This chapter is intended to supply some personal
details which it was not convenient to introduce elsewhere, and to give some
illustrations of Sir William Fairbairn's character.
Mr. Fairbairn was, as already stated, married in
1810. The couple therefore lived together eight years beyond the date of
the 'golden wedding day,' which is so seldom attained. He had nine children,
seven sons and two daughters, of whom three sons and one daughter are now
The second and eldest surviving son Thomas, the
present baronet, was born in 1823. He was the most active assistant to his
father in his manufacturing business, and latterly had its sole management.
He is a deputy lieutenant and magistrate for Lancashire and a magistrate for
Hampshire, where he has a seat, at Brainbridge, near Winchester, and he
served as sheriff for that county in 1870. He has long and often been before
the world on matters of science, art, and public policy. In 1860 he was
elected by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 a member of that
Commission, and again was nominated by the Crown in a similar capacity for
the International Exhibition of 1862. He was chairman of the Exhibition of
Art Treasures at Manchester in 1857, and on the occasion of her Majesty's
visit there was offered the honour of knighthood, which he declined.
Of the two other sons, the elder, William
Andrew, (formerly one of the partners,) still resides in London, and, the
younger, the Rev. Adam Henderson Fairbairn, M.A., is vicar of Waltham St.
During the lifetime of the Prince Consort Mr.
Fairbairn, as well as other members of his family, were honoured with
frequent instances of the esteem and regard of various members of the Royal
Family. Prince Albert on several occasions had conversations with Mr.
Fairbairn on topics of scientific and educational interest; these subjects
engaging, as is well known, the Prince's thoughtful consideration and
General Knollys, writing to Mr. Fairbairn on
December 9, 1865, to acknowledge the receipt of some volumes of his
writings, which he had presented to the Prince of Wales, was desired by his
Royal Highness to return the Prince's best thanks, and to acquaint Mr.
Fairbairn that it will always be a pleasure and instruction to him to
receive the publications of so practical and scientific a writer, and one so
highly esteemed by his Royal Highness's lamented father.
It ought further not to be unnoticed in this
volume, as a circumstance probably without precedent, that this one family
were honoured by one Sovereign, her present Majesty, with no fewer than five
offers of rank:—the knighthood to Mr. Fairbairn in 1801; the baronetage to
him in 1869; the knighthood to his son in 1857; a knighthood accepted by his
brother Peter in 1858; arid another also accepted by Sir Peter's son in
Mr. Fairbairn purchased his house at the
Polygon, Ardwick, Manchester, in 1840, and was so attached to it that he
continued it as his residence till his death.—the long period of thirty-four
He was very hospitable. Nothing gave him more
pleasure than to receive his friends as guests. His letters teemed with
invitations to 'the Polygon,' and whenever there was anything of public
interest going on in Manchester his house was always full.
The society at the Polygon during the last
fifteen or twenty years of his life was of an unusually intellectual,
refined, and attractive character, and brought together guests of singularly
varied acquirements and talents. Among them were the Chevalier Bunsen, Sir
David Brewster, Mr. Wra. Hopkins, Dr. Prince Lee, Bishop of Manchester, Lord
Hosse, Lord Wrottesley, the Rev. Vernon Harcourt, Dr. Robinson of Armagh and
his gifted wife, Sir Edward and Lady Sabine, the Earl of Derby, Earl
Granville, Lord Brougham, Mr. Leonard Horner, Mrs. Gaskell, Lord Houghton,
Lord Shaftesbury, the several eminent Professors of Owen's College, and many
others, whose names are well known in science, literature, and the public
service. It was his custom to invite groups of visitors regularly every
autumn; his invitations were gladly responded to, and these annual pleasant
gatherings of choice spirits were thoroughly enjoyed by those who had the
good fortune to be present at them.
To offer an estimate of Sir William Fairbairn's
character we may, in the first instance, gather some illustrative traits
from his correspondence, and then add the more direct testimony of those who
were best acquainted with him.
The following extract of a letter to his partner
Lillie, written when he was quite young, first entering into business, gives
an example of the high feeling of honour and integrity that actuated his
Lutidua, December 12,
Mr. Cooke's wheel, Mr. Potter's work, and all
the rest, we shall talk over together. In the meantime I shall look in at
the watchmaker's and order both yourself and me a gold watch, but on the
condition that it is not to be delivered until we have paid for our
buildings, and are fairly out of debt.
His domestic letters had often a mixture of
gaiety and jocularity with serious and good feeling.
The following are fair samples:—
February 19, 1858.
Many thanks for your kind and affectionate
congratulations [on his 69th birthday]. By my letter to--- you will find I
am a happy and contented old codger, and whether my doom is fixed for
seventy or eighty, more or less, is a matter of little moment. Men only live
while they are useful, and my hope is that my years will not be prolonged
beyond that period.
The following was a new year's letter to one of
his fellow-workers: —
January 2, 1856.
Many happy new years to you and your family, and
I hope as long as I can keep up the steam that we shall always bring in the
new year, not with some compliment, but with something useful to mankind.
I am an engine always ready for service, and
although a little antiquated in construction, the working parts are
nevertheless in pretty good repair. The boiler has a few patches upon it,
but a little careful stoking will not only prevent an explosion, but
maintain the old vessel in moderate condition and efficiency for a few years
longer, when I make no doubt the repairs will terminate in a ' new stock and
He had a quiet sense of humour which he could
exhibit very effectively. On one occasion a friend asked him to present to
the Royal Society a communication descriptive of some remarkable optical
phenomena which the writer professed to have witnessed ; and Mr. Fairbairn
I have read your paper which you are desirous of
communicating to the Royal Society; hut you will forgive me if I recommend
you, in the present crude state of your observations, not to send it. If you
could trace the appearance to its cause in some peculiar action of the organ
of sight, it would be much more satisfactory.
I remember many years ago posting from Coventry
to Birmingham on a clear moonlight evening, and the more I looked the more I
was convinced that there were two moons! I saw them distinctly; but I
afterwards accounted for the appearance by the fact of having previously
dined with a jovial party. I am sure you will pardon me for this suggestion.
He could express himself strongly, too, when he
considered himself aggrieved. On one page of his letter book is this note:.—
These two letters were addressed to two
scoundrels who repudiated payment for work ordered under an award where I
was appointed sole arbitrator.—W. F.
One of the letters runs thus :—
Sir,—I have paid for your defective work and
unprincipled character. I do not envy the saving you have effected when
attained at the expense of equity and justice, and I offer no apology for
remaining, with unqualified contempt, yours, W. Fairbairn.
The other is in similar tone.
It was one of the penalties of his position to
be continually consulted on worthless schemes, often by personal friends;
and all eminent engineers and men of science know how exceedingly difficult
sometimes is the task of replying to such applications.
The following extracts of letters show how Mr.
Fairbairn was in the habit of dealing with such cases:—
Manchester, November 24, 1853.
My dear Sir.—With a strong desire to render
myself useful to the undertaking in which you are engaged, I have arrived at
the conclusion, after a careful perusal of the Reports of--, that it would
be premature, if not injurious, to allow my name to appear in public as one
of the promoters of this project. On your account, and that of my respected
friend Sir---, I would gladly do it; but until the invention is more
matured, and its practical effect more clearly developed, neither my name
nor that of any other person, however high in station, will advance—it may
retard—its progress. In my opinion a great deal has yet to be done in the
way of perfecting the ingenious discovery of M.--; but this is a work of
time not unaccompanied with experimental research. I am satisfied that the
principle is a happy idea; but from what I can see at present, its
commercial value and utility, when compared with our best steam engines, has
not been satisfactorily established, arid that it still requires additional
tests and experiments to satisfy the public as to the superior advantages
likely to accrue from the change.
In the consideration of this subject I deem it
essential that I should speak plainly, and not attempt to raise expectations
which I might not at some future period be able to realise. The question
altogether is one of considerable importance, and I shall deem it my duty to
watch the progress of the invention, and to encourage its ultimate success
to the utmost of my power. This I cannot, however, accomplish as a director
of the company; and if my services are to be at all available in a practical
point of view, I must remain unfettered and with time to act, as
circumstances may require. Whenever you consider these services requisite,
you may command,
My dear Sir, yours sincerely,
Manchester, February 11, 18.30.
My dear Sir,—I have just received your note of
Saturday last. I much fear there is something wrong with your friend in
Belgium, otherwise he would not hesitate, but rather court, investigation
into the principle, as well as the practical working, of his motive power.
I was in hopes I could have been of service to
you, as well as to the projector, by a careful examination of his machinery,
in case his ideas were sound and practical. I entertained hopes of being
able to assist in bringing to maturity a well-digested scheme which had for
its basis not a visionary but a permanent superstructure. On the other hand,
should it prove to be one of those projects with no other foundation than
that which exists in the imagination of the projector, I was then prepared,
confidentially, to give to both an honest opinion as to the inutility of a
scheme which could have no other result than loss of reputation and a
useless expenditure of money. As it is, I most respectfully decline any
interference with your friend and his scheme. I would be willing to do so on
your account, but it is quite evident there is some screw loose in the
principle, as well as the practice of the undertaking, otherwise a free and
open explanation would not have been withheld.
Believe me, my dear Sir,
Very faithfully yours,
The following was to an eminent scientific
professor, who had been stepping out of his way to meddle with practical
mechanical inventions :—
Paris, July 24, 1815.
My dear Sir,—I have given your new project my
best consideration, and I cannot better express my earnest desire to serve
you than by advising you not to be too sanguine of success in this matter. I
am sorry to differ from you in a question to which you attach so much
importance, but I deem it my duty in projects which involve considerations
of money as well as reputation, to be perfectly candid and perfectly honest
in giving an opinion.
Under all the circumstances, whilst I admit the
existence of the force, I must confess I do not see my way clearly to its
practical application. There are difficulties to be encountered before the
project, however good, can be realised. The great difficulty will be to
induce capitalists to embark in undertakings of this kind unless they see
their way clearly before them.
I mention all these things to show how much is
to be done before your new invention comes into use, and the difficulties
which will require to be surmounted before the improvements you suggest can
be brought into useful application. I am sure you will pardon me for
speaking thus plainly. I would not advise a patent for England, as we have
no rivers on which it. could be applied. It might be applicable in some
parts of Europe or America, but I would not advise the expense of a patent
until you have further experience of its utility.
His religious feelings were often manifested in
his correspondence. On his settlement in Manchester he became a member of
the congregation at Cross Street Chapel, and remained so to the end of his
life, ready on all occasions to show his interest in its welfare, and
associating on terms of closest intimacy with its ministers, more especially
with the Rev. J. G. Robberds and his colleague, the Rev. W. Gaskell, M.A.
The following letter will show the interest Mr.
Fairbairn took in religious subjects :—
The Polygon, Sept. 15, 1661.
My dear Mr. Gaskell,- I almost regret that the
printing of the sermon of last Sunday, so generously inscribed to myself,
had not waited for the addition of your equally valuable and truly
philosophical discourse of this morning. I look upon these two discourses as
highly appropriate to the termination of the labours of the past week, and I
sincerely hope they may shortly be published (to which I would cheerfully
contribute) for the benefit, not only of the Cross Street congregation, but
of the general public.
I am sure Mrs. and Miss Gaskell and family were
highly gratified to find the whole term of the meeting an ovation of the
most gratifying description. Pray make our united regards acceptable to
them, and believe me,
Ever faithfully yours,
On another occasion his interest in the chapel
took the form of a sensible scolding to some of the trustees:-
Manchester, September 11, 1866.
Dear Sirs,—As one of the oldest pew-holders in
Cross Street Chapel, I have witnessed with deep regret a tendency to
dispute, if not a total disruption of the congregation, arising as I suppose
from the desire of one party to establish new forms and conditions inimical
to the other. I am totally at a loss to discover the cause of these
differences. They cannot arise from the simple consideration of a change of
hymn-books, and unless some other motives are at work, I am unable to
account for the antagonisms which exist.
I am not sufficiently acquainted with the
movements of parties to discover to whom we are indebted for all these
unfortunate cavils, but I regret them, and should greatly deplore any
attempt to carry out views by one party or another, contrary to the wishes
of the congregation, and at variance with the harmony and good feeling which
for a long series of years has been the pride and satisfaction of its
If the present unfortunate contest rested
exclusively upon the choice of Kippis's or Martineau's hymns, the question
might soon be settled by the decision of the majority. I am, from early
associations, personally in favour of Kippis's, but I will sing from
Martineau provided the congregation so wills it.
On these points I am, however, of opinion that
nothing should be done without the aid and assistance of our Pastors. They
of all others ought to be consulted. They have to conduct the services of
the church, and it is fitting and right that they should have a voice in
whatever changes may be considered necessary and expedient.
I offer these remarks under the impression that
the present differences may be amicably settled without risk or danger of
disruption, and that such may be the result,
I am, dear Sirs, sincerely and truly yours,
The Trustees of Cross Street Chapel.
Above the pew in the chapel in which for so long
a period he was accustomed to sit, a white marble tablet, exquisitely
sculptured by T. Wholner, E.A., was erected by his son, the present baronet.
It bears the following simple inscription between two stems of oak and
this tablet placed here to the memory of sir
first baronet of Abdwick who worshipped is this chapel for more than
50 years. he was born at Kelso 18th February 1789 and died at 18th April
In a letter of 1854 to the daughter of an old
friend, he says:—
Many thanks for the book of sermons, hut I very
much doubt whether they are at all likely to supplant Blair. Blair and I are
old friends, and I have treasured up his benevolent and homely maxims from
early life until they have become almost a part of my existence. Besides,
they are very healthy discourses, and as I like my religious garments to sit
easy upon myself, I am inclined to extend the same comfort to others. You
must not therefore be alarmed about me, as in my endeavour to do my best m
the faithful discharge of the duties of this life I hope, through God's
mercy, to meet our dear friends in that which is to come.
At a later time an event occurred which tried
his temper sorely. The young lady to whom the letter just mentioned was
written had married, and Mr. Fairbairn invited the pair to pay them a visit;
the invitation was accepted, but the husband (a Scotchman) having heard that
Mr Fairbairn attended a chapel where Unitarian views were held, was so
shocked that, considering the residence of such a person as a pest house to
be avoided, he wrote an angry letter putting an end to the arrangement. This
letter cannot be found, or it might be printed as an example of Scotch
notions of toleration; but Mr. Fairbairn's admirable answer to the young
wife was as follows :—
My dear Mrs.--, I do not wish to say a single
word against the husband of your choice; but if I am to judge of his
character by a letter received this morning, I should certainly arrive at
conclusions anything but favourable to his discretion. He may be a good man,
and have all the conditions you require, but he is assuredly devoid of the
feeling of what is due from one gentleman to another. You may inform Mr.-,
that I do not envy his religious convictions, but I do most earnestly pray
that I may never possess them. I may be wrong in this, but I am quite able
to judge for myself in matters of faith without calling upon Mr.--as my
Father Confessor. I regret, my dear madam, that your promised visit to the
Polygon should have had such a termination. Both Mrs. Fairbairn and myself
retain a lively recollection of your former self, and with every good wish,
Most sincerely yours,
P.S.—Mr.--'s letter requires no answer.
In April 1874, a few months before his death, a
lady friend, zealous to do good, wrote a long letter to him on his religious
views. His answer is not preserved; but he endorsed the letter 'I can think
for myself,' and he remained in this tone of mind to the end.
The following remarks appended to an obituary
notice in a Manchester paper are happily appropriate:—
It remains to say that in Sir William Fairbairn
an urbane amiability of demeanour was united to intellectual strength, and
that no man could he more deserving of the tributes of social esteem which
he so constantly received.
He had the straightforward simplicity so
characteristic of strong men, with a grave gentleness, neither rugged nor
The painter Haydon, visiting Manchester
thirty-five years ago to lecture, to start a school of design, and to
apprentice a son at Fairbairn's, is said to have made this entry in his
journal after a dinner party at Mr. Darbishire's :—'Liked Fairbairn much; a
good, iron, steam-engine head. To see his expression when they talked of
"Ernest Maltravers," made me inwardly rejoice. "I cannot get through
novels," said he; it showed his good sense. He has risen from a foundry
labourer to be master of as great a manufactory as any in the world.'
Haydon's observation, however true as far as it goes, prompts the addition
that Fairbairn in his youth had been no ignorant clown. His mind was of
finer mould, and had been better trained at home than is commonly to be
looked for in the class of life to which Haydon referred him. Familiarity
with hardships had no more roughening effect on him than would be expected
from some of the sports of young gentlemen's playgrounds, or the experiences
of a military campaign.
The expression quoted as his by Haydon that he
'could not read novels,' was, however, not literally true; for when well
written he read them with much interest, and when he happened to be on
friendly terms with the authors he generally wrote to them his opinion of
their works, sometimes indeed criticising pretty freely the parts which he
did not approve.
He had a good deal of correspondence of this
kind with Mrs. Gaskell, with whom, as the wife of his pastor, he was on
terms of intimate friendship; and his remarks were taken by that talented
lady in very good part, as the following extracts from her letters will
My dear Mr. Fairbaim,—I am ashamed that I have
been so long in acknowledging your kind friendly note, and very just
criticisms on 'North and South.' Do you know I have half begun to expect a
note from you after the publication of every story of mine, and I was
beginning to feel a little disappointed that none arrived on this occasion.
You see how unreasonable authors (as well as other people) become if they
have once been indulged.
Your kind and racy critiques both give me
pleasure and do me good; that is to say, your praise gives me pleasure
because it is so sincere and judicious that I value it; and your
faultfinding does me good, because it always makes me think, and very often
it convinces me that I am in error. This time I believe you have hit upon a
capital blunder ... I don't think a second edition will be called for; but
if it should be, you may depend upon it I shall gladly and thoughtfully make
use of your suggestion.
I agree with you that there are a certain set of
characters in 'North and South,' of no particular interest to any one in the
tale, any more than such people would be in real life; but they were wanted
to fill up unimportant places in the story, when otherwise there would have
been unsightly gaps.
Mr. Hale is not a 'sceptic'; he has doubts, and
can resolve greatly about great things, and is capable of self-sacrifice in
theory; but in the details of practice he is weak and vacillating. I know a
character just like his, a clergyman who has left the Church from principle,
and in that did finely; but his daily life is a constant unspoken regret
that he did so, although he would do it again if need be.
But I am afraid I am taking up your time with
what you will not care to read. Thank you again, dear Mr. Fairbairn, for
your note, which I shall always value, and believe me,
1 am yours most truly,
E. C. Gaskell.
The following relates to remarks of his on the
work by which this authoress is perhaps best known, the 'Life of Charlotte
(Date probably June 1857.)
My dear Mr. Fairbairn,—I don't think you know
how much good your letter did me. In the first place I was really afraid
that you did not like my book, because I had never received your usual
letter of criticism; and in the second, it was the one sweet little drop of
honey that the postman had brought me for some time, as, on the average, I
had been receiving three letters a day for above a fortnight, finding great
fault with me (to use a mild expression for the tone of their compliments)
for my chapter about the Cowan Bridge school.
So I gave your letter a great welcome, my dear
Mr. Fairbairn, and I should have replied to it sooner, but that it has
seemed very difficult to catch you. No sooner did I hear you were in
Manchester than you wrote to Mary Holland, saying that you were leaving;
and, really, unless I had directed to 'Wm. Fairbairn, Esq., Kailnay
Carriage,' I don't know where I could have found you.
I have had a preface to my (forthcoming) third
edition sent to me, which I dare not insert there; but it is too good to be
lost, therefore I shall copy it out for you:—
'If anybody is displeased with any statement in
this book, they are requested to believe it withdrawn, and my deep regret
expressed for its insertion, as truth is too expensive an article to be laid
before the British public.'
But for the future I intend to confine myself to
lies (i.e. fiction). It is safer.
We did so enjoy home. We often thought of you,
and half considered if you would not turn up in the Holy Week, which you
hinted at as possible when we left. We came home by Florence, Venice, Milan,
Genoa, and Nice. I wonder if you are at home, and if we could tempt you to
come in to our 8 o'clock tea to-morrow night. We have Miss Bronte's faithful
friend E. staying with us.
Yours ever most truly and gratefully,
E. C. Gaskell.
In regard to Sir William Fairbairn's
professional and scientific character, the following communications from
friends who had the best opportunity, as well as the best capability of
judging, speak for themselves:—
Koypllniian Engineering College, Cooper's Hill,
You have asked me for an expression of my
opinion in regard to the late Sir W. Fairbairn, especially with regard to
his scientific position. I was, as you know, well acquainted with his
scientific work during seven, years, and assisted him in his researches. I
am very glad, therefore, to state my impressions.
I would remark first of all that Sir W.
Fairbairn's knowledge of science was not chiefly learned from books, and
that his knowledge of mathematical methods was not extensive. He owed his
extensive knowledge of the use of materials almost entirely to observation
and experience. Interested in knowing what progress was making in different
branches of science, and ready to accept any help from mathematicians, he
still fought his own way to knowledge along a different path. He did not
appear to me to accept with firmness anything which he had not confirmed by
his own observations or experiment. His thorough reliance upon direct
experiment made him willing to undertake any investigation likely to throw
light on doubtful points of practical science, and when he had once
formulated the results of his experiments he relied on them with a
remarkable absence of doubt or hesitation, and applied his conclusions in
practice with a courage which would have sometimes seemed rashness to anyone
more conversant with theoretical considerations.
I do not think that anyone else would have
ventured to apply the common plate girder formula to so different a
construction as a ship. But after the wreck of the Royal Charter he
investigated the strength of ships in that way, and was led to the
conclusion that many ships were deficient in power of resisting bending
strains. At the moment no more elaborate investigation was possible, and the
rough result obtained by Sir W. Fairbairn was not only correct, but did good
service. Later investigations of a much more elaborate character on the
transverse strength of ships have been made; but so far as. I know, Sir W.
Fairbairn was the first to point out that an iron ship needs to be
considered as a girder resisting transverse forces.
There can be no question that parallel with
theoretical investigations in applied mechanics there is needed a stress of
experimental investigations to check the results of theory, and to furnish
the numerical data which are required. I suppose no one has done so much to
supply such data as Sir W. Fairbairn. His experiments on the strength of
materials and of structures involved a considerable expenditure of thought,
of labour, and of money. Those experiments always were of a practical
character, but they did not aim at any immediate commercial result. Sir W.
Fairbairn was always ready to undertake researches which it appeared would
increase practical knowledge, trusting that in time the results would prove
to be of value. I may add that his experiments were always made in a truly
scientific spirit, and with all the precautions which were known to be
desirable. His experiments are therefore trustworthy, and free from any
suspicion of bias.
As to Sir W. Fairbairn's position as an
engineer, it would hardly be becoming in me to say very much. His reputation
was so well established in so many different branches of engineering, and
his works are so important and well known, that no testimony from me is
needed. I can only say that a younger engineer could not help being struck
with his sound and rapid judgment of practical questions.
Personally, it was extremely pleasant to be
engaged under Sir W. Fairbairn. I found him uniformly kind and considerate.
He made his influence strongly felt without exercising any direct pressure.
He was very indefatigable in his own work, and very ready to recognise
conscientious work in others. His memory was very accurate and retentive. In
manner he was always calm, and free from hurry or irritation.
W. Cawthorne Unwin.
Dr. Robinson, F.E.S., of Armagh, one of the
ablest and most respected men of science of the present day, writes thus:—
observatory, Armegh, November 8, 1873.
I would say that Sir William Fairbairn was among
the noblest of the good and wise whom it has been my good fortune to know
during my long life.
Through all our intimacy of more than forty
years I never saw in him anything to cloud the high esteem in which I held
Kind, generous, and upright; prudent in forming
resolutions, energetic in carrying them out, and gifted with rare
experimental sagacity, he was one of the best types of a class of men to
whom our nation owes so much of its greatness.
In one respect (at least so it seems to me) he
was distinguished above the other great engineers of his time in the spirit
of research which urged him to enquiries involving much expenditure of time,
labour, and money, which, though of the highest importance to the science of
mechanical engineering, brought with them no material remuneration. These he
gave to the public without reserve; and it is not. too much to say that his
investigations on the strength of riveting, on the deterioration of
cast-iron by long-continued strain, and as to the resistance of tubes to
collapse under external pressure, were boons not merely to his profession,
but to humanity itself.
Not less notable in him was the complete absence
of affectation; he knew the exact measure of his attainments, and never
pretended to anything beyond them.
Nor had he any of that jealousy of rivals which
I regret to say is not very uncommon among men of science. Even in vexed
questions where he considered he had been unfairly treated, he was never
unjust to his opponents; and though more than one of his proteges repaid him
with ingratitude, yet. he spoke of this in no angry spirit.
T. R. Robinson.
The late Professor Macquorn Rankine, a high
authority on mechanical science, spoke of Sir William's long series of
experimental investigations as 'unparalleled for extent and for practical
Another friend, who knew him well in business,
In a professional sense, no difficulty daunted
him. He liked, as he said, ' to tackle a big job,' the more novel and daring
the better; his energy and determination seemed to increase in proportion to
the number and magnitude of the difficulties he had to overcome. He was for
this reason very often consulted by the different departments of the
Government, and by many of the ii ii great civil engineers who, between 1830
and 1870, were developing and completing great industrial and national
undertakings with a rapidity and success which astonished the world. His
eagerness to associate himself with such enterprises, and his desire to
secure for his own manufacturing establishments some portion of the
constructive works, often led him into unprofitable bargains. He liked to
secure a great order, and his one anxiety, when such an opportunity
presented itself, was to ' do the work,' thinking little of the result,
whether for profit or the reverse. Fame with him was ever before money. He
was never, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, a 'good man of
business,' and thus we find that it was not till after 1845, when his sons
became associated with him as partners, and their influence began to
predominate in the management of the concerns, that he began to accumulate
wealth, and make safe those profits of business which he had constantly
earned, but had allowed to melt away again. He made several fortunes, but
only kept one.
In connection with his professional character
and success, one thing deserves especial mention. He had a wonderful eye
for proportion and the mechanical fitness of things. It was the universal
judgment and remark of the troops of eminent scientific men whose friendship
he enjoyed, that although he made no pretensions to theoretical attainments,
he had an eminently scientific and philosophic turn of mind and thought. For
this reason he almost intuitively went right in all his designs of novel and
original nature. I cannot call to mind a single instance of failure, either
from inadequate strength or faulty proportions in any of his work; and his
steam-engines, water-wheels, mill-gearing, his boilers and bridges, were
models of symmetry, and were, never disfigured, as is too often the case, by
the superfluous and injurious introduction of unnecessary material.
He was frequently called in to satisfy public
anxiety as to the safety of large and important public structures. On these
occasions he seemed to take in at a glance the merits and defects of any
combination of parts, and he was never wrong in the immediate opinion he
expressed as to its security or insecurity. He was presented with a gold
snuff-box, by the council of the famous Anti-Corn Law League, for the advice
and assistance he. gave in the construction of the roof which covered the
vast area of the first great Free Trade Hall in Manchester; and I remember
his judgment and reports were at once accepted, as assuring the public
safety, when he was asked to examine the galleries and passages of the
buildings for the great International Exhibition in London, and the
Exhibition of Art Treasures in Manchester. The weak points were detected in
a moment, and the appropriate remedies and strengthenings were suggested at
His hand-sketching was admirably clear and
clever. His business letters were frequently illustrated by neat drawings,
and the draughtsmen who elaborated his plans never had any difficulty in
rendering in full detail the original sketches he put in their hands. It was
also a characteristic practice with him to order many of his mechanical
contrivances to be drawn out full size on a large surface. For this purpose
the floor of one large room nearly seventy feet long was kept free as a huge
drawing-board; to these full-sized drawings the wooden patterns, when
completed, were brought down and adjusted.
In addition to the above, the editor has been
favoured by intimate friends of Sir William with many less formal memoranda,
which enable him to give the following details of his personal and private
traits of character :—
Perhaps the most remarkable feature was his
indefatigable activity and his earnestness of purpose in work. With him work
seemed a necessity of life, and he. could not rest or be happy unless well
employed. He was never heard to complain of hard toil; indeed it was to him
The simple record of what he did as a
school-boy, as an almost self-teaching student, as an engineer, as an
experimentalist, and as a writer, shows that his favourite and oft-repeated
assertions of 'indomitable perseverance' and 'determination to excel' were
with him no idle phrases, but active guiding principles of conduct. His love
for work lasted down to almost the very end of his long life. No hour of his
day was ever unoccupied or passed in idleness. He never found ' dignity in
leisure,' but was ever doing. In business he was unceasingly at work with
his brain, his pen, and his draughtsmen, iu scheming, inventing, or trying
to improve something or other. Wherever he was he breakfasted early, and the
meal over he at once set about a long day's work. When at Manchester, from
nine to six o'clock of every day was spent in the office or the workshops;
and during the height of his prosperity as a mechanical engineer he had
seldom less than eight or ten draughtsmen constantly at work under his own
His correspondence was prodigious, and he never
failed to answer letters, however trivial their subject, and however obscure
the writer, giving always the best advice and assistance to all he
considered worthy of it. His reports and scientific writings were mostly
clone at night. When the family retired to rest he adjourned to his library
at the Polygon ; and at a little writing-desk ill one corner of the room,
with a shaded lamp by his side, and with the little picture of the Arbeitszimmer of
his illustrious friend, the author of ' Cosmos,' before him, his pen might
be heard scribbling away incessantly till the small hours of the morning.
The quantity of matter he wrote was astounding; for the mass of his writings
chronicled in the pages of this work, large as it is, only represents a
small fraction of what proceeded from his hand.
The leisure moments he so fairly earned after a
hard day's work, if not spent in writing, were devoted to reading. He was
especially fond of history and biography. For works of fiction generally he
had no particular taste, though he greatly enjoyed a novel which faithfully
portrayed the scenes of home life. Goldsmith, Washington Irving, and
Trescott were his favourite authors, and in later times he highly
appreciated the works of George
Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and the authoress of *John
His holidays, which seldom exceeded three weeks
or a month, were spent either at the houses of friends, or in short trips
abroad, or in revisiting in Scotland the scenes of his early days.
But long familiarity with the stir and activity
of a large manufacturing town had disqualified him for enjoying the quiet of
country life. Nor had he any taste for field sports; he neither hunted, nor
shot, nor fished ; his only exercise was walking. Whenever business or
inclination called him into the country, he would derive his chief interest
from farming operations. Any time he could spare was usually spent in
company with the nearest farmer, discussing the state of the markets and the
different improvements in agriculture; and it has been noticed how the
farmers were struck with his sagacity and information on such matters.
Though he studied and thought much in solitude,
lie loved companionship, and on his long journeys, as well as on his visits
to scientific gatherings, such as the British Association, he was generally
accompanied either by one of his sons or by his son-in-law.
He was essentially a man of regular habits,
always punctual to hours and in keeping appointments, and particularly neat
and orderly in all he did. His friend Mr. Hopkins gave an amusing instance
of the power of a long-continued habit. In his daily walk to and from Canal
Street he was accustomed to cross the road at certain fixed points, and he
would never allow anyone or anything to interfere with this practice. When
these various stages in his walk were reached he would give Mr. Hopkins a
gentle push from the causeway into the mud, and thus silently insist on
crossing at the places he had been accustomed to.
All who were acquainted with Sir William
Fairbairn will bear willing testimony to his high mindedness and integrity.
Strictly honourable and sincere in all his dealings, he had the greatest
abhorrence of all meanness; and guiding his conduct by the high standard of
truth and right, he was one who could be invariably trusted.
He was very liberal, not only with his purse,
but in his feelings and behaviour to those with whom lie came in contact.
His activity in the cases of Cort and Roberts has already been noticed, and
many other instances of his kindliness of feeling might have been cited. The
following letter from one of his assistants only expresses what was a
general sentiment among all who had served him:—
My dear Sir,— Your most generous present
requires me to render again to you some imperfect acknowledgment of your
kindness. I thank you much for that, but I value more the esteem you express
in your letter. I have sometimes failed in doing what I might have done, but
I am proud notwithstanding to have earned in some degree your respect.
I shall serve many masters and not find one who
will treat me with so uniform a courtesy or such considerate trust.
I can only repeat that I shall always be glad,
with such ability as I may have, and such opportunities as circumstances may
permit, to assist you, or to preserve the record of your example as one of
the most valuable heirlooms of all that you will leave for the benefit of
His sympathy with suffering and distress,
together with his amiability and unsuspicious nature, made him sometimes an
easy prey to impostors. This trustfulness, though no real loss to him, was
often detrimental to his success as a man of business. Though fully alive to
the value of money, he never made it an object of unworthy desire; simple in
his tastes and wants, he was amply satisfied as long as he obtained
sufficient for the comfort and usefulness of himself and his family.
In the gatherings at the Polygon there were
often earnest discussions, and sometimes long arguments, in which he
willingly joined. But in these cases he was always calm; and whenever the
combatants in dispute became heated or excited, his favourite exclamation, '
Stop a moment, now, let us consider,' would generally bring them to reason.
He had little appreciation of refined wit, and
the most skilful play upon words and the most appropriate quotations would
scarcely move him ; but a good story, especially if it were a Scotch one,
would of all things delight him, and he would recur to it again and again
with fresh pleasure.
In private life Sir William Fairbairn was
distinguished by a quiet dignity of manner, combined with a modesty,
simplicity, courtesy, and gentleness, which won him all hearts, and made him
a general favourite. Though without the advantage of early association with
high-born people, he was by nature a gentleman in the best sense. He was a
most faithful friend, never forgetting anyone who had shown him kindness or
civility. He was thus known by thousands who were unknown to him, they
having probably remembered some kindly word or act which he had forgotten.
The people who sought his counsel were of all ranks and classes, and the
very humblest of them never applied in vain. In Manchester especially his
tall commanding figure and venerable white locks were known by everyone, and
as he passed along the streets one heard constantly uttered, 'There's
Fairbairn!' The universal esteem in which he was held was strikingly shown
on the occasion of his funeral, of which an account has already been given.
As a parent he was most affectionate and
indulgent, he always impressed on his children the necessity of independence
of mind and action. 'Never play second fiddle to anyone' was his frequent
advice to them. lie would help them to the utmost of his power in any worthy
pursuit they undertook, even when opposed to the course he had marked out
for them and wished them to follow. His appreciation of his eldest son's
sacrifice for his interests was marked by his making him a partner in the
profitable business before he came of age.
He was very fond of children. In the later years
of his life he seemed to become quite young again in company with his
grandchildren; and there was nothing he enjoyed more than a good romp with
them, chasing them round the room amidst their screams of delight, singing
them one of his songs, or giving the little ones a ride on his foot.
On the whole, most of his personal friends agree
that his virtues were many and his faults few. He had perhaps an excessive
ambition for popularity and fame; but this foible had one redeeming feature,
namely, that he aimed not so much at obtaining the applause of the million
as at standing well with the good and the wise.
Sir William Fairbairn was fond of drawing a
moral from his own career. He would often, when lecturing to working men, or
addressing students, allude, with pardonable pride, to the position he
occupied, contrasting it with his humble origin. He would declare that it
was by his own industry, perseverance, and determination that his success
had been brought about, and he would urge on his hearers a like course of
He only consented to the publication of his
biography on the ground that it might be for the benefit 'of those who have
to encounter similar difficulties in life;' and it is earnestly hoped that
the present work may fulfil the condition he so much desired.