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William Fairbairn was born at Kelso on the 19th of February, 1787. His parents occupied a humble but respectable position in life. His father, Andrew Fairbairn, was the son of a gardener in the employment of Mr. Baillie of Mellerston, and lived at Smailholm, a village lying a few miles west of Kelso. Tracing the Fairbairns still further back, we find several of them occupying the station of "portioners," or small lairds, at Earlston on the Tweed, where the family had been settled since the days of the Solemn League and Covenant. By his mother's side, the subject of our memoir is supposed to be descended from the ancient Border family of Douglas.
While Andrew Fairbairn (William's father) lived at Smailholm, Walter Scott was living with his grandmother in Smailholm or Sandyknowe Tower, whither he had been sent from Edinburgh in the hope that change of air would help the cure of his diseased hip-joint; and Andrew, being nine years his senior, and a strong youth for his age, was accustomed to carry the little patient about in his arms, until he was able to walk by himself. At a later period, when Miss Scott, Walter's aunt, removed from Smailholm to Kelso, the intercourse between the families was renewed. Scott was then an Edinburgh advocate, engaged in collecting materials for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, or, as his aunt described his pursuit, "running after the auld wives of the country gatherin' havers." He used frequently to read over by the fireside in the evening the results of his curious industry, which, however, were not very greatly appreciated by his nearest relatives; and they did not scruple to declare that for the "Advocate" to go about collecting "ballants" was mere waste of time as well as money.
William Fairbairn's first schoolmaster was a decrepit old man who went by the name of "Bowed Johnnie Ker," - a Cameronian, with a nasal twang, which his pupils learnt much more readily than they did his lessons in reading and arithmetic, notwithstanding a liberal use of "the tawse." Yet Johnnie had a taste for music, and taught his pupils to sing their reading lessons, which was reckoned quite a novelty in education. After a short time our scholar was transferred to the parish-school of the town, kept by a Mr. White, where he was placed under the charge of a rather severe helper, who, instead of the tawse, administered discipline by means of his knuckles, hard as horn, which he applied with a peculiar jerk to the crania of his pupils. At this school Willie Fairbairn lost the greater part of the singing accomplishments which he had acquired under "Bowed Johnnie," but he learnt in lieu of them to read from Scott and Barrow's collections of prose and poetry, while he obtained some knowledge of arithmetic, in which he proceeded as far as practice and the rule of three. This constituted his whole stock of school-learning up to his tenth year. Out of school-hours he learnt to climb the ruined walls of the old abbey of the town, and there was scarcely an arch, or tower, or cranny of it with which he did not become familiar.
When in his twelfth year, his father, who had been brought up to farm-work, and possessed considerable practical knowledge of agriculture, was offered the charge of a farm at Moy in Ross-shire, belonging to Lord Seaforth of Brahan Castle. The farm was of about 300 acres, situated on the banks of the river Conan, some five miles from the town of Dingwall. The family travelled thither in a covered cart, a distance of 200 miles, through a very wild and hilly country, arriving at their destination at the end of October, 1799. The farm, when reached, was found overgrown with whins and brushwood, and covered in many places with great stones and rocks; it was, in short, as nearly in a state of nature as it was possible to be. The house intended for the farmer's reception was not finished, and Andrew Fairbairn, with his wife and five children, had to take temporary refuge in a miserable hovel, very unlike the comfortable house which they had quitted at Kelso. By next spring, however, the new house was ready; and Andrew Fairbairn set vigorously to work at the reclamation of the land. After about two years' labours it exhibited an altogether different appearance, and in place of whins and stones there were to be seen heavy crops of barley and turnips. The barren years of 1800 and 1801, however, pressed very hardly on Andrew Fairbairn as on every other farmer of arable land. About that time, Andrew's brother Peter, who acted as secretary to Lord Seaforth, and through whose influence the former had obtained the farm, left Brahan Castle for the West Indies with his Lordship, who - notwithstanding his being both deaf and dumb - had been appointed to the Governorship of Barbados; and in consequence of various difficulties which occurred shortly after his leaving, Andrew Fairbairn found it necessary to give up his holding, whereupon he engaged as steward to Mackenzie of Allengrange, with whom he remained for two years.
While the family lived at Moy, none of the boys were put to school. They could not be spared from the farm and the household. Those of them that could not work afield were wanted to help to nurse the younger children at home. But Andrew Fairbairn possessed a great treasure in his wife, who was a woman of much energy of character, setting before her children an example of patient industry, thrift, discreetness, and piety, which could not fail to exercise a powerful influence upon them in after-life; and this, of itself, was an education which probably far more than compensated for the boys' loss of school-culture during their life at Moy. Mrs. Fairbairn span and made all the children's clothes, as well as the blankets and sheeting; and, while in the Highlands, she not only made her own and her daughters' dresses, and her sons' jackets and trowsers, but her husband's coats and waistcoats; besides helping her neighbours to cut out their clothing for family wear.
One of William's duties at home was to nurse his younger brother Peter, then a delicate child under two years old; and to relieve himself of the labour of carrying him about, he began the construction of a little waggon in which to wheel him. This was, however, a work of some difficulty, as all the tools he possessed were only a knife, a gimlet, and an old saw. With these implements, a piece of thin board, and a few nails, he nevertheless contrived to make a tolerably serviceable waggon-body. His chief difficulty consisted in making the wheels, which he contrived to surmount by cutting sections from the stem of a small alder-tree, and with a red-hot poker he bored the requisite holes in their centres to receive the axle. The waggon was then mounted on its four wheels, and to the great joy of its maker was found to answer its purpose admirably. In it he wheeled his little brother - afterwards well known as Sir Peter Fairbairn, mayor of Leeds - in various directions about the farm, and sometimes to a considerable distance from it; and the vehicle was regarded on the whole as a decided success. His father encouraged him in his little feats of construction of a similar kind, and he proceeded to make and rig miniature boats and ships, and then miniature wind and water mills, in which last art he acquired such expertness that he had sometimes five or six mills going at a time. The machinery was all made with a knife, the water-spouts being formed by the bark of a tree, and the millstones represented by round discs of the same material. Such were the first constructive efforts of the future millwright and engineer.
When the family removed to Allengrange in 1801, the boys were sent to school at Munlachy, about a mile and a half distant from the farm. The school was attended by about forty barefooted boys in tartan kilt's, and about twenty girls, all of the poorer class. The schoolmaster was one Donald Frazer, a good teacher, but a severe disciplinarian. Under him, William made some progress in reading, writing, and arithmetic; and though he himself has often lamented the meagreness of his school instruction, it is clear, from what he has since been enabled to accomplish, that these early lessons were enough at all events to set him fairly on the road of self-culture, and proved the fruitful seed of much valuable intellectual labour, as well as of many excellent practical books.
After two years' trial of his new situation, which was by no means satisfactory, Andrew Fairbairn determined again to remove southward with his family; and, selling off everything, they set sail from Cromarty for Leith in June, 1803. Having seen his wife and children temporarily settled at Kelso, he looked out for a situation, and shortly after proceeded to undertake the management of Sir William Ingleby's farm at Ripley in Yorkshire. Meanwhile William was placed for three months under the charge of his uncle William, the parish schoolmaster of Galashiels, for the purpose of receiving instruction in book-keeping and land-surveying, from which he derived considerable benefit. He could not, however, remain longer at school; for being of the age of fourteen, it was thought necessary that he should be set to work without further delay. His first employment was on the fine new bridge at Kelso, then in course of construction after the designs of Mr. Rennie; but in helping one day to carry a handbarrow-load of stone, his strength proving insufficient, he gave way under it, and the stones fell upon him, one of them inflicting a serious wound on his leg, which kept him a cripple for months. In the mean time his father, being dissatisfied with his prospects at Ripley, accepted the appointment of manager of the Percy Main Colliery Company's farm in the neighbourhood of Newcastle-on-Tyne, whither he proceeded with his family towards the end of 1803, William joining them in the following February, when the wound in his leg had sufficiently healed to enable him to travel.
Percy Main is situated within two miles of North Shields, and is one of the largest collieries in that district. William was immediately set to work at the colliery, his first employment being to lead coals from behind the screen to the pitmen's houses. His Scotch accent, and perhaps his awkwardness, exposed him to much annoyance from the "pit lads," who were a very rough and profligate set; and as boxing was a favourite pastime among them, our youth had to fight his way to their respect, passing through a campaign of no less than seventeen pitched battles. He was several times on the point of abandoning the work altogether, rather than undergo the buffetings and insults to which he was almost a daily martyr, when a protracted contest with one of the noted boxers of the colliery, in which he proved the victor, at length relieved him from further persecution.
In the following year, at the age of sixteen, he was articled as an engineer for five years to the owners of Percy Main, and was placed under the charge of Mr. Robinson, the engine-wright of the colliery. His wages as apprentice were 8s. a week; but by working over-hours, making wooden wedges used in pit-work, and blocking out segments of solid oak required for walling the sides of the mine, he considerably increased his earnings, which enabled him to add to the gross income of the family, who were still struggling with the difficulties of small means and increasing expenses. When not engaged upon over-work in the evenings, he occupied himself in self-education. He drew up a scheme of daily study with this object, to which he endeavoured to adhere as closely as possible, - devoting the evenings of Mondays to mensuration and arithmetic; Tuesdays to history and poetry; Wednesdays to recreation, novels, and romances; Thursdays to algebra and mathematics; Fridays to Euclid and trigonometry; Saturdays to recreation; and Sundays to church, Milton, and recreation. He was enabled to extend the range of his reading by the help of the North Shields Subscription Library, to which his father entered him a subscriber. Portions of his spare time were also occasionally devoted to mechanical construction, in which he cultivated the useful art of handling tools. One of his first attempts was the contrivance of a piece of machinery worked by a weight and a pendulum, that should at the same time serve for a timepiece and an orrery; but his want of means, as well as of time, prevented him prosecuting this contrivance to completion. He was more successful with the construction of a fiddle, on which he was ambitious to become a performer. It must have been a tolerable instrument, for a professional player offered him 20s. for it. But though he succeeded in making a fiddle, and for some time persevered in the attempt to play upon it, he did not succeed in producing any satisfactory melody, and at length gave up the attempt, convinced that nature had not intended him for a musician.*
Long after, when married and settled at Manchester, the fiddle, which had been carefully preserved, was taken down from the shelf for the amusement of the children; but though they were well enough pleased with it, the instrument was never brought from its place without creating alarm in the mind of their mother lest anybody should hear it. At length a dancing-master, who was giving lessons in the neighbourhood, borrowed the fiddle, and, to the great relief of the family, it was never returned. Many years later Mr. Fairbairn was present at the starting of a cotton mill at Wesserling in Alsace belonging to Messrs. Gros, Deval, and Co., for which his Manchester firm had provided the mill-work and water-wheel (the first erected in France on the suspension principle, when the event was followed by an entertainment. During dinner Mr. Fairbairn had been explaining to M. Gros, who spoke a little English, the nature of home-brewed beer, which he much admired, having tasted it when in England. The dinner was followed by music, in the performance of which the host himself took part; and on Mr. Fairbairn's admiring his execution on the violin, M. Gros asked him if he played. "A little," was the almost unconscious reply. "Then you must have the goodness to play some," and the instrument was in a moment placed in his hands, amidst urgent requests from all sides that he should play. There was no alternative; so he proceeded to perform one of his best tunes - "The Keel Row." The company listened with amazement, until the performer's career was suddenly cut short by the host exclaiming at the top of his voice, "Stop, stop, Monsieur, by gar that be home-brewed music!"
In due course of time our young engineer was removed from the workshop, and appointed to take charge of the pumps of the mine and the steam-engine by which they were kept in work. This employment was more to his taste, gave him better "insight," and afforded him greater opportunities for improvement. The work was, however, very trying, and at times severe, especially in winter, the engineer being liable to be drenched with water every time that he descended the shaft to regulate the working of the pumps; but, thanks to a stout constitution, he bore through these exposures without injury, though others sank under them. At this period he had the advantage of occasional days of leisure, to which he was entitled by reason of his night work; and during such leisure he usually applied himself to reading and study.
It was about this time that William Fairbairn made the acquaintance of George Stephenson, while the latter was employed in working the ballast-engine at Willington Quay. He greatly admired George as a workman, and was accustomed in the summer evenings to go over to the Quay occasionally and take charge of George's engine, to enable him to earn a few shillings extra by heaving ballast out of the collier vessels. Stephenson's zeal in the pursuit of mechanical knowledge probably was not without its influence in stimulating William Fairbairn himself to carry on so diligently the work of self-culture. But little could the latter have dreamt, while serving his apprenticeship at Percy Main, that his friend George Stephenson, the brakesman, should yet be recognised as among the greatest engineers of his age, and that he himself should have the opportunity, in his capacity of President of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers at Newcastle, of making public acknowledgment of the opportunities for education which he had enjoyed in that neighbourhood in his early years.
"Although not a native of Newcastle," he then said, "he owed almost everything to Newcastle. He got the rudiments of his education there, such as it was; and that was (something like that of his revered predecessor George Stephenson) at a colliery. He was brought up as an engineer at the Percy Main Colliery. He was there seven years; and if it had not been for the opportunities he then enjoyed, together with the use of the library at North Shields, he believed he would not have been there to address them. Being self-taught, but with some little ambition, and a determination to improve himself, he was now enabled to stand before them with some pretensions to mechanical knowledge, and the persuasion that he had been a useful contributor to practical science and objects connected with mechanical engineering." - Meeting of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers at Newcastle-on-Tyne, 1858.
Having finished his five years' apprenticeship at Percy Main, by which time he had reached his twenty-first year, William Fairbairn shortly after determined to go forth into the world in search of experience. At Newcastle he found employment as a millwright for a few weeks, during which he worked at the erection of a sawmill in the Close. From thence he went to Bedlington at an advanced wage. He remained there for six months, during which he was so fortunate as to make the acquaintance of Miss Mar, who five years after, when his wanderings had ceased, became his wife. On the completion of the job on which he had been employed, our engineer prepared to make another change. Work was difficult to be had in the North, and, joined by a comrade, he resolved to try his fortune in London. Adopting the cheapest route, he took passage by a Shields collier, in which he sailed for the Thames on the 11th of December, 1811. It was then war-time, and the vessel was very short-handed, the crew consisting only of three old men and three boys, with the skipper and mate; so that the vessel was no sooner fairly at sea than both the passenger youths had to lend a hand in working her, and this continued for the greater part of the voyage. The weather was very rough, and in consequence of the captain's anxiety to avoid privateers he hugged the shore too close, and when navigating the inside passage of the Swin, between Yarmouth and the Nore, the vessel very narrowly escaped shipwreck. After beating about along shore, the captain half drunk the greater part of the time, the vessel at last reached the Thames with loss of spars and an anchor, after a tedious voyage of fourteen days.
On arriving off Blackwall the captain went ashore ostensibly in search of the Coal Exchange, taking our young engineer with him. The former was still under the influence of drink; and though he failed to reach the Exchange that night, he succeeded in reaching a public house in Wapping, beyond which he could not be got. At ten o'clock the two started on their return to the ship; but the captain took the opportunity of the darkness to separate from his companion, and did not reach the ship until next morning. It afterwards came out that he had been taken up and lodged in the watch-house. The youth, left alone in the streets of the strange city, felt himself in an awkward dilemma. He asked the next watchman he met to recommend him to a lodging, on which the man took him to a house in New Gravel Lane, where he succeeded in finding accommodation. What was his horror next morning to learn that a whole family - the Williamsons - had been murdered in the very next house during the night! Making the best of his way back to the ship, he found that his comrade, who had suffered dreadfully from sea-sickness during the voyage, had nearly recovered, and was able to accompany him into the City in search of work. They had between them a sum of only about eight pounds, so that it was necessary for them to take immediate steps to obtain employment.
They thought themselves fortunate in getting the promise of a job from Mr. Rennie, the celebrated engineer, whose works were situated at the south end of Blackfriars Bridge. Mr. Rennie sent the two young men to his foreman, with the request that he should set them to work. The foreman referred them to the secretary of the Millwrights' Society, the shop being filled with Union men, who set their shoulders together to exclude those of their own grade, however skilled, who could not produce evidence that they had complied with the rules of the trade. Describing his first experience of London Unionists, nearly half a century later, before an assembly of working men at Derby, 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. There were then three millwright societies in London: one called the Old Society, another the New Society, and a third the Independent Society. These societies were not founded for the protection of the trade, but for the maintenance of high wages, and for the exclusion of all those who could not assert their claims to work in London and other corporate towns. Laws of a most arbitrary character were enforced, and they were governed by cliques of self-appointed officers, who never failed to take care of their own interests."
Their first application for leave to work in London having thus disastrously ended, the two youths determined to try their fortune in the country, and with aching hearts they started next morning before daylight. Their hopes had been suddenly crushed, their slender funds were nearly exhausted, and they scarce knew where to turn. But they set their faces bravely northward, and pushed along the high road, through slush and snow, as far as Hertford, which they reached after nearly eight hours' walking, on the moderate fare during their journey of a penny roll and a pint of ale each. Though wet to the skin, they immediately sought out a master millwright, and applied for work. He said he had no job vacant at present; but, seeing their sorry plight, he had compassion upon them, and said, "Though I cannot give you employment, you seem to be two nice lads;" and he concluded by offering Fairbairn a half-crown. But his proud spirit revolted at taking money which he had not earned; and he declined the proffered gift with thanks, saying he was sorry they could not have work. He then turned away from the door, on which his companion, mortified by his refusal to accept the half-crown at a time when they were reduced almost to their last penny, broke out in bitter remonstrances and regrets. Weary, wet, and disheartened, the two turned into Hertford churchyard, and rested for a while upon a tombstone, Fairbairn's companion relieving himself by a good cry, and occasional angry outbursts of "Why didn't you take the half-crown?" "Come, come, man!" said Fairbairn, "it's of no use crying; cheer up; let's try another road; something must soon cast up." They rose, and set out again, but when they reached the bridge, the dispirited youth again broke down; and, leaning his back against the parapet, said, "I winna gang a bit further; let's get back to London." Against this Fairbairn remonstrated, saying "It's of no use lamenting; we must try what we can do here; if the worst comes to the worst, we can enlist; you are a strong chap - they'll soon take you; and as for me, I'll join too; I think I could fight a bit." After this council of war, the pair determined to find lodgings in the town for the night, and begin their search for work anew on the morrow.
Next day, when passing along one of the back streets of Hertford, they came to a wheelwright's shop, where they made the usual enquiries. The wheelwright, said that he did not think there was any job to be had in the town; but if the two young men pushed on to Cheshunt, he thought they might find work at a windmill which was under contract to be finished in three weeks, and where the millwright wanted hands. Here was a glimpse of hope at last; and the strength and spirits of both revived in an instant. They set out immediately; walked the seven miles to Cheshunt; succeeded in obtaining the expected employment; worked at the job a fortnight; and entered London again with nearly three pounds in their pockets.
Our young millwright at length succeeded in obtaining regular employment in the metropolis at good wages. He worked first at Grundy's Patent Ropery at Shadwell, and afterwards at Mr. Penn's of Greenwich, gaining much valuable insight, and sedulously improving his mind by study in his leisure hours. Among the acquaintances he then made was an enthusiastic projector of the name of Hall, who had taken out one patent for making hemp from bean-stalks, and contemplated taking out another for effecting spade tillage by steam. The young engineer was invited to make the requisite model, which he did, and it cost him both time and money, which the out-at-elbows projector was unable to repay; and all that came of the project was the exhibition of the model at the Society of Arts and before the Board of Agriculture, in whose collection it is probably still to be found. Another more successful machine constructed by Mr. Fairbairn about the same time was a sausage-chopping machine, which he contrived and made for a pork-butcher for 33L. It was the first order he had ever had on his own account; and, as the machine when made did its work admirably, he was naturally very proud of it. The machine was provided with a fly-wheel and double crank, with connecting rods which worked a cross head. It contained a dozen knives crossing each other at right angles in such a way as to enable them to mince or divide the meat on a revolving block. Another part of the apparatus accomplished the filling of the sausages in a very expert manner, to the entire satisfaction of the pork-butcher.
As work was scarce in London at the time, and our engineer was bent on gathering further experience in his trade, he determined to make a tour in the South of England and South Wales; and set out from London in April 1813 with 7L in his pocket. After visiting Bath and Frome, he settled to work for six weeks at Bathgate; after which he travelled by Bradford and Trowbridge, always on foot, to Bristol. From thence he travelled through South Wales, spending a few days each at Newport, Llandaff, and Cardiff, where he took ship for Dublin. By the time he reached Ireland his means were all but exhausted, only three-halfpence remaining in his pocket; but, being young, hopeful, skilful, and industrious, he was light of heart, and looked cheerfully forward. The next day he succeeded in finding employment at Mr. Robinson's, of the Phoenix Foundry, where he was put to work at once upon a set of patterns for some nail-machinery. Mr. Robinson was a man of spirit and enterprise, and, seeing the quantities of English machine-made nails imported into Ireland, he was desirous of giving Irish industry the benefit of the manufacture. The construction of the nail-making machinery occupied Mr. Fairbairn the entire summer; and on its completion he set sail in the month of October for Liverpool. It may be added, that, notwithstanding the expense incurred by Mr. Robinson in setting up the new nail-machinery, his workmen threatened him with a strike if he ventured to use it. As he could not brave the opposition of the Unionists, then all-powerful in Dublin, the machinery was never set to work; the nail-making trade left Ireland, never to return; and the Irish market was thenceforward supplied entirely with English-made nails. The Dublin iron-manufacture was ruined in the same way; not through any local disadvantages, but solely by the prohibitory regulations enforced by the workmen of the Trades Unions.
Arrived at Liverpool, after a voyage of two days - which was then considered a fair passage - our engineer proceeded to Manchester, which had already become the principal centre of manufacturing operations in the North of England. As we have already seen in the memoirs of Nasmyth, Roberts, and Whitworth, Manchester offered great attractions for highly-skilled mechanics; and it was as fortunate for Manchester as for William Fairbairn himself that he settled down there as a working millwright in the year 1814, bringing with him no capital, but an abundance of energy, skill, and practical experience in his trade. Afterwards describing the characteristics of the millwright of that time, Mr Fairbairn said - "In those days a good millwright was a man of large resources; he was generally well educated, and could draw out his own designs and work at the lathe; he had a knowledge of mill machinery, pumps, and cranes, and could turn his hand to the bench or the forge with equal adroitness and facility. If hard pressed, as was frequently the case in country places far from towns, he could devise for himself expedients which enabled him to meet special requirements, and to complete his work without assistance. This was the class of men with whom I associated in early life - proud of their calling, fertile in resources, and aware of their value in a country where the industrial arts were rapidly developing."
When William Fairbairn entered Manchester he was twenty-four years of age; and his hat still "covered his family." But, being now pretty well satiated with his "wandetschaft," - as German tradesmen term their stage of travelling in search of trade experience, - he desired to settle, and, if fortune favoured him, to marry the object of his affections, to whom his heart still faithfully turned during all his wanderings. He succeeded in finding employment with Mr. Adam Parkinson, remaining with him for two years, working as a millwright, at good wages. Out of his earnings he saved sufficient to furnish a two-roomed cottage comfortably; and there we find him fairly installed with his wife by the end of 1816. As in the case of most men of a thoughtful turn, marriage served not only to settle our engineer, but to stimulate him to more energetic action. He now began to aim at taking a higher position, and entertained the ambition of beginning business on his own account. One of his first efforts in this direction was the preparation of the design of a cast-iron bridge over the Irwell, at Blackfriars, for which a prize was offered. The attempt was unsuccessful, and a stone bridge was eventually decided on; but the effort made was creditable, and proved the beginning of many designs. The first job he executed on his own account was the erection of an iron conservatory and hothouse for Mr. J. Hulme, of Clayton, near Manchester; and he induced one of his shopmates, James Lillie, to join him in the undertaking. This proved the beginning of a business connection which lasted for a period of fifteen years, and laid the foundation of a partnership, the reputation of which, in connection with mill-work and the construction of iron machinery generally, eventually became known all over the civilized world.
Although the patterns for the conservatory were all made, and the castings were begun, the work was not proceeded with, in consequence of the notice given by a Birmingham firm that the plan after which it was proposed to construct it was an infringement of their patent. The young firm were consequently under the necessity of looking about them for other employment. And to be prepared for executing orders, they proceeded in the year 1817 to hire a small shed at a rent of 12s. a week, in which they set up a lathe of their own making, capable of turning shafts of from 3 to 6 inches diameter; and they hired a strong Irishman to drive the wheel and assist at the heavy work. Their first job was the erection of a cullender, and their next a calico-polishing machine; but orders came in slowly, and James Lillie began to despair of success. His more hopeful partner strenuously urged him to perseverance, and so buoyed him up with hopes of orders, that he determined to go on a little longer. They then issued cards among the manufacturers, and made a tour of the principal firms, offering their services and soliciting work.
Amongst others, Mr. Fairbairn called upon the Messrs. Adam and George Murray, the large cotton-spinners, taking with him the designs of his iron bridge. Mr. Adam Murray received him kindly, heard his explanations, and invited him to call on the following day with his partner. The manufacturer must have been favourably impressed by this interview, for next day, when Fairbairn and Lillie called, he took them over his mill, and asked whether they felt themselves competent to renew with horizontal cross-shafts the whole of the work by which the mule-spinning machinery was turned. This was a formidable enterprise for a young firm without capital and almost without plant to undertake; but they had confidence in themselves, and boldly replied that they were willing and able to execute the work. On this, Mr. Murray said he would call and see them at their own workshop, to satisfy himself that they possessed the means of undertaking such an order. This proposal was by no means encouraging to the partners, who feared that when Mr. Murray spied "the nakedness of the land " in that quarter, he might repent him of his generous intentions. He paid his promised visit, and it is probable that he was more favourably impressed by the individual merits of the partners than by the excellence of their machine-tools - of which they had only one, the lathe which they had just made and set up; nevertheless he gave them the order, and they began with glad hearts and willing hands and minds to execute this their first contract. It may be sufficient to state that by working late and early - from 5 in the morning until 9 at night for a considerable period - they succeeded in completing the alterations within the time specified, and to Mr. Murray's entire satisfaction. The practical skill of the young men being thus proved, and their anxiety to execute the work entrusted to them to the best of their ability having excited the admiration of their employer, he took the opportunity of recommending them to his friends in the trade, and amongst others to Mr. John Kennedy, of the firm of McConnel and Kennedy, then the largest spinners in the kingdom.
The Cotton Trade had by this time sprung into great importance, and was increasing with extraordinary rapidity. Population and wealth were pouring into South Lancashire, and industry and enterprise were everywhere on foot. The foundations were being laid of a system of manufacturing in iron, machinery, and textile fabrics of nearly all kinds, the like of which has perhaps never been surpassed in any country. It was a race of industry, in which the prizes were won by the swift, the strong, and the skilled. For the most part, the early Lancashire manufacturers started very nearly equal in point of worldly circumstances, men originally of the smallest means often coming to the front - work men, weavers, mechanics, pedlers, farmers, or labourers - in course of time rearing immense manufacturing concerns by sheer force of industry, energy, and personal ability. The description given by one of the largest employers in Lancashire, of the capital with which he started, might apply to many of them: "When I married," said he, "my wife had a spinning-wheel, and I had a loom - that was the beginning of our fortune." As an illustration of the rapid rise of Manchester men from small beginnings, the following outline of John Kennedy's career, intimately connected as he was with the subject of our memoir - may not be without interest in this place.
To return to Mr. Fairbairn's career, and his progress as a millwright and engineer in Manchester. When he and his partner undertook the extensive alterations in Mr. Murray's factory, both were in a great measure unacquainted with the working of cotton-mills, having until then been occupied principally with corn-mills, and printing and bleaching works; so that an entirely new field was now opened to their united exertions. Sedulously improving their opportunities, the young partners not only thoroughly mastered the practical details of cotton-mill work, but they were very shortly enabled to introduce a series of improvements of the greatest importance in this branch of our national manufactures. Bringing their vigorous practical minds to bear on the subject, they at once saw that the gearing of even the best mills was of a very clumsy and imperfect character. They found the machinery driven by large square cast-iron shafts, on which huge wooden drums, some of them as much as four feet in diameter, revolved at the rate of about forty revolutions a minute; and the couplings were so badly fitted that they might be heard creaking and groaning a long way off. The speeds of the driving-shafts were mostly got up by a series of straps and counter drums, which not only crowded the rooms, but seriously obstructed the light where most required for conducting the delicate operations of the different machines. Another serious defect lay in the construction of the shafts, and in the mode of fixing the couplings, which were constantly giving way, so that a week seldom passed without one or more breaks-down. The repairs were usually made on Sundays, which were the millwrights' hardest working days, to their own serious moral detriment; but when trade was good, every consideration was made to give way to the uninterrupted running of the mills during the rest of the week.
It occurred to Mr. Fairbairn that the defective arrangements thus briefly described, might be remedied by the introduction of lighter shafts driven at double or treble the velocity, smaller drums to drive the machinery, and the use of wrought-iron wherever practicable, because of its greater lightness and strength compared with wood. He also provided for the simplification of the hangers and fixings by which the shafting was supported, and introduced the "half-lap coupling" so well known to millwrights and engineers. His partner entered fully into his views; and the opportunity shortly presented itself of carrying them into effect in the large new mill erected in 1818, for the firm of MacConnel and Kennedy. The machinery of that concern proved a great improvement on all that had preceded it; and, to Messrs. Fairbairn and Lillie's new system of gearing Mr. Kennedy added an original invention of his own in a system of double speeds, with the object of giving an increased quantity of twist in the finer descriptions of mule yarn.
The satisfactory execution of this important work at once placed the firm of Fairbairn and Lillie in the very front rank of engineering millwrights. Mr. Kennedy's good word was of itself a passport to fame and business, and as he was more than satisfied with the manner in which his mill machinery had been planned and executed, he sounded their praises in all quarters. Orders poured in upon them so rapidly, that they had difficulty in keeping pace with the demands of the trade. They then removed from their original shed to larger premises in Matherstreet, where they erected additional lathes and other tool-machines, and eventually a steam-engine. They afterwards added a large cellar under an adjoining factory to their premises; and from time to time provided new means of turning out work with increased efficiency and despatch.
In due course of time the firm erected a factory of their own, fitted with the most improved machinery for turning out millwork; and they went on from one contract to another, until their reputation as engineers became widely celebrated. In 1826-7, they supplied the water-wheels for the extensive cotton-mills belonging to Kirkman Finlay and Company, at Catrine Bank in Ayrshire. These wheels are even at this day regarded as among the most perfect hydraulic machines in Europe. About the same time they supplied the mill gearing and water-machinery for Messrs. Escher and Company's large works at Zurich, among the largest cotton manufactories on the continent.
In the mean while the industry of Manchester and the neighbourhood, through which the firm had risen and prospered, was not neglected, but had the full benefit of the various improvements which they were introducing in mill machinery. In the course of a few years an entire revolution was effected in the gearing. Ponderous masses of timber and cast-iron, with their enormous bearings and couplings, gave place to slender rods of wrought-iron and light frames or hooks by which they were suspended. In like manner, lighter yet stronger wheels and pulleys were introduced, the whole arrangements were improved, and, the workmanship being greatly more accurate, friction was avoided, while the speed was increased from about 40 to upwards of 300 revolutions a minute. The fly-wheel of the engine was also converted into a first motion by the formation of teeth on its periphery, by which a considerable saving was effected both in cost and power.
These great improvements formed quite an era in the history of mill machinery; and exercised the most important influence on the development of the cotton, flax, silk, and other branches of manufacture. Mr. Fairbairn says the system introduced by his firm was at first strongly condemned by leading engineers, and it was with difficulty that he could overcome the force of their opposition; nor was it until a wheel of thirty tons weight for a pair of engines of 100-horse power each was erected and set to work, that their prognostications of failure entirely ceased. From that time the principles introduced by Mr. Fairbairn have been adopted wherever steam is employed as a motive power in mills.
Mr. Fairbairn and his partner had a hard uphill battle to fight while these improvements were being introduced; but energy and perseverance, guided by sound judgment, secured their usual reward, and the firm became known as one of the most thriving and enterprising in Manchester. Long years after, when addressing an assembly of working men, Mr. Fairbairn, while urging the necessity of labour and application as the only sure means of self-improvement, said, "I can tell you from experience, that there is no labour so sweet, none so consolatory, as that which is founded upon an honest, straightforward, and honourable ambition." The history of any prosperous business, however, so closely resembles every other, and its details are usually of so monotonous a character, that it is unnecessary for us to pursue this part of the subject; and we will content ourselves with briefly indicating the several further improvements introduced by Mr. Fairbairn in the mechanics of construction in the course of his long and useful career.
His improvements in water-wheels were of great value, especially as regarded the new form of bucket which he introduced with the object of facilitating the escape of the air as the water entered the bucket above, and its readmission as the water emptied itself out below. This arrangement enabled the water to act upon the wheel with the maximum of effect in all states of the river; and it so generally recommended itself, that it very soon became adopted in most water-mills both at home and abroad.
His labours were not, however, confined to his own particular calling as a mill engineer, but were shortly directed to other equally important branches of the constructive art. Thus he was among the first to direct his attention to iron ship building as a special branch of business. In 1829, Mr. Houston, of Johnstown, near Paisley, launched a light boat on the Ardrossan Canal for the purpose of ascertaining the speed at which it could be towed by horses with two or three persons on board. To the surprise of Mr. Houston and the other gentlemen present, it was found that the labour the horses had to perform in towing the boat was much greater at six or seven, than at nine miles an hour. This anomaly was very puzzling to the experimenters, and at the request of the Council of the Forth and Clyde Canal, Mr. Fairbairn, who had already become extensively known as a scientific mechanic, was requested to visit Scotland and institute a series of experiments with light boats to determine the law of traction, and clear up, if possible, the apparent anomalies in Mr. Houston's experiments. This he did accordingly, and the results of his experiments were afterwards published, The trials extended over a series of years, and were conducted at a cost of several thousand pounds.
The first experiments were made with vessels of wood, but they eventually led to the construction of iron vessels upon a large scale and on an entirely new principle of construction, with angle iron ribs and wrought-iron sheathing plates. The results proved most valuable, and had the effect of specially directing the attention of naval engineers to the employment of iron in ship building.
Mr. Fairbairn himself fully recognised the value of the experiments, and proceeded to construct an iron vessel at his works at Manchester, in 1831, which went to sea the same year. Its success was such as to induce him to begin iron shipbuilding on a large scale, at the same time as the Messrs. Laird did at Birkenhead; and in 1835, Mr. Fairbairn established extensive works at Millwall, on the Thames, - afterwards occupied by Mr. Scott Russell, in whose yard the SS Great Eastern steamship was erected, - where in the course of some fourteen years he built upwards of a hundred and twenty iron ships, some of them above 2,000 tons burden. It was in fact the first great iron shipbuilding yard in Britain, and led the way in a branch of business which has since become of first-rate magnitude and importance. Mr. Fairbairn was a most laborious experimenter in iron, and investigated in great detail the subject of its strength, the value of different kinds of riveted joints compared with the solid plate, and the distribution of the material throughout the structure, as well as the form of the vessel itself. It would indeed be difficult to over-estimate the value of his investigations on these points in the earlier stages of this now highly important branch of the national industry.
To facilitate the manufacture of his iron-sided ships, Mr. Fairbairn, about the year 1839, invented a machine for riveting boiler plates by steam-power. The usual method by which this process had before been executed was by hand-hammers, worked by men placed at each side of the plate to be riveted, acting simultaneously on both sides of the bolt. But this process was tedious and expensive, as well as clumsy and imperfect; and some more rapid and precise method of fixing the plates firmly together was urgently wanted. Mr. Fairbairn's machine completely supplied the want. By its means the rivet was driven into its place, and firmly fastened there by a couple of strokes of a hammer impelled by steam. Aided by the Jacquard punching-machine of Roberts, the riveting of plates of the largest size has thus become one of the simplest operations in iron-manufacturing.
The thorough knowledge which Mr. Fairbairn possessed of the strength of wrought-iron in the form of the hollow beam (which a wrought-iron ship really is) naturally led to his being consulted by the late Robert Stephenson as to the structures by means of which it was proposed to span the estuary of the Conway and the Straits of Menai; and the result was the Conway and Britannia Tubular Bridges, the history of which we have fully described elsewhere.
There is no reason to doubt that by far the largest share of the merit of working out the practical details of those structures, and thus realizing Robert Stephenson's magnificent idea of the tubular bridge, belongs to Mr. Fairbairn.
In all matters connected with the qualities and strength of iron, he came to be regarded as a first-rate authority, and his advice was often sought and highly valued. The elaborate experiments instituted by him as to the strength of iron of all kinds have formed the subject of various papers which he has read before the British Association, the Royal Society, and the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. His practical inquiries as to the strength of boilers have led to his being frequently called upon to investigate the causes of boiler explosions, on which subject he has published many elaborate reports. The study of this subject led him to elucidate the law according to which the density of steam varies throughout an extensive range of pressures and atmospheres, - in singular confirmation of what had before been provisionally calculated from the mechanical theory of heat. His discovery of the true method of preventing the tendency of tubes to collapse, by dividing the flues of long boilers into short lengths by means of stiffening rings, arising out of the same investigation, was one of the valuable results of his minute study of the subject; and is calculated to be of essential value in the manufacturing districts by diminishing the chances of boiler explosions, and saving the lamentable loss of life which has during the last twenty years been occasioned by the malconstruction of boilers. Among Mr. Fairbairn's most recent, inquiries are those conducted by him at the instance of the British Government relative to the construction of iron-plated ships, his report of which has not yet been made public, most probably for weighty political reasons.
We might also refer to the practical improvements which Mr. Fairbairn has been instrumental in introducing in the construction of buildings of various kinds by the use of iron. He has himself erected numerous iron structures, and pointed out the road which other manufacturers have readily followed. "I am one of those," said he, in his 'Lecture on the Progress of Engineering,' "who have great faith in iron walls and iron beams; and although I have both spoken and written much on the subject, I cannot too forcibly recommend it to public attention. It is now twenty years since I constructed an iron house, with the machinery of a corn-mill, for Halil Pasha, then Seraskier of the Turkish army at Constantinople. I believe it was the first iron house built in this country; and it was constructed at the works at Millwall, London, in 1839."
Since then iron structures of all kinds have been erected: iron lighthouses, iron-and-crystal palaces, iron churches, and iron bridges. Iron roads have long been worked by iron locomotives; and before many years have passed a telegraph of iron wire will probably be found circling the globe. We now use iron roofs, iron bedsteads, iron ropes, and iron pavement; and even the famous "wooden walls of England" are rapidly becoming reconstructed of iron. In short, we are in the midst of what Mr. Worsaae has characterized as the Age of Iron.
At the celebration of the opening of the North Wales Railway at Bangor, almost within sight of his iron bridge across the Straits of Menai, Robert Stephenson said, "We are daily producing from the bowels of the earth a raw material, in its crude state apparently of no worth, but which, when converted into a locomotive engine, flies over bridges of the same material, with a speed exceeding that of the bird, advancing wealth and comfort throughout the country. Such are the powers of that all-civilizing instrument, Iron."
Iron indeed plays a highly important part in modem civilization. Out of it are formed alike the sword and the ploughshare, the cannon and the printing-press; and while civilization continues partial and half-developed, as it still is, our liberties and our industry must necessarily in a great measure depend for their protection upon the excellence of our weapons of war as well as on the superiority of our instruments of peace. Hence the skill and ingenuity displayed in the invention of rifled guns and artillery, and iron-sided ships and batteries, the fabrication of which would be impossible but for the extraordinary development of the iron-manufacture, and the marvellous power and precision of our tool-making machines, as described in preceding chapters.
"Our strength, wealth, and commerce," said Mr. Cobden in the course of a recent debate in the House of Commons, "grow out of the skilled labour of the men working in metals. They are at the foundation of our manufacturing greatness; and in case you were attacked, they would at once be available, with their hard hands and skilled brains, to manufacture your muskets and your cannon, your shot and your shell. What has given us our Armstrongs, Whitworths, and Fairbairns, but the free industry of this country? If you can build three times more steam-engines than any other country, and have threefold the force of mechanics, to whom and to what do you owe that, but to the men who have trained them, and to those principles of commerce out of which the wealth of the country has grown? We who have some hand in doing that, are not ignorant that we have been and are increasing the strength of the country in proportion as we are raising up skilled artisans."*
The reader who has followed us up to this point will have observed that handicraft labour was the first stage of the development of human power, and that machinery has been its last and highest. The uncivilized man began with a stone for a hammer, and a splinter of flint for a chisel, each stage of his progress being marked by an improvement in his tools. Every machine calculated to save labour or increase production was a substantial addition to his power over the material resources of nature, enabling him to subjugate them more effectually to his wants and uses; and every extension of machinery has served to introduce new classes of the population to the enjoyment of its benefits. In early times the products of skilled industry were for the most part luxuries intended for the few, whereas now the most exquisite tools and engines are employed in producing articles of ordinary consumption for the great mass of the community. Machines with millions of fingers work for millions of purchasers - for the poor as well as the rich; and while the machinery thus used enriches its owners, it no less enriches the public with its products.
Much of the progress to which we have adverted has been the result of the skill and industry of our own time. "Indeed," says Mr. Fairbairn, "the mechanical operations of the present day could not have been accomplished at any cost thirty years ago; and what was then considered impossible is now performed with an exactitude that never fails to accomplish the end in view." For this we are mainly indebted to the almost creative power of modern machine-tools, and the facilities which they present for the production and reproduction of other machines. We also owe much to the mechanical agencies employed to drive them. Early inventors yoked wind and water to sails and wheels, and made them work machinery of various kinds; but modern inventors have availed themselves of the far more swift and powerful, yet docile force of steam, which has now laid upon it the heaviest share of the burden of toil, and indeed become the universal drudge. Coal, water, and a little oil, are all that the steam-engine, with its bowels of iron and heart of fire, needs to enable it to go on working night and day, without rest or sleep. Yoked to machinery of almost infinite variety, the results of vast ingenuity and labour, the Steam-engine pumps water, drives spindles, thrashes corn, prints books, hammers iron, ploughs land, saws timber, drives piles, impels ships, works railways, excavates docks; and, in a word, asserts an almost unbounded supremacy over the materials which enter into the daily use of mankind, for clothing, for labour, for defence, for household purposes, for locomotion, for food, or for instruction.