Fairbairn, William 1789 - 1874


Sir William Fairbairn was born at Kelso, Scotland, in 1789. He was the son of a farmer. His initial schooling was at the local parish school where he learnt to read and studied arithmetic. He later studied book keeping under the guidance of his uncle.

The family moved frequently to farms in North Scotland, North Yorkshire and Tyneside. In 1803, while living in Knaresborough, Fairbairn took his first job working on a bridge being built by John Rennie. He was injured in an accident. Later that year, the family moved to a farm belonging to Percy Main colliery, near Newcastle upon Tyne. Fairbairn began working at the colliery and, in 1804, he was apprenticed to John Robinson, a millwright. Fairbairn's technical ability led to him being appointed to look after the engines at Percy Main colliery. Here he became acquainted with George Stephenson. Fairbairn later worked with Stephenson's son Robert on the Britannia and Conway bridges over the Menai Strait.

In March 1811, Fairbairn finished his apprenticeship and found work as a millwright in Newcastle. In December that year, he moved to London where he met Alexander Tillotson, the founder of the Philosophical Magazine. Tillotson was building a steam shovel and employed Fairbairn in its construction. By June 1816 he had moved again to Manchester and started to work on a replacement for the Blackfriars Bridge across the River Irwell. Following a disagreement with his employer, Fairbairn left the project and entered into a partnership with James Lillie, with whom he had previously worked as a millwright. Fairbairn and Lillie's first job was to supply machinery to a cotton mill. Their success in this venture meant that the company expanded rapidly, diversifying into the erection of watermills and the construction of light iron steam ships. A heavy loss in the cotton mill project resulted in Fairbairn and Lillie dissolving the partnership in 1832. Fairbairn concentrated on building light iron ships, initially in Manchester. He moved the business to Millwall, London, in 1835, entering into a partnership with an old pupil, Andrew Murray. In 1844 he abandoned the partnership and left Millwall to return to Manchester.

The decline of the cotton industry in Manchester meant that Fairbairn's skills as a millwright were in low demand. He diversified into other areas of engineering and began working with John Hetherington on the Lancashire Boiler. Fairbairn also experimented with the properties of iron, and introduced a riveting machine into the boiler making process, to counteract the effects of a strike by his workforce.

As well as designing and manufacturing boilers, Fairbairn was interested in safety at work, particularly the prevention of accidents caused by machinery. He initiated a boiler inspection service in response to the high numbers of people being killed or injured as a result of boiler explosions. This led to the establishment of the Manchester Steam Users’ Association in 1854, the same year that Fairbairn was elected president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Fairbairn was also president of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society from 1855 to 1860. He was an authority on mechanical engineering and published many works, including a handbook for engineers in 1856, an examination of the properties of iron in 1861, and a treatise on mills between 1861 and 1863.

Having turned down a knighthood in 1861, Fairbairn became a Baronet in 1869. He lived in Ardwick from 1840 until his death in 1874.