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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter V - Removal to London - Employment there


I had now reached my twenty-second year, and having finished my apprenticeship, I left reluctantly the scene of my trials and many friendships, and went in search of other employment. Some of the other young men did the same; two of them went to sea as ship's carpenters, and another married and turned out a confirmed drunkard, and a prize-fighter. As regards myself, I went to Newcastle, where I got employment as a millwright, at the erection of a saw-mill in the Close. Here I worked for a few weeks, where I made the acquaintance of a young man named David Hogg, from Tweedmouth. Hogg was about my own age, a very powerful man, and good-looking. He was a good workman, and had more experience in that description of work than myself. At the saw-mill we had 20s. per week, but a gentleman from Sunderland, of the name of Norval, who wanted hands to go to Bedlington, engaged us at 24s. per week, and we accordingly left Newcastle and went to Bedllington, where I spent the summer very agreeably.

Here I first met my future wife, who then lived with Mrs. Barker, an elderly lady, to whom she was much attached, and from whose house she was married five years afterwards. I was then in the vigour of youth, I had a good wage, few cares, and was alive to every impression. In a word, all nature smiled around me. I was happy, and in love with the world and all mankind. With these feelings I was more inclined to gaieties than study, and although I kept up my reading by subscribing to a circulating library at Morpeth, I must admit I did not read with the same assiduity as I did at Percy Main. The summer evenings were generally spent in short excursions into the country.I became the leader in a Discussion Society, and patronised the players. The manager, Mr. Brady, was very poor, which caused me to exert myself to procure him a house, and occasionally to assist behind the scenes. Another way of assisting Brady was to induce Mr. William Waddle, the poet of Pessey, to recite some of his pieces. The poet liked his drink, and on the nights of representation we seldom failed to give him as much as would steady his nerves and enable him to go through his part with tclat. Unfortunately Willie did not always suit the action to the word; but that was of little consequence, as his friends were always ready, by way of encouragement, to come down with a shower of plaudits, calculated to please the performer, but not always successful in concealing the defects of the performance.

The whole summer was passed over in this manner, and what with these amusements, and occasional visits to Mrs. Barker's, I spent one of the most agreeable half-years of my life. Mrs. Fairbairn's maiden name was Dorothy Mar, the youngest daughter of Mr. John Mar, a respectable burgess of Morpeth, who had for many years occupied a farm on the Wansbeck, which went by the name of Mar's Banks. To these banks I used to resort as a sort of pilgrimage, to contemplate the spot which had formerly been the residence and playground of the object of my affections. In this and many other things I entertained wild and romantic notions, and my reveries on these occasions were such as to form ideal plans, build castles in the air, and picture to myself a paradise, in which my imagination realised all the forms of domestic happiness and main enjoyments which I promised myself in our little house. It was to have a neat parlour, every corner filled with books, and I painted my smiling wife, with a couple of pledges of our mutual love, as prominent objects in the foreground, to give force and colouring to the picture.

How exceedingly vain and proud I was of my fut ure habitation and its inmates—which, considered merely as a dream, was not without its influence upon my future fortunes. The impression that I must have such a retreat, with such a wife, never forsook me; and I never lost sight of these charming objects, first traced in imagination on the banks of the. Wansbeck, and afterwards realised by perseverance elsewhere.

It is stated by one of the ancient sages that 'there is nothing new under the sun,' and with equal propriety I may observe that there is nothing permanent, as the month of November, which generally deprives nature of its gayest attire, also changed the aspect of my affairs. The works at Bedlington were finished, and, as was frequently the ease in the North, I was thrown out of employment with a very distant hope of obtaining another situation during the winter. Business was Hat, and work scarce, and no other prospect appearing but a dreary winter before me, I carried into execution a long-projected plan of leaving that part of the country to try my fortunes in some other district, where the chances and facilities for advancement were greater than appeared to exist at Newcastle. Impressed with this resolution, I took leave of Miss Mar, after an interchange of promises of unalterable affection, and with half-a-dozen new shirts, a new suit of clothes, a watch, and four pounds in my pocket, I embarked on board a collier, on December 11, 1811, at North Shields, for the metropolis. This may be considered as another epoch in my history.

The war with France, and our great naval victories, had drained the coasting trade of its able-bodied seamen to such an extent that the collier ships from Shields and Sunderland were left almost destitute of men. The result of this reduction proved seriously injurious to the service, as every winter during the w ar increased the number of wrecks, and many lives were lost for want of hands to work the ships. In the ship in which I had taken a passage (with my old friend and companion Hogg, who agreed to accompany me), there were only three old men, with the captain, the mate, and three boys; altogether they numbered eight hands, whereas, in the midst of winter, twelve was the complement. Under these circumstances, we were no sooner at sea than I had to render assistance throughout the voyage, and to work like any of the sailors to keep the ship afloat. Hogg should have done the same, but he was prostrated with sea-sickness, and never showed face above deck but once during the twelve days which elapsed before we reached the Nore. It would be endless to recount the difficulties we had to encounter in a ship sunk to a few inches from the deck. badly manned, with a strong gale from the north-east which lasted for nearly a week. The vessel rolled like a tub, with the sea sweeping the decks in every direction, and for nearly eight days we were constantly drenched with water. One night, when at anchor in the Swin',: and riding out the gale till daylight, the ship dragged her anchors, and we had the greatest difficulty to bring her up and prevent her drifting on the breakers which were close upon our stern. We, however, succeeded, through the exertions of the mate, the captain being unfortunately in that state which rendered his services of little value. Two days more and we reached the Nore, and I shall never forget the sensations I felt when I passed close to the North Fleet, in all the pomp and splendour of an armament which had proved invincible, the only drawback to its beauty being the sight of one of the seamen undergoing the punishment of being flogged.

In working up the river to Gravesend, Woolwich, and Iilack-wall Reach, where we anchored, I was deeply interested in everything I saw, and here my reading became useful, as I had made myself acquainted with Gravesend, Tilbury Fort, the Woolwich Docks, and all the places of historical interest on the Thames ; for to a foreigner, or even to a native who has never before visited the capital, by far the most imposing approach is by the river.

We arrived at Blackwall early in the afternoon, and towards dusk the captain, who was anxious to save a tide, made preparations for walking up to Wapping; and conceiving there would be no objection, I asked permission to accompany him, to which, after some hesitation, he consented. We accordingly started through Blackwall, and along the road to the West India Docks, but I soon found, as we went along, that the captain had been making free with the bottle before he started, and instead of making his way through Limehouse, we sauntered through the upper streets of Shadwell in the direction of Stepney Church or Whitechapel. It was in vain that I remonstrated with him, and told him I was sure we were leaving the river; he persisted that I knew nothing about it; until, at last, I made enquiries, and found to my mortification that we were wandering in a totally wrong direction. Laying hold of my companion, I dragged him along, till we at length reached our destination, two hours too late for delivering the papers. The captain, however, ordered supper, and after supper followed large potations of spirits and water, until the evening wore late, when the captain, after repeated applications, at last consented to return to Blackwall. We accordingly sallied forth, hut were again brought to anchor in a pot-house up a narrow lane, where there was a tremendous noise of screaming, singing, and dancing. I refused to enter this den, and left him with the intention of making my way to the ship. It was now twelve o'clock, and finding no chance of reaching Blackwall, I enquired of the watchman where I could obtain a lodging for the night. He walked with me to a house in a narrow street, where I got a bed, and was soon in a profound sleep, which continued till morning. At break of day I was suddenly awakened by a loud noise in the street, and having hastily dressed, I found that some persons had been murdered in a house the next door, or next but one—I forget which—to where I had slept. After paying the landlord I went into the street, but the crowd was so great that I could not reach the door. I found I was in a street called New Gravel I.arie, and that a whole family of the name of Williamson (who also kept a public-house), including the servant girl, had been murdered during the night. These acts of violence, and a similar murder which had taken place a fortnight before on a family of the name of Mar, in Ratcliffe Highway, gave me a most unfavourable impression of Loudon ; I even began to doubt my own safety, and having made the best of my way back again to the ship, I entered on board with feelings of thankfulness for my escape.

On my arrival at Blackwall I found the captain had not made his appearance, and the ship, which should have moved up to the Pool by the morning tide, was left at anchor, the mate declining to take the responsibility during the absence of his superior. At two, the skipper made his appearance, having, as I afterwards found, been charged before the Police magistrate with disorderly conduct during the night. Thus occurred my first entrance into London, which we reached in safety on the following day.

After settling for the passage, and bidding adieu to the captain (without much regret), Ilogg and I took a lodging in a garret :n Duke's Court, St. Martin's Lane, until we could obtain employment. We counted our money, and found that Hogg had 3/. and some odd shillings left, and I had 21. 7s. 6d., together about 6/., to provide for our lodging and maintenance till we could obtain work. Hogg had some friends; a brother, Mr. Wm. Hogg, and a sister, Mrs. Brown, living in Burr Street, where St. Catherine's Dock now stands. I had no friends but a cousin of my mother's, who was married to Mr. Stewart, a joiner and builder, and lived in St. Martin's Lane. To them I applied for advise, and they recommended the lodging in Duke's Court, of which we took immediate possession.

In London we found things totally different from what we had been accustomed to in the country. Provisions and fuel were exceedingly dear, a keen frost had set in, and, living close to the tiles, we found our quarters exceedingly cold and disagreeable. We further discovered that unless we used the most rigid economy there was no chance of our money lasting above a fortnight or three weeks. We had to purchase everything, even to a bundle of chips for lighting the fire, and the girl whose duty it was to wait upon us, finding it not likely to be a profitable employment, left us to our own resources, and forced us to perform the various duties of housemaid, and others of an equally onerous description. The landlord, who was a tailor, appeared to encourage the slut; but we subsequently revenged ourselves in a way he little expected.

Having fixed our residence, we started the next morning in search of work, and the first person we applied to was the late Mr. Rennie, at Blackfriars Bridge. Mr. Rennie at that time had just commenced the building of the Waterloo Bridge, and so highly was he spoken of, both as an engineer and a millwright, that amongst the workmen he went by the name of the 'almighty Rennie.' I was most anxious to see the great engineer, and accordingly we went there direct. It was arranged that I should be the spokesman, and having enquired for Mr. Rennie, we were admitted to the office, where we found him seated at a desk, with a small model in his hands. After we had stated the object of our visit, he enquired where we came from, what description of work we had been accustomed to, and the reason of our leaving Newcastle at that inclement season of the year. To these enquiries we replied that we had no alternative, there was nothing doing at Newcastle, and we had come to try our fortune in London. After a strict examination he desired us to go to Walker (the foreman), and he would give us work. With light hearts, and grateful acknowledgments, we proceeded in search of Mr. Walker, who informed us that we might commence on the following Monday; but, he said, 'You will have to see the Millwrights' Society (a body who monopolised the right of determining who should be employed in that and other shops in London) before you can start work.'

Mr. Walker desired us to call at the club-house, and we should receive all the necessary information for our admission. We accordingly waited upon the secretary, who informed us that a general meeting of the members would be held on the first Tuesday of the following month, when our claims would be taken into consideration, but not before. This was a damper to our hopes, as the last monthly meeting had taken place only two days before, and the question now was, how we were to live on 5s. for that length of time? There was, however, no alterative.

Having ascertained the terms of admission, and other facts connected with this most important body, we returned to Luke's Court, and starved ourselves for a month, and what with the cold garret, empty stomachs, and sharp appetites, we spent one of the most uncomfortable months of our existence. It is true we made up for our six meagre days by a capital dinner on Sundays, as I always had an invitation at St. Martin's Lane. Hogg went to his brother's, whilst I was creating the greatest alarm in the mind of Mrs. Stewart as to my powers of digestion, which she was afraid would suffer by what, good woman, she considered a dangerous habit. I entertained no fears of this sort.

Our scanty meals were not worse than the cold which we suffered at the top of the house. We slept two in a bed—one of Goldsmith's—' A bed by night, a chest of drawers by day;' and this was fortunate for our comfort, as we never could have escaped being frost-bitten but for the natural warmth which we imparted to each other. Fuel was so dear that we collected papers from every bill-holder that we passed in the streets, in order to save the expense of the matches we had to buy for lighting the fire. We carried on this practice for some time, till one day, rummaging under a back-stair that led to the roof, and where we kept our coals, I run my hand against some pieces of wood, which we found to be an old bedstead; and to square accounts with the tailor and his daughter, we set to work and slit up every bit of it except the beech posts, which we could not accomplish with the knife. When half of the curtain-frame was demolished we got alarmed, and the following ten days kept us in misery for fear the landlord might want his bed, and find it cut up. To prevent discovery, however, we purchased a bundle of lighters, which we took care to exhibit every morning in passing through the shop, and we were fortunate in making our escape before the bed was wanted.

At the end of the month the two men presented themselves again before the junta of the Millwrights' Society; but from some informality in their qualifications (in regard to the nature of which the autobiography is obscure, and appears somewhat inconsistent,) their claims were rejected, and they were refused permission to work for Mr. Rennie.

The narrative continues :—

Having made sure of obtaining employment, we had given up our lodgings in Duke's Court, and had deposited our clothes with Mrs. Stewart in St. Martin's Lane; we were therefore free from incumbrance; and having called on Mrs. Brown, where we slept on the carpet, we started before daylight next day for the country, and taking the north road, travelled as far as Hertford, through rain and sleet, and over roads nearly impassable. We reached Hertford wet to the skin, without food, and with only thirteen pence in our pockets.

At this town we were directed to a master millwright who wanted hands; hut we found that he had only a prospect of obtaining a new mill to build as soon as the days were a little longer. I told him how we had been treated in London, that our funds were exhausted, and that we should be glad of even two or three days' work. He appeared interested in our story, said we were two nice young men. and offered us half-a-crown to help us on our way. At this kind offer my pride took alarm, and though we were without money, and almost fainting for want of food, very much to the annoyance of Hogg, who pressed hard in whispers for me to take it, I peremptorily refused the half-crown, and whilst passing through the churchyard, Hogg seated himself on a wet tombstone, burst into tears, and obstinately refused to move an inch further. I used every endeavour to pacify him. but the only reply was a cutting remonstrance at my having refused to accept the money. I sat down beside him, and the weather having in some degree cleared up, the sun burst from under a dark cloud, and seizing the occasion, I remarked that we were perfectly safe, as the beams of the setting sun thus bursting upon us were a sure omen of our ultimate success. We moved on at a slow pace towards the outskirts of the town, and had not proceeded far, when arriving at a wheelwright's shop I stopped to enquire if he knew of any place where we could obtain employment. The master entered freely into conversation, and after some further enquiries he recommended us to make the best of our way to Cheshunt, about ten miles off, where a person from Chelmsford was building a windmill, and was, he believed, in want of hands.

With renewed hopes we moved on at a rapid pace, almost ankle-deep in melted snow, till we reached Cheshunt, nearly exhausted with hunger and fatigue. We took up our quarters at a little public-house, and on the faith of more encouragement for the morning, I hail promised my friend that he should have an excellent supper, whether it was paid for or not. Accordingly, as soon as we were seated, the landlady, a good-tempered middle-aged woman, laid before us the remains of a cold leg of mutton, a large loaf, and a quart of ale. Nearly the whole disappeared to the bare bone before she returned from some domestic duties she had to attend to in another partof the house; when, casting her eyes on the table, she exclaimed, in a good-natured tone, 'Bless your hearts, but you must have been hungry.' We smiled in the affirmative, on which she handed out the cheese, with which we finished our repast, and then retired to rest. Early next morning we presented ourselves at the mill, and to our great joy procured employment for a fortnight. During that time we remained inmates with our kind friend, the landlady of the Black Bull.

Our engagement being temporary, we received our wages at the expiration of the time, and with nearly three pounds in our pockets, were again on the road. We parted reluctantly from our kind friend at the Black Bull, and directing our steps towards London, we had time to consult as to our next movements, when, after some deliberation, we concluded to try London once more, and if unsuccessful there, to proceed forwards to Portsmouth, where we proposed to embark on board some ship, and work our passage to America. Our second entry into the metropolis was, however, more fortunate than the first; as my friend David met an old shopmate and schoolfellow from Coldstream, who ridiculed our ignorance of the trade and the ways of the town. He told us he had been only eighteen months in London, had only served three years to the business, had good employment at seven shillings a day, and made from nine to ten days in the week. Moreover, he was secretary to the Independent Millwrights' Society, — ' a society,' as he stated', ' founded on liberal principles, and greatly superior to the vagabonds at Little Eastcheap.'

From this man, whose name was Dewer, we learned that there were three Societies in London, viz., the old Society, the one at which we had been rejected; next, the new Society, and lastly, the Independent Society, who were less stringent in their rules than the other two. All of them, however, took cognizance of the hours of labour, which at that time were from light to dark in winter, and from six to six in summer, with two hours for refreshment. They also regulated the rate of wages, and no man was allowed to work for less than seven shillings a day, and as soon as he entered the Society he was bound by the rules to maintain the rights and privileges of the trade to their full integrity. This system of dictation and exclusiveness was kept up in Loudon for the whole of the last and part of the present century by a body of men, most of whom had never served any time to their business, and whose moral character was far from exemplary. The natural result of such a combination was to create disgust in the minds of their employers, and to raise a powerful opposition amongst a class equally meritorious as workmen, and infinitely superior in moral worth. From their excesses, and from the unwarrantable demands made by the Societies on the employers and the employed, the clubs in London may date the decline of their power, and the almost ultimate extinction of the name of millwright as a distinct profession. Previously to that time it was held in great respect in almost every part of the United Kingdom. The members were generally men of talent, and ranked amongst them the celebrated names of Brindley, Smeaton, and Rennie.

To return, Dewer moved our admission as members of the Independent Society. This was accordingly done, and two days afterwards we were enrolled as members. Having been thus legalised, we shortly afterwards got employment at a Patent Ropery belonging to a Mr. Grundy at Shadwell, where both Hogg and I continued till the completion of the works, about eighteen months after we commenced. At the close of Mr. Grundy's work, I went for a few weeks to Wandsworth, and then to Mr. Penn, of Greenwich, where I continued till the spring of 1813, when business became slack, and I left the great metropolis in search of information and employment in another quarter.

I cannot pass over two years of the most important period of my life without referring to the pleasures and advantages which I derived from my residence in London. During the greater portion of the time I had constant employment, and an income which varied from two to three pounds a week. I lived moderately, renewed my reading and studies, and subscribed to a library in Ratcliffe Highway, where I had a moderately good choice of books. I further got acquainted with some friends at the West End, attended the theatres once or twice a week, visited the Westminster Forum, and heard Major Cartwright and Gale Jones declaim. In a word my hat covered my family, and I had never before been so happy or so independent.

During the -whole of my residence in London I seldom missed dining on the Sundays with my relatives in St. Martin's Lane. They had a small shop in front, and a workshop behind. The first floor was the family residence, and a clergyman of the name of Hall occupied the chambers above. Mr. Hall was a regular Sunday guest at Mrs. Stewart's table, as well as myself; he was a great projector, had taken out a patent for making lump from beanstalks, and was a writer in "Tilloch's Philosophical Magazine," and in several other periodicals of the day. He was a native of Perth, eccentric in his manners, somewhat loose in his religious principles, but a powerful reasoner, and intimately acquainted with most of the literary and scientific men of the day. Through Mr. Hall I was introduced to the Society of Arts, to Mr. Tilloch, and to several distinguished persons, and the advantages which I derived from this connection were greater than I could have expected, considering the position in which I was placed as a common workman.


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