Born 3rd March 1789, in a house at the corner of Roxburgh
Street and Chalkheugh Terrace, Kelso commemorated by a
William Fairbairn attended a private school run by Mr Ker, before attending the English school under Mr. White. His grandfather was a gardener to the Baillies of Mellerstain. His father Andrew Fairbairn, a farmer served in the Navy during the American War of Independence. Margaret Fairbairn, his mother was the daughter of a Jedburgh tradesman and she clothed the family by her efforts at the spinning wheel, making and dyeing cloth, blankets and shirting.
William began at an early age to demonstrate his construction skills by building boats and little mills. From an uncle living in Galashiels, William learned book-keeping and land surveying. He obtained work on the construction of Kelso Bridge. However he suffered an injury when a huge stone rolled onto his leg.
The family moved to North Shields, where his father obtained employment as a land steward. William became apprenticed to a millwright at Newcastle. However he read avidly and continued his mathematical and other studies, by educating himself from libraries. Because of this technical ingenuity he was appointed to look after engines at the Percy Main colliery, where he became acquainted with George Stephenson.
Moving to London in 1811 he secured an introduction to the Society of Arts and to Alexander Tilloch who was the founder of the Philosophical Magazine. Tilloch employed him in the construction of a steam engine to be used for digging. In 1817 he set up in partnership with James Lillie to provide machinery for cotton mills. They also made water wheels for the Catrine Cotton Works in Ayrshire and built a light iron steamship to work on the Forth and Clyde Canal. In 1824, Fairbairn went to Zurich to erect 2 watermills, surmounting the problem of irregular water supply by constructing wheels which worked regularly whatever the river height.
When the recession hit the cotton industry Fairbairn moved in to the locomotive boiler manufacture, where he greatly improved steam boilers and often was called as an expert witness if deaths had occurred due to a boiler explosion. He invented the riveting machine which enabled factories to speed up their operations. His diversification after the cotton recession also led him to shipbuilding.
He constructed over 80 vessels for the Peninsular and Oriental Company and others for the British Government introducing iron shipbuilding to the River Thames. This experience led him to conceive the idea of a rectangular tube or box girder to bridge the large gap between Anglesey and North Wales.
Fairbairn was elected President of the Institution of Mechanical engineers in 1854. He often spoke at the British Association and served as a juror in the London exhibitions of 1851 and 1852, receiving the Gold Medal of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge (known as Royal Society) in 1860. He also served as a juror at the Paris exhibition in 1855. He was made a member of the Légion d’honneur in 1855 and also became a foreign member of the Institut de France.
Fairbairn declined a knighthood in 1861; however he accepted a baronetcy in 1869. When he died in 1874, 50,000 people attended his funeral. He is buried at Prestwick, Northumberland.
Find out about the contribution people from Kelso have made through the ages. Biographies of characters with Kelso connections who have made their mark throughout the world.View Storyboard: Sir William Fairbairn