John Russell

John Russell, Falkirk’s most noted clockmaker, was born about 1745, at Dennyloanhead.  In early life he was apprenticed to a trade – probably that of a wright – but showing remarkable aptitude for mechanics, and proving himself of an inventive turn of mind, he drifted away from his original calling to the trade of watch and clock making, and by his ingenuity and industry he raised himself to an eminent and prominent position in his profession.  The exact date at which Russell settled in Falkirk is somewhat difficult to fix, but it was probably between the years 1765 and 1770.  We first find him chosen as a Stintmaster in 1780, when he represented the watch and clock makers.  He was also a member of the Hammermen’s Society of Falkirk, and interested himself in the town’s affairs.  In 1798 Russell purchased “a tenement of land and two merchant booths belonging thereto in Falkirk and a dwelling-house, being part of the 16s 8d land of the town and lands of Falkirk, par. Falkirk on Disposition, by Robert Buchanan, journeyman coppersmith, Perth.”  This property was immediately to “the east of the Commercial Bank”.

Russell was the inventor of a barometer known as “The Royal Barometer.”  He claimed that by his improved construction the rise and fall of the mercury could be ascertained to the “thousandth part of an inch.” These brought prices varying from fifteen to twenty guineas (and still fetch high prices!).  He had the honour of presenting in person one of these to King George III, and subsequently another to the Prince Regent, who were pleased to express their approbation of them.

A London newspaper named “The Star” issued on Friday, 15th July, 1803, contains an account of Russell’s interview with the King and the Royal Family:-

On Wednesday last Mr John Russell, of Falkirk, watchmaker for Scotland to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, had the honour of being introduced to the King at Windsor, by General Cartwright, in consequence of a recommendation from the Right Hon. Lord Melville, and of presenting to his Majesty a new and curious barometer of his invention, by which the rise and fall of the mercury is ascertained to the thousandth part of an inch. His Majesty received Mr Russell with that affability and condescension which are so prominent features in his character; examined the instrument – which was opened to show him the mechanism – with great minuteness, and asked such pertinent questions as proved his Majesty to be well acquainted with the principles of natural philosophy and mechanics. Mr Russell had the honour also of shewing and explaining to his Majesty a curious watch of his making, which beats dead seconds, and which he intends to present to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Both these instruments were afterwards inspected by her Majesty, the Princess Elizabeth, the Duke of Cambridge, and other branches of the Royal Family, who were all pleased to express their approbation of them. Mr Russell then retired, much flattered with the reception he had experienced, and impressed with a high sense of the attention which his Majesty and the Royal Family pay to the protection of the Arts and to the encouragement of ingenious men.”

Russell, it should be mentioned, held the appointment of, and acted as, “Watchmaker for Scotland to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent.”  In 1817 – the year of Russell’s death – acting under the advice of Lord Keith, he presented one of his Royal Barometers to his Imperial Majesty Alexander of Russia.  The presentation to the Russian autocrat was entrusted to Sir James Wylie. M.D.  The following is a copy of Russell’s address to the Emperor, which accompanied the barometer:-

Alexander, Emperor of all the Russias, may it please your Imperial Majesty to accept of a barometer, being a new invention, which shows the rise and fall of the mercury to the thousandth part of an inch. Some years ago I had the honour to present the first of them to the King, the second one to the Prince Regent, my master – having the honour to be his watchmaker for Scotland – who were both highly pleased with the new invention and improvement upon barometers. As your Imperial Majesty is a great lover of new useful inventions and improvements, the arts, and science, made me think of sending one of them to you. The barometer will show you the smallest change in the atmosphere when no other barometer will move – the range being very long. I have wrote directions to Sir James Wylie, M.D., to let him know how the barometer should be put up. – I am, your Imperial Majesty’s most obedient servant. John Russell.”

As the barometer was sent to Sir James Wylie, M.D., on 4th August, 1817, it is doubtful if Russell ever saw an acknowledgement from the Emperor, as he (Russell) died some six weeks later, and at that period postal communication was not so rapid as it is to-day.   Russell’s clocks bring large prices, and many specimens still exist; even in Holland they are to be seen. His barometers – owing to their price – were a luxury in those days, consequently few of them seem to exist. Specimens of public clocks by John Russell are those in our town steeple (now in the National Museum of Scotland) and that of the steeple of the Kirk of Kilsyth.  All tradesmen who have repaired and inspected our town clock speak in warm terms of the excellency of the workmanship. The cost was £100, being £20 less than that charged for the Kilsyth clock, the difference being practically a, gift to the town of Falkirk. Russell died at Falkirk on 24th or 25th August, 1817, and lies interred in Falkirk Parish Churchyard a little to the west of Sir John de Graham’s tomb, where a stone was erected to his memory by his brother James. His only sister, Helen Russell, married John Robertson, of Damhead, in Falkirk parish; Alexander Robertson, probably their son, was one of the principal witnesses in the trial of Baird and Hardie for the “affair” at Bonnymuir in 1820.

1978-334-1 – has a silver coloured dial with spandrels engraved in a simple geometric pattern. The upper arch is pierced to show the night sky with the face of the moon between engraved globes. Above this is engraved “Jn Russell Falkirk”. The case is of oak with fluted Corinthian columns on either side of the dial. Above the dial the hood is fretted and highlighted with red cloth. The column capitals and finials are of brass.

To read more about John Russell, click here for article by Wendy R. McPherson (pub.1996) in Calatria No 9.

G.B. Bailey, 2021