827, at the 4th General Meeting, John was proposed for election as a Director. Though unsuccessful, on the next day he was appointed one of the new members on the Library Committee. Then, at the end of the 1827-28 season, John appears twice in rapid succession in the minutes of the Watt Institution.

For some months, the Directors had been exercised by the case of a member named Ross, who was alleged to have removed a number of plates from books loaned out to him. Some of the plates had been found in his lodgings and he had fled Dundee. However, the Procurator Fiscal did not think that criminal proceedings could succeed due to some debate over the conditions of loan. At the Directors’ meeting on 7 April 1828, a letter was received from the Library Committee, dated 6 March 1828 and signed by J Bruce. This letter suggested that the Directors write to London, Edinburgh and Glasgow Mechanics’ Institutes to ascertain their conditions for loaning books and how they protected themselves from such as Ross. It also suggested that they write to the London Mechanics’ Institute to warn them of Ross.

The Directors declined the second suggestion in case others of the same name might suffer. As for the first suggestion, they said that they had looked at similar institutions previously, so did not see how matters might be improved. They did, however, recommend that the new Directors reconsider the matter after the next election due in a month’s time.

Also at this same meeting, the Directors agreed to allow all ticket holders, whether Library or Lecture ticket holders, to vote in the election of the Directors at that next meeting. However, at the next Directors’ meeting, on 1 May 1828, a letter was received from a number of members disputing the ability of the Directors to agree such an extension of the vote, without the approval of a General Meeting called for that purpose. The letter was signed by eleven members, of whom the first was John Bruce – and no, this was not a list of signatures in alphabetical order.

The Directors’ response was that to do otherwise had seemed pointless at this stage in the year, just one month off the next scheduled General Meeting. However, it was not clear to my reading of the minutes, what their final decision was.

These two letters clearly did John’s standing among the members no harm at all, for he was first elected as a Director just a few days later on 5 May 1828. John became known as one of the most active directors of the Watt Institution and he would serve as a Director from May 1828 to May 1842. It is notable that two years later, in May 1830, John received 38 votes in the Directors’ elections – third highest total.

The minute books of the Watt Institution mention him a number of times. For instance, on 6 December 1830: “Mr John Bruce stated to the meeting that he had purchased from the subscribers to the New Coffee Room, their copy of the Edinburgh Review for one year at the rate of 3/- per number.”

He also took an active part in arranging the sessions of weekly lectures for the Institution, receiving a vote of thanks for this at the Annual General Meeting on 16th May 1831. And again, on 7 October 1833, we find John at a meeting of the Directors, being unanimously appointed to organise the lecture programme, while on 1 August 1836, a meeting at the Hammermen’s Hall appointed John and Dr Webster to draw up the syllabus of lectures for the ensuing session.
In fact, at a meeting of Directors, held in the Hammermen’s Hall, Tuesday 17 May 1831, John Bruce was appointed as President for the coming session, with JM Lindsay as Vice President. This means that John’s signature is all over the pages of the minute books for that year. It was quite curious to feel my hands moving over the very pages that my great-great-great grandfather had handled and written on.

John would go on to serve as Vice-President in the two sessions from 1835 to 1837 and President immediately after in 1837 to 1838.

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