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Note: This is a sub-section of William Fairbairn
1875 Obituary 
Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., of Ardwick, Manchester, F.R.S. Hon. LLD. of the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, Corresponding Member of the Institute of France, and of the Royal Academy of Turin, and Knight of the Legion of Honour, was born at Kelso, in Roxburghshire, on the 19th of February 1780.
He died at Moor Park, in Surrey, the residence of his son-in-law, John Frederic Bateman, Esq., F.R.S., V.P.Inst.C.E., on the 18th of August, 1874, in his eighty-fifth year.
The Fairbairns were an agricultural family, settled on the banks of the Tweed for many generations, Sir William’s mother, whose maiden name was Margaret Henderson, claiming descent from the ancient line of Douglas.
Though Kelso, in the south of Scotland, was Sir William's birthplace, in a district associated with the history and genius of Sir Walter Scott - the two men, one as a boy and the other as a young man, being acquainted with each other - his early years were, for the most part, spent in the Highlands. His father had removed from Kelso to the north at the request of Mr. Mackenzie, of Allan Grange, in Boss-shire, to take charge of the home farm, and act as general manager, or land steward, on the estate.
His uncle, Mr. Peter Fairbairn, was then commissioner for Lord Seaforth, and lived near Braban Castle; thus he was introduced to, and became acquainted with, the Seaforth family, whom he often visited as a much-esteemed and valued friend in after-life.
It was here, at the parish school of Munlochy, that he received the principal part of his early schooling-limited, indeed, but sufficient to form the groundwork on which he afterwards built up a large amount of valuable knowledge by diligent self-culture; forming one of the many instances in which men, who have subsequently risen to distinction, have owed their early training to the Scotch parochial school system.
It was here, also, that his love of mechanics was early manifested, for Fairbairn was no exception to the rule that bids one look for infantile traits of the talents that give a man distinction. When a child, his favourite playthings were a knife, a gimlet, and a saw, with which he made tiny boats and ships without number, and water-mills and windmills by the dozen. One of his achievements was the construction of a wagon, in which he was able to wheel about a little brother who was too weak to walk. This brother, fifty years later, was the Mayor of Leeds, the late Sir Peter Fairbairn.
The family removed from Ross-shire to Newcastle-on-Tyne when young Fairbairn was about fourteen or fifteen years of age, his father having been appointed manager of the Percy Main Colliery.
Previous to joining his family young Fairbairn had the advantage of some additional education with his uncle, who was parish schoolmaster at Galashiels, from whom he learnt book-keeping and land-surveying. At this time, in an early attempt to earn his own livelihood, he received an injury to one of his legs, which laid him up for several months. This period of confinement was, however, not lost, for the enforced leisure gave him the opportunity of much profitable reflection and useful study. But his best instructor in early life had been his mother, a woman of sincere piety, who, by example as well as by precept, opened the minds and hearts of her children, and whose character was of that quality which one is accustomed to hear of in the mothers of men so sterling and so remarkable.
At the age of sixteen, he bound himself apprentice to the owners of the Percy Main Colliery, where he began work under the charge of Mr. Robinson, the Engineer, at eight shillings a week wages, and remained till he was twenty-one. He was well prepared by home experience, and by mental and physical qualities, to make a great deal of the few opportunities which this situation offered.
He had a hard life in many ways; and though he added to the family income by working overtime at various employments by which he could earn money, he devoted many evening hours to mental exertion, and drew up a regular time-table of studies and recreation, to which he adhered with wonderful steadiness. Thus Monday in each week was set apart for 'mensuration and arithmetic;' Tuesday was relieved with 'history and poetry;' Wednesday he indulged in 'general recreation, novels, and romances;' Thursday was devoted to 'algebra and mathematics;' Friday followed with 'Euclid and trigonometry;' Saturday was like Wednesday; and Sunday was a day of rest, church-going, Milton, &c. Programmes like these have often been made, but have seldom been strictly adhered to; and one cannot but feel a tender sympathy for a man who, in his younger years, adopted and persevered in reso1utions of self-culture which contributed so largely to his subsequent successful achievements.
While at Percy Main, he formed the acquaintance of George Stephenson, then employed at Willington Quay, near Newcastle; and the acquaintance ripened into friendship when both men had become distinguished.
On completing his apprenticeship at Percy Main in 1811, then a stalwart young man of twenty-one, he went to seek employment in London, accompanied by a friend and fellow workman. They took their passage in a South Shields collier, and were nearly wrecked off Yarmouth in a terrific storm.
Arriving in London, he applied for work to Mr. Rennie, the father of the late Sir John and Mr. George Rennie, and obtained it but such obstacles were thrown in his way by the London mechanics’ trade unions that he was obliged to leave. Speaking on this subject in after life, Mr. Fairbairn said: 'When I first entered London, a young man from the country had no chance whatever of success, in consequence of the trade guilds and unions. I had no difficulty in finding employment; but before I could begin work I had to run the gauntlet of the trade societies, and after dancing attendance for nearly six weeks, with very little money in my pocket, and having to ‘box Harry’ all the time, I was ultimately declared illegitimate, and sent adrift to seek my fortune elsewhere. Laws of a most arbitrary character were enforced, and the unions were governed by cliques of self-appointed officers, who never failed to take care of their own interests.'
Disappointed in London, he tried the country, and, in company with a fellow-workman from the North, obtained temporary employment in building a windmill near Hertford. When this job was finished they returned to London, where Fairbairn obtained regular employment at good wages; the principal establishment at which he worked being Penn’s engineering works at Greenwich, where he made great progress in professional skill and knowledge.
Work failing in London, he sought employment elsewhere, wandering through the towns of the West of England to Dublin, where he engaged with Mr. Robinson, of the Phoenix Ironworks, to construct machinery for making nails. The other workmen threatened to strike; and though their enmity did not frighten Fairbairn from making the machine, it frightened his employer from using the nails when made.
He was now again afloat, but attracted by the rising fame of its manufactures, his course was steered to Manchester, where in 1814, in his twenty-fifth ear, he obtained employment as a working millwright under Adam Parkinson, with whom he remained two years, and until he began business on his own account.
In the same year, 1816, he married Miss Dorothy Marr, of Morpeth, whose acquaintance he had made five years before at Bedlington.
From this time a full account of Sir William Fairbairn’s life would be, to a large extent, identical with a history of more than half a century of progress in mechanical science, in the development of the productive power of Manchester manufactures, in the application of iron to the building of ships, in the adoption of iron walls on land as well as on sea for purposes of military defence, and in a wide range of invention and discovery connected with the strength of materials of construction, and the economy of motive forces.
Some of the greatest works of peace and war are associated with Sir William Fairbairn’s name. The Britannia Bridge, over the Menai Straits, for instance, which is a wonder of the modern world; the Millwall shipbuilding works, which he founded and carried on for many years, till they were taken by Scott Russell; and, more recently, the iron forts of plates of great thickness and strength erected for purposes of national defence.
After commencing business, one of his first attempts to obtain congenial employment was to compete for a prize for a bridge over the river Irwell at Blackfriars, in Manchester. His design was for an iron bridge less costly and more elegant perhaps than the stone bridge preferred and erected.
Another early design was for a conservatory and hothouse for Mr. Hulme, of Clayton, in which he was joined by an old shop-mate, James Lillie, the commencement of a partnership which, under the name of Fairbairn and Lillie, subsisted for eighteen years.
They began business in a small way, in 1817, by renting a shed at 12s. a week, and setting up a lathe for turning iron shafts, the motive power being supplied by a strong Irishman. Orders came in slowly, but it was from this commencement that one of the largest businesses, most intimately associated with almost every improvement in the mechanical arrangements connected with the cotton trade, was gradually developed.
The advantages resulting from previous thoughtful training upon the mechanical genius of Fairbairn soon exhibited themselves. In the joint career of Mr. Fairbairn and Mr. Lillie, the former, though not deficient in any way in mechanical skill and knowledge, was essentially the scientific projector, while his partner was the practical mechanic. It was not long before this happy combination bore the fruits which might be expected from it.
The circumstances of the time and place were favourable. Cotton-spinning was in the early vigour of its development; the mechanical contrivances by which it was carried on were clumsy, heavy, and unscientific. Some of the largest and most enterprising manufacturers were Scotch settlers, like Mr. Fairbairn, whose engaging manner and evident knowledge soon gained their confidence and orders. Messrs. Adam and George Murray, and John Kennedy, then a partner with Mr. McConnel, were amongst the largest cotton-spinners in the kingdom, and his earliest employers and patrons. Adam Murray commissioned Mr. Fairbairn to undertake the renewal of his mill machinery, an engagement which was satisfactorily fulfilled, though from the limited means of Fairbairn and Lillie, only by perseverance and energy.
The gearing of the mill machinery which Mr. Fairbairn undertook to renew was, like all others of the time, of a primitive and clumsy description, liable to frequent breakages, often repaired on a Sunday. It was then the plan to transmit power from the engine to the machinery by heavy cast-iron shafts revolving slowly. Fairbairn perceived that by bringing up the speed at once in the engine, power would be gained, and that by substituting light round shafts of wrought iron in rapid revolution to transmit the power, the loss occasioned from the weight and friction of the cumbrous machinery then in use would be avoided. He thus diminished the weight and cost of machinery while quadrupling its power.
His next step was the invention of the circular half-lap coupling, the adoption of which had an immediate effect on the expansion of the cotton trade, brought the inventor into notice, and laid, in fact, the foundation of his prosperity. Every mill owner wished to have the advantage of multiplied power.
Thus, almost at a step, Mr. Fairbairn and his partner found themselves in the front rank of engineering millwrights. Orders came in faster than they could be executed. The firm had to remove to larger premises in Mather Street, where they first did the work by steam. This establishment was from time to time extended, till superseded by the erection of a manufactory in Canal Street, Ancoats, fitted up with the best machinery, for the execution of the largest contracts.
He continued to improve cotton-spinning machinery in a manner similar to that already described, by which friction was lessened, and the speed was accelerated from 40 to above 300 revolutions per minute. It is, in fact, impossible to estimate the amount of development of the spinning trade which should be attributed to the genius and skill of William Fairbairn. These improvements reacted beneficially upon the silk and other textile trades which had been lagging behind the progress in cotton.
But his attention was not confined to cotton or silk-spinning machinery. In 1826-27, his firm fitted up the water-wheels for the extensive cotton-mills belonging to Finlay and Co at Catrine Bank, in Ayrshire. In these wheels he introduced what has been called the 'ventilated bucket,’ an arrangement by which the air confined in a bucket, instead of rushing back upon the water which was filling the bucket, quietly escaped by a false bottom, or open space, into the bucket above. The wheels at Catrine Bank are, even at this day, among the most complete hydraulic machines in Europe.
About the time these were erected, Fairbairn and Lillie supplied the mill gearing and water machinery for Messrs. Escher and Co.’s large works at Zurich, in Switzerland.
Mr. Fairbairn’s active mind did not allow him to rest satisfied with improvements in cotton-spinning and hydraulic machinery. His attention was turned to other matters of not less moment to this country; for they led to the general introduction of iron for ship-building.
In the year 1829 he was employed by the Forth and Clyde Canal Company to discover the best means of expediting the movement of canal boats. This led to an elaborate series of experiments, to determine the force of traction required for the attainment of various speeds on canals, and to ascertain, under what conditions and with what advantage, steam could be employed as the motive force in lieu of horse-power. On this subject he published an exhaustive report, the result of which was the establishment upon canals of light iron passage-boats, travelling at a speed which at that time was not imagined possible. It was shown that the attainment of great speed on a canal occasioned a wave which moved the boats, if they could be maintained riding on this wave, and that then the power required for their traction became extremely small. This riding on the wave was accomplished by starting the boat at high speed, and was made available on many canals by fly-boats, as they were called, for carrying passengers; but the system was gradually discontinued, as it was not suitable to all canals, and could not live against the greater speed of competing railways.
The question of canal traffic was, however, of little moment compared to the more important results of the experiments which had been made, They directed Fairbairn’s attention to the use of iron for ship-building, and no man has contributed more than he did to the practical development of this great branch of commercial enterprise. The first iron steamer was built by Mr. A. Manby, at the Horseley Ironworks, in 1821, and was called the 'Aaron Manby.' She was sent to London in parts, and put together in the Surrey Canal Dock. From thence she was navigated direct to Havre, and was employed on the Seine between that place and Paris.
The next iron steamer was also built by the Horseley Iron Company, about 1824 or 1825; and shortly afterwards, Mr. Laird, of Birkenhead, commenced building them on a large scale.
In 1831, Mr. Fairbairn built, in Manchester, a small sea-going iron vessel, which, though ten years later than the 'Aaron Manby,' was still one of the first constructed. It was carried through the streets to the nearest point at which it could be launched, and floated down to the sea.
In 1833 or 1834 he built another in Manchester, and about the same time one in Selby for the Emperor of Russia.
In 1835 the partnership with Mr. Lillie having by this time ceased, Mr. Fairbairn was engaged by the mill owners on the Upper Bann, in Ireland, to report on the improvements of the water power of that river, by the construction of large reservoirs. In this he was assisted by Mr. Bateman, who subsequently executed the works.
In 1836 he erected extensive ship-building premises at Millwall, on the Thames, where he carried on business for nearly fifteen years, finally selling the property to Robinsons (sic) and Russell, the latter gentleman building the Great Eastern in the same yard. During the time he occupied these premises about one hundred and twenty iron ships were built there, some of them of above 2,000 tons burthen. It was one of the earliest iron-ship yards in England, certainly the earliest of any magnitude, and its success led to the establishment of many others.
It was in this yard that the experiments on the strength of iron tubes were conducted, which led to the determination of the dimensions and proportions of the Conway and Britannia tubular iron bridges, and the law by which the power of resistance of wrought iron to compression and extension is calculated.
The precise merit of Mr. Fairbairn in contributing towards the success of the great works just referred to, and his share in the execution, were for some time matters of dispute; but the names of Robert Stephenson and William Fairbairn will be indissolubly connected with them, and they will long remain as monuments to the courage, the energy, and the ability of both.
The facts of the case appear to be, that the idea of crossing the Menai Straits by a tubular bridge was due to Mr. Stephenson, who in 1845 consulted Mr. Fairbairn as to its practicability, and invited his co-operation. An experimental inquiry was decided upon, and the experiments were conducted, partly at Millwall and partly in Manchester, by Mr. Fairbairn, under the joint direction of Mr. Stephenson and himself. 'There is no reason to doubt,' says Mr. Smiles, 'that by far the largest share of the merit of working out the practical detail of these structures, and thus realising Robert Stephenson’s magnificent idea of the tubular bridge, belongs to Mr. Fairbairn.'
Professor Rankine says, 'Mr. Fairbairn acted along with Robert Stephenson in the planning and execution of the celebrated Britannia and Conway tubular bridges. The idea, which was first carried out in these bridges, of using hollow structures, through the interior of which the traffic should pass, was originally conceived by Stephenson. The discovery of the mode of construction by which that idea was rendered practicable, viz., a combination of rectangular cells, is due to Mr. Fairbairn, who has since erected more than a hundred bridges on the same principle.'
Mr. Fairbairn very early directed his attention to the strength and other properties of wrought and cast iron, and his various recorded experiments have contributed more than those of any other individual to the accurate knowledge now possessed. He had the discrimination to engage in these investigation as mathematician of considerable ability, Eaton Hodgkinson, who, previously, was spending his mathematical power on comparatively useless objects. Mr. Fairbairn placed the works at his disposal, suggested experiments of practical value, and defrayed all the cost which attended them. In this way they worked for years together, Mr. Fairbairn directing the character of the experiments and Mr. Hodgkinson deducing mathematical laws and formula for calculations. The volumes of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, the British Association, and the Royal Society bear ample testimony to the extent, the interest, and the importance of these investigations.
In 1860 the Royal Society awarded him the Royal Medal 'for his various experimental inquiries on the properties of the materials employed in mechanical construction, contained in the Philosophical Transactions,’ and in the publications of other scientific societies.”
Major-General (now Sir Edward) Sabine, the Chairman of the meeting, in presenting the medal from the chair, after enumerating his various literary contributions to science, addressed to him the observations afterwards repeated by Lord Wrottesley: 'Perhaps it may be said with truth that there in so single individual living who has done so much for practical science, who has made so many careful experimental inquiries on subjects of primary importance to the commercial and manufacturing interests of the country, or who has so liberally contributed them to the world.’
Nothing of practical value escaped Mr. Fairbairn in the use and application of his favourite material, iron. He invented, about 1836, the machine for riveting the iron plates of boilers, ships, and bridges. He improved the construction of boilers, and introduced the system of double flues and alternate firing, by which fuel was economised and smoke consumed. He turned his attention to the causes and the prevention of boiler explosions, in doing which he elucidated the law which governs the density and force of steam.
He introduced an important improvement in the construction of boilers, the insertion of stiffening rings at short intervals internally, as he discovered, in the course of his researches, that the strength of a boiler was inversely as its length.
Mr. Fairbairn’s professional occupations took him much abroad. In 1837 or 1838 he was in Russia, principally engaged there in connection with the Government cotton-mills under the direction of General Alexander Wilson, M.Inst.C.E.
In 1850 he was again in that country, when he had lengthened interviews with the Emperor at St. Petersburg, to whom he presented his work on tubular bridges, and from whom he received instructions to supply a design for a tubular bridge over the Neva. He was also in Sweden in 1860 and 1853.
In 1839 he accepted the invitation of the Sultan of Turkey to visit Constantinople, where he subsequently constructed manufactories for small-arms, and carried out many important works for the Government.
On his return, he designed and built a corn-mill wholly of iron: which, with its machinery, was sent out to Turkey and erected for Halil Pasha, the Seraskier of the Turkish army. This mill was probably the first iron house which had been built in England.
In 1849 he visited Berlin for the purpose of laying before his Majesty the King of Prussia a design for the construction of a wrought-iron tubular railway and road bridge on the cellular principle across the Rhine at Cologne. This beautiful design forms the frontispiece to the second edition of his work 'On the Application. of Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes,' published in 1857-58. On this occasion he carried letters of introduction from his friend, Chevalier de Bunsen, to the distinguished author of 'Cosmos,' Alexander von Humboldt. The letters from Humboldt to Chevalier de Bunsen were published at Leipzig in 1869, and in a critique on these letters, which appeared in 'Notes and Queries' (November l869), is the following notice:-
'Mr. Fairbairn had been recommended to Humboldt by Bunsen, then Ambassador at the Court of St. James’s; and the ‘celebrated man,’ the ‘creator of the gigantic tubular bridge,’ was received with the utmost kindness by Humboldt as well as by Frederick William IV. Having had a long conversation with M. Von der Heydt, the Minister of Commerce, the latter accepted his (Fairbairn’s) plans respecting the building of bridges. Frederick William invited him to dine at his table, and was charmed with him, as were all who came in contact with him. ‘I cannot thank you enough,’ Humboldt writes, ‘for having caused me to become acquainted with this singularly remarkable, learned, estimable, gentle, and modest man.’ '
In 1831 the British Association was established, at a meeting at York, by many of the most distinguished scientific men of the age. Sir William does not appear to have been one of those present on that occasion, but he very early joined the Association, and continued to be a constant attendant at its meetings, and a contributor to its reports and transactions.
In 1837 he gave to the Association, at the request of the general committee, his first report on the strength and other properties of cast iron. Many of the early founders of the Association were his close and intimate friends. Amongst these may be mentioned (though few, alas! are still alive), Sir David Brewster, the Rev. William Vernon Harcourt, the late Lord Wrottesley, Mr. Hopkins, of Cambridge, Dr. Robinson, of Armagh, and General Sir Edward Sabine; with all of whom, and with many other great and distinguished men, he kept up the most friendly relations.
In 1861 he was the President of the Association at its meeting at Manchester. On this occasion, Lord Wrottesley, in handing over to Mr. Fairbairn the chair he had previously occupied, remarked:- 'We may derive important instruction from the career of Mr. Fairbairn, whether we view him as the successful engineer, or as the distinguished man of science. In the former capacity he is one who has, by perseverance combined with talent, risen from small beginnings to the summit of his profession, and he forms one of that noble class of men, the Stephensons, the Brunels, the Whitworths, and the Armstrongs, who have conferred such important services on their country. It is extraordinary that any man should have been able, during the few leisure hours that can be snatched from an important and engrossing business, to accomplish for science what Mr. Fairbairn has done. Not only has he been a most successful contributor to mechanical science, but his liberality has been unbounded in placing all his great mechanical resources at the disposal of his fellow-labourers in the same field.'
He was a warm supporter of all societies having scientific education for their object. He co-operated with the late Dr. Birkbeck in the establishment of Mechanics’ Institutions, and was one of the founders of that in Manchester, to which, in its early days, he acted as secretary, and devoted much time and attention.
He was always ready to lend a helping hand to struggling societies all over the kingdom, and to promote the knowledge of others by imparting his own experience. This he did repeatedly by giving popular lectures on subjects of interest in the various matters which had engaged his own attention, and information on which he believed would be useful to others. The principal portion of these lectures was subsequently collected into three volumes, and published in 1856, 1860, and 1866 under the title of 'Useful Information for Engineers.'
On the occasion of the opening of the new buildings of Owens College, Manchester, in October 1873, he caught a severe bronchial cold, from which he never recovered, and to which, after a hard struggle, his robust constitution succumbed. This was his last public appearance.
To show the pertinacity with which, to the end, he devoted his time and talents to the service of others, it may be mentioned that it was his intention to have presided at a meeting of the Manchester Scientific and Mechanical Society on October 28th, 1873, though then in his eighty-fourth year and in feeble health, and for which he had prepared an address. That address, partly written after Sir William had been confined to his bed, was read by the Chairman of the meeting, Professor O. Reynolds, of Owens College. In it, his last work, attention was drawn to the importance of self-reliance and perseverance, and to the fact that in mechanical contrivances, as in all others, the nearer the unalterable truths of science were approached the more perfect would be the results: He mentioned several illustrations of the advantage to the arts and to manufactures that had resulted from strikes of workmen, which, however inconvenient at the time, had done good eventually, by compelling employers of labour to fall back on their own resources, and to execute work, formerly done by hand, by machinery and new inventions.
Sir William was an indefatigable writer, always ready to impart his knowledge to the public, and he had great facility in literary composition. He contributed many valuable Papers to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester (of which society he was for a long time the President occupying the chair which had been previously filled by no less distinguished a man than Dr. Dalton), the Manchester Geological Society, the British Association, the Royal Society, 'Weale’s Quarterly Papers,' the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' and many others.
Among these are reports to the British Association- 'On the Strength and other Properties of Cast Iron obtained from the Hot and Cold Blast' (1837); 'On the Strength of Locomotive Boilers' (1853); 'On the Mechanical Properties of Metals as derived from repeated Meltings' (1853); and 'On the Tensile Strength of Wrought Iron at various Temperatures' (1856).
In the Transactions of the Royal Society and other scientific bodies there are Papers on the Iron of Great Britain, on the Cohesive Strength of different qualities of Iron, on the Strength of Wrought-iron Plates and their Riveted Joints, and on the Temperature of the Earth‘s Crust, this latter being the result of delicate and interesting experiments carried on for many years, in conjunction with the late Mr. Hopkins, of Cambridge, to ascertain the temperature at which liquefaction of metals and rocks under great pressure would take place, besides others of varied interest.
Amongst his larger works, in addition to those already mentioned, are: 'On the Application of Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes,' 1854, of which new and enlarged editions were issued in 1856 and 1860; 'Iron, its History, Properties, and Processes of Manufacture,' 1861, extended and elaborated from an article communicated to the 'Encyclopedia Britannica'; and 'Mills and Millwork,' 1861-3. His report on 'Machinery in General,' published in connection with the Paris Exhibition of 1855, should also be mentioned.
He became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1830, and was also a member or fellow of most of the scientific societies in Great Britain, and of many on the Continent. He received many decorations from abroad, and tokens of respect and esteem at home, and in 1869 her Majesty created him a baronet, in acknowledgement of his scientific attainments and services.
Hitherto this memoir has referred only to Sir William Fairbairn’s character and progress as an engineer and a scientific experimentalist; but he was not more admired for these qualities than he was beloved for his social virtues. Affable and accessible, he was ever ready to communicate information and to give advice to all who sought it; buoyant and cheerful, he had the happiness to attract the esteem and affection of all with whom he came in contact.
The moral of his life is the encouragement it affords to young engineers to steady perseverance and undeviating rectitude of conduct. He was an inborn gentleman in mind, taste, and manner, conscious of his own strength, and gratified by the approbation of others. Re was, however, singularly modest and unassuming, and used to say, with characteristic self-depreciation, that “any man might do all that he had done, and more, if he would only study and work.“
His remains were laid, on the 25th August, 1874, in the family vault in the churchyard of Prestwich, near Manchester, in which were interred three sons who had died before him. His funeral was attended by the corporate body, and by many sympathising townsmen ; and so great was the number of people who crowded the line of procession to show their last marks of respect, that; it became quite a public demonstration of sorrow. His memory will long be held in reverence and affection.
This memoir cannot be more fittingly closed than by the addition of a letter addressed by Sir Thomas Fairbairn (Sir William’s son and successor) to George Evans, Esq., the Secretary to the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, in acknowledgement of a resolution of condolence conveyed by that Institution to the members of Sir William’s family.
Brambridge House, Bishopstoke, Sept. 7th, 1874.
‘I have the honour to acknowledge your letter of the 4th instant, inclosing a copy of a resolution of the Board of Directors of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution, expressing their sense of the great loss which the institution has sustained in the death of Sir William Fairbairn. May I beg of you to convey to the board and to the members of the institution the sincere thanks of Lady Fairbairn, my mother, of myself, and of every member of the family, for this most graceful expression of their feelings, and for their sympathy for us all in the time of our great sorrow? A mechanic himself, Sir William was, in its largest and truest sense, the friend of mechanics. He was a co-operator with Dr. Birkbeck in the foundation of Mechanics’ Institutions; and you record with pride, which I may be permitted cordially to share, that the first prospectus of the Manchester Institution bore his honoured name. His whole life was a noble example to working men. He hoped that it might be so. He worked for good, unremittingly, unselfishly, and he accepted the honour, wealth, and reputation which were abundantly bestowed upon him, not in any boastful spirit, but as the rewards of honest labour. His works were labours of love, and I fervently pray that these, and his pure, simple, kindly nature, will keep his memory green in the hearts and affections of all that knew him.
'Believe me, my dear Sir, Very truly yours, Thomas Fairbairn
Extract taken from The Engineer 1875/02/12, page 109.
Born of parents occupying a comparatively humble position in life, and with a neglected education, he nevertheless, by his own perseverance and untiring industry, raised himself to the highest eminence in our profession. His mechanical tastes showed themselves at the age of twelve years in the construction of a small carriage, in which he used to draw about his younger brother Peter, afterwards Sir Peter Fairbairn, and Mayor of Leeds. At the age of fourteen Sir William was working on the construction of a bridge at Kelso, and at sixteen he was articled to the Percy Main Colliery Company, where his father was manager. Here he worked during the day in the engineering department and studied in the evening, each evening of the week being apportioned to a special branch of education. At the age of twenty one be came to London, but, being disappointed of work, went to Cheshunt, where he obtained a job as a millwright. In a few weeks he returned to London and obtained work first at Grundy's rope factory at Shadwell, and afterwards with Mr. Penn, at Greenwich. At the end of two years he visited the provinces, supporting himself by work, finally settling down as a working millwright under Mr. Adam Parkinson. After a few years he commenced business on his own account, and in time entered into a partnership with Mr. James Lillie, which extended over fifteen years. By slow but sure degrees he rose into a position of independence and of eminence aa a maker of machinery. He originated many important improvements in millwork, which was his speciality, introducing in his practice, amongst other things, the circular half-lap couplings and the use of high speeds for transmitting shafts. His attention was also turned to tbo substitution of iron for wood in mill machinery and in the hulls of ships, and in 1831 he built a small iron vessel at his works in Manchester, which was conveyed through the streets to the Irwell, and thence proceeded to sea. The successful results of this experimental vessel- one of the first iron ships ever made- led to the establishment by Sir William in 1835 of the well known works at Millwall, where during his occupancy of fourteen years be built about 120 ships, some of 2000 tons burthen. Of the part he took in the designing and construction of the Britannia and Conway tubular bridges I need not here stay to speak nor need I do more than allude, in passing, to his connection with the Manchester Steam Users' Association, the formation of which useful society was mainly due to Sir William. He was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1855, a fellow of the Royal Society, an honorary member of our own society, of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland, and of other cognate associations at home and abroad. He greatly enriched the literature of the profession, and has left behind him lasting records of his genius, and a name and reputation alike honourable and honoured.