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British Industrial History

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James Taylor (1817-1894)

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James Taylor (1817-1894) of James Taylor and Co.

of Britannia Works, Cathcart Street, Birkenhead (1858)[1]

1817 May. Born in Glasgow

c1845 Married Margaret

c1850 Working for Fox, Henderson and Co at London Works, Birmingham

1851 Living at Windmill Lane, Harborne: James Taylor (age 33 born Scotland), Engineer. With his wife Margaret Taylor (age 31 born Scotland) and their children James M. H. Taylor (age 4 born Trinity, Cheshire); Margaret M. Taylor (age 3 born Birmingham); and Mary R. Taylor (age 1 born Smethwick). Also his sister Margaret Taylor (age 17 born Scotland), Dress Maker; and his brother Peter Taylor (age 21 born Scotland), Engineer. One servant.[2]

1852 He established the Britannia Engineering Works, Birkenhead

1853 Patent 3004. 'Certain improvements in raising and lowering weights'

1858 Joined the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

1861 Living at 16 Hamilton Square, Birkenhead: James Taylor (age 43 born Scotland), Engineer and Boilermaker employing 230 men and 50 boys. With his wife Margaret Taylor (age 41 born Scotland) and their children James M. H. Taylor (age 14 born Chester); Margaret M. Taylor (age 13 born Birmingham); Mary R. Taylor (age 11 born Smethwick); Jessie Taylor (age 9 born Smethwick); William Taylor (age 7 born Birkenhead); and Marion Taylor (age 2 born Birkenhead). Five servants.[3]

1871 Living at 14 Hamilton Square, Birkenhead: James Taylor (age 53 born Scotland), Mechanical Engineer employing 190(?) men and 8(?) boys. With his wife Margaret Taylor (age 51 born Scotland) and their children James M. H. Taylor (age 24 born Chester), Mechanical Engineer; Margaret M. Taylor (age 18 born Broughton, Worcs.); William Taylor (age 17 born Birkenhead); Marian Taylor (age 12 born Birkenhead); Eliza G. Taylor (age 9 born Birkenhead); and Florence Taylor (age 7 born Birkenhead). Four servants.[4]

1881 Living at Woodchurch Road, Birkenhead: James Taylor (age 63 born Scotland), Civil Engineer. With his wife Margaret Taylor (age 61 born Scotland) and their daughter Florence Taylor (age 17 born Birkenhead). Also one visitor. Two servants.[5]

1891 Living at Westbourne Grove, West Kirby: Marion Taylor (age 32 born Birkenhead), a Widow. With her daughters Marion Taylor (age 5 born Whitley, Durham) and Margaret Taylor (age 4 born Ryton-on-Tyne). Also her parents James Taylor (age 73 born Glasgow), Consulting Engineer, and Margaret Taylor (age 71 born Kilmarnock). Two servants.[6]

1894 September 12th. Died. 'Mr. James Taylor, formerly proprietor of the Britannia Ironworks, Birkenhead, died yesterday morning, at his residence in West Kirby'[7]


It is with feelings of deep regret that we announce the death of Mr James Taylor, engineer, Hamilton Square, which took on Wednesday morning at his residence, Westbourne Grove, West Kirby. During the course of his long life Mr Taylor was intimately connected to Birkenhead. His former place of business being the Britannia Iron Works, Cleveland Street, attained a world wide celebrity. Few men have brought forth so many brilliant ideas in relation to practical mechanics, though, like many other great inventors he failed to make a fortune.

Mr Taylor's family was a very old one, his family was easily traced back over 500 years. Originally they came from Polmont, Stirlingshire. His Grandfather was a burgess of Glasgow, and made the first iron plough ever used in Scotland. His father was established in a business himself as a jobbing blacksmith, a trade at the time much more important and extensive in its ramifications than it is now.

Mr James Taylor was born in May 1817 in Glasgow, he was sent to school early and began blowing the bellows at the age of 13 years. He soon began making small steam engines, turning lathes and other better class of machinery. He learnt mechanical drawing from an Architects clerk, which enabled him to make designs for contractors and others. His first crane was for building a circular tank for a gas holder, 100ft diameter, which turned upon a pivot but travelled upon a ring of rails laid on the bottom, which led to the simplification of a swing lifting derrick, supported by guys.

In 1839 he was asked to consider the question of applying steam for raising blocks of stone 10 tons in weight from the bottom of quarries, which was readily accomplished in the form of a derrick crane, and he made them for many of the leading quarry proprietors around Glasgow.

Having been invited to join a friend in the management of a foundry in Chester he went there, but soon thereafter joined the establishment of Messer's Fox Henderson and Co, of the London Works, Birmingham. His connection with this notable firm of railway engineers came about in a remarkable way. A railway bridge over the Rundee had excited his attention and he pointed out to the authorities a weak place in its construction, marked the spot with chalk and prophesied that before long there would be a catastrophe if it was not strengthened. His remarks do not seem to be heeded for soon after the bridge collapsed and Mr Henderson was called in to examine it. Ascertaining who had chalked off the fracture place, he at once offered Mr Taylor an important post in the great works with which he was connected. Mr Taylor was in Birmingham for about five years and was engaged in the construction of many of the most important railway stations in the kingdom.

Superintending the iron work of the old Tithebarn St Station was his first engagement in Liverpool. In 1852 he came to Birkenhead and established the Britannia Works, from whence so many of his famous steam cranes were sent out for a period of over 30 years. His inventions and improvements were such to ensure the increased utility of such appliances, and at the present time cranes of his construction are at work in Australia, China, Japan, India, and almost every British Port.

The following is a list of some of the patents taken out by him, in part carried out and others left to themselves:-

A steam pile-driver in about 1840, the double steam cylinder winch, having link reversing motion, now so extensively used on board ship and extended to cranes of all forms, and also coal pit hoisting machinery, in 1852, a marine floating dock, in 1854, a traction road engine, made to give out its power to both sides of the machine, whether working on a straight line or making complete circles either way, in about 1858, the application of the double twin screw ferry boat on the Mersey had its origins through him, 1868, patent J and J M H Taylor, Birkenhead improvements in the method of propelling vessels, about 1877, a double twin screw moorless dredger, and other apparatus there with having reference to the removal of the Mersey Bar, 1883, a ship's windlass worked by flexible steel wire rope in place of chain cables, about 1881, steam bitts as used on board the Columbier on the Clyde, and other steam ships about 1882.

Before his practical retirement from active business Mr Taylor was one of the most respected men in Birkenhead and was for many years a member of the old of commissionaires and was twice elected chairman of the board. He did excellent work for the town while chairman of the Ferry Committee and his dearest hobby was the twin screw system. Of this he was a most ardent advocate and frequently expressed his views in theses columns. Long before twin screws were adopted by any firm he strongly advocated their safety, utility, and speed as superior to any other means of propulsion. Other improvements in gangways, luggage carrying boats and other matters were instituted by Mr Taylor to whose incentive genius Birkenhead owes a great deal more than is ever acknowledged, or perhaps ever suspected.

The establishment of the Birkenhead School of Art by the late Mr John Laird was another movement in which he took a leading part, and his advocacy of technical instruction of a really practical character was far in advance of his time, and even ahead of modern schemes, as far as its practical utility was concerned. He contended continually for increased advantages in this way, and urged that the late Mr John Laird really founded the School of Art, as much, if not more, for manual than for the art tuition which actually monopolised the building and the funds for many years.

For many years Mr Taylor was closely identified with the religious life of the town. He was an Elder at the Conway St, Presbyterian Chapel, and during the last 5 years he held a similar office at the Presbyterian Church at West Kirby. He was one of the oldest Sunday School teachers in the United Kingdom having been engaged in the work for over 60 years. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of foreign missions, and a few years ago he cast a beautiful bell, and sent it out to the Rev Dr Paton, on of his oldest friends, for use in the mission at Aniwa, which that intrepid missionary established there. Five years ago he took up his residence at West Kirby, where he died peacefully and suddenly at 3am on Wednesday. Though he was in failing health he went to church on Sunday morning and was several times on Monday and Tuesday. An additional pathos is added to his death by reason of the fact that his wife and daughter were called to Bournemouth to attend sick relatives on Tuesday.

Personally Mr TAYLOR was regarded with esteem amounting almost generally to affection, and his loss will be sincerely mourned by many. The funeral will take place this afternoon at Flaybrick Hill cemetery.


We regret to announce the death of Mr. James Taylor, of Birkenhead, who was for nearly forty years one of the leading contractors for the Admiralty and other Government Departments. A native of Glasgow, where he was born in 1817, he became connected with Fox, Henderson, and Co, London and Birmingham, and in 1852 established the Britannia Engineering Works at Birkenhead. He was the inventor of the floating graving dock, and the inventor and builder of some of the largest steam cranes in the kingdom. Many of his inventions have been used in Her Majesty's dockyards.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1858 Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  2. 1851 Census
  3. 1861 Census
  4. 1871 Census
  5. 1881 Census
  6. 1891 Census
  7. Liverpool Mercury - Thursday 13 September 1894
  8. Birkenhead News, Saturday, September 15th 1894
  9. The Engineer 1894/09/14