This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969
John Vans Agnew Bruce (1822-1863), road and railway construction contractor, was born in Edinburgh, the son of John Vans Agnew Bruce and his wife Catharina, née Robertson; he was said to be descended from one of the oldest families in Galloway. He gained his early railroading experience in Scotland and arrived in Victoria on 4 April 1854 'with only a £5 note in his pocket'. He soon formed a profitable partnership with Peter Le Page at Gisborne, tendering for road construction contracts, notably the main road from Melbourne to Mount Alexander. After the partnership was dissolved on 13 September 1856 Bruce continued to supply and spread road metal in that area. By 1857 he was well known as one of the largest employers of labour in the colony. In August 1857 a group of Gisborne residents petitioned him to stand for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Bourke, but Bruce was too busy with contracting to enter politics. In 1858 he joined William Cornish in a successful tender of £3,357,000 for the first thirteen sections of the Melbourne to River Murray railway. Their line reached Sunbury ahead of schedule on 13 January 1859, but Cornish died in March and work was delayed by strikes on the northern sections: Woodend was not reached until 18 July 1861, and the line was opened to Bendigo on 26 October 1862. On 3 March 1859 Bruce had moved to Castlemaine where the works could be more adequately supervised and where by 1860 he had established a large foundry turning out rolling stock and railway plant.
Bruce was determined to make a large profit from the huge contract by reducing wages and lowering the working conditions of the thousands who clamoured for employment. Strikes and demonstrations were frequent as the trade unions unsuccessfully tried to maintain their position in a period of deflation: in July 1858 workmen protested at payment by truck; by November 1860 Bruce had forced the strong Stonemasons' Society to agree to his terms by bringing four hundred German masons to the colony to compete with them. In July he had tried to compel the workmen to accept monthly payments, but the government intervened and fortnightly settlements were restored. Demonstrations erupted into violence in 1861 when Bruce reduced all wages by 2s. a day and rioting workmen smashed machinery, assaulted overseers and made three attempts to derail trains.
In 1859 a select committee had investigated reports that Bruce was using inferior materials and submitting false measurements. Its first chairman, John Woods, had to resign after an alleged attempt by Bruce to bribe him, but his use of inferior cement was proved and the committee recommended that government supervision of the contract be tightened. Bruce had enough friends in the government to escape with anything but a mild censure. Certainly the huge contract made him a powerful figure: parliament was told that he 'circulated more money and had more patronage than the government or any individual in the colony', and he was not above using it to achieve his ends. His own engineer, William Zeal, to whom he paid a salary of more than £2000 was earning £600 as a government engineer at the beginning of the line's construction. Charles Don, the working-class member of parliament, claimed that Bruce had once said that any man could be bought for money. Despite his merciless handling of labour he maintained a show of philanthropy, acting in 1863 as chairman of the Irish Relief Committee and working to secure an annual government grant to colonial charitable appeals.
On completion of the railway contract he returned to Melbourne but after an attack of apoplexy died suddenly at his Essendon home on 5 April 1863 aged 41. A Freemason, he was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by his wife Margaret Menzies, née Macfarlane, and by two sons and two daughters. His descendants and those of his partner were left to face the long legal battle for recognition by the government of additional financial claims from the railway contract.
John Maxwell, 'Bruce, John Vans Agnew (1822–1863)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bruce-john-vans-agnew-3094/text4583, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 2 September 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969