James Russell was a born in 1815, possibly in Fife, and came to Motherwell to work as a boilermaker. In his time in the burgh he would rise through the ranks of Motherwell society as a businessman, factory owner, and the burgh’s first provost.
Russell founded the first boiler works in Motherwell in 1864 on Park Street. Boilers were an important part of industry in Scotland. If made well, their steam could power the machinery for any number of factories. Made poorly, and they were liable to explode! Thus, boiler engineers were always looking for a way to improve the design and production of boilers and Russell was no exception. In fact, he is possibly the inventor of a machine for rimming, fairing, and widening rivet holes for steam boilers.
Boiler making has a long history in Lanarkshire. To learn more, check out: Boilermaking, a Forgotten History
Russell was also director and chairman of the Motherwell Gas Company almost continuously from 1871 to 1901. Since boilers are frequently fueled by gas, Russell had a vested interest in making sure that gas was readily available to the industries of Motherwell. Not only was this company in charge of keeping the streetlamps lit, but it supplied gas to many of the industries in Motherwell. James’s son George would also serve as director at the Gas Company, which would eventually supply gas to such influential industrial works as the iron and steelworks of future provost Matthew Goodman, the crane works of future provost John Grieve, and George’s own crane works.
James Russell also built and owned the two-story tenements known as Russell Place, and his home was one of the first houses built on Brandon Street in Motherwell.
Russell was a deeply religious man and helped found the Brandon Street Church. As president of the church, which opened in 1866, he both laid the memorial stone and affixed the weathervane.
In 1877, the issue of temperance divided the church. Many parishioners felt that the use of fermented wine in the communion services was improper. About a hundred members eventually left Brandon Street Church to form Cairns Church. Because of their practice of taking non-alcoholic communion, Cairns Church was sometimes referred to as the ‘Jelly Water Kirk’. Russell, however, was not one of their number: he stayed a loyal member of the Brandon Street Church for the entirety of his life.
The Burgh of Motherwell was established in 1865, and Russell was elected as its first provost. It would not have taken long to count the votes in this election: only 29 townspeople voted out of a total electorate of 86.
Of course, even this total electorate represented only 2% of Motherwell’s 1865 population of 4,261. With a large population of poor, non-landowning, immigrant workers, very few of Motherwell’s residents would have qualified for the vote. Not to mention that the female population would have been entirely exempt. Women would not get the vote in Scotland until 1918 – and even then, only if they were over 30 and owned property.
Russell would spend 3 years as the city’s provost, succeeded by the grocer William King in 1868.
Russell remained active in Motherwell well into his later life. Even in his 80s and 90s, he could be seen driving around town in his carriage and attending public events. Though he was apparently particularly proud of his advanced age, he disliked when anyone called him old. And little wonder! He remained sharp and energetic despite his many decades. The Motherwell Times recalls an incident near the end of Russell’s life:
He drove up to our [photography] Studio for the purpose of having his photograph taken. In due course proofs were submitted to him and in a few days he again called. He expressed his satisfaction with the results and also made a remark that he could dispose of a considerable number of the photographs “if he got them cheap,” which showed that advancing years had not dulled his keen business instinct.
– The Motherwell Times 22 March 1936
Russell died in 1911, at the age of 96.
The Russells remained an important family in Motherwell. The family continued to run Russell Place, and His eldest son, George, founded the engineering and crane-building firm of George Russell and Co. Ltd. Alpha Works in Park Street.
Crane production also has a long history in Lanarkshire. To learn more, check out: Engineering Lanarkshire: the Crane Makers