The Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited

The Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Limited, Fairfield Yards and Works, Govan

         Approaching Glasgow from the sea the first indications of the great industry for which the Clyde is famed throughout the world present themselves at Greenock. The shipbuilding yards at the east end of this town at once attract the attention of anyone voyaging up the river by the lofty posts and stagings so characteristic of the industry, and so notable in its great centres. And in addition to this the continuous and peculiar rattle of the hammers proclaims unmistakably the nature of the work being vigorously carried on on all sides. After passing Greenock, Port Glasgow is speedily approached, and manifests even a more striking evidence of activity in the prevailing industry, together with a still louder clang of the ever-ringing hammers. Soon, too, Dumbarton is passed, but the yards here being on the River Leven, a little inland from the Clyde, the largest of them are not within view from the latter river. Still, a quick ear can readily catch the distinctive sounds of the shipbuilding craft, and in this way the traveller is reassured that no appreciable gap exists in the long array of yards lining the banks of the great waterway of Western Scotland. And then in quick succession appear and drop astern the yards of Bowling, Dalmuir, Whiteinch, Renfrew and Linthouse ; and it is safe to say that for twenty miles before reaching Glasgow the "sound of the shipwright’s hammer is almost continuously to be heard, for no sooner does the din of one yard grow faint and fainter behind, than the murmuring hum of another becomes increasingly audible ahead. The climax, however, both in noise and manifest activity, is reached when Govan and Partick are approached, for on both sides of the Clyde at this point are yards of large extent, and between these in the busy seasons the incessant clangour and clatter are simply tremendous.

       It is here, on the south bank of the river, that the immense shipbuilding yards and engineering works of the renowned firm of Messrs. John Elder & Co., now styled the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited, are to be found. This universally famous organisation, the largest shipbuilding concern in all the great Clyde district, and indeed in the whole world, dates its remarkable career from the year 1834, when the business was founded by Charles Randolph and R. S. Cunliff, under the title of Randolph & Co. It is recorded that the first year's operations of this firm indicated work done to the value of about £2,650, the outlay for the same period in wages paid being £1,000 in round numbers. This affords a basis for a most striking parallel between past and present, or rather for a comparison of the one with the other, and draws attention to the fact that the outlay of the industry of this house, in its now existing form, has amounted, for wages alone, in one year to as much as £375,000. Indeed, in the "palmiest" days of their mighty yards, when Sir William Pearce, Bart., was sole proprietor, Messrs. Elder’s wages payments have risen to the vast figure of £23,000 in a single fortnight. In 1837 Mr. John Elliot joined the founders, and the firm became known as Randolph, Elliot & Co. In 1841 Mr. Elliot retired, and the business continued for a time in the hands of the original partners.

           In 1852 an event took place which marked an epoch of the greatest moment in the history of this eminent concern. That event was the accession of Mr. John Elder to the co-partnership, resulting in the name of the firm being changed to Randolph, Elder & Co. Sixteen years later this co-partnery expired ; Messrs. Randolph & Cunliff retired, and Mr. Elder remained sole principal of the house till his death a few months afterwards, in September, 1869.  Mr. John Elder was a native of Glasgow, where he was born in March 1824, and in the city of his birth he received, under his father’s supervision, the education and training which so well fitted him for his subsequent career as a shipbuilder and engineer. His fame and celebrity in these two branches of industry have hardly had a parallel in modem times ; and by his early death in 1869 the combined sciences he exemplified and developed in such a masterly manner, suffered a loss which, if not actually irreparable (for it would be idle to describe even the greatest of men as absolutely indispensable), was in the highest degree acute. After Mr. Elder’s decease a new co-partnery was formed, embracing Messrs. John P. Ure, John K. L. Jamieson, and William Pearce, under the style of John Elder & Co., and by these gentlemen the process of development in the business which had been inaugurated and vigorously pushed forward by Mr. Elder, was continued and carried to a magnificent issue. In 1878 Mr. Ure and Mr. Jamieson retired from the firm, leaving Mr. (now Sir William) Pearce the sole proprietor.

          Sir William Pearce was born in 1835 at Brompton, Kent, and has during the whole of his life assiduously devoted himself to the engineering profession and shipbuilding industry. In the latter he has had a thoroughly sound practical training, and has filled many eminently important managerial and surveying posts in connection therewith. From all this he has acquired a large and valuable fund of experience and practical resource, and these he has brought to bear in a spirit of admirable energy and enterprise upon the conduct of the great business of which he is now the president. In January, 1885, Mr. Richard Barnwell was taken in as a junior partner, and twelve months later the concern was constituted, for business purposes, a limited liability company, under the designation of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited.

          The Fairfield works and yards are unique in their extent and magnitude of operation, and possess the advantage of having been planned and laid out in these later times with all the skill and judgment gained) in the long experience of former years. On entering the main gateway the immensity of the place, its buildings, its wondrous activity, its manifestly splendid facilities, and its obvious perfection in detail and generality, combine to produce a striking impression upon the visitor, and stamp the whole establishment at once as a veritable leviathan among all others of its kind. At the gateway is a large lodge, and here all who enter the premises must inscribe in the record provided for that purpose their names and the object of their visit. On the right, after passing the lodge, is the drawing office of the engine department. Passing on and keeping to the right, the general offices of the Company are reached, situate in a two-storey building, and comprising the private rooms of the principals, the main counting-house, and all incidental departments associated therewith. Here also is situate the drawing office of the shipbuilding department, measuring two hundred by fifty feet, and beautifully fitted up and arranged, having models of all the principal vessels built by the firm placed round and round on every side. In beauty of form and finish, and in minute accuracy of detail, these models are quite works of art, and are produced in a special model-makers’ shop attached to the drawing office. Beyond the offices is the vast machine shed, covering an area of one thousand by one hundred and fifty feet ; and here also is the moulding loft, three hundred by fifty feet, and the brass foundry, of similar dimensions.

          On the farther side of these buildings are the stocks, upon which there are, at the present time of writing, six or seven large steamers in process of building, two of them being belted cruisers for the British Government. There is also being completed a very large steam yacht for the private use of Sir William Pearce, and it is purposed that this shall be one of the most superb and stately crafts of its kind ever floated, every improvement that ingenuity can devise or industrial skill can accomplish being lavished on her construction. The yacht, when finished, will be a model in form, a marvel in speed, and a perfect desideratum in matters of comfort and elegance. Here, where the ships are built, the works have a frontage to the river of fully one thousand two hundred feet. During the building process the bows of the larger ships are almost in contact with the machine shed above referred to, where most of the heavy steel work is done, while their sterns are quite close to the river bank. At the west end of the stocks is a large and roomy tidal dock, wherein vessels are floated after being launched from the stocks ; and here they are fitted with their engines, and with all the thousand and one accessories that go to complete the equipment of a first-class ocean steamship of to-day. In the centre of the ground occupied by the yards and works stand three buildings. of especial magnitude. The middle one is the smithy, and to the east and west of it are the pattern and joiners' shops, and the engineering and boiler-making shops respectively. The latter department is one of the best and most complete in the world. It is three hundred feet long, three hundred feet wide, and fifty-nine feet high, and is substantially built of brick. The interior is simply marvellous in the wealth of its mechanical facilities, and is quite beyond description within the limits of this sketch. If the works in their collective entirety have been planned with skill, only a genius could have properly arranged the wondrous array of powerful and precise machines that here perform daily prodigies of industrial labour that would astound and silence many a preacher against the so-called "monopoly of machinery". Bending rolls, planing apparatus, drilling machines, huge punching machines, squeezers, shearers, and counter-sinkers, all of mighty power and giant size, work here with smoothness and perfect harmony, and perform their various operations with an accuracy and infallible precision that prove the perfection of their active principles and automatic efficacy. The whole plant is driven by two powerful steam engines. The smithy is three hundred feet by one hundred feet and has a hundred fires and a splendid equipment of steam-hammers of all sizes. The pattern-shop is the same size as the smithy, and has all the usual plant of the newest, quickest-working, and most effective description. The works and yards altogether cover an area of about seventy acres, an extent of ground not easily realisable from mere mention on paper, but perhaps better illustrated by the statement of the fact that it represents an expanse of more than half the dimensions of Glasgow Green. At present the Fairfield Company employ about three thousand hands, but in their busiest days, before the recent depression in the shipbuilding trade, they have afforded steady work for long periods to as many as seven thousand hands at a time.

         It was the late Mr. John Elder who claimed to be the originator of the double-expansion engine, which has paved the way for the modem triple-expansion engine, now very largely manufactured by the present company, and admitted to be the perfection of the marine engine. Sir William Pearce has followed boldly and enterprisingly the path of progress traced out by his distinguished predecessor, and has pursued that course to the attainment, for himself and for his house, of a name and fame that are to-day a matter for national pride and a subject of universal renown. Since 1852 the entirety of the firm's output in tonnage and monetary value has been enormous, and this has been especially true of the period during which Sir William Pearce has been connected with the business. In seventeen years of that period the gross tonnage turned out from the Fairfield yards has been considerably in excess of 400,000 tons, representing an indicated horse-power of commensurate magnitude ; and of those seventeen years the greatest in point of achievement was 1883, when the out-turn was 40,115 tons gross, with a horse-power (indicated) of 56,995.

        The great success of the firm under Sir William’s auspices is simply the logical outcome of his spirited policy of administration, whereby every available improvement in process and operation has been engrafted upon the industry he controls. It is a "far cry" truly from the Comet of Henry Bell, the first steamer whose paddle-wheels churned the waters of the Clyde, to the lordly and magnificent Etruria, the last addition to the splendid Cunard fleet. It is recorded that the working capacity of the Comet represented the employment of the stupendous aggregate of three horse-power! and her size and tonnage were doubtless proportionate. Still she was a glorious archetype—an experiment full of the promise that has since become a fulfilment, and her trial trip in 1812 marked the dawn of a mighty revolution in the methods of the world’s navigation. The Etruria's tonnage, horse-power, and speed per hour are respectively 7,718 tons, 15,504 horse-power, and 20-18 knots, and she represents the latest, and as yet unchallenged, triumph of the Fairfield yards. Her latest passage across the Atlantic in six days one hour and forty-seven minutes, corrected time, has exceeded in speed all her competitors.

          The contrast subsisting between the vessel of 1812 and the steamship of three-quarters of a century later indicates sufficiently the wondrous advancement of the intervening period. The epochs of change and development have been from paddle to propeller, from wood to iron, and latterly from iron to steel. It is more especially to vessels of the type of the modem “Atlantic greyhounds” that Sir William Pearce has devoted his time, thought, and energies, and by them he has established and will maintain his world-wide repute as a shipbuilder and an engineer.

         The firm of the Fairfield Shipping and Engineering Company Limited, are almost continually building for the British Government, and have built for the Cunard Steamship Company, the British and African Company, National Line, North German Lloyd, Sir Donald Currie’s Castle line, and have also constructed steamships of the highest power and capacity for the New Zealand Shipping Company, the Orient Steamship Company, and other notable concerns. At Fairfield the Stirling Castle was built, which vessel may be said to have made a complete revolution in the tea races from China. Here also was produced the Arizona and Alaska of the Guion Line, the former being the first fast steamer in the Atlantic trade, and the first vessel fitted with a built crank-shaft. The speedy paddle steamers of the Zeeland Shipping Company running between Flushing and Queenboro; the now famous Victoria and Empress, of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway Company between Dover and Calais ; the fleet of the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway Company between Newhaven and Dieppe; and the Queen Victoria and Prince of Wales, of the Isle of Man, Liverpool and Manchester Steamship Company—the fastest paddle boats in the world, compassing the passage from Liverpool to Douglas, a distance of seventy-four knots, in three and a half hours—are all the product of the eminent firm to whom this sketch refers. Vessels from the Fairfield yards are to-day ploughing the ocean wave in every quarter of the globe.

       Sir William Pearce is chairman of the Liverpool and Great Western Steamship Company, and being member of Parliament for the thriving burgh of Govan, he is necessarily much in London. In his absence, however, he is ably represented by his capable colleague, Mr. Richard Barnwell, who has the chief management of the various departments at the works and yards, and who is well and favourably known in Govan and all over Glasgow. Sir William, too, is persona gratissima in the neighbourhood, and during the “ hard times” that have recently prevailed has done much to alleviate the distressed condition of the industrious populace of his district. Everybody in Govan has a good word to say for the distinguished head of a house so closely associated with the industrial interests of the burgh, and in all the vicinity there is no one held in deeper or more worthy respect. Nor have his good works been confined to Govan, as witness the following. When the old college in High Street, dating from the time of Charles II., was being demolished for the extension of the College Railway Station, Sir William Pearce, in order to preserve a memento of this old-time and interesting seat of learning, had, at his own expense, all the stones of the central part of the ancient pile numbered and removed to the new college grounds on Gilmorehill. There they were re-erected at one of the entrances in the form of a lodge, and no more artistic piece of structural work of its kind exists in Glasgow today. It admirably exemplifies the quaint and massive style of the time in which the old college was built, and forms a most effective contrast to the more modern style of structure as designed by Sir Gilbert Scott for the New University.

        We cannot close this brief notice of a world-renowned industry without a word of mention of the fine park given in perpetuity to the inhabitants of Govan by Mrs. John Elder, widow of the great shipbuilder. The park is admirably situated on the opposite side of the Govan Road from the Fairfield Works. It is very nicely laid out in all its parts, is spacious and excellently suited to purposes of popular resort, and fittingly bears the name and will perpetuate the memory of one who, amid all the responsibilities of active business life, never forgot the grand canon of humanity, that the happiness and contentment of the people is quite as much a factor in, as an outcome of, a nation’s industrial and commercial prosperity.

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