John Bruce (1794-1875), manufacturer

Janet Constable

Then, on 5 April 1837, John married for a second time. His new bride was Janet Constable, the daughter of the late William Constable, a jeweller in Dundee. Oddly, both Elizabeth Low and Amelia George had also lost their fathers before marriage into the Bruce family. William Constable had died on 3 April 1833 and the grant of probate (not the right term in Scots law, by the way) to his widow has survived. This shows him to have been a prosperous member of Dundee’s growing middle class. £101 in the Dundee Commercial Bank and £98 in shares were substantial sums at that time, but they pale beside the contents of the shop and its fixtures, which were valued at £1,693 9s 1d. The most fascinating part for me is the list of debts for his customers who were clearly paying on Dundee’s equivalent of the “never never”. These debts were carefully divided into the good and bad, with various shades in between. The Right Honourable, the Earl of Camperdown (a good debt!) owed £2 10s 6d – quite a small amount. On the other hand, the £43 1s 4d owed by “Thomas Donaldson, late Bookseller” was written off “the debtors being dead or insolvent”. In fact, William Constable’s estate had to write off £212 in this category, and when you add in the £282 9s 11d owed in the good debts category, it becomes clear that William’s business was more risky than the stock value suggests at first glance.

What this shows though, is that John Bruce was now very much part of the growing middle classes of the time.

An 1837 Directory shows that at this time John was advertising himself as a “merchant”. This is not a minor change in wording for it means John must have become a member of the merchant’s guild of Dundee, known simply as the Guildry, and must now have buying and selling textiles in his own right, as well as weaving it for others to sell.

John and Janet’s first child was Margaret, born and baptised on 31 January 1838 and named for her maternal grandmother, Margaret Constable (née McRitchie). But the next year, in 1839, John was in financial trouble, and we know that he had to come to a formal agreement of some sort with his creditors in that year. Eventually, he must have paid them a mutually agreed amount, for they formally discharged him of these obligations in 1840. I don’t know enough about Scots legal terms to know whether this problem amounted or bankruptcy or not, but this must have cast a shadow.

John and Janet’s second child is the first Robert Bruce of our story – the register does not say if he was named for anyone in particular – perhaps they simply thought it a good name! Robert was born on 9 April 1841 and, like his elder sister, baptised the same day.

Just a few weeks later, John’s younger brother, James, married for the first time on 14 May 1841. His bride was recorded as Jean Henderson, though in typical Scots fashion, the form of “Jane” will also be used for her. She seems to have been about 42 when she married James, who was 41, and there would be no children from the marriage. James describes himself at the marriage simply as a weaver.

A few weeks after that, the government of the United Kingdom organised the 1841 census. Taking place on the night of Sunday / Monday 6 / 7 June, this is immensely important to family historians because it was the first national census to record the names of all the inhabitants of the kingdom. We see, for instance, James and his bride, Jean, living in Small’s Wynd. Living with them, though, is a Janet Bruce, aged between 80 and 84 (the ages of adults were rounded down to the nearest five years). She may be an aunt to James – and his brother John, also, of course – or just as easily a relative of Jean, since it seems that her own mother was have been born a Bruce, but we simply do not know, and this Janet Bruce remains just a glimpse to us. James also gives his occupation, but this time, he calls himself a linen manufacturer – the same trade as his brother, John.

John and Janet Bruce live not so far away on the Hawkhill – which is actually a road. The three children from his first marriage, Augusta, John junior and Elizabeth, all now what we would call teenagers, are there, along with little three year old Margaret and the two month old Robert. John is also able to afford a live-in servant, Hannah Peddie, who is less than twenty years old herself.

Finally in these eventful few months, Amelia George, mother to John and James Bruce, died on 19 June 1841. The Howff burial register records that she was 82 years old and died of old age. It also records that she was buried in the same grave as her husband, daughter and daughter-in-law. Sadly, it seems that John never got round to adding his mother’s name to the stone, which stands today as an essential clue to the family historian. The stone carries the names of both Helen Bruce and Elizabeth Low, showing that the John Bruce who married Elizabeth Low was the same John Bruce whose sister was Helen and whose father was James. It is also sad therefore, that the stone has sunk far enough to partly obscure Elizabeth’s name and to totally obscure her date of death – fortunately for me, the complete inscription had been recorded some time ago.

Watt Institution, Constitution Rd, Dundee

Watt Institution, Constitution Rd, Dundee - this was their own building, opened November 1838

A short distance away from the Howff, the Watt Institution in Constitution Road was then the site of concerned discussions. During the 1841 to 1842 session, income was so thin that the Institution could not pay the interest owing to the Eastern Bank, and the local press speculated that the Institution would go bankrupt. Matters came to a head at a meeting on 4 April 1842. Peter Carmichael, one of the other directors, and the same person who had taken over the steam power looms at Baxters’ from John in 1836, moved a motion that a General Meeting should be called on 25 April to review altering articles 1, 4, 5 and 11 of the constitution. The substance of the proposed alteration is not noted, but one may imagine it was about improving the financial situation. John, however, dissented – perhaps he saw the proposals as betraying the ideals that he had worked with for so long. The others didn’t back the motion, but nor did they explicitly support John. Since the others, including the chair, had abstained, Carmichael withdrew his motion.

One wonders if it had been anyone other than Peter Carmichael, whether John might have been more conciliatory – this was not, after all, a vote on altering the constitution, but one on whether to discuss such an alteration! It may be that the membership as a whole, recognising the financial problems, was more pragmatic about the proposed changes, for at the Annual General Meeting on 2 May 1842, it appears John’s stance had done him no good at all, since he only polled 8 votes in the election of the directors – down from 31 in the previous year. As a result, he was not elected. He may not even have been at the meeting, for he does not appear on the list of attendees. The meeting had heard that no payments had been made by the previous directors to the Eastern Bank, who had written letters demanding payment of the amount of £262, though the Directors had then secured agreement to postpone payment until Whit Sunday. It was after this report that the election of the new directors was held, and John lost his seat. All that could be done, it seemed, was propose an appeal to the public to raise the money needed.

Unsurprisingly, the controversy about the finances rumbled on. Various people who had been elected as Directors, perhaps recognising a poisoned chalice when they saw one, then went on to decline to serve as Directors. While the first to decline were replaced from the highest voted losers, the group of Directors eventually went non-quorate. When a new meeting was held to elect that year’s directors, John was one of three to submit letters of resignation as Directors, thus formally terminating his long period as a Director of the Institution.

It seems that he may have continued to attend the Institution, for in the May 1843 election for Directors, he did receive 14 votes, though this was insufficient to be elected. The Institution itself had been saved financially in the autumn of 1842 by the proceeds from an exhibition, suggested by Thomas Wighton, at one time one of John’s fellow directors.