Fairbairn, Peter (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

FAIRBAIRN, Sir PETER (1799–1861), engineer and inventor, youngest brother of Sir William Fairbairn [q. v.], was born at Kelso in Roxburghshire in September 1799. He had little education, and his father obtained a situation for him in 1811 in the Percy Main colliery at Newcastle-on-Tyne. For three years Peter continued at Percy Main, until, at the age of fourteen, he was apprenticed to a millwright and engineer in Newcastle, for which business he seemed to have a peculiar ‘bent.’ He walked every day from Percy Main to Newcastle, and the breakfast can which he carried is still preserved by the family. During his apprenticeship he made the acquaintance of Mr. Holdsworth of Glasgow, a mechanic, a well-known constructor of cotton machinery, under whom he was placed as foreman, ultimately being appointed traveller to the firm. In 1821 he left Mr. Holdsworth's service to take a situation on the continent. In France he remained a twelvemonth, acquiring a technical knowledge of the native industries, and after a similar period in the Manchester establishment of his brother William accepted a partnership with his former employer, Holdsworth. In 1828 he left Glasgow and began business in Leeds as a machine maker. He had no capital; but Leeds was then in the first flush of its manufacturing prosperity. Fairbairn had already devoted a great deal of attention to flax-spinning machinery, which had been developed in Leeds by Girard, a French inventor. Fairbairn suggested an improvement by which the process was simplified and a great saving effected. He proposed to use eighty spindles instead of forty, and to substitute screws for the old ‘fallers’ and ‘gills.’ John Anderson, a Glasgow workman, joined him in perfecting the machine, which was constructed under great difficulties in a small room in Lady Lane, Leeds. Mr. Marshall, a prominent local flax-spinner, promised to replace his old machines with Fairbairn's as fast as they could be turned out. Fairbairn said that he had ‘neither workshop nor money.’ Marshall thereupon encouraged him to take the Wellington foundry at the New Road End, which was then to let. Fairbairn's energy soon made him independent of Marshall's support. Further improvements were introduced. He constructed woollen as well as flax machinery. Trade was stimulated by his improvements in machinery, and he became a notable force in the centre of Yorkshire manufactures. His improvement in the roving-frame, and his adaptation of what is known as the ‘differential motion’ to it, his success in working the ‘screw gill’ motion, and his introduction of the rotary gill, were all important factors in the growth of mechanical efficiency. His inventions included machines for preparing and spinning silk waste, and improvements in machinery for making rope yarn. The art of constructing engineering tools was afterwards included in the industrial fabrications of the Wellington foundry, and the Crimean war gave an impetus to this branch of the business. He constructed large machines, utilised at Woolwich and Enfield, for the purposes of cutting, twisting, boring, and tearing iron and steel; cannon-rifling machines, milling machines, planing and slotting machines, &c. His foundry had become a gigantic concern before his death, on 4 Jan. 1861. Fairbairn was a public-spirited and highly respected citizen of Leeds. In 1836 he was elected to the town council, in which he sat until 1842, resigning in that year on account of the increasing demands of his business. In 1854 he was elected an alderman, and, after being appointed a magistrate, was mayor in 1857–8 and 1858–9. The town hall was opened by the queen and the prince consort during his mayoralty, and Fairbairn, who distinguished himself as a host, received the honour of knighthood. During his mayoralty the British Association visited Leeds. He presented to the town hall, at a cost of 1,000l., a statue of the queen by Noble. The inhabitants of Leeds subscribed for a portrait of Fairbairn by Sir Francis Grant, which hangs in the council chamber, and for a bronze statue of him by Noble. Fairbairn was twice married, his first wife, by whom he had one son and two daughters, being Margaret, daughter of Mr. Robert Kennedy of Glasgow; she died in 1843. In 1855 he married Rachel Anne, fourth daughter of Robert William Brandling, of Low Gosforth, Newcastle, and widow of Capt. Charles Bell, R.N.; she survived him.

[Life of Sir W. Fairbairn; Baines's Yorkshire, Past and Present; Parson's History of Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, 1840.]

J. B-y.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.120
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
123 ii 20f.e. Fairbairn, Sir Peter: for daughter of Mr. R. W. Brindling read daughter of Robert William Brandling of Low Gosforth, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and widow of Captain Charles Bell, R.N.