John Roebuck, the son of a master cutler, was born in Sheffield in 1718. Coming from a family of known dissenters, i.e. those who opposed the views of the established church, the normal channels of education were not open to him. He at first attended Philip Dodridge’s Academy in Northampton, where he quickly established himself as a gifted pupil, and then to Edinburgh University, where he studied medicine and chemistry. In 1738 he went on to the University of Leyden in Holland and graduated in 1743. Roebuck then returned to Birmingham where he set up a medical practice. However, he soon commenced experiments into industrial chemistry and this path led him into contact with local businessman, Samuel Garbett. Abandoning medicine, he, along with Garbett, set up a company, thought to have been for the recovery, using acid, of precious metals from old plated goods. Roebuck, using some of the knowledge gained at Leyden, then came up with an idea to mass-produce sulphuric acid. This involved the use of large lead tanks instead of the normal, fragile, glass retorts. The Birmingham Vitriol Manufactory, soon brought the partners a respectable income. However, the owner of the basic patent for the manufacture of sulphuric acid soon took legal action against them. It is thought that to avoid the English courts of law, the partners, in 1749, relocated to Prestonpans in Scotland. There they established the Prestonpans Vitriol Manufactory. In this east coast town, they came into contact with businessman William Cadell of Cockenzie.
It would seem, according to later events, that the pair were eager to diversify into any profitable project that materialised. Garbett, in 1751, was first to join with Cadell in establishing the Prestonpans Pottery. There is also evidence to suggest that the trio had also planned to embark in a “copperas plan”, the chemical outcome used in inks, tanning and in the coating of iron guns. This was abandoned for the adventure which became the smelting of iron using coked pit coals. It was Roebuck who experimented with the Darby method, and who was responsible for the eventual layout of the foundry near Falkirk, which became the mighty Carron Works. He also latterly gave it the name – The Carron Company, based on his inspiration in Shropshire – The Coalbrookdale Company.
However, even as the project at Carron was underway, John Roebuck got involved in a useless scheme mining coal at Bo’ness. This soon involved him more and more to the detriment of his interest at Carron. It was due to his ever-flooding coal pit that encouraged him to bring young James Watt to Bo’ness with the expectation of an efficient steam engine to pump out the water from the pit. At this stage Roebuck was living in Kinneil House, one of the family homes of the Duke of Hamilton, and Watt’s workshop there remains as a picturesque ruin. However, his debts soon consumed him and he was forced to pull out of the Carron Company partnership and his share in Watt’s invention. Bankruptcy followed. He spent the remainder of his life struggling with the coal business for which he was paid a wage. He also founded the Bo’ness Pottery Company in 1784.
No image of Dr Roebuck survives but we do have this description of him:
“He was a man of middle stature, square in frame without being stout, ruddy in complexion with finely modelled features, which a bright hazel eye made luminous and pleasant. Attired for the most part in faded black he, when at Carron, and not in chatty converse with the more intelligent of the skilled workmen whom he brought there from time to time, was often to be found musing on the banks of the river Carron. Freemasonry took his interest, he was a member of Lodge Pythagoric at Bo’ness.“
Dr Roebuck died on the 15th of July 1794 and his body was laid to rest in the Carriden Churchyard where friends erected a tombstone inscribed with his virtues. The text ends with these words:- “…… under this tombstone lies no ordinary man, John Roebuck MD.”
Brian Watters (2006)