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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter VI - Further Employment - Marriage and Settlement in Manchester


For some time before the termination of my engagement at the Patent Ropery, I had frequent conversations with Mr. Hall on agriculture and spade husbandry. He had written an essay on this latter subject, describing its superior advantages; and it had occurred to him that a machine might be made which, if worked by steam, would answer all the purposes of digging by hand. To this scheme I saw many objections; but, like all men of a sanguine disposition and a speculative turn of mind, he overruled them; and after many persuasions I was at last induced to make a model of the machine; it being left to me to devise the means and arrange the parts according to my own judgment. It was finally agreed that we should bear equal shares in the expense of the model. He was to write a paper in our joint names for the Society of Arts, and in case it should prove successful we were to take out a patent, and make our fortunes. Such were the inducements held out to me by my speculative friend. The model was accordingly made, and along with it a miniature field of sand, wherein it was to dig. This model showed some ingenuity in its structure, and rolled along upon a movable tramway, with three spades worked by cranks on one side, which enabled the machine to move on the unbroken portion of the field, while it left the portion dug up perfectly open to the action of the atmosphere as it left the spades. The machine was exhibited before the Duke of Norfolk, then President of the Society of Arts, but it met with considerable opposition from some of the council; both Mr. Hall and I defended it, but unsuccessfully, as the argument was against us, and objections were raised which on mature consideration I found it difficult to combat.

The objections raised against the principle, as well as the practical application of tie machine, confirmed my previous doubts; but not so with Mr. Hall, who maintained a contrary opinion, and insisted on exhibiting the model to the Board of Agriculture, whose practical experience would enable them to discover its merits, and recommend its application. I was, however, sufficiently convinced of its inutility, and declined any further interference. It was subsequently sent to the Board of Agriculture, and for anything I know to the contrary, may be still found amongst the relics of that institution.

The construction of this machine, and the want of employment, made a serious inroad upon my funds. I had saved upwards of 20/., but it all went in the purchase of materials and labour; and on application to Mr. Hall for his share of the expenses, I found he was in no better condition than myself; and therefore I made an agreement with a pork-butcher in Tottenham Court Road to make him for 33s. a machine for chopping meat for sausages.

This machine was constructed with a fly-wheel and a double crank and connecting rods on each side, which worked a cross head, containing a dozen knives crossing each other at right angles, enabling them thus to mince or divide the meat on a revolving block. The machine did its work admirably, and I had reason to be proud of it, as it was the first order I hail on my own account.

The pork butcher paid me handsomely for the machine, and finding no chance of obtaining any more work in London for some time, I resolved to make a tour in the south of England, and with 11s in my pocket I took an outside place, on the evening of April 13, 1813, for Bath. It was a keen frost when the coach started from the Golden Cross, and we had scarcely crossed Hounslow Heath when a fall of snow came on, and being thinly clad, without a great-coat, I suffered dreadfully from cold during the night. We, however, reached Bath at seven the next morning, when a good washing and a warm breakfast completely restored me.

At Bath I found myself quite at home, as I had read 1he whole of Smollett's works and Fielding's 'Tom Jones.' I remembered the Pump Boom, and the famous Master of the Ceremonies of a former period, Beau Nash, and entered into all the reminiscences of those days, and made myself familiar with all the haunts of the town. I went to the theatre to hear Incledon sing in the opera of the ' Lord of the Manor,' and on the following morning, Sunday, I entered a sedan-chair, and directed two Welshmen to carry me to the Pump Room. I would not have incurred this unnecessary expense, but I had two reasons for doing so; namely, to ascertain the motion of a sedan, and to make myself sure of admission to the rooms. As regards the latter, it was superfluous, and so far as respects the former I should have been much better on my feet.

In the afternoon I went to Frome on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Molly, immortalised in ' Tom Jonea' who with a thigh-bone from a new-made grave exerted her powers with such effect amongst the rustics of Somersetshire. These visits occupied a period of three days; and on the Monday following I commenced work at Bathgate, where I remained six weeks, and then moved on— always on foot—to Bradford and Trowbridge. Then making a rapid detour to the south I returned by the nearest route to Bristol. Here I remained a few days to look at the town, and then moving onwards I visited South Wales, spent a few days at Newport and Cardiff, and having inspected the cathedral at Llandaff, I sailed on the following day in a small sloop bound for Dublin, where I arrived after a voyage of four days.

My entrance into Dublin was anything but propitious, as after paying the passage motley I found my funds reduced to the small sum of three-halfpence. It was early in the morning when we arrived, and having wandered about the city for a whole day, I was at last compelled through hunger to exhaustion the remains of my purse in the purchase of a roll and a few raisins, on which I breakfasted and dined during a promenade along Ormond's Quay. As the evening closed in I went on search, of lodgings, and after some trouble I took up my quarters in a small house in a back street near St. Patrick's Cathedral. The following day was a holyday, and finding the people all in motion in the direction of the Phoenix Park, I joined the crowd, and after an hour's walk found myself in the presence of the Duke of Richmond, then Lord Lieutenant, at a grand review of all the troops in Dublin and the surrounding country. After the evolutions, great numbers adjourned to the tents, where I witnessed all the full and amusements of an Irish fair, and what with whisky, rags, and rigmarole, the remainder of the day, and if I mistake not the greater part of the night, were spent in a medley of singing, dancing, fighting, and drinking. I could not, however, afford to be present daring the whole of the revelry, and having no inclination to join in the melee which was fast approaching, I returned to my quarters at Pat Kearney's, where I supped on potatoes and cold beef, and went to bed.

Next morning I went in search of employment, and after several applications I at last succeeded in making an engagement with Mr. Hobinson, of the Phoenix Foundry, to make a new set of patterns for some nail machinery, which he was then introducing into Dublin. These machines hail been tried in Birmingham, and were found to answer for some purposes, but the nails proved defective in ductility, and were liable to break when the points were 'clinked,' or bent round upon the board. In other respects they were found, after being carefully annealed, to succeed much better, particularly for sprigs and flooring nails. The construction of these machines occupied the whole of the summer, and gave me an opportunity of becoming acquainted with Irish character.

At the lodgings which I occupied at a cottage behind the barracks, I became acquainted with a young man of the name of Meagher. He was a native of Kilkenny, had received a liberal education, and with his assistance I endeavoured to improve myself by reading some of the best authors and discussing the style as well as the subject-matter of the Writers. Meagher was an excellent grammarian and on able declaimer; he had words at command, and I was often lost in admiration at the facility with which he could embody his ideas in the choicest language, and convey them to the minds of his hearers in the most pleasing and agreeable form. He was never at a loss, and from what I could learn of his history he had been educated for the bar, but the poverty of his family had deprived him of the means of completing his studies, and he was ultimately compelled to leave college and take the humble situation of an usher.

In the month of October I finished the nail machines, and after taking an affectionate leave of my friend and fellow-lodger, whom I never afterwards heard of, I embarked on board one of the packets for Liverpool. The passage from Dublin to Liverpool occupied two days, which we considered a good passage, as there had been instances when the packets were a week on the voyage. The same distance is now accomplished in ten or eleven hours.

In Liverpool I remained only two days to look at the town, and then proceeded by coach to Manchester, where I conceived a much wider field was open for the exercise of my profession. In this conception I was not mistaken, for I soon got employment with Mr. Adam Parkinson, with whom I remained for above two years. I was in my twenty-fourth year when I entered Manchester, and being employed at a short distance in the country, I resumed my studies, chiefly in History, Natural Philosophy, the first books of Euclid, and Algebra. In the three first I made some progress, but the last I found difficult, and ultimately I had to give it up.

Shortly after my arrival in Manchester I caught the scarlet fever, which laid me up for the whole of the winter. It was during the great frost  and it was the end of February before I was able to leave the house and take short walks, which at first did not exceed fifty yards: they gradually extended as I gathered strength, until I was able to walk out every day, when I rapidly recovered.

During my illness I was frequently visited by Mr. James Houtson, the foreman of the works, whose kindness of heart and hospitality made him everywhere loved and respected. To Mr. Houtson and his family I was indebted for many acts of kindness; I spent many happy hours in his house, and retained till the day of his death a liberal share in his friendship.

Part of Mr. Houtson's house was occupied by his brother, Mr. John Houtson, whose unfortunate history was full of events of considerable interest. He was a native of Lawder, in Roxburghshire. He left his native place when young, and settled in Manchester, first as an assistant in a mercantile house, and subsequently as a master for himself. In Scotland he had exercised the profession of a schoolmaster, whereby he had acquired a taste for reading; and having a good address, his society was agreeable, and much sought after by his friends and acquaintance. He had a taste for poetry and for literary pursuits, and was in acquirements above his position in life.

His career as a merchant was abruptly terminated. As already mentioned, he commenced business as a spinner and manufacturer, but with borrowed money, which not being equal to his demands, he took to the bill system, on which he subsisted for a few years, but at last became bankrupt. After winding up his affairs and paying ten or twelve shillings in the pound, he engaged to go out with some gentlemen to the island of Fernando Po, to found a colony there, and to restore his fortune by trading in ivory and gold-dust along the African coast. For a few years he was employed in this trade, but the colony turned out a failure ; and having made the acquaintance of Belzoni, the celebrated traveller, he joined the expedition into the interior, where one after another the party fell victims to disease. He was the last man to close the eyes of Bolzoni, and after great suffering reached the coast with life, but with a broken constitution. He brought a ring and the dying wishes of the great traveller to his wife, and took his passage to Ava, where he died a few days after his arrival.

His letters, some of which I read, describing the expedition, were valuable as illustrative of some of the most trying scenes and stirring incidents of the expedition; and one or two of them, giving an account of Belzoni's death, were published in the papers of the day. But they have never been collected in a separate form.

At Mr. Houtson's house used to assemble a party of kindred spirits, and on Sunday, and sometimes on Saturday evening, I used to make one of the party. These meetings were partly of an instructive and partly of a convivial character. The first part of the evening was generally appropriated to literary discussions, but after supper they often ended in singing, or some other genial amusement. Amongst the number who met on these occasions was the late Dr. Hardie, an eminent physician, and another of the party was Mr. Leo Schuster, who afterwards became a well-known successful merchant.

I remained two years with Mr. Parkinson, and during that time I not only kept up my correspondence with Miss Mar, but I began to entertain thoughts of a settlement, and of making her my wife. Arrangements were made for the union as soon as a little money could be raised for the purpose of furnishing a small house.

With this view, I made a determination to work hard and spend little. This I steadfastly adhered to, and in less than twelve months I had deposited in the hands of my intended wife and banker upwards of 20. On her side the same economy and industry were observed; and by the time I had finished some work in the country, of which I had the charge, I was master of nearly 30, the largest sum I had ever possessed.

My bachelor days in Manchester were fruitful of many benefits. I had some leisure for study, and made some progress in the first three books of Euclid. I also renewed my attempts on the violin, but in stringing it after an interval of more than twelve months, I found it had been seriously injured on the voyage from Dublin, and I had no alternative but to restore its broken tones by a new belly of the same material and construction as before. Having repaired the instrument, I still found it in good voice, but the power to give it expression was as bad as ever, and after some months' rubbing and scraping I was forced to content myself with the old tunes.

Another amusement in which I took great interest when residing in the country was watching the sports and peculiar habits of the labouring classes of the districts round Manchester. At that period they were fond of field-sports, such as trail hunts, following the hounds on foot, and other athletic exercises. Drinking and dancing in holyday times frequently led to quarrels and dangerous fights; but these evils have more lately been suppressed, and now the population of Lancashire may be said to be the best disposed, the most active and laborious people in the United Kingdom.

I was now able to direct my attention to the fulfilment of my engagement with Miss Mar. We were married at Bedlington on June 16, 1816, and after a few days' residence at Morpeth and Newcastle, we took our places on the coach for Manchester, where we arrived in a few days. The important event of a marriage, and the altered conditions and circumstances which it involves, are such as to open a new epoch in every man's history. It did so in mine; and the responsibilities which it involved operated as a powerful stimulus to carry into effect what I had long before contemplated, namely, an anient desire to emancipate myself from daily labour, and to acquire that independence of position which I was most anxious to attain. My young wife was less ambitious, and she appeared content to labour with me in a an unostentatious manner; and I am persuaded her affection would have been more than equal to carry her through the numerous difficulties by which we were surrounded. With an income of only thirty shillings a week, I felt great reluctance to submit her to constant drudgery, and we began by taking lodgings at Macclesfield, where I was employed by the late Mr. T. C. Hewes. We spent several months in that town, and then removed to Manchester, where I took a small cottage of two rooms, and fitted it up in a style of neatness of which we were both of us justly proud. The first articles of furniture which came into the house were three oil paintings and three mahogany knife-cases, which I bought at a sale. These purchases appeared no better in the eyes of Mrs. Fairbairn than the bargain of the green spectacles made, by Moses in the ' Vicar of Wakefield.' They were articles not for immediate use, but they looked handsome, the first on the walls, and the latter on a neat mahogany table. Shortly afterwards the pictures became, and have continued to be, the most favoured articles in the house, and they decorate the walls of my dining-room at the present moment.

By the early spring I had finished the works at Macclesfield, and returned in time to be at hand during Mrs. Fairbairn's confinement, which took place on March 30, 1817, when my daughter, afterwards Mrs. Bateman, was born. This event was one which nearly deprived Mrs. Fairbairn of life, and after remaining in the most critical state for ten or twelve days, she began to give indications of recovery from a state of the greatest exhaustion. In this state of affairs, the nurse, who had never left us from the commencement, accidentally set fire to the bed-curtains, which were instantly in a blaze, and both mother and child must have perished if I had not fortunately been in the house ready to render assistance. The screams of the nurse brought me in a moment to the rescue, when I found the bed in flames. It was the work of a moment to snatch both of them from the bed, and having laid them on the floor, I at last succeeded in extinguishing the flames by tearing off the burning curtains, after being severely scorched.

This unfortunate accident was a severe blow to us, and my wife's long and protracted illness, in addition to the expense incurred in furnishing the house, exhausted the whole of our funds. Many months passed before we surmounted the difficulties of this visitation. But my little daughter grew apace. Her mother, through the unwearied skill and attention of Mr. Ainsworth, an eminent surgeon, renewed her strength, and our little cottage was again in order. This was a year of trial, and it required more than ordinary care and economy to make both ends meet. We, however, kept out of debt, with the exception of 5s, which I borrowed from Mr. Chantry, of Macclesfield, during this long season of illness, and which was afterwards duly paid.

Manchester is divided from Salford by the river Irwell, over which there were at this time two good bridges, the one called the Old Bridge, and the other the New Bayley Bridge. Another wooden bridge, called Blackfriars, between these two, was so exceedingly inconvenient as to render a new one indispensable, and the authorities offered two premiums of 150l. and 100/. for the first and second best designs for a bridge calculated to meet a more extended traffic. I was then employed as a draughtsman by Mr. Hewes, and conceiving there could be no objection to my employing my leisure hours m preparing a design for this intended bridge, I set. vigorously to work, and completed one of a single cast-iron arch before the time appointed for delivering the plans. Fearing, however, that Mr. Hewes might be similarly employed, I considered it my duty to show him the drawings, and to solicit his advice as to the expediency of giving them in. I repaired to his lodgings, and having communicated my intentions, he hastily replied that he could not advise me on such a subject without acting in a double capacity, as he was himself a candidate.

The affair of the bridge (which was ultimately built of stone) rendered my future residence with Mr. Hewes uncomfortable; and I consequently gave notice that I should resign my situation at the end of the following week. Disappointed in my hopes of rising in the profession so long as I continued as a workman, and having before me the prospect of an increasing family, I determined no longer to remain the servant of another, but by one bold effort to take an independent position in those departments of practical construction in which I conceived I had some chance of success. I had laboured for five years as a journeyman, and during that time I had acquired a considerable amount of practical knowledge, calculated to develop other resources than those to which my attention had hitherto been applied. I was never one of those who take notes, and keep a diary in which to record the construction of every machine, or to notice every event which occurred. I could never act the part of a copyist, and during the whole course of my professional career I never accomplished any improvement or any discovery of the least value if I attempted it by a slavish imitation of my predecessors. It would be presumptuous if by this declaration I attempted to assume a character for originality in my conceptions to which I may not be entitled; on the contrary, I must candidly admit that whatever improvements I have effected in practical science have originated in some useful hint which I have applied, when ruminating on the subject, for the purpose I wished to attain. Having once seized an idea, I never lost sight of it till the object in view was accomplished, or abandoned if proved on reflection to be unsound in principle. I believe this to be the ease in almost every instance where great discoveries are made, and on a careful review of the workings of the mind it will be found that we are all indebted to impressions received from others for many of our most useful inventions. The examples of Franklin, Ferguson, and Watt were always before me, and though I laboured under great difficulties as regards education, and had little time at my disposal for study, nevertheless I so far imitated their example as to be able to go on cheerfully and enthusiastically in my endeavours to be useful and my determination to excel.


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