John Bruce (1826-1900), architect

Transition – John Bruce junior

Family tree of John Bruce, architect and Margaret Prain

Family of John Bruce, architect and Margaret Prain

As related previously, John Bruce junior initially followed his father into the textile trade. We know that he was a clerk at Ward Mill in 1846 and at a flax-spinners in 1850, while he describes himself as a manufacturer in 1853, with business premises at 12 Blackness Road, Dundee.

It was on 9 August 1854 that John junior married Margaret Prain, daughter of Robert Prain and Edith Anderson. Margaret was almost exactly a year older than John, being born on 25 April 1825, compared to John’s birth date of 18 April 1826. Her father had been a vintner in Dundee, but in one of those melancholy series of coincidences, he too had died before his daughter’s wedding.

John and Margaret’s first child was born on 22 January 1855 and was named Edith Anderson Bruce after her maternal grandmother. Their second child was Agnes Low Bruce, born on 18 Jul 1856 and named for her father’s aunt, Agnes Low, the sister of his mother, Elizabeth Low. Agnes was the first of their children to be registered under the new 1855 registration laws for Scotland – Edith had missed the commencement of civil registration in Scotland by a few months. This means we now have more detail than before – we know, for instance, that Agnes was born at Banks Lane, Constitution Road, Dundee, probably a tenement block off Constitution Road. The certificate also confirms that her father was a manufacturer, though I have to confess that I originally read the entry as “John Bruce, Junior Manufacturer”, and presumed a “Junior Manufacturer” to be a junior partner – whereas, it is, of course, “John Bruce Junior, Manufacturer”, to distinguish him from his father!

As was often the case, John and Margaret had a child about every other year. Their third child was Margaret Soutar Bruce, born 27 May 1858 at Rosebank Road, Dundee, not far from Constitution Road. We know that she was known as Maggie but don’t know why she carried the name of “Soutar”.

For a short time at least, it seems that John was in partnership, for in 1856 he is described as working for Bruce & Robertson, Manufacturers, of 31 Meadowside and Rosebank Factory, though in 1858 he was on his own again at 23 Rosebank St. Incidentally, it may be unwise to read too much into some of these addresses. The 1858 address of 23 Rosebank St appears in a directory of that year and is repeated in 1861. However, Rosebank Road, which is a different, though adjoining, street, appears on birth certificates for his children in 1858 and 1860 between the years for the Street address. Perhaps he moved back and forth, perhaps one is wrong, or perhaps 23 Rosebank St is a business address.

The Western Bank Collapse

But John had more serious things on his mind than slight changes of address. On 9 November 1857, the Western Bank, based in Glasgow, collapsed, and, as a consequence, John lost pretty much all his money. Whether he was working in linen or jute is not quite clear to us – his obituary suggests jute – but his business was destroyed and he was faced with a number of private debts. Rather than restart in the same trade, John decided to start again in what was later described as a more congenial line of work, and in 1858 he set himself up as an architect to pay off those debts.

For the next decade or so, the Dundee directories show John as an architect, with some attempt at diversification in the mid-1860s when he described his business as “Architects & Civil Engineers”. In fact, he later claimed to have barely made a living at architecture and it was only when he went into property that he began to make any amount of money. John’s first purchase was in 1872 and was a four-storey block of buildings at 14-22 Arbroath Road, Dundee. He bought this block from George Slimman, who ran a lath-splitting business, for the sum of £1,800 – but George Slimman in fact loaned him the full amount. This, the equivalent of a 100% mortgage, would seem risky enough in itself – but John would later borrow another £150 from a JD Ramsay, a farmer of Menzies Hill, using the same property as security! In 1879, the rental income from this property amounted to £133, from which John would need to finance the interest on his loan before receiving any net income.