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Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co by William S. Murphy

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Note: This is a sub-section of Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Co

From ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.


JAMAICA BRIDGE terminates Glasgow Harbour. Eastward from the bridge small boats, barges, and an occasional Clutha are the sole occupants of the river; but to the west a vista of tall masts and towering hulls, netted spars and reeking funnels range far into the dim distance, hiding the lark waters of the Clyde beneath a many-coloured mass of floating craft. Westward lies the sea, and the ships are drawn thither, going to distant lands with freight of manufactured goods or passengers, returning again to Glasgow laden with foreign produce. Glasgow is a maritime terminus. Here ships arc laden and unladen, or built, repaired, renovated, and refitted, or docked to wait for the returning tide of brisk trade. It is to be expected, therefore, that shipbuilding should flourish in such a locality; nor does Glasgow disappoint the expectation. Shipbuilding yards, however, are not easily accommodated near the harbour in a narrow river like the Clyde. Nor is it necessary; the river affords an easy mode of transit for the ships from building yard to harbour. As the harbour extends, the shipbuilding yards in we farther and farther down the river; for city-land is very costly, and the shipbuilder requires large space for his operations.

With the prescience of organising genius, the-founder of Fairfield acquired, in 1864, sixty acres of land on the south side of the Clyde, fully two miles below Glasgow Bridge. The wayfarer on the road to Renfrew has walked about half an hour after crossing Jamaica Bridge when he sees two lines of rails running on to the highway through a wide gate from a vast courtyard, causewayed and encircled on all sides by high wooden structures or more permanent buildings of various heights and styles. This is Fairfield yard. A long range of fine two-storeyed buildings of no mean architectural pretensions fronts Govan Road. The lower storey takes the form of an ornamental screen wall in which the wide arch of the main entrance opens with dignity and grace. Flanked on both sides by figures symbolising industry and commerce, this entrance affords access to a pillared vestibule from which, to right and left, run corridors, while a broad staircase rises from the doorway to the second storey. The long corridor to the left leads to the splendid board room, the managing director's private room, the rooms of departmental managers; the entrance to the right opening into the counting-house and office department. The drawing offices are on the flat above, the shipbuilding draughtsmen occupying the suite of rooms to the right, those to the left accommodating the engineers' drawing staff. Behind these buildings stretches the shipbuilding yard. On the eastern fringe of the yard are ranged a row of houses erected to hold those officials, clerks, tracers, modellers, and such, for whom no room could be found in the frontal offices. Nearer the river stands the model-makers' workshop, and adjoining is the moulding loft. These are the preliminary departments, so to say. On the river brink the real work of ship construction begins. Here the huge red rib, are laid, the vessel's frame built up, and then the plates that form her hull are riveted on one after the other.

In front of the building-slips stand long sheds in which are sheltered the bending rollers, drills, lathes, planes, and cutters that prepare the plates for the riveters. Cold steel plates of enormous strength are manipulated like slips of wax; bitten and bored and bent, cut and carved and cornered, by knife or drill or roller driven by steam or hydraulic pressure. Skeletons of vessels, huge in dimensions and of the heaviest tonnage, lie on the building-slips in various stages of construction. Here is the hull of a liner 500 ft. long, almost complete, near beside it the skeleton of a great cargo vessel of special design: there lies a cruiser of the very highest class, designed for combined swiftness, strength, and weight of armament; further along another mighty cruiser is being completed, and will soon be ready for her guns and crew. Every ship is an industry in itself, and they range all along the riverside. Over in the dock basin sits a 30-knot torpedo boat destroyer like a dark swan in its native element, artificers, engineers, and carpenters busy on her decks or within her hull, crowding her with every conceivable appliance for her deadly work. Vessels of smaller note and more peaceful uses are being built; paddle steamers for the Clyde passenger traffic, for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company, twin-screw steamers, yachts, and pleasure vessels, royal mail steamers for the Castle Line, and clippers for the China tea trade.

Within easy distance of the dock basin stands the engineering department, a group of high brick buildings, the central block of which occupies a space of nearly two acres. Here the engines and boilers of the ocean leviathans are made. Engine shop, boiler-making shop, brass foundry, smithy, and pattern-makers' shop all adjoin each other. A series of vast halls, each over 300 ft. long, filled with iron and steel machinery of many shapes and divers uses, the sight is bewildering to the onlooker. Two wide bays in the centre are occupied by lathes for planing, turning, boring, and smoothing the castings; the bays to the east accommodate the boilermakers, who build water-tube and ordinary marine boilers of the largest size, assisted by the best modern machines; while to the west are the erecting shops, where the engineers upbuild the engines to test their fitness before transferring them on shipboard. In all the shops overhead cranes are fitted up, that in the boilermakers' shop being capable of lifting one hundred tons. The smithy has four forge furnaces, blown by Root's patent blower, several steam hammers and steam-driven olivers.

The new brass foundry was designed to produce all the brass fittings and bronze castings required by the firm; but this object has yet to be attained, though the foundry is wrought to the utmost of its productive capacity. Of the numerous unmentioned details in this vast establishment it is impossible to speak. This is not only one of the largest shipbuilding yards in the world, and therefore imposing to the outward eye; the unique character of the place consists not merely in its size; its special merit is not visual but vital. To plan and conduct a business of that class requires intellect of the highest order.

Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Works, however, are not the production of one man, but of a succession of able men and groups of men. The firm may be said to have its foundation deep in the history of Clyde shipbuilding. Its genealogy begins with the birth of the steamship and runs straight to the present day.

In 1811 Mr. David Napier made the boiler of the Comet, the first steamboat that ever successfully sailed on this side of the Atlantic. Mr. Robert Napier, his cousin, followed David into marine engineering, and founded the famous Napier firm, in whose yard Mr. David Elder became a manager. Mr. David Elder's son John served his apprenticeship as an engineer under Napier auspices, and thus began his great career as a marine engineer.

Born in the year 1824, Mr. John Elder was educated at Glasgow High School, when he early showed that aptitude for mechanical science which was to bring him distinction and usefulness in after life. To acquire the theory of his chosen profession the young man attended the civil engineering class in Glasgow University, and there gained a reputation as a brilliant student. His grasp of mechanical principles was remarkable. The University class-room, however, is not the best school for an engineer - it is in the machine shop and drawing office he gathers practical knowledge and receives training. Young Elder was no dilettante; he wanted to know thoroughly; and therefore he entered the Napier engineering shop as an apprentice under his father. When his apprenticeship was finished Mr. John Elder sought experience in England, and returned to Glasgow some time afterwards to take charge of the Napier drawing office.

In 1852 he joined the firm of Randolph, Elliot & Co., millwrights, Tradeston, which then became Randolph, Elder & Co. This business was started in 1834 by two young mechanics, and for eighteen years prospered on its original lines. Mr. John Elder's advent, however, changed its destiny. Trained as a marine engineer, young Elder knew that a great future was before the marine engine, and he counselled his partners to enter into the then new industry. Success attended the enterprise.

About 1853, in conjunction with Mr. Charles Randolph, Mr. John Elder took out a patent for an arrangement of compound engines adapted to the driving of the screw propeller. The engines are vertical, direct-acting, and geared. The pistons of the high and our pressure cylinders move in contrary directions and drive diametrically opposite cranks with a view to the diminution of strain and friction. This was the celebrated compound engine, the latest developments of which have given to steamships the speed of railway trains. This patent was the first of a long series granted to the firm and to Mr. Elder for improvements in marine engineering. Mr. Elder also resuscitated, improved, and brought into general use James Watt's idea of enclosing the cylinder in a jacket or casing filled with hot steam. By his various appliances he effected a saving in fuel of from 30 to 40 per cent., a saving which. Professor MacQuorn Rankine says, alone rendered it practicable to carry on steam navigation on the Pacific Ocean with profit.

In 1860 the firm of Randolph, Elder and Co. added shipbuilding to marine engineering, and ultimately dropped millwright work altogether. Their first ships were built in the yard which had been previously occupied by Mr. James R. Napier and is now in the occupancy of Messrs. Mackie & Thomson.

In 1863 larger premises had to be sought, and the shipbuilding department was removed further down the river, to Fairfield, an estate of sixty acres, bought by the firm, and possessing the special advantage of the right to form a dock within its own boundaries in direct connection with the river. The engines continued to be made at the old works in Tradeston until the new shops at Fairfield, designed by Mr. Elder, were completed.

With a foresight amounting almost to genius Mr. Elder planned Fairfield yard on broad, generous lines, admitting of large expansion in every direction. Among the first productions of the new yard were four blockade-runners, ships designed to outstrip and evade the fleet with which the North American Federals blockaded the ports of the Southern States. One of these, he Falcon, made a great name for speed and clever sailing, and brought reputation to her builders. Messrs. Randolph. Elder & Co. were steadily increasing their fame in other and more legitimate ways.

In 1865 a trial was instituted under the auspices of the British Admiralty to test the merit of the compound engine, and the result amply demonstrated its superiority to the common type of marine engine.

In 1868 Mr. Charles Randolph and Mr. R. S. Cunliff retired, and the business then became simply that of "John Elder." From first to last of Mr. Elder's connection with it no fewer than 111 sets of steam engines were constructed, as well as most of the vessels for which these engines were intended, and many sailing ships. Three large floating docks were also built and sent out to Java, Saigon, and Callao.

In the year 1869 alone the Fairfield yard turned out fourteen steamers and three sailing ships. In that year Mr. John Elder died, at the age of forty-five, in the very midst of a career of daily extending usefulness and honour, having contributed to the development of marine engineering the gifts of genius, great scientific knowledge, and the vitality of an able man. Not only is Mr. John Elder's name. . . . . . . .

It was in Fairfield, however, that Mr. Pearce found full scope for his powers and energy. In 1869, as already stated, he became a partner in Messrs. John Elder & Co., and nine years later took over the whole concern on the retirement of Mr. Ure and Mr. Jamieson. Assisted by a succession of able managers, Mr. Pearce continued to develop the resources of Fairfield till his death. Three years before he had converted the premises into a private limited liability company under the style, "Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company (Limited)," with a view to freeing himself for public duties, and in 1885 was elected M.P. for the Govan Division of Lanarkshire. He was created a baronet in 1888 for services which seemed likely to be continued. But death cut short his career before that year saw its close.

Fairfield Company, however, was well organised, and six months after Sir William Pearce's death the firm was re-registered under the same name with a capital of 7.50,000. The subsequent history of Fairfield has not been unworthy of its former record. Among the many able managers of the Fairfield Shipbuilding Yard may be mentioned Dr. Kirk, Mr. John W. Shepherd, notable as the designer of the Orient and other swift liners; and Mr. Edmund Sharer. Dr. Francis Elgar, at one time Professor of Naval Architecture in Glasgow University, holds the post of naval architect to the company, and Mr. Alexander Gracie is manager of the engineering department.

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