1834 - 1917
Born in Blackheath, London, Russell was the son of a solicitor who later changed profession and became a Baptist minister. His early formal education was at Mill Hill School and then in his early teens a short period at Kings College London. When aged sixteen, he made his way to the Clyde and there commenced an apprenticeship with the new and little known shipyard of J W Hoby in the east yard at Renfrew as it is understood the proprietor was a distant relative of the Russell family. In 1854 the business collapsed, but was taken over by the creditors and Joseph Russell was able to complete his apprenticeship in the following year. On reaching his majority he was given a fairly substantial sum of money from the family, and even better appointed works manager. Possibly through his background the site became known as the London Works a name that was to stick until the late 20th century as the very long established company of William Simons (later Simons-Lobnitz) purchased the East Yard in 1860 and continued using the name. The next four years at Renfrew must have been more than exciting for a young man, having the full responsibility for a small ship building facility and simultaneously courting and marrying a local girl.
His marriage seems to have been happy; his wife was to out live him by four years and they had three sons and four daughters.
In 1859 he moved to a dockyard in Ardrossan where in a period of six years over thirty small vessels were produced. In 1866, commercial matters became more evident when he was invited by Laurence Hill to manage his shipyard in Port Glasgow. Hill was a well travelled and experienced academic. He had worked with Professor Lewis Gordon of Glasgow University in the setting up of the Loch Katrine water supply which placed Glasgow ahead of most cities for all time and which granted Glasgow the (almost) singular privilege of supplying feed water to Royal Navy ships "direct from the tap". In the three years that Russell worked there, 29 hulls were completed.
Russell left in 1869, ostensibly to be with his father who was ill and to attend to family business in London on a long term basis, but it is believed the real reason for his moving south was a series of business disagreements with his employer.
In 1873 he moved back to Scotland and set up in Port Glasgow as Russell and Company. In the next eighteen years, while principal,
he enabled this new shipyard to become known and respected throughout the maritime world. In partnership with Anderson Rodger at the beginning and then joined later by William Todd Lithgow, the yard went from strength to strength, new shipyards in the area were acquired and the number of building berths increased to an astonishing number, possibly nearly twenty in number. In the 19th century and well before the days of prefabrication, the number of building slips was a real measure of a shipyard's production capability. To induce business the partners used a series of encouragements including building "on spec" and part investment in the new ships under construction. While never in the lead technically like Denny of Dumbarton, they nevertheless, kept abreast or ahead of current technologies. In 1878 a near disaster occurred with the collapse of the City of Glasgow Bank. The devastation caused in Scotland and in many other countries was serious. Russell, who had a very modest stake, found he had to meet liabilities that were twenty eight times greater than his original outlay. With great difficulty his liabilities were met and the shipyard survived. As a matter of history, this was probably the greatest incident which enforced Westminster to bill, promulgate and
pass the Limited Liability Act. Russell and Company was to become the largest privately owned shipbuilding company in the world, and competed vigorously in the annual shipbuilding stakes of the Clyde, the United Kingdom and the world. Their reward came in 1890, when the world's greatest output (The Blue Ribband of shipbuilding) of 34 ships. (26 sailing ships and 8 steamers totalling 70 thousand gross tons) was produced in Port Glasgow. While under Joseph Russell's control, the shipyards concentrated on large three, four and five masted sailing bulk carriers: They were built to high standards and subject to maximum standardisation of parts and in many cases hull lines plans. It is said that one set of scrieve boards was used over forty times.
In 1891, Russell retired and the business was dissolved with Lithgow taking up the larger shipbuilding units and turning the production over to steamships. Anderson Rodger took over the Bay Shipyard and continued building sailing ships into the twentieth century. Incidentally, Rodgers built the three masted Barque Glenlee, which is now restored and open to the public at Yorkhill Quay in central Glasgow.
Joseph Russell had an active retirement, assisting the Lithgow family on a regular basis as well as being involved in multifarious public ventures. He was a key member in the 1900 merger of the United Presbyterian Church and the Free Church of Scotland which led later to the final merger of the Church of Scotland and was an elder of the Hamilton Church for 49 years. For 31 years he held a bible class for young men in the church halls, a room that was to known as "Mr Russell's Room"
His full retirement came in 1913 and he died four years later.
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