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British Industrial History

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William Fairbairn and Sons

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1853. Winding Engine.
Arrangement of valves on steam engine. Inlet valves controlled by Fairbairn’s patented expansion gear. From 'The Engineer & Machinist's Assistant', Blackie & Sons, 1863
Arrangement of valves at top of steam engine cylinder
Crane built in 1862 by Fairbairn, at Helsingør (Denmark)

William Fairbairn & Sons of Manchester and Millwall (London), mechanical and and civil engineers

History and Products

1832 Formerly Fairbairn and Lillie; the name was changed when the partnership with Lillie was dissolved; Lillie set up his own business as a millwright. One cause of friction appears to be that William Fairbairn wanted to expand the shipbuilding side of the business, which initially involved building iron boats at the works in Manchester.

1835 Fairbairn established works at Millwall, east London, in partnership with an old pupil, Andrew Murray.

1837 David Napier established a new establishment for ship building adjacent to Fairbairn's yard.

c. 1839 Fairbairn invented a machine for riveting boiler plates by steam-power.

1839 The company's attention broadened to railway locomotives and they produced four 0-4-0s for the Manchester and Leeds Railway. Their first designs were of the four-wheeled "Bury" type. Generally they built to the design of the customer or similar to those being produced by Edward Bury and Co and Sharp, Roberts and Co.

Early 1840s: Built a stationary steam engine at Dalkey for the Kingstown & Dalkey Atmospheric Railway. This had a huge flywheel, 36 ft dia, and developed 110 HP at 24 rpm with a steam pressure of 40 psi. Steam cylinder 34.1" dia, 66" stroke. Air pump cylinder 66.5" dia, 66" stroke. Steam supplied by three Cornish boilers. [1]

In the 1840s, Robert Stephenson retained Fairbairn and Hodgkinson as consultants on the Menai Straits bridge. Fairbairn conceived the idea of a rectangular tube and conducted tests on prototypes in his Millwall shipyard and at the site of the bridge.

1838-42 See 1839-1842 Marine Engine Makers for details of engines made for the Admiralty

1843 Details of an Iron Woollen Factory manufactured for the Sublime Porte in Turkey

1843 Co-partnership between William Fairbairn, John Hetherington, Andrew Murray, and Thomas Fairbairn of Millwall, Poplar, Millwrights, Engineers and Iron Ship Builders, trading under the firm of William Fairbairn and Co., dissolved by mutual consent, so far as concerns John Hetherington and Andrew Murray. 31 October 1843 [2]

1844 The company left Millwall, where two thousand men had been employed.

Undertook many engineering schemes, experimented on the properties of iron, and, to meet a strike of his workmen, introduced the riveting machine, which was a great advance in the manufacture of boilers.

In all, Fairbairns produced over sixty-nine locomotives for the M&LR, their main customer, but they also built for the Little North Western Railway and for lines in Ireland. Their production was mainly lightweight 0-4-0, then 2-2-2, 2-4-0 and 0-4-2 engines typical of the day.

1846 They built the marine engine for the 'SS Odin' of 1,326 tons and with 560 NHP. Cylinders 88" diameter, 5ft 9" stroke.

1847 Improved riveting machine: Direct action engines of HM Frigate Dragon of 560 hp collectively (William Fairbairn and Sons of London): Breast water mill erected at Cleator near Whitehaven: Improved corn mill: Old Union Corn Mill, Birmingham

1847 John Scott Russell and partners took over the old Fairbairn shipyard at Millwall as Robinson and Russell

c1850 Description of their works. See William Fairbairn and Sons: 1850 Description

1850 William Fairbairn patented a crane with a curved jib made of riveted plates. [3]. A number of examples have survived (see photograph of a crane at Bristol Harbour).

Soon after, six large cranes were made for Keyham Dockyard. A description of them was given by Mr. Fairbairn to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and was published in their Proceedings for 1857. Each crane was calculated to lift 12 tons to a height of 30 feet from the ground, and to sweep a circle 65 feet in diameter. A few years later an even larger one was ordered for the same place to lift 60 tons 60 feet high, with a circle of 106 feet diameter.

1851 Award at the 1851 Great Exhibition. See details at 1851 Great Exhibition: Reports of the Juries: Class VI.

1852 Patent riveting machine

1853 Direct acting engines

1853 Completion of Titus Salt's Saltaire Mill (Salt's Mill). Fairbairn was responsible for the structural ironwork and mechanical aspects, including two steam engines with cylinders 50" dia and 7 ft stroke. The engines had expansion gear like that illustrated above. However, the valves were difficult to manufacture and to maintain in good order, and the cylinders were replaced after about 10 years with the adoption of Corliss valve gear [4]

c.1853 Supplied a steam winding engine to a deep (700 yds) coal mine in Dukinfield. The engine was the vertical 'grasshopper' type with the flywheel/winding drum above the cylinder. Cylinder 60" dia, 8 ft stroke. 400 - 450 HP with steam at 30 psi [5]

1853 Listed as Steam engine manufacturers, iron steam boat builders, millwrights, boiler makers, and iron and brass founders of Canal Street, Mill Street and Great Ancoats street. There is a description of their works in the 1853 Directory of Manchester and Salford

1855 Steam engine & shafting shown at Paris Universal Exhibition, 1855 [6]

They built some larger engines to the design of J. E. McConnell for the Southern Division of the London and North Western Railway.

1858/9 Supplied box girders for the Melbourne Mt. Alexander & Murray River Railway Company, to take the Melbourne-Williamstown line across the Salt Water River (now the Maribyrnong River). Replaced in 1911.[7]

In 1859 William Fairbairn, Junior, retired, leaving Thomas Fairbairn the sole proprietor, after which the works were carried on under the title of Fairbairn and Company.

1861 The Midland Railway and the West Midland Railway bought a number of 0-6-0 and in 1861, the Furness Railway bought two 0-4-0s.

In 1862 they built some 2-2-2 locomotives to the design of the Great Eastern Railway. These were their last locomotives.

1863 The locomotive building part of the business was sold to Sharp, Stewart and Co. They had built more than 400 locomotives by this date.

About 1864 they became the Fairbairn Engineering Company

1864 Fairbairn's received an order from the USA for a large railway bridge to cross the Connecticut at Warehouse Point, between Hartford and Springfield. Length 1525 ft, 17 spans, weight of ironwork, including tracks, approx 800 tons. At the time, local US firms were pre-occupied with Civil War-related work. The order was placed with Fairbairn's in or about January, with delivery anticipated in December 1864. However, the timescale necessitated having part of the work done at the London Engineering and Iron Ship Building Co. 'In about a year the bridge was shipped from Liverpool and London, and in June 1865, work upon its erection was begun' [8]

1866 'A few years ago the works of Messrs. Fairbairn and Sons was carried out at four separate places, at some small distance from each other, in the Ancoats district of Manchester. Since the formation of the limited company this has been altered, and all the operations are now concentrated in the engine side and the former boiler yard. To this last portion has been removed the present very large foundry. A large fresh plot of ground has here been purchased, affording an extensive area, now being covered by new workshops. Very considerable contracts for bridge work, principally for Indian lines, are now being executed by the company'

1920 A history of the early years of the firm was published in The Engineer. Read it HERE.

A History of The Firm

From 'Short Histories of Famous Firms' by Ernest Leopold Ahrons The Engineer - 1920/02/20.

W. Fairbairn and Sons, Manchester

During the period from about 1845 until the end of the year 1862, when their last locomotive was built, Messrs. W. Fairbairn and Sons were among the best-known locomotive builders in this country. Their first engines for an English railway company, the Manchester and Bolton, were put to work in April 1839 and by the time the works were closed they had constructed rather more than 400 locomotives. Messrs Fairbain did not, however confine themselves to locomotive building; in addition they did a considerable business in bridge building, and general engineering and millwrights’ work formed one of the main portions of their trade. It is just possible that the firm had too many irons in the dire, and that that was party the cause of its premature disappearance.

Read More Here

A Recent Biography

An excellent account of Fairbairn's life and work, and of the company's activities and products, has been written by Richard Byrom, and was published in October 2017[9]

Fairbairn's Manchester Factories

  • Prior to the consolidation mentioned above (1866) there were four factories. These are outlined below. Little is known about the interior arrangement of these shops, but some information will be presented below.
  • Shooter’s Brook Iron Works No. 1: This was the largest site, and was originally bounded by Canal Street (later renamed Cannel Street), Wharf Street, Pott Street and Brook Street (renamed Basford Street). Goad's Insurance Plans Map 220, dated 1928, shows the former site of the Shooter’s Brook Iron Works No. 1 to be occupied mainly by Parker’s (Ancoats Ltd) and to a smaller extent by Simpoles Ltd 'Chapter Cabinet Works'. Comparison with the 1849 O.S. map suggests that at least some of the 1928 site's buildings were as used by Fairbairn in 1849. This is supported by the Manchester City Council archive photographs referred to later. One thing that the Goad Plans and the photographs reveal, and which is not apparent from old maps, is the use of large multi-storey mill-type buildings by the major early engineering companies. These sources also show the use of a similar type of building by Joseph Whitworth and Co in the same era. Note: One surprising observation on the 1851 Adshead Manchester map is the presence on this site of a small building identified as 'Wm Fairbairn & Sons Cotton Mill'. William Green's 1787/1793 map shows an Iron Works on the banks of Shooter's Brook. This became the location of Fairbairn's Shooter’s Brook Iron Works No. 1, but by the time of the 1849 OS map the brook had been culverted.
  • On the opposite (south) side of Canal Street was Fairbairn's Canal Street Works. This was a small site, approx 60 ft by 80 ft, with a small central courtyard. Goad's Map No. 221 dated 1928, updated 1939, shows the 2 and 4 storey buildings occupied by three businesses, producing shirts and raincoats and carrying out gold blocking and embossing.
  • Mill Street Works: This was the second largest site and, surprisingly, the only one with direct canal access. Adshead's 1851 Maps of Manchester (Map 15) shows the site to be approx 180 ft by 200 ft, about half of the area being covered by buildings. The site was bounded by Mill Street, White Street, a branch of the Ashton Canal, and a stone yard.
  • Shooter's Brook Iron Works No. 2: The 1849 O.S. map and Adshead's 1851 map (Map 9) show this to be a small site with restricted access for transporting large items. Access was from Great Ancoats Street via Back Mather Street. Adshead's map identifies Fairbairn's Foundry, adjoining Hetherington's Vulcan Iron Works. It is not entirely clear from either map how far south Fairbairn's premises extended, but they were approx 150 ft long and either 22 ft or 55 ft wide. The premises were hemmed in on three sides by houses and other small buildings. One short row of houses is named 'Fairbairn's Buildings', but later sources changed the name to Fairburn's Buildings. The name of the iron works reflects the fact that Shooter's Brook snaked through the site. It appears as a stretch of open brook on Bancks's 1831 map, but is absent from the 1849 OS map following the culverting of Shooter's Brook. The orientation of Back Mather Street was probably the only feature left to reflect the topography of the land carved by the small stream. Goad's Insurance Plans show that in 1928 the site of Shooter's Brook Iron Works No. 2, the Vulcan Iron Works, and some houses, was occupied by the iron and steel warehouse of C. C. Dunkerley and Co.
  • Note: There was also an office (Fairbairn & Co) in the commercial centre of Manchester, at 16 Booth Street (off Mosley Street) [10]
  • Despite the fact that the company built several hundred locomotives, there was no direct rail access to the factories. The 1849 O.S. map shows a short length of track running from one of the shops to the entrance gate, stopping approx 50 ft from Canal Street. Presumably the locomotives were then drawn by horses to a suitable railhead, hoping that the wheel flanges and the cobbled streets survived reasonably intact.
  • An 1853 engraving gives an impression of the interior of one of the shops [11]. If we take it as reasonably representative, it does give an insight into the arrangement of that particular department. The roof appears to be of the arched wrought iron type (Fairbairn made a glazed arched iron roof for the Chorlton Street works of Joseph Whitworth and Co.). However unlike Whitworth’s shop, there appear to be no overhead cranes. Instead a fixed curved-jib crane of Fairbairn’s design can be seen, along with a light duty wall crane evidently serving machines used for punching holes in iron plates. There are some large steam engine components in the foreground, namely cylinders, a beam, and a crank, and there are boilers under construction in the background.
  • In a discussion about foundry cranes in 1872, it was stated that at Fairbairn's the traveller (overhead crane) 'is worked by a boiler, a boiler and engine being up above, but the noise and smoke make it a positive nuisance'. [12]
  • Some of the Cannel (Canal) Street buildings were still in use in the 1960s. Unfortunately, despite the importance of the company's contribution to engineering, no evidence of the factories has been preserved. 1960s photographs can be viewed on the Manchester City Council Images Collection[13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19]

Liquidation of Canal Street Works in 1875

1875 Advertisement: 'Manchester.—The Fairbairn Engineering Company, in liquidation. Messrs. Fuller, Horsey, and Co., are instructed by the Liquidators to sell by auction, on Tuesday. October 19, and following day, at twelve precisely each day at the Works, Canal-street, Great Ancoats Street. Manchester, in lots, the first portion of the costly TOOLS, PLANT, MACHINERY, and STORES of the Fairbairn Engineering Company Limited, including five Whitorth's self acting radial drilling machines, one ditto by Roberts and Fothergill radial drilling machines, two Whitworth’s self-acting multiple drilling machines, one ditto by Craven, one very powerful eccentric punching and shearing machine by P. Fairbairn, Leeds, two ditto by De Bergue, fly-lever and eccentric punching and shearing machines, one De Bergue's patent riveting machine. one Fairbairn's riveting machine, two Craven's plate planing machines, Shank's very powerful eccentric cutting machine, a set of 10 feet plate straightening rolls, two sets of plate bending rolls, one Bennies' patent bar straightened, one Peel's hydraulic angle iron press, one new patent Tweddell's portable hydraulic riveting machine, by Fielding and Platt Gloucester, one bar straightening machine, four self-acting planing machines, by Collier: one very powerful self-acting wall boring and drilling machine, one large surfacing lathe, seventeen self-acting slide lathes, various, four Buckton's horizontal boring and drilling machines, five vertical drilling machines by W. Muir. Smith and Coventry, and others ; five self-acting wall drilling machines, three screwing machines, Smith and Coventry and others; one very powerful slotting machine by Hetherington; two smaller slotting machines, three shaping machines, a 5 cwt. steam hammer, one hydraulic locomotive wheel press, one testing machine (Fairbairn's), 2000 feet turned wrought iron shafting with hangers and pulleys: two Fairbairn’s pillar high-pressure steam engines with and inch cylinders; two Fairbairn's high-pressure steam with 12 and 13 inch cylinders, one double-flue Cornish steam boiler, two single flue ditto, one Fairbairn's patent five-tube steam boiler of 30 horse power, pair of hydraulic pumps, two 10 ton Wellington travelling cranes 40 feet span, one smaller ditto, two 6-ton travelling cranes by Ellis of Manchester, 38 feet span, wish timber gantry 170 feet long, two 20-ton overhead travelling cranes, 18 feet span, four iron post cranes, ten smiths' cranes, ten smiths' anvils, several tons smiths' and engineers’ tools, vices, sets of steel gauges, surface plates, grindstones, double and single purchase crabs, powerful blocks, chain slings, portable forges, 50 tons shaping slabs, 25 tons rod bar iron, and numerous other effects. To be viewed on Saturday and Monday previous to the sale by catalogues only, without which no person will admitted. Catalogues, 6d. each may be had ten days prior the sale, of Messrs. Fuller, Horsey, Son, and Co., 11, Billiter-square, London, EC.’ [20]

An 1856 Account

An article about Fairbairn's Canal Street works appeared in The Engineer, 13th June 1856. The writer explained, in diplomatic terms, that Fairbairn’s works did not represent the epitome of modernity or efficiency. It was emphasised that their business was heavy engineering, not tool making. There were some modern machines from neighbours John Hetherington and William Collier, but much machinery was evidently past its first flush of youth, even in 1856. 'Somewhat venerable' was the description used.

The writer noted that Fairbairn was experimenting with something called Nova Scotia Iron for mortars. A 13-inch mortar barrel was being machined 'with an extemporised boring apparatus of a very simple and primitive character'. The material was presumably a form of cast iron, 'Judging from the stiffness and tenacity of the borings, the Nova Scotia iron promises to be something very superior; but for the darkness of the colour, one might easily mistake them for malleable iron'.

At the time of the visit, twelve locomotives were under construction for Sweden, two for Canada, and several for Australia. The article also included details of a recently-built locomotive for local use. In an effort to provide some compliance to accommodate track curvature and unevenness, they had incorporated vulcanised rubber pads in the hornblocks to allow some lateral axle box movement, and also in for the bearings in the connecting and coupling rods. Also going through the shops were: a 100 ft span bridge for the Valencia Railway (Spain), a floating landing stage for Liverpool, iron piles for Guernsey harbour, large foundry moulding boxes made from boiler plate for Woolwich Arsenal, and 40 HP stationary steam engines for Russia and Spain.

The article mentions that the fitting shop had no fixed cranes, but instead was served by overhead cranes which travelled the length of the shop. However, the two cranes each served only half the width: the rail for the outboard end of each crane was fixed to the wall, while the rails for the inboard ends were on a beam running down the centre of the shop. Thus it was difficult to pass a load from one side of the shop to the other. The article said that this was not a serious inconvenience, as the work (at that time) principally involved locomotives, which were assembled on rails laid in the shop.

Some Apprentices, Pupils and Employees

The Fairbairn Steam Crane at Bristol

Built in 1878 by Stothert and Pitt to the William Fairbairn patent.

The oldest surviving exhibit of its type in Britain and a scheduled ancient monument.

The crane's strength lay in its jib, which was made of wrought-iron plates riveted together to make an immensely strong tubular-section girder. It could lift up to 35 tons (35.56 tonnes) and was meant to supplement the lifting ability of the Docks' other 17 cranes.

The crane has now been restored to full working order and is the responsibility of Bristol's 'M Shed'. [22]

Other Fairbairn-type Cranes

Examples of cranes built to Fairbairn's patent may be found in the section Fairbairn Crane.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 'Atmospheric Railways: A Victorian Venture in Silent Speed' by Charles Hadfield, David & Charles, 1967
  2. [1] The London Gazette, p.3669
  3. 'The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart' Partly written by himself, edited and completed by William Pole
  4. 'Development of Power in the Textile Industry' by Rev Dr Richard L Hills, Landmark Publishing, 2008
  5. 'History of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers' by R H Parsons, IMechE 1947
  6. [2] Photograph on Victoria & Albert Collections website
  7. [3] 'On my Doorstep' website
  8. [4] Burt’s Illustrated Guide of the Connecticut Valley by Henry M Burt, 1868, page 60
  9. 'William Fairbairn: the experimental engineer' by Richard Byrom, Railway & Canal Historical Society, 2017
  10. Slater's Directory of Manchester and Salford, 1863
  11. [5] 'Mechanical Engineering, Fairbairns, Boiler Shop, copy from G. N. R. Guide, Manchester', Ref m61066
  12. 'Some Episodes in The Manchester Association of Engineers' compiled by A C Dean, 1938
  13. [6] Manchester City Council Images Collection 'Search' page
  14. [7] Photograph: 'Ancoats, Pott Street, 1962' Ref m10436 (looking north east)
  15. [8] Photograph: 'Mechanical Engineering, Fairbairns No. 1 factory, entrance, Ancoats, Manchester, 1964': Ref m61063
  16. [9] Photograph: 'Mechanical Engineering, Fairbairns No 1 factory, Canal Street, Ancoats, Manchester' (looking north): 1964, Ref 61064
  17. [10] Photograph: 'Ancoats, Cannel Street' 1962: Ref m11110. This was formerly the small 'Canal Street Works'. See also the following photograph
  18. [11] Photograph: 'Ancoats, Cannel Street, Auto Electrical Services and Ancoats Motor Co., south side' 1966: Ref m11132
  19. [12] Photo of 1853 engraving: 'Mechanical Engineering, Fairbairns, Canal Street Works, copy from G. N. R. Guide, Manchester': Ref M61065. Looking north west from the Canal Street side. Office at left foreground. The timber yard was not connected with Fairbairn.
  20. Liverpool Mercury - Friday 01 October 1875
  21. [http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/images/b/bf/Eg18661214.pdf 'Engineering' 12 Dec 1866, p.464, letter from Birckel
  22. http://mshed.org/visiting/on-the-dockside/the-fairbairn-steam-crane/