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P.N. Russell & Co

P.N. Russell & Co

Founding a foundry

From a small family business on the banks of the Tank Stream, Peter Nicol Russell went on to become a major player in 19th-century industrial Sydney.

In 1841, Russell left Russell Bros foundry in Macquarie Place to take over the late James Blanche’s foundry in George Street, on the present site of the Dymocks Building. The foundry is believed to be the first of its kind in Australia producing both iron and brass castings.

Russell’s Sydney Foundry sought contracts from the colonial government and Sydney Municipal Council. In 1843, Russell supplied the newly formed council with cast iron ward boundary markers.

Ward boundary marker, 1973 Ward boundary marker, corner of Plunkett Street and Bourke Street, 1973. (CRS 871/71, City of Sydney Archives)

Following the English tradition, the markers were placed by the council on corners and survey points to display the city boundaries. They were labelled ‘Hosking, Mayor’, with the appropriate ward name, while ‘P.N. Russell, Sydney Foundry’ was stamped on the bottom. A relocated boundary ward marker still survives in Sydney Square, next to Town Hall.

The Sydney Foundry also manufactured stoves, kitchen ranges, railings, architectural building columns and bells, bolts, nails and steam-engine parts. With business booming, Russell established the Sussex Street Engine Works at Day’s Wharf in Sussex Street at the foot of Margaret Street.

Ward boundary marker, Sydney Square, George Street Relocated ward boundary marker, Sydney Square, George Street, 2006.

P. N. Russell & Co

In 1855 Peter Nicol Russell founded P.N. Russell & Co, in partnership with his brothers John and George Russell, and James Wilkie Dunlop, the works’ foreman. P.N. Russell & Co incorporated the Sydney Foundry and the Sussex Street Engine Works. The company prospered and in 1859 expanded to another site in Barker Street (off Bathurst Street) with wharf access at the head of Darling Harbour. This became their main works; the Sussex Street engine works and the foundry in George Street subsequently closed.

Drawing of Sussex Street Engine Works & Russell’s Wharf Perspective drawing of the Sussex Street Engine Works & Russell’s Wharf. (Part of an advertisement, publication unknown. Courtesy of Ian Bowie, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney)

P.N. Russell & Co became one of the largest engineering works in Australia, manufacturing engines, boilers, tanks, wool-washing machinery, hay presses, quartz-crushing machinery, ships, railway rolling stock and ‘every other description of machinery’. It erected gas and waterworks, road and railway bridges and was one of the first engineering works in Australia to introduce standardised engine design and manufacturing. The company continued to produce cast iron columns and ornamental architectural ironwork and was a major importer of machinery, maintaining several warehouses.

Peter Nicol Russell retired as an active member of the firm in 1860 and returned to London to act as its overseas representative and purchasing agent. The business was left in the hands of the partners, which now included George Alexander Murray, a financial manager. Foreman Dunlop became the engineering head of the firm until his retirement in 1863.

Russell’s wharf drawing with stamp battery on the left Russell’s wharf, with a stamp battery for crushing quartz on the left. (Photograph courtesy of Ian Bowie, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Sydney)

A story for our time

P.N. Russell & Co abruptly closed in 1875 with a dramatic "lock-out". The company’s reputation amongst iron workers had been poor since the late 1850s. A bitter dispute broke out in 1861 when the company gave a fortnight’s notice of a 10 per cent wage cut. Workers rejected the company’s efficiency argument – they were already poorly paid in comparison to other iron workers – and went on strike. The strike spread to other companies. Within a month, they also demanded an 8 hour day. The strike petered out after 6 months, despite the iron workers winning a court battle.

In October 1873 iron workers again went on strike, demanding the 8 hour day with 2 meal breaks. Iron companies initially capitulated, but then on 31 December 1873 withdrew the conditions with just 2 days’ notice. Another strike ensued over the first two months of 1874. A compromise was reached: 2 meal breaks in summer; 1 in winter.

But squabbles among the partners at P.N. Russell & Co added to the company’s woes. Unrest continued. So the entire company – engineering works, warehouses and wharves – was closed in June 1875. More than 600 men lost their jobs.

Workers at P.N.Russell & Co Managers and workers at P. N. Russell & Co. (Small Picture File, SPF/504, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)

Russell's Engineering Legacy

But Russell’s legacy is more than a successful businessman or strong-willed industrial capitalist. He helped expand Australian engineering practice, making 2 £50,000 endowments for the benefit and training of young engineers to the University of Sydney in 1895 and 1904. The Peter Nicol Russell School of Engineering, now known as the Woolley Building, opened in 1909. A number of scholarships were also established, the first awarded in 1900 to Roger Vine-Hall, who later became the first Chief Electrical Engineer of the Sydney City Council. The university also has two professorial chairs commemorating Russell.

In addition, Russell was instrumental in the establishment of the Engineering Association of New South Wales, later a founding society of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. The Institution commemorated him by establishing the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal in 1919, their highest award. The first recipient of the medal in 1923 was, appropriately, Professor William Henry Warren, the founding chair of engineering at the University of Sydney.

Sources and further reading titles are available.

Last updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2012