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Russell, Sir Peter Nicol (1816–1905)

by Arthur Corbett and Ann Pugh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Sir Peter Nicol Russell (1816-1905), ironfounder and benefactor, was born on 4 July 1816 at Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland, second son of eleven children of Robert Russell, ironfounder, and his wife Janet, née Nicol. His father and uncle, Alexander Russell, operated the Kirkcaldy Foundry and Engineering Works. When his sons were old enough to enter the business, Robert dissolved the partnership and established the Phoenix Foundry and Engineering Works. Peter went to the Kirkcaldy Grammar School and then worked for his father. A severe financial depression in 1830 decided the family to migrate to Canada, but a friend persuaded them to settle in Van Diemen's Land. In the Anne Jamieson they arrived in Hobart Town in June 1832.

Robert sold his 2000-acre (809 ha) grant, which was too densely timbered to be cleared, and, assisted by his sons Robert, Peter and John, started a general engineering and foundry business which grew for six years. Because of limited opportunities the family moved to Sydney in 1838, leaving Peter to wind up the business. After Robert retired his sons established Russell Bros in Queen's Square, with works built on the banks of the Tank Stream. They benefited from Robert's experience and advice until he died on 25 December 1840; his widow retained a financial interest in the firm. Russell Bros expanded quickly and soon moved to Macquarie Place, where new workshops were erected and stores acquired in Bridge Street.

In 1842 when Robert and John refused an offer to buy James Blanche's foundry Peter decided to take it over. His brothers stipulated that he take only a little of his share of the family capital, and with assistance from his mother he bought the business for £2000 on three-year terms and quickly opened under the name of The Sydney Foundry and Engineering Works. Within two years he had paid off the purchase price and was receiving many orders. He won contracts for the ironwork for Victoria Barracks at Paddington, Darlinghurst Gaol and the Newcastle and Maitland gaols. He had contracts for all the ironwork required by the New South Wales government and the Sydney Municipal Council as well as some private work. He also supplied his brothers with brass and iron castings. They had now branched out into shipbuilding, but a financial collapse resulted in the winding up of Russell Bros and great loss to The Sydney Foundry. Robert went to the Philippines to install plant and equipment and died there in 1849. John assisted Peter for a time then with his financial aid traded in the Pacific, but eventually returned to Sydney.

In 1855 a five-year partnership was formed as P. N. Russell & Co. In 1859 Peter was the resident partner in London, with John Russell and J. W. Dunlop (who had been works foreman) in Sydney and George Russell in Melbourne. The firm flourished as 'Engineers, Founders and Importers'. New premises were built in Pitt Street and workshops extended over a large waterfront area at Darling Harbour with a warehouse in George Street through to York Street. Contracts were received for railway bridges, rolling stock, steam dredges, quartz crushers and flour-mills, also gunboats for the New Zealand government for use in the Maori wars.

In 1859 Peter married Charlotte, eldest daughter of Dr Alexander Lorimer, deputy inspector general of hospitals at Madras, and returned to Sydney with her. Next year they went back to London where he continued to act as the firm's representative. In Sydney Dunlop was in control until 1863 when he resigned to form a partnership with Norman Selfe. After much industrial unrest in 1873-74 P. N. Russell & Co. was closed. John arranged for the sale of the engineering warehouse section and went to London where he died in 1879. Greatly upset by the firm's closure, Peter visited Sydney in 1877 to settle legal matters, but soon returned to England. In 1885 he sold his extensive property in Brisbane and in 1886 visited Australia for the last time.

On 16 December 1895 the Senate of the University of Sydney accepted Russell's gift of £50,000 to the school of engineering and his condition that it be called the 'Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering'. In 1904 he offered to provide a further £50,000 for engineering scholarships on the agreement of the government to make available £25,000 for additional accommodation. Knighted in June 1904, he died childless on 10 July 1905 at his home in Porchester Gate, London, survived by his wife. His estate in New South Wales was valued for probate at £98,648. He left £13,000 to charitable organizations in Sydney, as well as £3000 to the Engineering Association of New South Wales. On the foundation of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, in 1919 it established the Peter Nicol Russell memorial medal, awarded annually to a member for a notable contribution to engineering in Australia.

Russell's portrait by Sir William Orchardson, R.A., is in the possession of the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Corbett, The Institution of Engineers, Australia (Syd, 1973)
  • ‘Sir Peter Nicol Russell, a great engineer …’, Australasian Engineer, Aug 1941
  • P. H. Russell, ‘Sir Peter Nicol Russell’, JRAHS, 50 (1964-65)
  • A. Pugh, ‘One hundred years ago’, Institution of Engineers, Australia, Journal, July-Aug 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12, 13 July 1905
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 12 July 1905, p 7, 'Charitable Bequests', Times (London), 10 Aug 1905, p 2.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Arthur Corbett and Ann Pugh, 'Russell, Sir Peter Nicol (1816–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/russell-sir-peter-nicol-4527/text7411, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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