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date: 28 February 2024

Roebuck, Johnfree

(bap. 1718, d. 1794)

Roebuck, Johnfree

(bap. 1718, d. 1794)
  • R. H. Campbell

Roebuck, John (bap. 1718, d. 1794), ironmaster, was born in Sheffield and baptized on 17 September 1718, the second of five sons of John Roebuck (c.1680–1752), a successful merchant, and Sarah Roe. After early education at Sheffield grammar school he attended the nonconformist academy of Dr Philip Doddridge at Northampton, where his contemporaries included Jeremiah Dyson and Mark Akewill. In 1737 Roebuck began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he enjoyed his studies, though finding them not so agreeable as those at Northampton. After completing his medical studies at Leiden on 21 February 1743 with a thesis, 'An inquiry into the effects of rarified atmosphere on the human body', he practised as a physician in Birmingham, though he soon deserted the practice of medicine (Roebuck, 9).

Early scientific and business ventures

In Birmingham, Roebuck's general interest in science, and particularly its application to industrial problems, had full scope. Initially his activities were on a small scale, carried on from his own house and in his spare time, but they led to a series of inventions which proved useful in local manufactures, especially in the refining of gold and silver. They also showed the need for greater financial resources and wider commercial acumen than Roebuck possessed if his ideas were to bear fruit. This need led him into several partnerships throughout his life. The first, one of the few which brought Roebuck considerable financial success and launched him on subsequent ventures, was when he and Samuel Garbett (1717–1805), a successful entrepreneur in Birmingham, set up a refinery in Steelhouse Lane. Their influence on the industrial life of the area was widespread as they acted as consultants to many. In doing so Roebuck made a discovery which brought about a major change in his activities and in their geographical location. The Birmingham physician became a Scottish industrialist.

The demand for sulphuric acid grew in the eighteenth century but production was expensive until Joshua Ward patented his process in 1749. Ward used large, fragile glass vessels for condensation; Roebuck substituted much more robust lead chambers, so leading to a further reduction in costs of production. Roebuck and Garbett began the manufacture of sulphuric acid on a large scale at Prestonpans near Edinburgh in 1749. Ward tried to stop them, but failed. Roebuck did not patent his invention immediately and when he did so in 1771 the grant was not upheld as the process was already in use in Britain and on the continent.

It is unclear why Roebuck and Garbett began production at Prestonpans. Roebuck's earlier sojourn in Edinburgh had given him a good knowledge of the district and he had many influential friends there; there was a demand for sulphuric acid in Scotland, especially for the bleaching of linen; and, unsuccessful though it proved to be, the remoteness of the location may have been deemed conducive to maintaining the confidentiality of the new process. Whatever the reason for the initial choice of the location, it was the first of many industrial activities Roebuck undertook in Scotland, with consequences which were often conspicuously unsuccessful for Roebuck personally but which were beneficial and lasting for others. His major industrial enterprises were in different fields from his first, and he has been hailed by some as the pioneer of the heavy industries that came to dominate so much of the central belt of Scotland. The time was critical. Meeting the growing demand for iron was expensive as supplies of the charcoal used in smelting were limited in the traditional centres of the industry. For years many had tried to find ways of using alternative fuels, especially coal. The objective was not easily attained. By the early eighteenth century success had come to Abraham Darby at Coalbrookdale. His use of coke did not spread rapidly, partly because his method was not widely known, partly because it needed particular grades of coal and produced iron which was not always suitable for refining into bar iron, and partly because it was not necessarily an economic proposition for those who were already manufacturing profitably by the old methods.

Ironmaking at Carron

When Roebuck turned his attention to ironmaking is uncertain, but the problem of fuel and the glittering prospects for whoever solved it were bound to attract someone of his scientific aptitudes and temperament. There is no evidence that he thought of any other location than Scotland (though he was still living in Birmingham much of the time), so presumably the availability of the raw materials in the neighbourhood of Prestonpans triggered off his interest. The location of the ironworks which marked a major change in Roebuck's career and gave him much of his posthumous fame was over 30 miles to the east, on the River Carron, near Falkirk. The Carron ironworks were owned by a partnership, Roebuck, Garbett, and Cadell, formally dated 11 November 1759, and incorporated by royal charter in 1773 as the Carron Company (though the name had been used earlier), by which time Roebuck had left the concern. Initially, there were seven partners: Roebuck and three of his brothers (Benjamin, Thomas, and Ebenezer), Samuel Garbett, and a local merchant, William Cadell (bap. 1708, d. 1777), and his son, William Cadell (bap. 1737, d. 1819) [see under Cadell family], who was the first manager of the ironworks. Roebuck subscribed £3000 of the initial capital of £12,000 and his three brothers £1000 each, the remainder being divided between Garbett and the Cadells.

Although still spending much of his time in Birmingham, Roebuck was closely responsible for much of the detailed planning of the new concern. His enthusiasm for a major undertaking 'Dazzled and over-powered the Judicious Mind of Garbett', who favoured a more limited project at Prestonpans (Autobiography, ed. Burton, 186), and so the Carron works were built on a large scale at the outset. It was hoped to use coal or coke in smelting instead of charcoal, even though the technical difficulties of doing so were formidable. The first furnace went into blast on 26 December 1760. Immediately there were problems, both technical and financial, and Roebuck hurried from Birmingham to deal with them. His detailed analysis of the performance of the blast furnaces transformed their productivity and shows his careful, empirical methods. He also turned his inventive mind to the production of bar iron, hoping that it would prove suitable for conversion into steel by the cutlers of Sheffield, with whom he still had family links. A patent (no. 780) was obtained, but what Roebuck thought he had achieved is unclear from its terms and no more was heard about it. Carron's reputation was built on the production of cast iron.

The conception of the scale of the works and the adoption of modern methods of production may be attributed to Roebuck. They were to prove enormously beneficial in due course, but not immediately; what was evident much sooner was the inadequacy of the initial capital stock of £12,000. To enable the concern to continue, funds had to be sought from banks, by the introduction of new partners, and, with consequences which proved nearly fatal a few years later, by the issuing of short-term accommodation bills. Using short-term credit brought the company to the verge of collapse in the financial crisis of 1772, but by that time Roebuck had surrendered his financial stake in it. If Roebuck is given the credit for the technical vision behind the Carron ironworks, he must also carry the responsibility for the crippling financial burdens which almost brought it to a premature end. His scientific and inventive abilities were not matched by good economic sense. His unbounded confidence swept most before him, even the experienced Garbett, who gave up 'to his Superior Genius for Great Undertakings the Dictates of Prudence and his own Sober Judgment' (Autobiography, ed. Burton, 186).

Financial difficulties

Roebuck finally surrendered his share in the Carron Company on 5 December 1768. Two years before, Garbett had decided to work towards this end and also to ease Roebuck out of the Birmingham partnership of Roebuck and Garbett. Doing so proved complicated and protracted. By 1768 Roebuck had little choice but to surrender his interests because his inability to match his scientific and technical competence with good business practice finally caught up with him and he never extricated himself thereafter. The immediate origins of his increasingly critical personal financial embarrassment lay in yet further extensions of his industrial enterprises.

It was an easy move both industrially and geographically from ironmaking at Carron to leasing the coal and salt works of the duke of Hamilton, and his property of Kinneil House on the south shore of the Firth of Forth west of Bo'ness. As was the case in so many of his ventures, Roebuck had to try to persuade some of his influential friends with capital to join forces with him, always assuring them with his unbounded optimism of the attractive potential of the business. This time he approached Matthew Boulton and John Glassford, the leading Glasgow merchant of his day. However, the whole concern soon rested on Roebuck. As at Carron, so at Kinneil. Roebuck had great plans—he told Boulton that he expected to raise 100,000 tons of coal annually—and hopes were high, but once more the capital required for development soon exceeded Roebuck's increasingly limited resources, especially when he encountered a series of reversals. The coal was not of the grade expected; there was a fire; and the workings suffered from flooding, which an old Newcomen engine was unable to clear. Roebuck borrowed on the security of his Carron stock and withdrew funds from the Roebuck and Garbett partnership. As the financial situation deteriorated still further, attempts by creditors to control Roebuck by confining him to the management of the coal and salt works proved futile. To his industrial activities he added agricultural improvements around Kinneil.

Partnership with James Watt

The coal and salt works led Roebuck to enter another partnership which, as with his other joint enterprise, had great economic potential in the long run but from which he personally gained little. This was his partnership with James Watt in developing the steam engine. Its general attraction to anyone with an inventive mind was even greater to Roebuck as he battled with flooded coalworkings. For his part Roebuck offered two benefits to Watt, though each has to be qualified. The first is obvious: as his later association with Boulton confirmed, Watt did not have the personal confidence needed to promote a new invention. If convinced of its possibilities, Roebuck's sanguine temperament supplied such confidence in full measure, very often too much of it. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Roebuck was not convinced of the potential of the steam engine immediately. The explanation offered by Joseph Black, who was a close friend of both, was that Roebuck did not understand fully the nature of steam. Watt and Roebuck differed over the most effective means of achieving condensation of steam in the engine and this difference retarded the evolution of Watt's ideas. The second benefit Roebuck offered Watt was more dubious. Watt needed financial aid, but, far from being able to provide it, Roebuck's own financial embarrassments led quickly to the end of their association. For a brief period all went well. Watt set up his experiments at Kinneil House and in 1765–6 he was supplied with material from Carron for his experimental work, defectively cast as it transpired. Progress did not continue for long because Roebuck soon became engulfed in his own financial worries and (also chiefly for financial reasons) Watt had to spend more and more time as a surveyor and civil engineer. The success of the steam engine was not realized in association with Roebuck.

Roebuck's share in the patent for the steam engine might well have given him a brighter economic future than it did. He held two-thirds of the original patent (no. 913 of 9 January 1769) in return for discharging some of Watt's debts, including an early subvention from Black. Roebuck's efforts to retain some interest in the patent, even as his finances deteriorated, shows how he came to see its potential. First of all, he offered Boulton his interest only in the three counties of Warwick, Stafford, and Derby, then one-half of his share. On 30 June 1770 he executed a trust deed, which seemed to stabilize his affairs until the financial crisis of 1772. In 1773 he became bankrupt and his share in the patent passed to Boulton. The equipment at Kinneil went to Soho and Watt followed.

In November 1774 Roebuck wrote to Watt congratulating him on the success of his engine and wishing him well, but the thought of what might have been his lingered and became more obsessive with the passage of time. Roebuck's financial affairs were very complex and are not easily unravelled from the surviving material, but when he died he was penniless and his widow in such poverty that George Jardine, in his panegyric before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1798, appealed for funds on her behalf.

The history of Roebuck's interest in the steam engine was not an untypical event in his life and illustrates well some of the basic traits of his character. He was a product of the Enlightenment in Scotland and was on intimate terms with all its major figures. He shared both their classical learning and their desire to apply scientific method to the explanation of natural phenomena. In his case careful investigation and rational analysis of industrial and agricultural problems went with a restless spirit of invention, an optimism which led him to underestimate the difficulties inherent in any pioneering industrial process, and hopes of financial return which outran events. On the other hand, he perceived the future course of many industrial developments of his day. For success Roebuck had to be restrained by someone of greater financial prudence. When left to himself such prudence took second place to his search for improved technology, and then failure was not easily avoided. A man of undoubted scientific and technical eminence, and of an inventive mind, Roebuck did not have the commercial acumen needed for economic success.

Private life and death

Roebuck married Ann Roe (d. in or after 1798) of Sheffield in 1747 and they had five sons and one daughter. All five sons spent some time overseas: two were in Russia, one in India, one in India and later in Canada, and one in China. One of his grandsons was John Arthur Roebuck (1802–1879), the radical politician, and another was Thomas Roebuck (1781–1819), the oriental scholar.

As befitted someone of his intellectual background, Roebuck had wide interests. He followed contemporary political events closely, discussed them with the intellectual luminaries of his day in Scotland, and was described after his death as a whig who 'revered' the constitution (Jardine, 85). He published two political pamphlets, one of which, on the rebellion of the American colonies, was critical of the colonists, and three scientific papers, two before the Royal Society of London in 1775 and 1776 and one before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1784. He died on 17 July 1794 at Kinneil and was buried in the churchyard at nearby Carriden.


  • G. Jardine, ‘Account of John Roebuck, MD, FRSE’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 4/1 (1798), (65–87)
  • A. W. Roebuck, The Roebuck story (1963)
  • R. H. Campbell, Carron Company (1961)
  • J. P. Muirhead, The life of James Watt, with selections from his correspondence (1858)
  • private information (2021) [Sean Bottomley]


Wealth at Death

£5389 5s. and farmland near Kinneil: Edinburgh Commissary Court, NA Scot. CC8/8/129.

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