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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter IV - First Employment and Apprenticeship


The unhappy state of things so pathetically described at the end of the last chapter did not last long; for Andrew Fairbairn was a man of energy and strong will, and having now a growing family, he determined to exert himself to the utmost to put them in better circumstances.

Soon after his return he succeeded in getting another appointment at Percy Main Colliery, near North Shields, as steward of a farm belonging to the coal-owners. The pay put him in comparative comfort, and he retained the appointment for upwards of seven years.

The family remained for some time at Kelso, but William followed his father as soon as he was able. He says:—

As soon as the bargain was fixed, my father again started for his new destination, and early in the following February, 1804, my leg being healed, I was packed off by the carrier to join my father at the colliery, and here commences a new and probably the most important part of my history.

Percy Main Colliery is situated within a distance of two miles of North Shields, which at that time and during the whole of the late war was one of the most flourishing seaports in the kingdom. These were days of prosperity for both coal and shipowners. Bounties end wages were high. Ihe colliers were demanding from 18/. to 20/. binding money, and the able-bodied seamen were in receipt of eleven to twelve guineas per voyage (to London arid back), and some of them, if they had the good fortune to escape the press-gang, made as many as ten voyages in the year. Wages were high and men were scarce; but f doubt much whether periods of extreme prosperity are not on the whole injurious. This occasion was marked by the greatest excesses, and, although the Methodists exercised a salutary influence over a considerable number of the pitmen, yet the sailors were fairly adrift, without rudder or compass, on a sea of reckless dissipation. The great majority of the colliers were almost beside themselves; and from that day to this I never witnessed the same extent of demoralisation as I did at that time. Pitched battles, brawling, drinking, and cock-fighting, seemed to be the order of the day, and there was no excitement, however coarse, but what was seized upon by the majority of the recipients of the 18/. bounty. Amongst the 'pit lads/ boxing was considered a manly exercise and a favourite amusement, and I believe I counted up no less than seventeen battles which I reluctantly had to fight before I was able to attain a position calculated to ensure respect. Naturally I was averse to these encounters, but I had no alternative, as, immediately on my arrival from Kelso, I was placed in a position where I had to lead coals in a one-horse cart from behind the screen to the pitmen's houses, and what with my Scotch accent and different manner, I became the mark of every species of annoyance, which I frequently returned with interest, but not before I was soundly drubbed by some selected pugilist much stronger and older than myself.

These attacks were very discouraging, and I was several times on the point of abandoning the work altogether rather than undergo the buffeting to which I was almost every day a martyr, when an occurrence took place which effectually turned the scale on my adversaries. This was an attack made upon me by the son of one of the ' sinkers,' and his companion, a young engine-wright, who for several months had watched every opportunity for carrying on the persecution. One afternoon, when I was at work as usual behind the screen, a volume of water was squirted down behind my neck, and immediately after the attack the perpetrator took to his heels. I lost no time in the pursuit, and picking up a brick, I let fly at him with all my force, and cut him in the heel to the bone. His companion came to his assistance, and, after using the most abusive epithets, he retired, supporting his helpless assistant. The occurrence of the brick relieved me from further attacks, but it did not rest there, as the associate of the wounded lad, a noted boxer, was determined I should pay the penalty for my temerity. Accordingly, some time afterwards, I was challenged to fight him under circumstances which I repeatedly declined, but one of the men perceiving the insults to which I was subjected, took my part, and the kindly feelings of the stranger operated so powerfully upon me as to renew my courage, and the battle began. For the first five minutes I had the worst of it, and the heavy blows I received on the stomach not only exhausted my breath, but caused me to feel sick, and I was ready to drop, when one of the lookers-on called on us to stop, which gave me time to breathe till the contest again commenced. In this round I was driven to desperation. I laid out right and left at his face and nearly blinded him, in fact, I threw my head first, and then my whole body upon him with such force, that it brought us both to the ground, and I was declared the victor. That was the last of my battles.

During this time it would appear that William only acted as helper in some way to his father; but he was shortly put into a better and more definite position by entering regularly on his course of education as a mechanical engineer. On March 24, 1804, he was, at the instance of the owners of the colliery, bound apprentice to a Mr. John Robinson, described in the indenture as 'of Percy Main, in the county of Northumberland, millwright.' The indenture was for seven years, and he was to receive wages beginning with five shillings per week, and increasing to twelve shillings.

Mr. Fairbaim continues :—

Mr. Robinson, who held the appointment of engine-wright, and had the charge of all the machinery and engines, was the person appointed to give me instruction. Mr. Robinson had been nominated to the office by the late Mr. Buddie, one of the most eminent coal-viewers in the North of England, the friend and supporter of Sir Humphrey Davy, and a gentleman highly distinguished in his profession. To Mr. Buddie we are indebted for many improvements in the art of mining, both as respects the nature of the working and the principle of ventilation, to which he directed his attention with considerable success. Mr. Robinson was considered a good colliery engineer, with a rough, passionate temper, but in other respects an easy, good-hearted man. As was the fashion in those days he indulged in what was considered amongst a certain class an ornament of speech, profane swearing, and this was carried to such an excess amongst the leading men of the colliery, that an order was scarcely once given, or a sentence uttered, unless accompanied by an oath. At the present day such language would not be tolerated in any society, even in that of bargemen or navies.

1 had entered upon my fifteenth year, when I commenced the business of an engineer. I had good wages, which, with extra work in making wooden wedges and blocking out segments of solid oak for walling the sides and drawing off the water of a new pit, which was sinking at Howden Pans, gave mo an opportunity of making some money which was of great use to the family. I sometimes doubled the amount of my wage, and rendered great assistance to my parents, who were still struggling against a very limited income, and the increasing expenses of my younger brothers and sisters whose school fees had to be paid.

For three years I continued to work in this manner, and, during the winter evenings, when I did not work overtime, I entered upon a course of study, which I have since, under the blessing of Divine Providence, turned to moderately good account. My limited knowledge, and the very few opportunities which, up to that period, had presented themselves for improvement, operated forcibly upon my mind. I became dissatisfied with the persons I had to associate with at the shop, and feeling my own ignorance, I became fired with ambition to remedy the evil, and cut out for myself a new path of life. I shortly came to the conclusion that no difficulties should frighten, or the severest labour discourage me in the attainment of the object I have in view. Armed with this resolution, I set to work in the first year of my apprenticeship, and, having written out a programme, I commenced the winter course iu the double capacity of both scholar and schoolmaster, and arranged my study as follows :—

Monday evening for Arithmetic. Mensuration, &c.
Tuesday evening for Reading History and Poetry.
Wednesday evening for Recreation, Reading Novels and Romances.
Thursday evening for Mathematics.
Friday evening for Euelid, Trigonometry.
Saturday evening for Recreation and Sundries.
Sunday for Church, Milton, and Recreation.

These were the exercises of the week, which I kept up with wonderful constancy and with few interruptions, considering the temptations and attempts at ridicule which occasionally I had to combat from some of my shopmates, an annoyance of little moment, as I very soon altered their tone and turned the tables upon them, probably as much for their benefit as my own. What, however, led to my perseverance was the line of conduct I had laid down for my guidance and improvement, and the kindness of my father, who bought me a ticket in the North Shields subscription library.

Here the writer gives an account of an attachment he formed to a young girl who attended the same place of worship. As this had no result influencing his future life, it would be unnecessary to notice it here, were it not that it led him to practise literary composition by a somewhat odd process which he thus describes :—

It led me into a course of letter-writing which improved my style, and gave me greater facilities of expression. The truth is, I could not have written on any subject if it had not been for this circumstance, and my attempt at essays, in the shape of the papers which I had read with avidity in the ' Spectator,' may be traced to my admiration of this divinity.

In the enthusiasm of my first attachment it was my good fortune to fall upon a correspondence between two lovers, Frederick and Felicia, in the ' Town and Country Magazine' for the year 1782, Nos. 3 and 4. This correspondence was of some length and was carried from number to number in a series of letters. Frederick was the principal writer, and although greatly above me in station, yet his sentiments harmonised so exactly with mine, that I sat down at Frederick's desk and wrote to my Felicia with emotions as strong as any Frederick in existence. 'Frederick by his writing was evidently a gentleman, and in order to prepare" myself for so much goodness as I had conjured up in Mary, I commenced the correspondence by first reading the letter in the magazine, and then shut the book for the reply, and to write the letter that Frederick was supposed to have written. I then referred to the book, and how bitter was my disappointment at finding my expressions unconnected and immeasurably inferior to those of the writer. Sometimes I could trace a few stray expressions which I thought superior to his, but, as a whole, I was miserably deficient. In this way did I make love, and in this way I inadvertently rendered one of the strongest passions of our nature subservient to the means of improvement.

He did not, however, let this agreeable occupation trench upon his other studies. He goes on :—

For three successive winters I contrived to go through a complete system of mensuration, and as much algebra as enabled me to solve an equation ; and a course of trigonometry, navigation, heights and distances, &c. This was exclusive of my reading, which was always attractive, and gave me the greatest pleasure. I had an excellent library at Shields, which I went to twice a week, and here I read Gibbon's ' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' Hume's 'History of England,' Robertson's ' History of Scotland,' ' America,'' Charles the Fifth,' and many other works of a similar character, which I read with the utmost attention. I also read some of our best poets, amongst which were Milton's ' Paradise Lost,' Shakespeare, Cowper, Goldsmith, Burns, and Kirke White. With this course of study I spent long evenings, sometimes sitting up late; but, having to be at the shop at six in the morning, I did not usually prolong my studies much beyond eleven or twelve o'clock.

During these pursuits I must in truth admit that my mind was more upon my studies than my business. I made pretty good way in the mere operative part, hut, with the exception of arithmetic and mathematics, I made little or no progress in the principles of the profession; on the contrary, I took a dislike to the work and the parties by whom I was surrounded.

The possession of tools and the art e>f using them renewed my taste for mechanical pursuits. I tried my skill at different combinations, and like most inventors whose minds are more intent upon making new discoveries than acquiring the knowledge of what has been done by others, I frequently found myself forestalled in the very discovery which I had persuaded myself was original. For many months I laboured incessantly in devising a piece of machinery that should act as a timepiece and at the same time as an orrery, representing the sun as a centre, with the earth and moon and the whole planetary system revolving round it. This piece of machinery was to be worked by a weight and a pendulum, and was not only to give the diurnal motions of the heavenly bodies, but to indicate the time of their revolutions in their respective orbits round the sun. All this was to be done in accordance with one measure of time, which the instrument, if it ever could have been completed, was to record. I looked upon this piece of mechanism as a perfectly original conception, and nothing prevented me from making the attempt to carry it into execution but the want of means, and the difficulties which surrounded me in the complexity and numerous motions necessary to make it a useful working machine. The consideration of this subject was not, however, lost, as I derived great advantage in the exercise which it gave to the thoughts. It taught me the advantage of concentration, and of arranging my ideas, and of bringing the whole powers of the mind with energy to bear upon one subject. It further directed my attention to a course of reading on mechanical philosophy and astronomy, from which I derived considerable advantage.

Finding the means at my disposal much too scanty to enable me to make a beginning with my new orrery, I turned my attention to music, and bought an old Hamburg fiddle, for which I gave half-a-crowu. This was a cheap bargain, even for such a miserable instrument, and what with new bracing of catgut and a music-book, I spent nearly a week's wages, a sum which I could ill afford, to become a distinguished musician. I however fresh rigged the violin, and, with a glue-pot, carefully closed all the openings which were showing themselves between the back and the sides of the instrument. Having completed the repairs, I commenced operations; and certainly there never was a learner who produced less melody or a greater number of discords. The effect was astounding, and after tormenting the whole house with discordant sounds for two months, the very author of the mischief tumbled to pieces in my hands, to the great relief of every member of the family.

I was not, however, to be frustrated in my attempts to become a musician, and the old fiddle proving useless, I set to work with inflexible determination and made a new one. This operation cost me five weeks' hard labour, chiefly at nights; and having made the necessary tools out of old hand-saw files, T completed the violin, which, to my astonishment, emitted tones as loud and sonorous as an organ. The transfer of the strings and bridge of the old instrument to that of the new one was to my mind a day of secret rejoicing, which confirmed me stiil more in my determination to persevere in acquiring the necessary knowledge and skill to play. For the attainment of these objects I once more commenced my studies, and proceeded to acquire a knowledge of the notes and to finger them, in which I found little or no difficulty; yet I never could attain a good bow-hand, which I afterwards found was one of the essentials for becoming a good musician. Repeated discomfitures at last convinced me that nature never intended me for a fiddler; and, impressed with this opinion, I consulted an old man who played at weddings and other merry-makings, as to what I should do. He advised me to become his pupil, and to bring my violin with me on the following night, when he had no doubt he could after a few lessons make me an accomplished performer. Following this advice, I repaired to his house, and after two or three lessons he offered twenty shillings for my violin, and advised me to abandon all thoughts of ever rising in the profession. After some consideration I declined the offer; and having paid him for my instruction, I departed, under the conviction that ifl case the instrument was worth twenty shillings to a person who considered himself an artist, it must be of the same, if not more, value to myself. Impressed with this conviction, the violin became my constant travelling-companion for a number of years. I could play half-a-dozen Scotch airs, which served as an occasional amusement, not so much for the delicacy of execution as for the sonorous energy wirh which they were executed. Vor several years after my marriage, my skill was put to the test for the benefit of the rising generation; and although duly appreciated by the children, the fiddle was never taken from the shelf without creating alarm in the mind of their mother, who was in fear that some one might hear it. A dancing-master, who was giving lessons in the country, borrowed the fiddle, and, to the great relief of the family, it was never returned. Some years after this I was present at the starting of the cotton-mill for Messrs. Gros, Deval & Co., of Wesserling, in Alsace, where we had executed the water-wheel and millwork (the first wheel on the suspension principle in France). After a satisfactory start, a great dinner was given by Mr. Gros on the occasion to the neighbouring gentry. During dinner I had been explaining to Mr. Gros, who spoke a little English, the nature of home-brewed ale, which he had tasted and much admired in England. In the evening we had music, and perceiving me admire his performance on the violin, he enquired if I could play, to which I answered in the affirmative, when his instrument was in a moment in my hands, and I had no alternative but one of my best tunes, the 'Keel How,' which the company listened to with amazement, until my career was arrested by Mr. Gros calling out at the pitch of his voice, ' Top, top, monsieur, by gad, dat lie home-brewed music '

The construction of the violin brings me to that part of my story which eventually led to a new epoch in my history, and that was my removal from the workshop to take charge of the pumps and steam-engine of Percy Main Colliery, which required to lie kept constantly at work in order to clear the mine of water. This department was much more to my taste than the more operative part of the work. I was more independent, and so long as I kept the engine and pumps in order, I was entirely my own master. Besides, I bad ever a mortal antipathy to be rung in and out by bells; force work was to me the most irksome duty I had to perform. Now I was free; and having attained a responsible trust, I made up my mind to discharge it with the greatest fidelity.

The duties were at times exceedingly severe and trying to the constitution, particularly in winter ; and from the nature of the water, which contained much salt and sand, the wear and tear upon the pumps were very great. I, however, devised every possible means to keep the pumps in good repair; but much depended upon the quality of the leather used for the buckets and clacks, as in some cases I have known a bucket wear to pieces in half-an-hour, whilst others would last for a couple of days. The depth of the pit was 150 fathoms, with four sets of pumps ; and what with broken pump-rods and other casualties, [ have frequently been suspended by a rope during the winter nights, with the water pouring upon me, for seven to eight hours at a stretch, until every limb was reunited with cold. This often repeated, and being roused out of bed at all hours, and having to descend the shaft (which was a cold downcast draught) with a flannel shirt and trousers, a leather hat, and buckskin to protect the head and neck from the water, which descended like a shower-bath, the whole duty on these occasions was one of great severity, in fact, so severe as seriously to injure the health of one, and destroy the life of another, of my fellow-assistants. These trials, and many others of nearly equal severity, I have, with the blessing of God and a strong constitution, overcome, for which I have ever felt most grateful.

The great and important advantage of this new office was, however, the number of days and hours of leisure which I had at command. To fill up these hours usefully, I applied myself assiduously to reading. I frequented the library at Shields every other night, and being a favourite with the librarian's daughter, a young quakeress, I was enabled to procure a perusal of nearly all the new publications before they were sent into circulation. Thus with a l>ook in my pocket, I could stroll into the fields; and having erected a tall flag-staff over the sheers of the pit, I extended my excursions for two or three miles in every direction, so as not to lose sight of the signal-staff; this I found of great convenience, as the moment anything was wrong, up wept the flag, and I hurried home.

During these intervals of leisure, I had several local adventures, which, although productive of no results, nevertheless exhibited the moral condition of a certain class of workmen. It used to be a custom in the shop where I was employed to club together once or twice a week, and to subscribe for what was denominated the heg. This keg was a nine gallon barrel of ale, which on particular days was brought by an unfrequented and circuitous route from the Howden Pans Brewery, about a mile and a half distant. It generally arrived about two o'clock in the afternoon, and was placed upon the bench with one of the apprentices to 'wateh hawks,' and to give notice by a loud whistle when any appearance of danger was likely to threaten the community. The result of these indulgences was a beastly state of intoxication, in which the elder men had to be led home after dark by myself and other apprentices, who enjoyed the amusement of landing them in a wet ditch before they were delivered up to their wives. This practice, during the five years I was at Percy Main, was pursued with a perseverance which ended in making most of the young men confirmed drunkards, and ruined the reputation and health of those whose duty it was to set a better example. I was afterwards often thankful at having escaped the contagion of those irregularities, which at a morel matured period told with tenfold force, and hastened the ruin of some of my contemporaries.

"William remained in this situation till he was of age, and had completed his seven years' apprenticeship, the indenture being duly and honourably cancelled by Mr. Robinson on March 26, 1811.

During this time he made the acquaintance of George Stephenson, who had then charge of an engine at Willington Ballast Hill, only a mile or two from Percy Main Colliery. The two young men, who were nearly of the same age, and were both earnest in their love for mechanics, here formed a friendship which lasted through life. It is on record1 that in the summer evenings Fairbairn was accustomed to go over to see his friend, and would frequently attend to the Ballast Hill engine for a few hours, in order to enable Stephenson to take a two or three hours' turn at heaving ballast out of the collier vessels, by which he earned a small addition to his regular wages. George Stephenson had recently married, and established a humble but comfortable home in a cottage at Willington Quay, where his friend was a frequent visitor.

Mr. Fairbairn in after life, often alluded with pride and satisfaction to his early intimacy and close friendship with the great founder of the railway system.


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