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British Industrial History

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James Sherriffs

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James Sherriffs (1801-1863)

1865 Obituary [1]

MR. JAMES SHERRIFFS was born on the 17th of August, 1801, at Persley, near the manufacturing village of Woodside, about two miles north of Aberdeen.

As the circumstances of his parents did not enable them to bestow an expensive education on their son, he was taught from an early period of his life that he would have to earn his livelihood by the labour of his hands. When he was about fifteen years of age, he was apprenticed for six years to Mr. Carter, millwright and engineer in Aberdeen, with whom he continued to work for two years after the term of his apprenticeship had expired. During this period he was remarkable for diligence and attention, and he soon attained such skill of hand that, long before he had served his time, he excelled, in rapidity and dexterity, the best workmen in Mr. Carter’s employment.

Nor, while he thus attained excellence as a workman, did he neglect the cultivation of his mind, but by regular attendance at the classes of the Aberdeen Mechanics’ Institution, he made up for the deficiencies of his earlier education.

In the spring of 1825 he came to London, where, soon after his arrival, he obtained employment under the late Mr. Maudslay. That eminent Engineer, himself a dexterous workman, as well as a brilliant mechanic, appreciated the skill which James Sherriffs displayed, and he was employed as a special assistant in working out schemes on which Mr. Maudslay’s ingenuity was exercised.

In the employment of Messrs. Maudslay, Sons, and Field, Mr. Sherriffs passed thirty-eight years-in fact the remainder of his life. From a workman he was in 1830 promoted to be foreman of a department, and in 1845 he was entrusted with the general superintendence of the factory. After about thirty-five years passed in that service, Mr. Sherriffs’ health began to fail, but he never relaxed in his attention to the works.

He seemed indeed ever to have the interests of the firm more at heart than if they had been his own. From early morning until late at night, with rare and brief holidays, and those taken only when illness rendered them absolutely necessary, he gave undivided attention to the large and varied works carried on in the establishment which he superintended. He may be said to have died in harness, for his labours were unremitting till, in the spring of 1633, he was struck with the illness from which he never recovered. He suffered, with fortitude, great pain and extreme debility, the result probably of exhaustion produced by a life of unceasing labour and anxiety ; and, after lingering a few months, he expired on his own birthday, the 17th of August, 1863, having exactly completed his sixty-second year. It is sadly interesting to remark, that he died on the day on which his illustrious master, Mr. Joshua Field (Past President Inst. C.E.) was buried, having survived him only a week.

Mr. Sherriffs was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the year 1851, and was very regular in his attendance at the meetings. The leading feature of his character was a modest diffidence, which throughout life held him back, while others, by no means superior in talents or acquirements, took high positions in the engineering world. He was eminently quiet and unpretending, and thus a due estimation of his capabilities was confined to those who knew him intimately. He was cautious, painstaking, and assiduous almost to a fault, but these were qualities which were of the greatest value to his employers, and which they highly appreciated. In disposition he was most kind and generous, and in manner he was courteous and refined.

The men who worked under him never heard a rough word pass his lips, and yet they knew him to be strict and resolute, and they obeyed him not only without a grudge, but with reverence and love. Perhaps of all who lamented the death of James Sherriffs, none mourned more sincerely and with better reason than the foremen and workmen whose labours he had so long, so successfully, and so kindly directed.

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