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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter XIX - The Millwall Ship-Building Factory


The great prosperity which attended the Manchester business was considerably marred by results of an opposite character arising from the other manufacturing establishment with which Mr Fairbairn was connected, the ship-building yard at Millwall. It was in existence about twelve years; it was never in a paying condition, it absorbed capital to a large amount; it was an incessant source of anxiety and annoyance to everybody concerned, and it ended with a loss which, if not met by the Manchester profits, would have sent Mr. Fairbairn into the Bankruptcy Court, and ruined his prospects for ever.

The origin of the Millwall establishment has been explained by Mr. Fairbairn in that portion of his autobiography given in Chap. X. He entered upon it soon after his separation from Lillie in 1832.

The application of iron to ship-building was then almost new. Some few canal boats made of iron appear to have been in use on the Midland Canals about 1812 or 1813, but the first iron boat that ever put to sea was a small steamer, built in 1821 at the Horseley Iron Works, Staffordshire, by Mr. Aaron Manby, whose name she was given. She was 120 feet long and 18 feet beam, and was propelled by an engine of 80 horse-power. She was sent to London in parts, and having been put together there was navigated, down the Thames, across the Channel, and up the Seine to Paris. This unique voyage was performed under the command of Captain (afterwards Admiral Sir Charles) Napier, R.N., who was largely interested in the undertaking, and devoted much time, and his usual skill and energy, to the enterprise.

Other iron boats of small size were made at the same works, and shortly afterwards Mr. John Laird, of Birkenhead, and another ship-builder in Scotland took up their construction; but the manufacture had made but little progress, when in 1830, Mr. Fairbairn directed his attention to the use of steam-power on the Forth and Clyde canal, and built the famous little iron steamer the 'Lord Dundas.' This was succeeded by others, built at his works at Manchester, and he may be said to have been among the first to show the superior strength and security of the new material. He found that the resisting power of an iron vessel, when properly constructed, could be depended on for navigating the open sea; and, moreover, that she was much better calculated for lightness, and capacity for cargo, than one composed of timber.

These results were so good as to promise a great and profitable field for the exercise of his designing and manufacturing skill. But it was immediately apparent that this manufacture could not be successfully carried on in an inland town, and he determined to set up another establishment at a seaport. He was undecided for some time between Liverpool and London, but at last fixed on the latter, for the reason, as he says, that he believed it offered more encouraging prospects for the new business. But it is very probable that, as he began to feel a desire to make himself more known in the world, his preference for the metropolitan situation may have partly arisen from the better opportunity it would give him in this respect. The choice no doubt was right in a personal, though wrong in a commercial point of view. It was the

London situation that caused, or at least magnified, the financial difficulties (for almost all iron ship-building enterprises have been unsuccessful on the Thames), and if lie had chosen Liverpool, he might have made the business pay, but the course of his life would have been changed; he would have been less before the world, and would, in all probability never have gained the honour and celebrity that attended his actual career.

In accordance with this decision Mr. Fairbairn selected a plot of land on the north bank of the Thames, at Millwall, in the Isle of Dogs, and entered on it early in the year 1835. Here he laid out complete arrangements for building iron ships of considerable size, and, as these might be expected for the most part to be steamers, he had also to erect workshops and tools for the manufacture of their engines and machinery.

The first outlay was heavy, and it was provided entirely by borrowed money. It was afterwards much increased as the necessities arose, and this capital outlay was one of the causes that hampered the concern, and contributed to the trouble it gave.

The mode of managing two large establishments two hundred miles apart, each requiring constant attention, was a difficulty very early seen ; but Mr. Fairbairn hoped, by frequent journeys backwards and forwards, to give so much of his personal attention to each as would keep both in order.

He found no difficulty in getting work for the new-factory. The fame he had acquired in his Manchester business told favourably in this, and orders came in plentifully. In the first year the firm had made contracts for twelve vessels, and the demand went on year after year at about the same rate, upwards of a hundred vessels having been made at Mill wall during the thirteen years the works were in operation.

It will suffice to notice some of the larger and more important orders undertaken.

The Admiralty patronised the him, by giving them a frigate to build, the Megaara,' 2,000 tons, with engines of 600 horse-power; and they also constructed large engines for several other frigates, among which were the 'Dragon,' the 'Vulture^-the 'Odin,' and the 'Cormorant.'

For the East India Company they built twelve iron vessels for navigating the Ganges, each about 240 tons; and for the Peninsular and Oriental Company the ' Pottinger,' 1,700 tons.

Many others were constructed for the mercantile marine service, among which were the 'Rose' and the 'Thistle,' for Australian lines; eight steamers for the Baltic, and four for the Black Sea, &c.

The firm also built iron steam yachts for the Emperor of Russia and the King of Denmark.

Mr. Fairbairn took out two patents for improvements in marine steam machinery. The first was in September 1841 (No. 9,072), for 'Certain Improvements in the Construction and Arrangement of Steam-engines.' The invention consisted of making the engines direct acting, and applying a novel disposition and construction of some of the working parts, particularly the parallel motion; by means of which the necessary motions of the air-pump, force-pump, and other working parts of the engine were brought into a smaller compass than in the ordinary construction of marine engines.

The second patent of this kind, dated March 7, 1846, was for an improvement in the mode of driving the screw-propeller, by the application of a large wheel with internal teeth. It is believed that a pair of engines were constructed on this plan, but it never came into general use.

But though there was plenty of work at the Millwall yard, it was done in the face of a host of difficulties, and from various causes it produced no profit, but the contrary.

In the first place, there arose, at an early period, a formidable competition. Other people saw that iron ship-building was likely to be an increasing trade, and, jealous of the interloper from the North, they opened au energetic opposition to him, which kept prices down. Moreover, the business was new, the construction of large iron ships was at first tentative, and much experience had to be gained; and this, in the face of sharp competition, was necessarily very costly.

When, four years after the works had been in operation, Mr. Fairbairn was requested to go to Turkey, he consented with considerable hesitation, fearing that his business might suffer in his absence. His fears were but too well founded; for wdien he returned from Constantinople, he found affairs at both his works (which then together employed more than 2,000 hands) iu great confusion. In regard to Millwall, he says:—

A short time previous to my departure for Turkey, I was engaged in negotiating with the Admiralty for an iron frigate ; and under the impression that the order was confirmed, a large proportion of the plates were ordered by Mr. Murray, and most of them delivered at the works. On my return, I found that a change had been made in the dimensions of the vessel, which rendered the material next to useless, or little better than old iron. I will not recount the mortification I endured when I found the firm indebted to a large amount for material that was not wanted. There was, however, no alternative but submission.

Other difficulties also stood in his way; he had realised a good deal of property, but it was all invested in buildings, plant, and machinery; he had little or no ready money ; and this fact, becoming known, gave rise to unfavourable reports as to his circumstances, which, though unfounded, tended to affect his mercantile credit. He says, speaking of this :—

In the philosophy of trade and commerce there appear to be the same fixed and definite laws regulating the transactions between man and man as exist in the physical and moral world. A merchant cannot well afford to be poor. He must never own it if he is; otherwise it is more than probable the most serious consequences may arise injurious to his credit, as all the commercial gossips, of whatever grade, will set upon him, and a hundred to one but he is devoured. Such was nearly my own case at the time I refer to.

He speaks feelingly of the depression he suffered in consequence of these adverse circumstances.

In this contest with the world I suffered many heartburnings and mortifications. Mrs. Fairbairn was confined of her last child. My sons were all at school, my daughter was nearly of age, and a numerous family were entirely dependent on me. These considerations pressed upon me with a force that was almost past endurance. In the fits of melancholy which sometimes overtook me I pictured to myself every possible contingency.

It is pleasant, however, to read the expressions of the determination and energy which he brought to bear on his affairs, and which enabled him, almost unaided, to right himself, and to overcome all his difficulties.

I never thought of bankruptcy. I never relaxed in my exertions, and, above all, I met the difficulties which multiplied around me with a determination which nothing could conquer, and w hich was sure to mitigate if not entirely to remove their effects. It was this determined perseverance that enabled me to keep the wolf from the door.

In another place he says :—

Such was the buoyancy of my spirits, and such my determination to overcome the difficulties of my position, that I resolved to stem, with an energy that nothing could crush, the tide which set in against me, and I set to work with redoubled energy to secure a respectable independence for my family.

To meet the want of ready money, Mr. E. Smith, the former manager of the Manchester works, put into the business two or three thousand pounds, as an equivalent for a small share in the profits; and, in addition, a few thousands more were borrowed on the security of the fixed property.

The Millwall works proved, however, too onerous to be retained; and after much hesitation and consideration, Mr. Fairbairn, about 1844, came to the conclusion that it would be to his interest to get rid of them, even at a large loss. He accordingly determined to wind up that branch of his business, and the works, which had cost upwards of 50,000/., were sold for 12,000/.

The place, however, could not be got rid of all at once, as large orders were in hand for iron vessels, which it was necessary to complete. For this reason one-half the freehold and the ship-building yard were retained. One of the ships thus finished was the 'Megajra,' a vessel which was afterwards converted into a troop-ship, and ultimately wrecked in the South Seas. Two or three years were occupied in finishing this vessel, and some other orders in hand from the Peninsular and Oriental and other Companies.

During the years 1815, 1846, and 1847 the factory was used for the experiments on the great tubular bridges described iu Chapter XIII. This was the last work done there.

The whole premises were dismantled and given up in 1848. They were purchased by Messrs. Robinson & Co., and subsequently came, with adjacent lands, into the hands of Mr. Scott Russell, by whom they were used, among other purposes, for the construction of that mighty monster of iron ship-building, the 'Great Eastern.'

It was a great relief to Mr. Fairbairn to get rid of the Millwall establishment, as it enabled him to concentrate the whole of his business in Manchester. And one reason why he wished to do this was, as he states :—

I should have the assistance of my sons, then on the point of leaving school, and likely in a few years to render that support which was then so much wanted, and which I ha\e since had the happiness to experience.

The present Sir Thomas Fairbairn has given the editor the following memorandum respecting these transactions :—

Eight years of my own time and devoted attention were taken up in bringing the disastrous Millwall concern to a close. I was taken away from an intended university career in 1840, and was engaged at Millwall until the final close in 1848, excepting some ten months in 1811-42, which I spent in Italy.

The loss sustained at Millwall altogether was over 100,000/., the whole of which had to be made good from the profits of the business iu Manchester.


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