There is virtually nothing in Sydney that has not, at some stage, had the hand of an engineer pass over it. The designs of our roads, bridges, buildings, houses, cars, buses, chairs, bollards, even the sound of a band and acoustics of a concert have all had engineering input at some point along the way. Sydney is shaped by engineers and has been from the start. In the nineteenth century, prior to formal engineering training, many engineers started their careers in practical work, hands-on in factories and foundries. One such was Peter Nicol Russell, himself the son of a foundry man.
The Russell family, originally from England, arrived in Sydney in 1838 from Hobart where they had established a small business. Sydney, a growing colonial city in the 1830s offered more opportunities and business ventures for the Russells, and Peter and three of his brothers set up as the Russell Bros in Queens Place, an old street north of Bridge Street close to the harbour. In 1840 they expanded into Bridge Street and Macquarie Place with a new foundry and works where they sold imported steam engines and other machinery.
Engineering was an emerging field at the time and the Russell brothers were as keen to teach about it as they were to practice. From 1841 Peter gave lectures at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts about steam power, using a model steam engine they had made to demonstrate his lectures.
In 1842 he opened the Sydney Foundry and Engineering Works, while his brothers, not wanting to join the business, instead expanded into shipbuilding. At his new foundry, Peter cast iron and brass, making kitchen ranges, parlour gates, cemetery surrounds, stairs and other decorative iron works. He secured government contracts for iron work at Darlinghurst, Newcastle and Maitland gaols and with the City of Sydney, including the newly installed cast iron boundary markers, water pipes and stone crushing machines.
His brothers re-joined him in 1843 and together they formed PN Russell & Co, which operated for another 32 years until increasing competition and industrial action finally forced a closure. Although Peter left Sydney soon after the closure, relocating back to London, he kept a keen interest in the development of engineering as a profession in Australia.
In 1895 he donated £50,000 to the University of Sydney for the endowment of the Department of Engineering. In 1904 he gave the same again, with an extra £25,000 from the State for a new Engineering building ensuring engineering would have a permanent place at the university.
Knighted in 1904, Sir Peter Nicol Russell died in London in July 1905, leaving over £13,000 to charitable organisations in Australia, including £3,000 to the Engineering Association of New South Wales.
Head to the Dictionary of Sydney for more details and Mark’s entry on Peter Nicol Russell here.
This month Engineers Australia are celebrating their centenary, you can find out more on their website: https://100yearsea.com.au/
Mark Dunn is the Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!