John Russell

IN 1785, Falkirk's town fathers, the Stentmaister's, decided the steeple clock at the Tolbooth was in need of urgent repair and invited tradesmen to tender for the job.

John Russell - Royal WatchmakerThe contract to "repair, wind-up and keep the clock in good order" was awarded to John Russell, a man destined to become one of Falkirk's most famous and respected Bairns, and someone entitled to include Kings, Princesses and Czars among his list of admirers.

Russell was, by all accounts, something of a genius when it came to the mechanics of time pieces. He was born in Dennyloanhead in 1745, but by 1765 had settled in Falkirk and established himself as a watch and clockmaker of repute, considered by his peers as someone with a "remarkable aptitude for mechanics and an inventive turn of mind".

But Russell was also a cash-smart businessman who, after agreeing to maintain Falkirk's most famous landmark, consistently haggled with his employers for more money. Records of the time show Russell was hired by the Stentmaister's in 1785 for 16 shillings and eight pence a year - but by 1797 his hard bargaining had pushed that up to four guineas!

Russell, who had quit his apprenticeship as a turner to design and make clocks and watches, and later barometers and thermometers; had first underlined his impressive skills two years earlier by giving the world the first-ever organ clock. This amazing timekeeper played a tune every two hours - and there were 12 different tunes to choose from!

He topped that a few years later by creating a chamber barrel organ clock with four stops capable of playing "24 different tunes of pleasure" and neatly fitted up in a mahogany case. His talents quickly established him as a specialist watch and clock maker of the highest standard, and as the demand for his services grew so did his business, Russell moving to larger premises in the High Street opposite the Steeple in 1798.

As his reputation spread, he came to the notice of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, who was so impressed with Russell's work he appointed him "Watchmaker for Scotland". Russell, delighted with this "royal seal of approval", responded in 1803 by presenting one of his by now highly acclaimed barometers to King George III. This was a prize to be prized indeed, because it was acknowledged that no other watch and clockmaker in the country could match the skill and accuracy of Russell's work.

He also handed his sovereign a watch he had made for Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales which was highly unusual because it beat in seconds. Russell travelled to London again years later, to hand over a gold chronometer watch personally to the Prince Regent and a small wooden box, made from wood of Wallace's tree at Torwood and containing wheat found in a vault of the Roman Wall at Castlecary, to the king.

In 1817 he completed a commission to make one of his "royal" barometers for His Imperial Majesty Alexander of Russia. The barometer, along with a letter, was presented to the Czar by Russell's trusted friend, Sir James Wylie.

It is unlikely he ever saw any reply because a few weeks later, on September 25, 1817, John. Russell, watch and clock maker to royalty died.

Tribute to a Leading Man of His Time

John Russell's obituary, carried in all the leading newspapers, summed up the man perfectly.

It read "Died in Falkirk, on September 25th 1817, Mr. John Russell, watchmaker to His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent. From a different line of trade to which he was originally bred, by his ingenuity and industry he raised himself to an eminent and prominent situation in his profession."

A few days later Falkirk Parish Church kirk session reported that one of its most famous sons had been buried in an "unclaimed grave to the west of Sir John de Graeme's monument and that his heirs had paid their dues accordingly."

Given his place in Falkirk's history, it is unfortunate that no-one can actually go and pay their respects at his graveside today.

Between 1959 and 1962, all the tombstones in the churchyard - except those of "historic" importance - were cleared away. In hindsight, that is something that should never have happened.

Examples of John Russell's work are still collectible and highly prized. Earlier this year one of his 'royal' barometers went to auction - with a reserve price of £44,000 - and just a few months ago one of his more modest mahogany stick barometers was auctioned by Christie's in London... and sold for more than £5000.

Christie's furniture expert Robert Copley said "Russell was one of the most prominent clock makers of the period and his barometers are highly collectible."

John Russell - Royal WatchmakerA Highly Important and Very Rare Regency Period "Royal Barometer" By the Royal barometer maker to His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent, John Russell of Falkirk. circa 1814

Known as his famous Royal Wheel Barometer, the painted white dial with gilded beveled edges, presents two subsidiary indexes, having cut steel hands, signed 'J. Russell, Falkirk inv't et fecit-watchmaker to R.H. the Prince Regent' contained in a mahogany case edged with gilt metal rope twist mounts, having two "verre eglomise" panels above and below the dial delicately executed in gold on a black ground; the thermometer above set on a silvered brass plate engraved with three scales, Reaumer, Fahrenheit and the Royal Society, with Russell's signature at the bottom right hand corner of this plate. The case is surmounted by a fine gilt metal Prince of Wales feather finial.

Falkirk Steeple - centrepiece of the High Street

John's Steeple Clock Gesture

Falkirk Steeple ClockTOWARDS the end of the 18th century the Tolbooth, previously known as Baron Court and the site of the town jail, was sold to William Glen of Forganhall by William Forbes, owner of the Callendar Estate.

This newcomer to the town planned to build houses and open shops on the land, and the Stentmaister's - after advising him to make sure the work did not threaten the Steeple - gave their approval.

Glen's excavations DID damage and weaken the Steeple which, because it already leaned slightly to the east, started to lean even more dramatically in that direction and a crack appeared. By 1803, it was in serious danger of falling down and the town fathers, mindful of the threat to "life and limb", ordered it to be "cast to the ground". They then promptly sued Glen for the money that would be needed to rebuild Falkirk's famous tower. Then, like now, the wheels of justice turned agonisingly slowly and, because of the amount of claims and counter claims to be considered, the case against Glen took eight years to resolve, by which time he had died.

It was finally decided in 1811, in the House of Lords no less, that the trustees of Glen's estate should be charged with the cost of building Falkirk a new steeple. In an effort to speed things along, the Stentmaister's decided to fund the work to "restore Falkirk's former glory" themselves and get the money back from Glen's trustees later. A Glasgow architect of repute, David Hamilton, was invited to design it and a public appeal raised £456.2 shillings to have the work done.

John Russell - Royal WatchmakerIn September 1814, just when the new building was nearing completion, the Stentmaister's agreed to purchase a clock for the Steeple by taking up John Russell's offer to "do the town I reside in a favour by making a clock for the Steeple at the lowest possible rate".

Russell Dial - click for more info...That "rate" was agreed at £100 and Russell even allowed the Stentmaister's to pay him in installments - interest free, While Russell's offer might have been a bit flippant, he was genuinely proud to be involved in the project and, as expected, the excellence and workmanship of the clock was widely acclaimed. He took great pride in its construction and used only the best materials. His Steeple clock served the people of Falkirk for over 100 years until it was damaged by lightning in 1927.

It is now exhibited, in full working order, in the National Museum in Edinburgh.

For more information go to the Horology Links page...

Doctor Given His Orders Over Bell Ringing Times

AS well as a clock, Falkirk's new Steeple was to feature a bell. John Russell ordered it from London-based Thomas Mears and one of Carron Company's merchant boats was hired to bring it to the town.

The bell carried the motto, "May Falkirk Flourish".

By August 1816, doubts were being expressed about the positioning of the bell and Russell along with well-known Falkirk wheel wright Michael Muir and Henry Taylor, the mason who had built the Steeple, were asked to investigate the re-hanging of the bell so that more people would actually be able to hear it.

About this time, several churches in the town asked that the "great bell" be rung at certain times of the day - "at a quarter before 11; a quarter before two; eight o'clock on Sabbaths; six o'clock in the morning and 10 in the evening on week days; and nine o'clock in the morning of market days".

As several of the worthies who had helped pay the £200 needed to buy and deliver the bell threatened to ask for their money back if this did not happen, the Stentmaister's, not surprisingly, agreed. But the decision sparked protest from the minister of the parish, Dr James Wilson, who argued that ringing the bell on these times would cause "much inconvenience and confusion" as it had been traditional to only ring the town bell at the same time as the church bell on Sundays.

Dr Wilson felt so strongly about the issue, he threatened to take his protest to the Court of Session. The Stentmaister's took legal advice and told the good doctor he had no right to try and prevent them ringing the bell at the times requested by the bell's sponsors - so they did.