Irish Railway Record Society
Fairbairn in Ireland: Part 2 – from circa 1850
Pole, Fairbairn’s 1877 eulogistic biographer, states that Fairbairn built over
So far, of the 488 that have been identified, 72 were sent to Ireland.
Fairbairns never had a top locomotive engineer, such as John Haswell whom
Fairbairn sent to construct a locomotive works in Vienna and who settled there,
pursuing an outstanding career,
or Manchester engineer C F Beyer who, after some years at Sharp Roberts, joined
or Archibald Sturrock who worked for Fairbairn as a journeyman for a time and
became Locomotive Engineer for the Great Northern Railway.
This lack may explain the facts that Fairbairns more often than not tendered for
locomotives designed by railway company engineers and, where they did design,
they were, as Ahrons notes, ‘distinctly copyists’, taking ‘for their
models the designs of Bury, Sharp, and other makers, though the details were, of
course modified to some extent’. Yet, writing in 1920, Ahrons was able to say
that ‘from about 1845 until … 1862, when their last locomotive was built,
Messrs W Fairbairn and Sons were amongst the best-known locomotive builders in
the country … the workmanship of their millwrights, men of the old school, who
could turn their hands to any sort of engineering work, was excellent, and there
is still a number of their locomotives doing useful work on British railways’.
Fairbairn’s known work in Ireland from circa 1850 is summarised in Table 3,
A Du Val, William Fairbairn, (mid 1860s).
3, Part 2: Fairbairn’s Work in Ireland from c.1850
first order from Ireland for locomotives was for ten 2-2-2s with 14in cylinders
for the Midland Great Western Railway in 1846-7 to the specification –
probably only in outline - of the company’s Engineer, George Hemans. The order
was reduced to six, but was followed by an order for a further six from the
company’s new engineer, John Dewrance, probably singles to a design based on
his ‘Bird’ Class of 1841 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. These
were more successful, working for twenty-five years, compared with the nine
years of the earlier batch.
4: Midland Great Western Railway locomotives designed by J Dewrance
April 1850 the Whig Prime Minister, John Russell, visited the Fairbairn works.
There were 14 or 15 locomotives in different stages of construction. The Manchester
lordship’s attention was particularly drawn to some small engines of a
perfectly new construction, called ‘the tank engine’. The use of the tender
will be altogether dispensed with, the ‘tank’ being contained in the engine
itself, so as to get rid of a great amount of dead weight. These engines are
much smaller than the usual locomotive, and are intended to work light trains,
on lines on which the traffic is not great. Several were in course of
construction for some of the Irish railways, as well as for the North-Western
line. It is expected that, in working a given amount of traffic, a saving of
nearly one-half the cost of fuel will be effected. 
Fig. 5: Fairbairn Tank Locomotive as exhibited at the Great Exhibition,
believed that Fairbairn was the first designer of the ‘tank’ engine,
but this appears to be incorrect. The first Fairbairn tanks went to the
‘Little’ North Western Railway for which C B Vignoles was Engineer, and is
said to have ‘drafted the specification’.
Vignoles had previously been Engineer for the Dublin & Kingston Railway on
which it is believed there were locomotives supplied by George Forrester &
Co in 1834 which were converted into tank engines between 1837 and 1840.
Thus this may be a case of Fairbairn developing and marketing a product which
existed but was largely unknown and unexploited. If so, he did it very
successfully. A Fairbairn tank engine was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of
1851. Its technical details are below. At the end of a description of it the Illustrated
London News added, ‘Similar engines are at work on the railway from
Lancaster to Skipton, and on the Belfast & County Down, and Newry and
Three more followed for the Midland Great Western Railway.
Table 5: Technical details of the Fairbairn tank engine at the Great
1853 William Dargan purchased three second-hand locomotives from Fairbairn to
assist in the construction and early operation of the Waterford & Tramore
Railway – unusual in that there were no intermediate stations and the line was
unconnected to any other railway. These engines had come from the London &
North Western Railway as part payments.
In 1854-5 they were replaced by two new Fairbairn tanks. No.1
arrived in April 1855. The boiler was re-tubed in 1859 and a new boiler was
fitted c.1865. The engine was rebuilt in 1895 with a larger boiler and cab. A
backsheet was added c.1907.
It received a new Avonside boiler in 1924. On 23 August 1935 this engine (now
No.483) was hauling the 12.15pm from Waterford when it derailed, dragging the
coaches down an embankment. There were injuries but no fatalities, other than
the engine which was extensively damaged, and sadly scrapped. It was the last
working Fairbairn engine and probably the last ‘single’ to run on a
scheduled service – an 80-year working life!
An 1855 Fairbairn Tank Engine - Waterford and Tramore Railway, as rebuilt 1865.
of the Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway commenced in 1845 with Vignoles
as Engineer, followed by Hemans in 1850. Dargan was Contractor for much of the
work. The Malcolmson family, with whom Fairbairn had worked at Portlaw Cotton
Mill in the 1820s, was involved.
Seven 2-4-0s were sent out, as in Tables 6 and 7.
6 & 7: Fairbairn Locomotives sent to the Waterford, Limerick & Western
No.11, 1853 2-4-0 engine: Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway, in c.1895.
architectural historian, Sigfried Giedion drew attention in the 1940s to an
eight-storey ‘English refinery, c.1845’, in which ‘instead of the
brick-arch floor, thin wrought-iron plates are used; running from column to
column, they are bent in the segmental form of an arch and then filled to floor
level with concrete’.
For twenty years I searched for this ‘English refinery’ and by chance came
across the reminiscences of a young Manchester architect, Alfred Darbyshire. He
recorded having been commissioned to design a sugar refinery warehouse and his
clients required an experienced structural engineer. In August 1862 (not 1845)
young Darbyshire ‘entered the sanctum of the great man with diffidence and
the plans Fairbairn intimated that this was a building in which to introduce
wrought-iron beams throughout, in lieu of the usual cast-iron.
They were built up from angles riveted to plates. This was probably the first
major building in the British Isles with wrought-iron beams throughout – one
of the transitional steps between cast iron and the modern steel frame. Its
location: Dublin! Unfortunately it did not have
permanently-shuttered concrete floors – Fairbairn’s illustration of
them related to ‘a cotton or flax mill’,
and no example of them has been found. This fine building is still with us –
now refurbished as a craft centre.
final involvement in Ireland was the Atlantic Cable -
the great engineering achievement of the 1860s. Following the failure of the
1858 attempt, Government set up a ten-strong Commission, chaired by Douglas
Galton, which produced a comprehensive and optimistic Report.
One of its members was William Fairbairn.
The Commission, needing to know the most effective insulating material for the
cable, given the pressures involved, requested Fairbairn to investigate. Various
insulators were tested. Dry samples of each were weighed, subjected to pressure
in a cylinder of water using Fairbairn’s lever, surface-dried, and re-weighed
to determine the amount of water they had absorbed. Measurements were recorded
at up to 20,000psi – equivalent to a depth of 8.72 miles – and for up to 450
hours. Raw India-rubber was found to absorb twenty-seven times as much water as
Chatterton’s compound. The experiments were repeated at higher temperatures,
by means of the cylinder being immersed in heated water. This showed that
temperature had a marked effect on the amount of water absorbed. The best
results were obtained from Chatterton’s compound and gutta-percha.
Fairbairn then attempted a much more complex experiment, to compare the loss of
electric charge through different insulators under pressure. This was fraught
with difficulties but the results, whilst lacking conclusivity, were sufficient
to endorse a system of alternate coats of Chatterton’s compound and
Four layers of each were used in both the 1865 and the successful 1866 cables.
The Commission’s Report sets out details of Fairbairn’s experiments.
Atlantic Telegraph Company set up its own Scientific Committee comprising
Douglas Galton, William Fairbairn, Charles Wheatstone, Joseph Whitworth and
William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin).
When tenders for a new cable were invited, about sixty different samples by
Glass Elliot & Co and some by other firms, were delivered to Fairbairns’
Ancoats works where Fairbairn and Whitworth instituted tests to determine the
weight, breaking strain, and specific gravity of each cable, together with tests
on each component of the cables. Samples of each cable were subjected to
loading, with the elongation measured as each increment was added, until the
Based on these results the Committee recommended cable No.46 of Glass Elliot
However, Glass Elliot could not afford to finance the work including the
gutta-percha insulation and, driven by John Pender, merged with the Gutta Percha
Company to form the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Co Ltd
(‘Telcon’), which entered a contract with Daniel Gooch’s Great Eastern
Steamship Co to lay the 1865 cable. The Great
Eastern sailed from the Nore to Valencia, where cable-laying was to
commence. Fairbairn was on board as far as Valencia.
The attempt failed when the cable broke and could not be recovered.
The Atlantic Telegraph Company then found that its Act of Parliament would not
allow it to raise money as it intended, by way of Preference Shares. Gooch and
Pender therefore established a new company, the Anglo-American Telegraph
Company, to take over the project. A new cable was obtained, and the Great
Eastern left Greenwich on 30 June 1866 on the successful attempt - and the
1865 cable was recovered, a feat which Fairbairn considered ‘one of the most
successful triumphs of marine engineering’.
The Engineer said
in its obituary of Fairbairn: ‘his footprints may be found on every path which
the engineer can tread’.
Some of those paths were in Ireland.
W Pole, The Life of Sir William
Fairbairn, Bart., (1877), p.317.
‘Austrian Imperial Railways – Exhibition Catalogue’, (2009), pp.4-5; www.biographiea.ac.at/oebl_2/206.pdf
(accessed 6 October 2010); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Haswell
(accessed 6 October 2010).
R L Hills, and D Patrick, Beyer
Peacock: Locomotive Builders to the World, (1972).
T Vernon, Archibald Sturrock, Pioneer
Locomotive Engineer, (2007), p.17.
E L Ahrons, ‘Short Histories of Famous Firms, No.II, W Fairbairn and Sons,
Manchester’, The Engineer, 129,
Jan.-June 1920, 184.
The original is at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to whom it was
presented by Sir W A Fairbairn, Bt., in 1956.
E Shepherd, The Midland Great Western
Railway of Ireland: An Illustrated History, (1994), pp.82, 123.
Shepherd, Midland Great Western
Manchester Guardian, 6 April 1850.
The Practical Mechanic’s Journal, 4,
1851-2, Plate 89.
Pole, Life, p.317.
K H Vignoles, Charles Blacker
Vignoles, Romantic Engineer, (1982), p.147.
J W Lowe, British Steam Locomotive
Builders, (1975), p.176.
Illustrated London News
9 August 1851, 195.
Shepherd, Midland Great Western
The Practical Mechanic’s Journal
Vol.4 [1851-2] pp.271-2.
H Jack, Locomotives of the LNWR
Southern Division : London & Birmingham Railway, London & North
Western Railway and Wolverton Locomotive Works, (2001),
H Fayle and A T Newham, The Waterford
& Tramore Railway, (2nd
ed. 1972), pp.22-3.
Fayle and Newham, Waterford &
Tramore Railway, pp.44-5.
Ahrons, ‘Short Histories’, p.185.
E Shepherd, The Waterford, Limerick
& Western Railway, (2006), pp.13-4.
Shepherd, Waterford, Limerick &
Western, pp.150, 152.
C E J Fryer, The Waterford &
Limerick Railway, (2000), p.29; see also J W P Rowledge, Irish
Steam Locomotive Register, p.59.
S Giedion, Space, Time and
Architecture: the growth of a new tradition, (3rd ed. 1953),
A Darbyshire, An
Architect’s Experiences, (1897), pp.65-8; T A Lockett, Three
Lives, (1968), pp.24-45.
W Fairbairn, On the Application of
Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes, (2nd ed.1857-8),
Industrial Development Authority Ireland, Dublin inner city – renewal through enterprise, (nd but c1984),
Barry & Associates, Drawing 30 May 1983.
‘Report of the Joint Committee appointed by the Lords of the Committee of
the Privy Council for Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company to inquire
into the Construction of Submarine Telegraph Cables; together with the
Minutes of Evidence and Appendix’, Parliamentary
Papers, 1860, p.xxxvi.
G Saward, The Trans-Atlantic Submarine
Telegraph: A Brief Narrative of the Principal Incidents in the History of
the Atlantic Telegraph Company, (1878), pp.44-5. Robert Stephenson died
and James Wortley became ill, leaving eight.
W Fairbairn, Useful information for
Engineers, Third Series, (1866), pp.250-63. Chatterton’s compound was
constituted from three parts gutta-percha, one part rosin and one part
Stockholm tar. Gutta-percha is natural latex produced from the sap of a
tropical tree, palaquium gutta, native
to south-east Asia and northern Australasia.
Fairbairn, Useful Information, Third
Fairbairn, Useful Information, Third
‘Report of the Joint Committee’, pp.xx,
Saward, Trans-Atlantic Submarine
Telegraph, p.48; Fairbairn, Useful
Information, Third Series,
W Fairbairn, ‘Preliminary Investigation of the Mechanical Properties of
the proposed Atlantic Cable’, British
Association for the Advancement of Science Report 1864, (1865),
pp.408-15; Fairbairn, Useful
Information, Third Series, pp.276-289.
‘Report of the Scientific Committee appointed to consider the best form of
Cable for submersion between Europe and America’, (21 October 1863),
reproduced in Saward, Trans-Atlantic
Submarine Telegraph, pp.50-1; Fairbairn,
Useful Information, Third Series, pp.276-89; Mechanic’s Magazine, July-Dec.1864, 204.
W H Russell, The Atlantic Telegraph, (1865),
W Fairbairn, ‘On Some of the Causes of Failure of Deep Sea Cables’, British
Association for the Advancement of Science Report 1865, (1866),
pp.178-84; Fairbairn, Useful Information, Third Series, pp.317-25; Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal, 28, 1865, 298
The Observer, 1 July 1866;
Fairbairn, Useful Information, Third
The Engineer, 38, 1874,154
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