Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 143,776 pages of information and 230,107 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
William Fairbairn & Sons of Manchester and Millwall (London), mechanical and and civil engineers
1832 Formerly Fairbairn and Lillie of Manchester; the name was changed when the partnership with Lillie was dissolved; Lillie set up his own business as a millwright. One cause of friction appears to be that William Fairbairn wanted to expand the shipbuilding side of the business, which initially involved building iron boats at the works in Manchester.
1835 William Fairbairn established works for shipbuilding at Millwall, east London, in partnership with an old pupil, Andrew Murray, on the understanding that Mr. Murray was to be the managing partner of that branch. This was the earliest iron-shipbuilding yard of any size in England.
1837 David Napier established a new establishment for ship building adjacent to Fairbairn's yard.
1837 According to his autobiography, a boilermakers' strike induced Fairbairn to mechanize the riveting process, and he got his assistant engineer Robert Smith to develop a powered machine for riveting boiler plates. Fairbairn stated that he favoured a machine on the principle of the punching machine, whereas Smith favoured the use of a screw. The former method prevailed, and a machine was developed. Fairbairn drove the development, and in 1837 he paid for a patent, in Smith's name, No. 7302, 16 Feb 1837.
In fact Fairbairn may well have got the idea from elsewhere: John Bourne reported that he had used machine-riveting in Dublin in 1836, and that his then foreman had moved to Fairbairn's.. Robert Smith had filed a patent in June 1836, viz: List of new patents: Robert Smith, of Manchester, in the county of Lancaster, engineer, for certain improvements in the means of connecting metallic plates for the construction of boilers and other purposes.- Sealed June 22, 1836 (Six months.). The patent was not enrolled. The 1837 patent also concerned 'Certain improvements in the means of connecting metallic plates for the construction of boilers and other purposes.'
In 1840 the company brought out an improved version of the riveting machine, on rails.
1838 Fairbairn & Sons were advertising the advantages of their riveting machine, in terms of improved quality and markedly reduced riveting time, in October 1838 
1839 The company's attention broadened to railway locomotives and they produced four 0-4-0s for the Manchester and Leeds Railway. Their first designs were of the four-wheeled "Bury" type. Generally they built to the design of the customer or similar to those being produced by Edward Bury and Co and Sharp, Roberts and Co.
Early 1840s: Built a stationary steam engine at Dalkey for the Kingstown & Dalkey Atmospheric Railway. This had a huge flywheel, 36 ft dia, and developed 110 HP at 24 rpm with a steam pressure of 40 psi. Steam cylinder 34.1" dia, 66" stroke. Air pump cylinder 66.5" dia, 66" stroke. Steam supplied by three Cornish boilers. 
In the 1840s, Robert Stephenson retained Fairbairn and Hodgkinson as consultants on the Menai Straits bridge. Fairbairn conceived the idea of a rectangular tube and conducted tests on prototypes in his Millwall shipyard and at the site of the bridge.
1838-42 See 1839-1842 Marine Engine Makers for details of engines made for the Admiralty
1843 Details of an Iron Woollen Factory manufactured for the Sublime Porte in Turkey
1843 Co-partnership between William Fairbairn, John Hetherington, Andrew Murray, and Thomas Fairbairn of Millwall, Poplar, Millwrights, Engineers and Iron Ship Builders, trading under the firm of William Fairbairn and Co., dissolved by mutual consent, so far as concerns John Hetherington and Andrew Murray. 31 October 1843 
1844 The company left Millwall, where two thousand men had been employed.
Undertook many engineering schemes, experimented on the properties of iron, and, to meet a strike of his workmen, introduced the riveting machine, which was a great advance in the manufacture of boilers.
In all, Fairbairns produced over sixty-nine locomotives for the M&LR, their main customer, but they also built for the Little North Western Railway and for lines in Ireland. Their production was mainly lightweight 0-4-0, then 2-2-2, 2-4-0 and 0-4-2 engines typical of the day.
1844 Dissolution of the Partnerships between William Fairbairn and John Hetherington as Machine Makers, at Manchester, as John Hetherington and Company, and that as Engineers and Millwright's, at Manchester, as William Fairbairn
1846 They built the marine engine for the 'SS Odin' of 1,326 tons and with 560 NHP. Cylinders 88" diameter, 5ft 9" stroke.
1847 Improved riveting machine: Direct action engines of HM Frigate Dragon of 560 hp collectively (William Fairbairn and Sons of London): Breast water mill erected at Cleator near Whitehaven: Improved corn mill: Old Union Corn Mill, Birmingham
1848 Made a wrought iron railway bridge of the 'tubular girder' type of 64 ft clear span, and another bridge of 45 ft span, to carry the Blackburn-Burnley line of the East Lancashire Railway aross the Leeds and Liverpool Canal
c1850 Description of their works. See William Fairbairn and Sons: 1850 Description
Soon after, six large cranes were made for Keyham Dockyard. A description of them was given by Mr. Fairbairn to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and was published in their Proceedings for 1857. Each crane was calculated to lift 12 tons to a height of 30 feet from the ground, and to sweep a circle 65 feet in diameter. A few years later an even larger one was ordered for the same place to lift 60 tons 60 feet high, with a circle of 106 feet diameter.
1851 Award at the 1851 Great Exhibition. See details at 1851 Great Exhibition: Reports of the Juries: Class VI.
1852 Patent riveting machine
1853 Direct acting engines
1853 Completion of Titus Salt's Saltaire Mill (Salt's Mill). Fairbairn was responsible for the structural ironwork and mechanical aspects, including two steam engines with cylinders 50" dia and 7 ft stroke. The engines had expansion gear like that illustrated above. However, the valves were difficult to manufacture and to maintain in good order, and the cylinders were replaced after about 10 years with the adoption of Corliss valve gear 
c.1853 Supplied a steam winding engine to a deep (700 yds) coal mine in Dukinfield. The engine was the vertical 'grasshopper' type with the flywheel/winding drum above the cylinder. Cylinder 60" dia, 8 ft stroke. 400 - 450 HP with steam at 30 psi 
1853 Listed as Steam engine manufacturers, iron steam boat builders, millwrights, boiler makers, and iron and brass founders of Canal Street, Mill Street and Great Ancoats street. There is a description of their works in the 1853 Directory of Manchester and Salford
1855 Steam engine & shafting shown at Paris Universal Exhibition, 1855 
1858/9 Supplied box girders for the Melbourne Mt. Alexander & Murray River Railway Company, to take the Melbourne-Williamstown line across the Salt Water River (now the Maribyrnong River). Replaced in 1911.
In 1862 they built some 2-2-2 locomotives to the design of the Great Eastern Railway. These were their last locomotives.
1863 The locomotive building part of the business was sold to Sharp, Stewart and Co. They had built more than 400 locomotives by this date.
About 1864 they became the Fairbairn Engineering Company
1864 Fairbairn's received an order from the USA for a large railway bridge to cross the Connecticut at Warehouse Point, between Hartford and Springfield. Length 1525 ft, 17 spans, weight of ironwork, including tracks, approx 800 tons. At the time, local US firms were pre-occupied with Civil War-related work. The order was placed with Fairbairn's in or about January, with delivery anticipated in December 1864. However, the timescale necessitated having part of the work done at the London Engineering and Iron Ship Building Co. 'In about a year the bridge was shipped from Liverpool and London, and in June 1865, work upon its erection was begun' . The construction of the bridge was described in some detail in 'Engineering' in 1866 
1866 'A few years ago the works of Messrs. Fairbairn and Sons was carried out at four separate places, at some small distance from each other, in the Ancoats district of Manchester. Since the formation of the limited company this has been altered, and all the operations are now concentrated in the engine side and the former boiler yard. To this last portion has been removed the present very large foundry. A large fresh plot of ground has here been purchased, affording an extensive area, now being covered by new workshops. Very considerable contracts for bridge work, principally for Indian lines, are now being executed by the company'
1920 A history of the early years of the firm was published in The Engineer. Read it HERE.
From 'Short Histories of Famous Firms' by Ernest Leopold Ahrons The Engineer - 1920/02/20.
W. Fairbairn and Sons, Manchester
During the period from about 1845 until the end of the year 1862, when their last locomotive was built, Messrs. W. Fairbairn and Sons were among the best-known locomotive builders in this country. Their first engines for an English railway company, the Manchester and Bolton, were put to work in April 1839 and by the time the works were closed they had constructed rather more than 400 locomotives. Messrs Fairbain did not, however confine themselves to locomotive building; in addition they did a considerable business in bridge building, and general engineering and millwrights’ work formed one of the main portions of their trade. It is just possible that the firm had too many irons in the dire, and that that was party the cause of its premature disappearance.
A superb account of Fairbairn's life and work, and of the company's activities and products, has been written by Richard Byrom, and was published in October 2017
1875 Advertisement: 'Manchester.—The Fairbairn Engineering Company, in liquidation. Messrs. Fuller, Horsey, and Co., are instructed by the Liquidators to sell by auction, on Tuesday. October 19, and following day, at twelve precisely each day at the Works, Canal-street, Great Ancoats Street. Manchester, in lots, the first portion of the costly TOOLS, PLANT, MACHINERY, and STORES of the Fairbairn Engineering Company Limited, including five Whitorth's self acting radial drilling machines, one ditto by Roberts and Fothergill radial drilling machines, two Whitworth’s self-acting multiple drilling machines, one ditto by Craven, one very powerful eccentric punching and shearing machine by P. Fairbairn, Leeds, two ditto by De Bergue, fly-lever and eccentric punching and shearing machines, one De Bergue's patent riveting machine. one Fairbairn's riveting machine, two Craven's plate planing machines, Shank's very powerful eccentric cutting machine, a set of 10 feet plate straightening rolls, two sets of plate bending rolls, one Bennies' patent bar straightened, one Peel's hydraulic angle iron press, one new patent Tweddell's portable hydraulic riveting machine, by Fielding and Platt Gloucester, one bar straightening machine, four self-acting planing machines, by Collier: one very powerful self-acting wall boring and drilling machine, one large surfacing lathe, seventeen self-acting slide lathes, various, four Buckton's horizontal boring and drilling machines, five vertical drilling machines by W. Muir. Smith and Coventry, and others ; five self-acting wall drilling machines, three screwing machines, Smith and Coventry and others; one very powerful slotting machine by Hetherington; two smaller slotting machines, three shaping machines, a 5 cwt. steam hammer, one hydraulic locomotive wheel press, one testing machine (Fairbairn's), 2000 feet turned wrought iron shafting with hangers and pulleys: two Fairbairn’s pillar high-pressure steam engines with and inch cylinders; two Fairbairn's high-pressure steam with 12 and 13 inch cylinders, one double-flue Cornish steam boiler, two single flue ditto, one Fairbairn's patent five-tube steam boiler of 30 horse power, pair of hydraulic pumps, two 10 ton Wellington travelling cranes 40 feet span, one smaller ditto, two 6-ton travelling cranes by Ellis of Manchester, 38 feet span, wish timber gantry 170 feet long, two 20-ton overhead travelling cranes, 18 feet span, four iron post cranes, ten smiths' cranes, ten smiths' anvils, several tons smiths' and engineers’ tools, vices, sets of steel gauges, surface plates, grindstones, double and single purchase crabs, powerful blocks, chain slings, portable forges, 50 tons shaping slabs, 25 tons rod bar iron, and numerous other effects. To be viewed on Saturday and Monday previous to the sale by catalogues only, without which no person will admitted. Catalogues, 6d. each may be had ten days prior the sale, of Messrs. Fuller, Horsey, Son, and Co., 11, Billiter-square, London, EC.’ 
An article about Fairbairn's Canal Street works appeared in The Engineer, 13th June 1856. The writer explained, in diplomatic terms, that Fairbairn’s works did not represent the epitome of modernity or efficiency. It was emphasised that their business was heavy engineering, not tool making. There were some modern machines from neighbours John Hetherington and William Collier, but much machinery was evidently past its first flush of youth, even in 1856. 'Somewhat venerable' was the description used.
The writer noted that Fairbairn was experimenting with something called Nova Scotia Iron for mortars. A 13-inch mortar barrel was being machined 'with an extemporised boring apparatus of a very simple and primitive character'. The material was presumably a form of cast iron, 'Judging from the stiffness and tenacity of the borings, the Nova Scotia iron promises to be something very superior; but for the darkness of the colour, one might easily mistake them for malleable iron'.
At the time of the visit, twelve locomotives were under construction for Sweden, two for Canada, and several for Australia. The article also included details of a recently-built locomotive for local use. In an effort to provide some compliance to accommodate track curvature and unevenness, they had incorporated vulcanised rubber pads in the hornblocks to allow some lateral axle box movement, and also in for the bearings in the connecting and coupling rods. Also going through the shops were: a 100 ft span bridge for the Valencia Railway (Spain), a floating landing stage for Liverpool, iron piles for Guernsey harbour, large foundry moulding boxes made from boiler plate for Woolwich Arsenal, and 40 HP stationary steam engines for Russia and Spain.
The article mentions that the fitting shop had no fixed cranes, but instead was served by overhead cranes which travelled the length of the shop. However, the two cranes each served only half the width: the rail for the outboard end of each crane was fixed to the wall, while the rails for the inboard ends were on a beam running down the centre of the shop. Thus it was difficult to pass a load from one side of the shop to the other. The article said that this was not a serious inconvenience, as the work (at that time) principally involved locomotives, which were assembled on rails laid in the shop.
The oldest surviving exhibit of its type in Britain and a scheduled ancient monument.
The crane's strength lay in its jib, which was made of wrought-iron plates riveted together to make an immensely strong tubular-section girder. It could lift up to 35 tons (35.56 tonnes) and was meant to supplement the lifting ability of the Docks' other 17 cranes.
Examples of cranes built to Fairbairn's patent may be found in the section Fairbairn Crane.