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John Munro Bruce (1840–1901)

by J. Ann Hone

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John Munro Bruce (1840-1901), businessman, was born on 10 October 1840 at Brooklawn, County Leitrim, Ireland. The early death of his father, George Williamson Bruce, left his mother in straitened circumstances but she sent John to Madras College, St Andrews, Scotland. In 1853 he rejoined her at Newry, County Down, and became apprenticed to Henry Hawkins & Co. In 1858 he sailed to Melbourne in the Ellen Stuart, arriving in December. He had various jobs before joining Laing & Webster in 1860; by 1868 he was a partner. In 1878 he resigned and next year joined a well-established softgoods firm, changing its name to Paterson, Laing & Bruce, with Bruce as its resident partner. In 1883 extensions to the warehouse made it the largest in Victoria and in 1885 new partners were admitted including his brother, George Williamson Bruce.

When the business was firmly established and prospering Bruce gave time to community affairs. He was a Harbor Trust commissioner from 1883 to 1890. In 1883 he was a Chamber of Commerce delegate at the conference on intercolonial free trade. He was a delegate at the 1888 Australasian Commercial Congress and entertained the visitors at his homes, Wombalano in Toorak and Fern Glen near Scoresby. Bruce also had time to indulge his interest in politics and played a prominent part in securing support for the Gillies-Deakin administration at the 1886 general election and was chairman of the coalition committee. Bruce was president of the Young Men's Christian Association and the Melbourne Hospital, a Centennial Exhibition commissioner and held captain's rank in the Prince of Wales Light Horse.

In 1887 Bruce visited Britain and soon after his return was plunged into the anxious years of the depression. His unwavering belief in himself, his determination and his shrewd business sense stopped him from losing heart and the firm survived. In 1897 Bruce bought out his partners with the help of English business connexions and the Bank of New South Wales, and visited England to float a limited liability company, of which he became chairman of directors. In 1899 he acquired the businesses of Lark Sons & Co. in Sydney and R. Lewis & Sons in Hobart, and the Flinders Lane warehouse was extended to produce 'an agreeable impression of solidity and magnitude upon the minds of all persons'. Bruce was president of the Warehousemen's Association, the Softgoods Association, the Royal Melbourne Liedertafel and director of the Mercantile Finance and Guarantee Co. In rare leisure moments he liked to play golf and took the lead in raising money to start the Melbourne Golf Club. According to George Meudell (The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift and his Later Reflections, Melbourne, 1935), he was 'a man of utmost integrity and of unblemished character'.

Overseas again in 1900, Bruce's health failed and he committed suicide in Paris on 4 May 1901. His comparatively early death was attributed to 'wear and tear on his own and the community's behalf'. A Baptist, Bruce was survived by his wife Mary Ann, née Henderson, whom he had married on 28 May 1872, one daughter and three of his four sons, one of whom, Stanley Melbourne, became prime minister of Australia and Viscount Bruce of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), The Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • C. Edwards, Bruce of Melbourne (Lond, 1965)
  • Journal of Commerce of Victoria, 21 May 1901
  • Table Talk, 16 May 1901
  • Australian Storekeepers' Journal, May 1901
  • Paterson, Laing & Bruce records (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Bruce, John Munro (1840–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 October, 1840
Brooklawn, Leitrim, Ireland


4 May, 1901 (aged 60)
Paris, France

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