The autobiography, which has formed the
substance of the nine preceding chapters, extends no further, in any
connected shape, than about 1810, when Mr. Fairbairn had completed his
fiftieth year. Some notes remain, referring to matters of a later date; but
they are fragmentary and incomplete, and can only be made use of as
But although, in regard to that portion of his
life and work which remains to be chronicled, we lose the benefit of his own
interesting and vivid narration, we are fortunately not left altogether
without guidance. Mr. Fairbairn was very fond of writing; nothing gave him
greater pleasure than to put his ideas on paper; and hence, in regard to the
later occupations of his life, there exists a mass of information from his
hand, either published or in manuscript, which has served not only to
facilitate the task of the biographer, but to render the accounts given
authoritative and trustworthy.
In the present chapter it is proposed, in the
first place, to give a brief notice of several miscellaneous matters,
scientific and professional, which occupied Mr. Fairbairn's attention
between his fiftieth and sixtieth years; and, secondly, to chronicle some
few private and domestic events of interest that happened during the same
In 1840 Mr. Fairbairn was consulted regarding
the best means to be adopted for draining the lake of Haarlem; and he
appears to have devised an ingenious mechanical arrangement to facilitate
the process; but no record of any report on the subject can be found.
In the same year he became one of the managing
council of a society formed in Manchester under the presidency of the Right
Hon. Lord Francis Egerton, called the Manchester Geological Society, and
although not properly speaking a geologist, he contributed a paper to their
meetings which was read on October 29, 1840, and was published the following
year in vol. i. of their Transactions.
The paper was entitled 'On the Economy of
raising Water from Coal Mines on the Cornish Principle.' It gave an account
of the improvements made in the steam-engines for draining the mines of
Cornwall, and the great economy of fuel resulting therefrom; and it
advocated the introduction of similar improvements in the colliery
districts. It was illustrated by drawings of the engine, and by copies of
diagrams of the steam-pressure indicator.
Mr. Fairbairn continued to prosecute his
experiments on the strength of cast-iron ; and in November, 1840, he read,
before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, a second paper,
'An experimental Enquiry into the Strength and
other Properties of Anthracite Cast-iron, being a continuation of a series
of experiments on British irons from various parts of the United Kingdom.'
This paper was published tn the same volume as
the former one. and it gave an account of the extension of the trials to a
new kind of iron that had been introduced into the market, named anthracite
iron from its being prepared with anthracite coal.
The following letter from Sir. Fairbairn's
fellow-worker in these important iron experiments will be interesting as
showing the zealous and earnest part Mr. Fairbairn took in the
investigations. The parts omitted refer to private matters.
Manchester, December 11, 1810.
My dear Sir,—Very many thanks for your kind
letter of this morning. . . . The sentiments your liberality has inspired
are deeply engraven upon my heart.
It is perhaps not less than a dozen years since
I first availed myself of your (and your then partner's) kind offer to
afford me the means of making experiments at your works. In that interval
more experiments, of a really useful character, have been made there, either
by yourself or me, than have been made at any one place in Europe in the
time ; and when one considers that the expense has been wholly borne by
yourself . . . your public spirit deserves the highest praise. This praise
has been expressed to me a hundred times, and every man of science seems
willing to join in it.
I had not expected that we should have parted so
soon. We have both run for some years an interesting race for reputation in
practical science, mutually indebted to each other; and though your name is
now not bounded by Europe, it might have been (perhaps) no worse for either
of us if it had been our lot jointly to investigate the steam-engine.
I should have gone to-day, but as the extra
copies of thd paper on Pillars arrived at the same time with your letters of
introduction, I thought they might be an auxiliary if taken with me, and I
would stay till Monday and dispose of some of them. I have sent five for
your use besides those which are addressed, and if you would like more I
will send you any number.
Remember me with every sentiment of respect to
Mrs. Fairbairn and your amiable daughter. Thank them for the kindness they
have long shown to me, and believe me,
Wm. Fairbairn, Esq. Eaton Hodgkinson.
Another letter, written by the same gentleman a
little later, is in the same strain:—
March 10, 1842.
My dear Sir,—I have received the medals safe,
which through your liberality in the encouragement of enquiries into
practical science, I have had the honour to obtain. It will afford me very
great pleasure to visit your hospitable lady and yourself on Monday at six.
Mrs. II. is, thank God, somewhat better to-day, and if ever I saw a gleam of
pleasure marked strongly upon her countenance, it was when she saw the
medals which you have enabled me to obtain.
With every feeling of affection and gratitude,
believe me, my dear Sir (both on her part and my own) most truly yours,
Wm. Fairbairn, Esq. Eaton Hodgkinson.
In 1841 Mr. Fairbairn was applied to, at the
suggestion of the government, to give advice as to the best means of
preventing accidents to workpeople in factories by their getting entangled
in the machinery. It was considered advisable that mill-owners should be
compelled to box or fence off all dangerous moving parts; but that the
opinion of skilled persons should be taken as to how far this could be done
without interfering with the convenience of working. Mr. Fairbairn gave the.
required information at some length in a report to Mr. Heathcote, the local
factory inspector, dated April 8,1841, and he encouraged the enforcement of
the protection, if kept within reasonable bounds.
In 1842 he took out a patent (July 7, No. 9,409)
for ' certain improvements in the construction of metal ships, boats, and
other vessels, and in the preparation of metal plates to be used therein.'
The object of this invention was to avoid the
weakening of wrought-iron plates due to the ordinary process of riveting. To
prepare for this process it is necessary to punch holes in the edges of the
plates to be riveted] by which of course the metal is considerably cut away,
and much loss of strength ensues. To remedy this, Mr. Fairbairn proposed to
roll the plates somewhat thicker on the edges, so that the holes being made
in the thickened parts, the extra strength would compensate for the area
removed by the holes.
This invention was partially carried into
practice. An iron steamboat of some magnitude was built for the Admiralty on
the system, and it was also used to some extent for locomotive boilers. But
it has been found that the extra trouble and expense of getting plates
specially rolled with the thickened edges are objected to, and hence the
plan has not come into general application.
In 1842 aud the following year Mr. Fairbairn
undertook some elaborate investigations on a subject that had often excited
the attention of practical engineers, but on which very crude and indistinct
notions appear to have generally prevailed, namely, the prevention of
smoke from steam-engine boilers. At the meeting of the British Association
at York, in September 1844, he presented a report ' On the Consumption of
Fuel and the Prevention of Smoke,' which was published in the volume of
Transactions for that year.
It begins by stating—
There is perhaps no subject so difficult, and
none so full of perplexities, as that of the management of a furnace and the
prevention of smoke. I have approached this enquiry with considerable
diffidence, and, after repeated attempts at definite conclusions, have more
than once been forced to abandon the investigation as inconclusive and
After alluding to the nature of the
difficulties, the author adds:—
I shall endeavour to show, from a series of
accurately-conducted experiments, that, the prevention of smoke, and the
perfect combustion of fuel, are synonymous, and completely within the reach
of all those who choose to adopt measures calculated for the suppression of
the one and the improvement of the other.
He divides his essay under four heads of enquir
The analysis or constituents of coal and other
The relative proportions of the furnace and forms of boilers.
The temperature of the furnace and surrounding flues.
The economy of fuel, concentration of heat, and prevention of smoke.
All which are fully treated in the paper.
In the same year (1844) Mr. Fairbairn was called
on, in the course of his professional business, to investigate a subject
which occupied him for a long time afterwards, namely, the use of iron in
the construction of large buildings.
The first occasion for this study was an
application from Liverpool, where, for some years, an enormous loss of
property had been sustained by fires in large warehouses. From 1795 to the
end of 1842 this loss had amounted to two millions and a quarter sterling ;
and the damage by one lire alone, in September 1841, was estimated at
380,000W. In fact, Liverpool had acquired an unenviable notoriety for the
frequency and extent of the fires ; the character of the town had become
stamped as insecure for the storage of merchandise, and the rates of
insurance had been raised to such a pitch as to prove a most serious charge
and embarrassment to the commerce of the port.
This led to an urgent demand for ameliorations
in the construction of the warehouses, particularly by the free use of iron
in place of timber. Hut as such an application of this material was to a
certain extent novel, it was felt to be desirable that the opinion and
advice of a thoroughly competent engineer should be obtained ; and at the
end of March 1844 Messrs. S. and J. Holme, large builders and contractors of
Liverpool, applied to Mr. Fairbairn to visit that town, and make a report on
the matter, as they were about to erect a new warehouse of great magnitude,
covering nearly an acre of ground. 'The subject,' said Messrs. Holme, 'is
most important to the commerce of the town, as well as to many persons
individually, and as we shall not like to take any steps in regard to the
large pile, we shall esteem it a favour if you will name the earliest day in
your power to visit Liverpool.'
Mr. Fairbairn paid the visit asked for, and made
his report on June 3. He pointed out that fire-proof modes of construction
had for some time been introduced for mills and factories, described their
peculiarities, particularly in regard to the strength of the iron columns,
girders, &c., and recommended the application of the same principles to the
case of warehouses, concluding with the following remark:—
In my own mind there is not the shadow of a
doubt as to the security of such a structure, and I do not hesitate to
assert that a well-built and properly-arranged fire-proof warehouse can not
only be constructed, but may be made to entail upon the commercial and
manufacturing communities of this country an important and lasting benefit.
This report was thought so valuable to the
Liverpool interests, that it was published, with introductory remarks by
Messrs. Holme, for general circulation, and was reprinted in the 'Edinburgh
New Philosophical Journal,' vol. xxxviii., 1845.
A few months later Mr. Fairbairn's attention was
again directed to the construction of large buildings by a dreadful accident
that occurred at Oldham. On October 31 a large cotton-mill in that town fell
in with a tremendous crash, burying a number of work-people beneath the
ruins, and destroying property to a very large amount. At the coroner's
inquest the jury expressed a wish that the circumstances should be enquired
into by Mr. Fairbairn, in association with a Mr. D. Bellhouse. This was
done, and a joint Eeport, dated November 0, was presented at the adjourned
inquest by the two gentlemen, who also gave viva voce explanations. They
ascribed the accident to the weakness of some of the iron beams, which it
appeared had been constructed without due regard to the mechanical
principles determining their strength. The jury, in returning a verdict of
accidental death, added ' their unanimous opinion that the causes of the
accident were fully pointed out in the able report of Mr. Fairbairn and Mr.
At this time a Commission or Committee was
sitting on Fire-proof Buildings, the Commissioners being Sir Henry de la
Beche, the eminent geologist, and Mr. Thos. Cubitt, the well-known builder,
of Piinlico. These gentlemen, hearing of Mr. Fairbairn's investigation of
the Oldham accident, requested him to give evidence before them, which he
did; but no report or publication of the proceedings of the body can be
A year or two afterwards he followed up the
subject by a paper ' On some Defects in the Principle and Construction of
Fire-proof Buildings,' read before the Institution of Civil Engineers, April
20, 1847, and published in vol. vi. of their Minutes of Proceedings. It was
founded on an examination of another cotton-mill in Manchester that had
fallen shortly before; and the paper pointed out that in this case, as at
Oldham, the iron beams were far too weak for the load they had to sustain.
Some years later he published a book on this
subject, which will be noticed in a subsequent place.
In 1847 Mr. Fairbairn was applied to by the
authorities of the city of Basle to design a bridge for crossing the Rhine
at that place. He accordingly made drawings and estimates of a bridge on the
hollow girder principle. It was to be in several spans each 1U0 feet long,
and was to cost 34,000/.
It does not appear, however, that anything
further resulted from this offer.
In the second chapter of this work allusion has
been made to the large use of iron bridges consequent on the great extension
of railways that took place soon after 1840. Some of these structures proved
faulty on trial, and some serious accidents occurred from their giving way.
The conditions were to some extent new, on account of the vibrations and
concussions to which the bridges were exposed by the passage over them of
heavy trains, often at high speed ; and doubts were felt as to the state of
engineering knowledge in regard to their design. This attracted the
attention of government; and in August 1847 a Royal Commission was appointed
'for the purpose of enquiring into the conditions to be observed by
engineers in the application of iron in structures exposed to violent
concussion and vibration. The Commission consisted of Lord Wrottesley,
Professor Robert Willis, Captain Henry James, R.E., Messrs. George Rennie,
William (afterwards Sir William) Cubitt, and Eaton Hodgkinson, and Captain
Douglas Galton, E.E., was the Secretary.
The Commission collected much information and
examined many witnesses, among whom Mr. Fairbairn, from his large practice
in ironwork, was one of the most prominent. He gave-evidence in November
1847, describing iron structures he had designed, stating his experience in
regard to the properties of iron, and the mode of using it, and explaining
his views as to the forms of iron beams, Ihe mode of testing them, the
influence of vibration, &£f&c. In a subsequent communication he gave useful
suggestions for experiments, and furnished full particulars of the
investigations he had made for the Britannia and Conway Tubular Bridges. Ihe
Commissioners made their report in July 1819, in a Blue. Book which is well
known, and often quoted when the properties of iron are in question.
In January 1849 Mr. Fairbairn read before the
Institution of Civil Engineers a paper ' On Water-wheels with Ventilated
Buckets,' which was afterwards published in vol. viii. of their Minutes of
Proceedings. It contained an account of an invention originally introduced
by him many years before, and which has been always admitted to be of great
In the course of manufacture of waterwheels for
Catrine Bank and elsewhere, at an early period of his mechanical practice,
Mr. Fairbairn had the opportunity of carefully studying their action and of
making many improvements, the most important of which was an arrangement for
what was called the ' ventilation of the bucket.' It had been found that
difficulty had existed in getting the water to enter the buckets freely,
particularly when the opening was contracted, as was often necessary. This
difficulty arose from the fact that the air iti the bucket could not get
away to make room for the water. Mr. Fairbaim saw that from this simple
defect many large water-wheels lost an important proportion of their power;
and he took steps to remedy the evil. His mode of doing so was .simply to
construct a small passage opening upwards out of the bucket, by which, when
the water entered, the air could rise and get away, and so leave the whole
content free for the reception of the water. The following section of the
buckets (taken from the published paper) will illustrate at a glance the
nature of this simple and elegant contrivance. The arrows show the course of
the escaping air.
VENTILATED BUCKETS FOR WATER-WHEELS.
It should be added that the same improvement
which ensures the quick admission of the water also facilitates its quick
discharge (an object also of much importance) by allowing the air to enter
again into the bucket.
The first wheel constructed on this principle
was at Handfortb, in Cheshire, in 1828. No patent was taken out for the
invention; but the contrivance so much improved the action of the wheels as
to acquire great notoriety, and to bring large orders to the firm. The
arrangement was subsequently improved and extended to various classes of
water-wheels, and full descriptions are given in the paper.
The following matters, of more personal
interest, may be noticed in this place for the purpose of preserving the
chronological arrangement of events in Mr. Fairbairn's life.
lie occasionally took pupils into his
manufactory, which, from the care and knowledge with which it was laid out
and worked, formed an excellent school for mechanical engineering. One of
the young men so taken, the son of the celebrated founder of Mechanics'
Institutions, Dr. Birkbeck, was also a frequent visitor at Mr. Fairbairn's
house. The following extracts from the father's letters may be interesting
38, Finslmry Square, April 13, 1840.
Dear Sir,—On my visit to Millwall, I had a very
satisfactory conversation with yonr partner, Mr. Murray; and your kind and
liberal communication from Manchester has quite confirmed my favourable
I have decided, quite with my son's concurrence,
that he should proceed to Manchester and enter your establishment there. I
really hope that he will render himself worthy of the opportunity which he
will enjoy of acquiring sound and varied practical information. He will, I
think and hope, be greatly interested in the construction of the beautiful
and splendid pieces of mechanism which must continually be in progress in
your establishment; one of the most extraordinary, I understand, in the most
wonderful school for mechanical invention in the world, the town and
neighbourhood of Manchester.
If I mistake not, judging from the kind and
rational remarks which you have made on the duties of young men destilled
for a liberal profession, my son will be very likely to enter with great
cordiality into your views.
I wish it was in my power to accept your
invitation to visit Manchester; this is a pleasure, however, which must be
deferred until the weather is a little more settled, and until, by the
practice of taking exercise, not very convenient to me in winter, I may
acquire strength and activity enough to cope with the demands which
Manchester would make upon my curiosity and my exertion.
About thirteen years ago, on my return from a
hasty journey into Yorkshire, Westmoreland, and Lancashire, I spent one day
in Manchester. My friend Sir Benjamin Heywood kindly disposed of the
principal part of my day, in which of course the Mechanics' Institution was
not forgotten. If I once more return I shall be at your disposal in regard
to this interesting object, and many others since brought into operation.
With great respect, I remain, my dear Sir, Very
Win. Fairbairn, Esq. George Bikkleck.
38, Finsbury Square, January 18, 1841.
My dear Sir,—We all rejoice in the effects of my
son George's residence under your superintendence. His feelings are better
regulated in consequence of the influence of occupation, under kind and
friendly control, and he has acquired a taste for industrious pursuits,
which I am persuaded will benefit him through life. He speaks in the highest
terms of yourself and Mrs, Fairbairn, and the rest of the family. I had
formed, I confess, great expectations from this engagement, and it is no
small gratification to me to feel that I have not in any respect been
deceived or mistaken.
Dr. Birkbeck died in December of this year.
In September 1841 Mr. Fairbairn's daughter Anne
was married to his young friend Mr. J. F. Bateman, au alliance which gave
him great pleasure, lie was much attached to her, and from that lime, he
often spent the leisure which he snatched from business with Mr. and Mrs.
Bateman and their family, sometimes also accompanying them on tours and
excursions either on the Continent or in the picturesque- districts of Great
The business connection of Mr. Bateman with his
father-in-law in some important works in Ireland has already been mentioned.
After that their communications on engineering matters were very frequent;
and Mr. Bateman's previous engineering education and scientific tastes
enabled him to be of considerable service to Mr. Fairbairn. Indeed for many
years there was scarcely any engineering scheme or scientific investigation
undertaken in which Mr. Bateman's assistance was not called in, until the
time when Mr. Fairbairn's own sons grew up, and were able to render him
efficient help in his business transactions.
In January 1846 Mr. Fairbairn's father died at
the great age of eighty-six. The following letter, written to his wife on
receiving the news, is characteristic:—
Millwill, January 17, 1814.
My dearest Dorothy,—I have this moment arrived
from Paris and received the announcement of my poor father's demise. It came
upon me unexpectedly, and although he had reached a good old age, yet I feel
the stroke most severely, and can scarcely reconcile myself to the change.
The last link which bound us to the last generation is now snapped asunder,
and the many events of my childhood, with the endearing attentions of my
good parents, rise up before me as fresh as on the days of their occurrence.
Poor old man! I used to listen to him with great attention, and always
admired his sound judgment, and above all his unflinching integrity, which
was never absent under whatever circumstances he. was placed. I shall always
cherish his virtues and look back with pleasure to the happy days I spent
under his roof.
I feel my heart fill now they are gone, and
although a father myself, I experience the weakness of a child at the
bereavement I have sustained. I have been up for the last two nights, but I
must move again by this evening's train to Leeds, and from thence join my
brother at Newcastle, in order to perform the last sad duties to my
excellent and affectionate parent.
Your very affectionate,
The following letter from an eminent but
unfortunate artist will be read with interest, and shows the character Mr.
Fairbairn had acquired for kindness of heart. It is no breach of propriety
now to allude to the circum stances of the writer, for they have been but
too clearly told in his published life.
14 Burwood Place, London, December 22, 1844.
My dear Mr. Fairbairn,—You once gave me hopes of
Shall I make a proposition? Frank goes up for
examination and his degree in a week or ten days, at furthest.
His fees are 15l., and his college bill 40l-.
14.s. 11d.=-56l. 14s. 11d.
I have brought him through all his terms but
this last, and if this last be not paid up, he is ruined and will not have
I will paint you a small picture for that
amount, or for any portion you will advance me at once. You were kind to
Frank, and may feel an interest in getting him through.
I never broke my word about a picture in my
life. Close at once and you shall have an ornament for your house.
I hope you and Mrs. Fairbairn and boys and all
Mrs. and Miss Haydon's kind respects.
Yours truly, B. R. Haydon.
Mr. Fairbairn endorsed the letter: ' Answered
February 15, with an order for a picture, value to be 30/.'
Poor Haydon did not break his word. One day,
about the middle of June 1845, he called at the house, in London, of one of
Mr. Fairbairn's relatives, and left au unfinished sketch in the hall, giving
a hasty message for its care. On the 22nd of the same month he shot himself
in his painting-room.
The picture, the subject of which is ' Christ
before Pilate,' is still in the possession of Lady Fairbairn.
The pride Mr. Fairbairn took in his long
friendship with George Stephenson has already been noticed. The following
letter is curious, when it is recollected that at this time the two men's
ages were fifty-eight and sixty-six respectively:—
Taptou House, January 5, 1847.
My dear Sir,—I have only this day received yours
of January 1.
It will give me great pleasure to accept your
kind invitation to Manchester when you return from Ireland. Should I find it
convenient to do so, I will inform you in due time. In the meantime let me
wish you and Mrs. Fairhairrn many returns of the season.
Now for the challenge to wrestle. Had you not
known that I had given up that species of sport, you durst not have made the
expressions in your letter you have done. Although you are a much taller and
stronger looking man than myself, I am quite sure that I could have smiled
in your face when you were laying on your back! I know your wife would not
like to see me do this, therefore let me have no more boasting, or you might
get the worst of it.
Notwithstanding your challenge,
I remain yours faithfully,