John Bruce (1826-1900), architect


When the family left Newport, they crossed back over to the Dundee side of the Tay, settling at Barnhill on the edge of Broughty Ferry. John belonged to a group of partners who had invested in plots of building land in this area, hoping to make money from the growing number of middle-class people leaving Dundee to settle in the more pleasant areas in and around the old fishing village of Broughty Ferry. Whether John moved because he preferred the new area, because he wanted to be closer to his investments, or because he wanted the money from renting out “Cadzow Castle” is not clear. But he was certainly beginning to have financial problems. He had employed one Andrew Duncan, for instance, as an architect but still owed him part of his salary from the previous year. In the year they moved over to Barnhill, Andrew Duncan’s salary was £100, but he received only £38.

Over the next year or so, these problems increased – the worst was the Barnhill speculation, for he had put a considerable amount of money into it, but got little back. Eventually, faced with mounting debts to Andrew Duncan and others, typically tradesmen who had probably carried out building work for him, he penned the same sort of note that his father once had, applying for bankruptcy. This note, to John Proctor Kydd, a solicitor of Dundee, was written on 16 December 1879. Andrew Duncan was the creditor named on the consequential “Petition for Sequestration and Deliverance” and Duncan’s sworn statement showed that, from his salary of £100 per year for part of 1877, 1878 and 1879 up to September, he was still owed £158 10s.

The following day, the Sheriff Substitute of Forfarshire declared that he was sequestering “the estates belonging to John Bruce Architect of Dundee”, going on to say that, in the usual legal formula, he “declares the same to belong to his creditors”. John’s creditors were instructed to hold a meeting at Lamb’s Hotel, Reform Street on 27th December, where they should appoint a Trustee to administer John’s estate. The same document also formally granted John protection from arrest or imprisonment for civil debt. (In England, until 1861 insolvent people not engaged in trade or business could not be made bankrupt, but could be jailed, Dickens-style, until those debts were paid. Thus, this protection referred to a very real threat.) This meeting duly elected Daniel McIntyre, an accountant from Dundee, as the Trustee with the job of realising as much money as possible from John’s estate to satisfy his creditors.

In the meantime, the officials were proceeding with the task of valuing that estate. It is with considerable shock that we read they arrived at John’s house in Barnhill to carry out that valuation on Christmas Day 1879. The “Inventory & Valuation of Household Furniture and Effects” may make fascinating reading for us, but it symbolised financial ruin for John.

Parlour Folding table & cover; sofa; six chairs; chest of drawers with bookcase above; 30 volumes of books; corner press & old chair; five engravings; carpet & rug; fender and irons; sewing machine; six tumblers; four glasses; nine rummers; tea china.
Lobby Floor-cloth; chair; eight day clock; umbrella stand; picture; three paintings.
Bedroom(s) Mahogany Parisian bedstead; iron bedstead; two straw mattresses; flock mattress; hair mattress; four pairs of blankets; two pairs of sheets; bolster & pillows; bedcover; three chairs; fender and irons; lamp; wardrobe (“claimed as property of Mrs Bruce” – but counted anyway).
Kitchen Old sideboard; table; five chairs; floor-cloth; fender; iron bedstead and bedding; cooking utensils; crockery & china; soup divider; six spoons; half a dozen knives & forks.
Washing House Old press; dresser; sundries.
Attic Crib bedstead.
Lawn mower; office table; old piano (valued at 7s 6d); mirror.

We presume that the family at this stage was simply John and Annie, with their two sons, George, who was six, and Jack, three. In addition to this, the valuators also assessed John’s office in Dundee (probably 31 Bank St, where George had been born), where we learn that he kept three rooms – one for an office, one for his clerks and a back room where there was a bed, perhaps for any of his staff burning the midnight oil, or perhaps bought for those nights when he couldn’t get back across the Tay to Newport. John had clearly been attempting to raise cash, for the valuators added a note that there were a further four items in Mr Ritchie’s saleroom in Dundee – an oak sofa in American cloth, an oak table, oak sideboard and marble top basin and stand. The sum total of his office and household effects? £60s 4d


In fact, the above list may not be wholly accurate for several reasons. When John was formally examined on 12 January 1880 before John Cheyne, the Sheriff Substitute of Forfarshire, Daniel McIntyre, Trustee for his estate and others, he was questioned closely about his furniture. It seems that, before the sequestration, realising that their possessions were under threat, John’s wife Annie had decided she was having none of that and had removed some of their furniture to an empty house close by. However, John stated, “I have had it all carried back this morning and it is all in my house.”

Further questioning followed in relation to some furniture originally from a Mr Ritchie. “When we went to Barnhill, we got a loan of some furniture from Mr Mungo Ritchie until we got our own furniture,” John said. (The old Newport house had been let fully furnished.) John had moved the loaned furniture to his neighbour’s house before his sequestration, to avoid it getting mixed up with his own. Obviously, the suspicion was that John had bought it and was concealing it from his creditors. He conceded that he might have discussed prices for this stuff, but claimed he never actually purchased it.

One other intriguing thing pops up in this interview. There is an artistic ability in my Bruce ancestry – Dad is a good amateur artist while his Uncle Bob showed his own pictures at various high quality exhibitions. John actually mentioned paintings in his interview, when he said that some of the pictures in his house were his son’s. “Those that belonged to him were his own productions, with the exception of one, a summer scene by Marshall, which was presented to him by the artist.” The presumption must be that these pictures belonged to the nineteen year old James Bruce, rather than six year old George, and suggests that James had the same artistic gene. Since James and our side have different mothers, that gene must have come from John, our common ancestor. This doesn’t just show where our family’s ability comes from, but makes more understandable John’s switch from the textiles business to architecture – clearly some sort of visual or artistic ability made the alternative seem much more interesting to him.

The Creditors

So how much money did John owe his creditors, and what was his ability to pay? At the creditors’ meeting on Saturday 27 December 1879, the following people had arranged legal representation to swear that John owed them money:

Kidd & Lindsay, joiners……………………………. £106 7s 4 ½d

Kinnison & Dickson, painters………………………. £68 15s 2d

Alexander Duncan, slater, Dundee………………. £51 7s 11d

Alexander Duncan, architect, Balcathrie…………. £158 10s

Ireland Leitch & Co., coal merchants………………….. £7 15s

I can’t help thinking the coal merchants were standing on their dignity! At the meeting a further six creditors added their claims, ranging from William Millar, “Italian warehouseman, Nethergate, Dundee” (£6 3s ½d) to William Mitchell, plumbers (£49 15s 6d) via John Stewart & Sons, Nurseryman & Seedsman, Dundee (£11 19s 4d). The first group, and some of the second, seem to have been people who might have done building work for John as part of his architectural or property businesses – the second group tended towards retail concerns – drapers and clothiers, for example, as well as the nurseryman.

When an initial assessment had been made of John financial affairs, at the point when his estate was sequestered, John’s assets totalled £706 10s 3d, against debts of £950 1s 10d – a deficit of £243 11s 7d. What had happened to the Arbroath St property that he had bought for £1,800? Although valued at £2,000, his “mortgage” debt (to use a modern term) amounted to £1,960 – result – minimal value. The same applied to his old house across the Tay in Newport, Fife and to two lots of land at Barnhill. As for his partnership in the 14 acre joint venture at Barnhill – “the bankrupt’s contributions have been considerable” but the valuators were not impressed with the sites and counted John’s share of them for no value.

Like any tradesman and businessman of his time, there were others who owed John money. If all those debts had been paid, John’s estate would have been in surplus – unfortunately, only £145 1s 8d could be counted as good debts, and even there the trustee reckoned on only getting in three-quarters of the money owed. Some £481 were discounted as bad debts and written off as worthless.