THE 235th anniversary of the birth of Scottish engineer and bridge builder Sir William Fairbairn gave me the opportunity to write about him last week, and as promised, this week I am going to tell the story of his brother Peter.

At the outset, let me repeat my assertion that both the Fairbairn brothers should be better known by Scots for their achievements in engineering at a vital time in the development of industries which were the key to Britain’s domination of the Victorian world.

Peter Fairbairn was born on the family farm at Kelso, like his elder brother, in 1799 – 10 years after the birth of William – to Andrew and Margaret Fairbairn, who had six children in all. Like William, Peter received a basic education which barely continued after Andrew became steward of the farm belonging to the owners of Percy Main Colliery near Newcastle.

The family’s poor economic situation dictated that Peter had to start work in the colliery at the age of 12, but when he was 14, he gained an apprenticeship to a millwright and engineer in Newcastle. He would walk the near six miles to Newcastle and back each day and he became more and more inclined to engineering as his future.

He met a Glaswegian builder of cotton machinery named Henry Houldsworth (1770-1853) and became a foreman with his firm in Glasgow. He was also a traveller for the firm, a combination of salesman and engineer.

In 1821, Fairbairn left Houldsworth’s employ and went to France where he studied their textile industry’s construction techniques which had been much boosted by Napoleon’s investments as he tried to stop France from being reliant on British-produced linen and cotton.

Fairbairn learned much before he returned to Britain, and after a short spell at his brother William’s Manchester works, it was back to Houldsworth in Glasgow until he and a colleague, John Anderson, decided to move to Leeds in 1828, as the Yorkshire city was fast becoming an important centre for textile machinery production. In Glasgow, he met his first wife Margaret née Kennedy, and after they married in 1827, they would have a son, Andrew, who became a lawyer and MP and an important politician in the Liberal Party, and was knighted like his father.

At first they had no premises in Leeds and built their machinery in a spare room. It was there that Fairbairn came up with the project that would make his name – a huge improvement in the flax-spinning machine developed by the Frenchman Philippe de Girard.

Just as James Watt did not invent the steam engine but made it workable, Fairbairn took Girard’s machine and made it much more efficient, so much so that a Leeds spinning factory owner named John Marshall offered to buy every new machine they could produce, and suggested that they take over Wellington Foundry in the city.

The two men were successful from the start, and they soon had the foundry churning out machines that helped to make Leeds and its environs a world-leading centre for textiles.

The Dictionary of National Biography 1900 edition described how Fairbairn’s career progressed: “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, [as well as] improvements in machinery for making rope yarn.“ All the time, he was diversifying into other forms of engineering, and when the Crimean War started, Fairbairn developed machines for cutting iron and steel that became vital for the production of cannons and other weapons.

Part of Fairbairn’s business genius was that he recruited workers into teams that tackled issues and found solutions. He was then able to register patents for all sorts of machinery and engines. These pioneering management techniques were much admired in Victorian Britain. He became very wealthy, but like his brother William, he was not flashy with his riches – though he did plan a grand townhouse.

At the same time, Fairbairn was becoming involved in politics, and was very much a Liberal on the side of those who promoted free trade and electoral reform – he once testified to MPs about how freedom of trade could assist the Yorkshire textile industry to advance. After a spell as a town councillor, he was elected an alderman of Leeds and then became mayor in 1857. By that time, he had built his town residence, Woodsley House, where his second wife lived – a widow named Rachel Brandling – and his family, his first wife having died in 1843. Their home is now known as Fairbairn House.

Leeds was expanding so much that the city decided to build a new town hall and it fell to Mayor Fairbairn to invite Queen Victoria to perform the official opening ceremony. She not only agreed but brought her consort Prince Albert to stay at Woodsley House – one of the few times the royal couple stayed in the house of a commoner.

That royal visit caused huge excitement in Leeds and Yorkshire generally and the mayor was given huge credit for the organisation of the visit which also saw Fairbairn knighted by the Queen. He had clearly been smitten by Victoria as he commissioned artworks to mark her visit to Leeds.

Sir Peter Fairbairn died suddenly on January 4, 1861, and was greatly mourned in Leeds. Within a few years, the citizens had subscribed enough funds for the creation of a sculpture of Fairbairn which can still be seen in the city.

As I wrote last week, Sir William Fairbairn has been inducted into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame, but as yet his younger brother Peter is not an inductee. Perhaps that omission could be rectified as both Fairbairn brothers deserve the fullest honours.