(Sir) Peter Fairbairn (1799-1861)

(Sir) Peter Fairbairn (1799-1861)On that spectacular occasion in 1858 when Queen Victoria came to smoky Leeds to open its magnificent new Town Hall, Peter Fairbairn took the lead role as Mayor and host. In his gorgeous brand-new robe of scarlet and ermine he was there to greet her, with Prince Albert and the two Princesses, as the royal train arrived. His carriage led hers in procession through the massed, wildly cheering crowds and the lavishly festooned streets to his home, Woodsley House in Clarendon Road. Here she and her entourage would spend the night – the first time she had ever slept in a commoner’s house (he and his family moved out!). The next day at the great Inauguration she invited him to kneel to receive his knighthood. What a moment for this self-made man who 30 years before had arrived in Leeds with next to nothing.

Born at Kelso in Walter Scott country, he was the youngest son of Andrew Fairbairn, a farmer who, he said, never earned more than 12 shillings a week. There was little money for the home or the children’s schooling. The family moved around for work but finally settled at a farm at Percy Main colliery near Newcastle. At eleven years old Peter had to start work, like his older brother William. At fourteen he was apprenticed for seven years to an engineering firm in Newcastle, and then spent time gaining work experience in France, London, and Manchester where William had set up a successful engineering business. He settled for a period in Glasgow as partner in a firm making spinning machinery, married in 1827, then looked for an opportunity to make his mark somewhere new.

He came to Leeds, a hub for flax-spinning and fertile ground for innovation. He took lodgings in an inn in Marsh Lane, and rented a back room in Lady Lane where he worked late into the night with an old workmate from Glasgow on a radically improved flax-spinning machine. When he demonstrated it to the Marshalls, the top flax-spinning firm, he won a mass order and the promise of funding to help him go into production using the recently vacated Wellington Foundry. The deal went ahead, the business took off and he was soon able to go it alone.

He expanded and diversified, patenting some ground-breaking improvements in spinning and other machinery. An effective manager, he recruited skilled staff, organised into teams. By 1841 he was employing over 500 men at his Foundry (described as exemplary in smoke-prevention). He was keen to export – when called as an expert witness to a parliamentary committee, he pressed for freedom for the manufacturers of Leeds ‘the metropolis of flax-spinning machinery’ to market their expertise overseas.

His wife Margaret (Kennedy) had joined him from Glasgow, with their first child Andrew, and they soon moved to upmarket Park Square. He immersed himself in local cultural and civic life, joined the elite societies, stood for election to the council, invested locally in railways and the waterworks. An advocate for scientific education, he took a lead role in the Mechanics Institute. He was active too in Liberal politics, promoting parliamentary reform, free trade, religious freedom.

By 1840 he was making enough money to commission a grand house to be built in newly-developed Clarendon Road: a classical, pilastered mansion, richly decorated inside – Woodsley House (still there). Sadly Margaret died suddenly in 1843, leaving him there with his two daughters (and numerous servants). He married again in 1855, a widowed friend, Rachel Brandling. This period was boom time for the Foundry, with big new orders for guns and military machinery during the Crimean War. He employed over a thousand men now and was one of Leeds’ leading figures. In 1854 he was elected Alderman; in 1857 Mayor. The costly new Town Hall was finally nearing completion and it fell to him to invite the Queen to open it: her acceptance generated frantic excitement.

As a personal gift he commissioned a marble statue of her for the Town Hall vestibule – it stands there still. Woodsley House was completely refurbished, and elaborate luxuries were ordered from London for royal use. The whole visit proved a fantastic success, acclaimed by the national press in gushing detail. Peter Fairbairn got most of the credit and a second term as Mayor – though some unkind commentators later accused him of having his head turned! Subscribers paid for a fine portrait of him in his wonderful outfit.

This outstanding man, with his genial Father Christmas looks, inspired wide respect and affection and his sudden death in 1861 was deeply mourned. A statue of him was erected by subscription in Woodhouse Square near his home, but most remembered him for his leading part in that never-forgotten royal visit.

Eveleigh Bradford
November 2018