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The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart
Chapter VII - Commencement of Business in Manchester - Successful Establishment of Manufacturing Works


Mr. Fairbairn now describes his successful start in business as a manufacturing engineer:—

My retirement from the service of Mr. Hewes took place in November 1817, at a time when business was slack, and when I could ill afford to be idle even for a single day. Having, however, made up my mind to make an attempt at something better than a weekly wage, I went over to Messrs. Otho Hulme and Sons, at Clayton, near Manchester, for whom I had erected some printing machinery whilst I was with Mr. Parkinson, to consult Mr. J. Hulme, the active partner, what was best to be done. At that time there appeared no chance of obtaining orders for millwork, but he made me the offer to construct an iron conservatory which he proposed erecting in the garden, I gladly accepted the offer, and having prepared the drawings, which were approved, I looked round for some clever, active person as a partner to join me in the undertaking. This partner I found in an old shopmate, Mr. James Lillie, to whom I communicated my intentions, and asked him to join me. After some hesitation. he consented; and we commenced a few days afterwards as coadjutors for the construction of the hothouse; and thus arose a connection which lasted for fifteen years.

In a few weeks the patterns were made, and we had just commenced casting, when the whole of our operations were stopped by a letter from Birmingham giving notice of the infringement of a patent which the writer said belonged to himself, This interdict and the threats which were held out closed our connection with Mr. Hulme, and I was again thrown upon the world without resources and without money. Mr. Lillie, who was no better off in this respect than I myself, after some fruitless attempts to get work, expressed a wish to retire, and advised me to abandon what he conceived could not be accomplished. I however had made up my mind to persevere, and notwithstanding a fortnight's suffering from insufficient food, I urged him to be firm, as I had made up my mind never again to work as a journeyman. This determination, and an offer to allow him to withdraw if he did not like the connection, decided the question, and he renewed his promise either to succeed, or remain with me to the last. This determination increased our energy and gave us fresh vigour. We redoubled our exertions, issued printed cards announcing our intentions, and made a complete tour amongst the manufacturers of Manchester and the neighbourhood. Amongst others, I called on Messrs. Adam and George Murray, the extensive cotton-spinners, and taking with me the designs of the bridge, I showed them to Mr. Murray, and requested to know if we could be of service to him in the erection of any millwork he might require. Mr. Murray received me kindly, and after looking at the drawings, desired I would call on the following day, and bring my partner with me.

In the interval since the stoppage of our work at Mr. Hulme's, we had, however, got small orders for the erection of a callender in Cannon Street, and a calico-polishing machine in Shakespeare Street. These were small jobs, but sufficient to enable us to make a lathe; and having hired a miserable shed for about twelve shillings a week, we erected the lathe, and with the assistance of James Murphy, a muscular Irishman, we contrived to turn and finish the whole of our work in a very creditable manner. At that time, 1817, even Manchester did not boast of many lathes or tools, except small ones in the machine shops; ours was of considerable dimensions, and capable of turning shafts of from 3 to 6 inches diameter. For two years afterwards this lathe did the whole of our turning work.

According to appointment, we waited on Mr. Murray, and having stated to him the objects we had in view, he took us through the mill, and asked if we could renew, with horizontal cross-shafts, the whole of his millwork that turned the mule spinning. We gladly agreed; but before any contract was made, he stipulated that the work must be well done, and said that he would visit our shop on the following day, and judge for himself as to the means we had at command for the attainment of that object.

This proposition was anything but encouraging, as both of us were aware of the 'poverty of the land,' and the risk we should incur by such an exhibition. There was, however, no alternative; come he would, and immediately on our return we set to work to put the 'house in order' for his reception. On the following day he came punctually to the time, and after looking round he observed that there was no approach but through an entry about four feet wide, and that having only one tool we should never be able to execute a work of such magnitude. We earnestly assured him to the contrary; and having made an agreement with him, we commenced, with glad hearts and willing minds, what we considered our first and best order as men of business. One of the conditions was to execute the alterations without stopping the machinery, or only such portion as we might require for the time being. This we accomplished satisfactorily, and having worked from five in the morning till nine at night, we completed the order within the specified time, and in such a manner as to satisfy Mr. Murray and his friends.

The alterations effected in Mr. Murray's factory opened a new field for our exertions. Up to that time neither Mr. Lillie nor I were much acquainted with cotton-mills; our previous employment had been chiefly confined to corn-mills, printing-works, and bleaching-works; and the operations of spinning being nearly new, we had everything to learn in that extensive department of our national industry. The alterations in Mr. Murray's mill gave us a great deal of insight into the business; and as my department lay in the designs and erection of the work as sent out by Mr. Lillie from the shop, I had an opportunity of examining with care and attention the whole of the main-gearing, and the machinery of transmission to the remotest parts of the factory.

In my examination of Mr. Murray's mill, and others to which I had access, I thought I discovered great defects in the principle as well as in the construction of the millwork. All the cotton mills that I had seen were driven with large square shafts and wooden drums, some of them 4 feet in diameter. The main shafts seldom exceeded 40 revolutions per minute; and although the machinery varied in velocity from 100 up to 3,000 revolutions, the speeds were mostly got up by a series of straps and counter drums, which not only crowded the rooms, but seriously obstructed the light where most required, in the more delicate and refined operations of the different machines. This defect I mentioned to Mr. Lillie, and proposed that we should change the system by the introduction of lighter shafts at double or treble the velocity, and by using smaller drums to drive the machinery at the same speed. I instanced an argument which I had had with a spinner, who contended that the straps would slip on small drums; but I showed that the front wheels of a carriage, though much smaller than those behind, went over the same ground, and that the quick shafts and smaller drums would not only by their increased velocity do the same, but would do it with a great saving of power. Thoroughly convinced of this, we set to work; and from that time we may date the revolution which followed, and our own prosperity as the leading millwrights of the district.

Another defect observed was in the construction of the shafts, and in the mode of fixing the couplings, which were constantly giving way, so that a week seldom passed without a break-down. For the first six years we could never calculate on the Sunday as a day of rest; we were almost constantly employed in repairs; and when trade was good the loss of a single hour was an object when compared to the difference of cost in a Sunday's repair. Working on Sundays, and on the previous and following nights, had a most injurious effect on the morals and condition of that class to which I belonged. It debarred them from that association with their families, and that improvement in the domestic circle to which this day of all others is most appropriate, particularly for the working man. The introduction of a new system of quick speeds and light shafts, accompanied with a greater degree of accuracy in the workmanship, led to a change which gradually abolished work on Sundays.

The completion of Mr. Murray's order gave a new impetus to our business. Our exertions had not been lost upon him, for he immediately recommended us to the attention of Mr. John Kennedy, partner in the firm of Messrs. M'Connel and Kennedy, then the largest spinners in the kingdom. They were on the point of adding a new mill, and owing to .Mr. Murray's recommendation we found no difficulty in making arrangements with Mr. Kennedy.

I waited upon that gentleman, and followed his instructions with the utmost attention. I laid down all his plans for the new mill to a scale, calculated the proportions and strength of the parts, fixed the position and arrangement of the different machines, and introduced, under that gentleman's direction, a new system of double speeds, which, I believe, was an original invention of his own, for giving an increased quantity of twist to the finer description of mule yarn. The mule, as is well known, was the invention of Crompton; and it owes a great deal to Mr. Kennedy's improvements, particularly in those constructions exclusively adapted to the finer numbers. I shall have occasionally to speak of this gentleman in the course of the following narrative, and I feel greatly indebted to him for his early and continued friendship during his long and useful life.

The erection of M'Connel and Kennedy's new mill was a great step in advance; we had now become engineers and millwrights of some consequence, and the complete and satisfactory execution of the millwork established our characters as young men who were likely not only to do well, but also to introduce improvements in the construction of machinery, millwork, and the general mechanism of other branches of industry. Mr. Kennedy was fully aware of the advantages of these improvements, and he not only gave them full encouragement, but recommended us to all his friends. The results of these recommendations were a press of orders which poured in upon us from all sides, and an amount of work much greater than we could execute. Our means were but small; and although we had removed from the shed into an old building in Mather Street, immediately after the completion of Mr. Murray's work, we were nevertheless without a steam-engine, or any other power, except Murphy and three more assistants who turned the lathes, having added to the number since our removal from High Street. With the two first lathes, and a new and a larger one which we erected temporarily at Mr. Kennedy's mill for turning the large shafts, we completed the whole of the millwork in a satisfactory manner, both as regarded solidity and appearance.

It was during the progress of this work (in 1818) that I became acquainted with Mr. Murdoch, of Soho, a gentleman well known to science and to the public as the inventor of the D valve, the improver of the Cornish pumping-engine, and the author of illumination by carburetted hydrogen gas. Mr. Murdoch was at this time upwards of seventy years of age, tall and well-proportioned, with a most benevolent and intelligent expression of countenance. He was the oldest mechanical engineer of his day, and, exclusive of his discoveries in practical engineering, he contrived a variety of curious machines for compressing peat moss, when finely ground and pulverised, into the most beautiful medals, armlets, bracelets, and necklaces, which, under immense pressure, being stamped and brilliantly polished, had all the character and appearance of the finest marble. Mr. Murdoch was the right arm of the illustrious Watt, and greatly assisted him in his improvements of the steam-engine by ingenious contrivances for casting, boring, turning, and fitting the various parts. The steam-engine is, therefore, in no small degree indebted to the ingenuity and persevering exertions of Murdoch; as also to another eminent contemporary mechanical engineer, the late Matthew Murray, of Leeds, who was the first to set an example to Boulton and Watt themselves in that superior finish of the steam-engine which has now become general.

Mr. Murdoch, on the occasion referred to, came down to Manchester to start Mr. Kennedy's 54-horse-power engine, and during his week's residence there I had frequent opportunities of noticing the great intelligence which he evinced on almost every subject connected with his professional avocations. He was, like his friend Mr. Kennedy, full of anecdotes, and could relate all the old Scotch saws and sayings which used to be the delight and amusement of the people of those days. It was then the fashion to tell a good tale, and none could do it better than Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Kennedy.

The services which we had rendered, and the improvements which were introduced, caused us to be much talked of as good millwrights and ingenious young men. Our business increased, and a large cellar under a factory was added to the shop. I was designer, draughtsman, and book-keeper; and in order to meet all the requirements of the concern, and keep Mr. Lallies department in the shop constantly going, I had to rise with the sun in the summer, and some hours before it in the winter, in order to make the entries and post the books before breakfast. For the remainder of the day I had either to draw out the work, or to ride fifteen or sixteen miles on a hired hack to consult with proprietors, take dimensions, and arrange the principle and plan on which the work was to be constructed. For many years I continued these exertions; and, like every other act of persevering industry, the result was a great economy, by saving the expense of clerks, draughtsmen, and all those supernumeraries which can only exist and can only be maintained in a large concern.

Four or five years passed in this manner; and, though we were always short of money, and had to work from hand to mouth, we were nevertheless in a prosperous way of business. Our tools were increasing in number; new patterns were made; and at the end of five years we found ourselves worth (in material, stock, and tools), a sum of 5,000/. It is true there was no ready money, but, having occasional assistance from Heywood's Bank, we ventured on the purchase of a 16-horse-power secondhand Boulton and Watt's steam engine, bought a small plot of land on chief rent, and erected a more convenient and commodious workshop. This was a bold undertaking, without a farthing of capital; but we had good friends and considerate customers; and we found no difficulty in obtaining money on account for work in hand and in progress of delivery. With this assistance, and the same continued activity, we struggled through; and in less than two years we found ourselves in possession of the new shop and steam-engine, without any considerable diminution in our funds.

It will be perceived that a constant and unremitting attention to business precluded all chance of continuing my studies, either by reading or other pursuits. My time was too much engaged to admit of a single hour of leisure; and the only consolation which I derived was the reflection that I had previously stored my mind with some useful knowledge, which I was now turning to good account.


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