The Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company – Its Early Days.

This is another post that in part differs, in two respects, from what I write about normally. Firstly it’s about a company which brought benefit to Glasgow although it clearly includes the people involved in its creation. Secondly, strictly speaking, for a significant part of its early life Fairfield’s was not in Glasgow, being located in the burgh of Govan until 1912, when the burgh and others were annexed by Act of Parliament to Glasgow.

Figure 1. Henry Bell’s Comet. Courtesy of ‘Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.

Steam powered ship building began on the Clyde when Henry Bell had the ‘Comet’ built by John Wood & Co. in Port Glasgow. The engines were supplied by John Robertson, the boiler and smoke-stack by David Napier, both of Glasgow. It was launched in 1812 and despite initial difficulties operated successfully until 1820. However Bell was not the first to prove that steam powered ships were the future.

Bell had been keenly interested in steam propulsion since the early 1800s having presented to the Admiralty Lords in 1803 a plan which proposed steam powered warships. In the event it was rejected as having no value, the sole supporter of his scheme being Lord Nelson. He shared his ideas with Robert Fulton, an American, who built the ‘Clermont’ in 1807 which on its maiden run on the Hudson River and subsequently, proved the viability of steam powered ships.

Charles Randolph
Figure 2. Charles Randolph. From Memoirs and Portraits of One Hundred Glasgow Men. Glasgow, 1886.

The genesis of Fairfield’s began with Charles Randolph in 1834. He matriculated at Glasgow University in 1822 at the age of thirteen, subsequently serving an engineering apprenticeship with Robert Napier at Camlachie. He was trained by David Elder, the father of John Elder, the key individual in the process that ended with the creation of Fairfield’s. On completing his apprenticeship he worked in Manchester for a time with Ormerod’s and then Fairbairn and Lillie.

He returned to Glasgow in 1834 and set up, Randolph and Co. (Millwrights), with his cousin Richard Cunliffe. The company’s engineering reputation grew as did their business and around 1838 John Elliot, previously a manager with Fairbairn and Lillie, became a partner in the business, the company then trading as Randolph, Elliot and Co.

The company continued to trade as such until 1852 when John Elder became a partner, the business renaming as Randolph, Elder and Co., John Elliot having died in 1842.

Figure 3. John Elder. From Memoirs and Portraits of One Hundred Glasgow Men. Glasgow, 1886.

John Elder was born in 1824, the second son of David Elder and his wife Grace Gilroy. At the time of John’s birth father David was the manager of Robert Napier’s engineering works at Camlachie having held the post since 1821. He had been born near Kinross and came from a long line of wrights who had lived and worked in Fife and was to a very large extent self-educated, through reading and the observation of existing engineering machinery.

In 1822 David designed and built Napier’s first marine engine which was fitted to the steamer ‘Leven’. The tools used in the manufacture of the engine were primitive, however not only was the engine successful in operation the manufacturing experience led him to design tooling for milling, turning and boring that was much more accurate, speeding up the production process and producing a better quality of component which in turn helped improve the efficiency of the engines being built. David Elder worked for Napier’s until his death in 1866, his marine engineering skills and knowledge producing marine engines that, for example, led to the success of the Cunard line’s early transatlantic operations.

John Elder attended the High School in Glasgow, followed by classes at the university. He then served a five year apprenticeship with Robert Napier, his training directed by his father. His first occupation as a journeyman was with Hick’s of Bolton-le-Moors in Lancashire following which he was a draughtsman with Great Grimsby Docks. In 1848 he returned to Napier’s as their drawing  office manager and chief draughtsman during which period he assisted his father with the engines built for Cunard referenced above. He remained with Napier’s until he formed his partnership with Charles Randolph.

Elder’s skill in marine engineering was very quickly put to use with the partnership moving into that field, firstly with engines and then with shipbuilding. Initially around 1853 Elder was concerned with improving engine efficiency. He endeavoured to reduce friction between moving parts which would increase power generation and reduce fuel consumption. Along with the utilization of James Watt’s idea of steam jacketing to reduce heat loss from cylinders he developed what came to be known as the compound steam engine, compound in the sense that the engine consisted of high pressure and low pressure cylinders. In modern parlance the use of these engines was a game changer for sea travel. Originally steam engines consumed around four to five pounds of coal per horsepower per hour. Elder’s compound engines brought coal consumption down to around two and a half pounds per horsepower per hour, an almost fifty percent reduction in fuel costs thereby significantly improving the economics of this form of travel and allowing longer sea journeys to be undertaken. The first vessel built by Randolph and Elder fitted with the compound engine was the ‘Brandon’ in 1854.

In ‘Memoir of John Elder’ by Professor Rankine of Glasgow University there is a list of fourteen patents taken out by Elder and Randolph individually or jointly, which detail the actual changes in engine concept and design. It’s perhaps worth remembering at this point that both Elder and Randolph had served apprenticeships with Robert Napier and had undergone their training directed by David Elder.

Figure 4. Mrs Isabella Elder (1828-1905); John Everett Millais.© CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection. (

In 1857 John Elder married Isabella Ure, the daughter of Alexander Ure, writer, and Mary Ross. There were no children of the marriage. This partnership between John and Isabella subsequently benefited the people of Govan not only in terms of employment but in their enlightened outlook as to how their workforce and families should be treated and supported, more of which later.

The company continued to focus on engine development and manufacture until 1858 when in addition to their engine business they started to build iron ships in Govan. Their yard, known as the ‘ Old Yard’, had been previously owned by shipbuilders Macarthur and Alexander who had started building ships there in 1840. Two years later in 1842 Robert Napier commenced building iron ships in the yard staying there until 1858 when they moved to new premises.

The success of the partnership in both shipbuilding and engineering inevitably led them to seek larger and perhaps more appropriate premises for all their activity. Thus in 1863 sixty acres of the Fairfield estate were purchased, an added attraction to the site being the right to form a dock on the riverside. Sometime in 1864 the partnership began operating from their new premises.

Elder at various times had read various engineering papers to the British Association at Leeds, Aberdeen and Oxford. In 1868 he presented a paper to the United Services Institute entitled ‘Circular Ships of War’ which proposed steam powered warships with circular hulls.

The co-partnership between Randolph and Elder lasted until 1868 when Randolph and his original partner, his cousin Cunliffe, retired. By that time, the company had c.4000 employees and between 1852  and 1868 had built one hundred and eleven marine engines, one hundred and six of which were for their own shipbuilding activity. Additionally they built a number of sailing ships and three large floating docks for Java, Saigon and Callao (Peru). Customers for ships and/or engines included the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War who had five blockade runners built, the British Admiralty, Cunard and the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, all of whose ships were built by the company. One particular achievement was the trial in 1865 for the British Admiralty using HMS Constance which demonstrated the significant superiority of the company’s latest, fully jacketed compound engine over the then standard design of marine engines. However it seems the Admiralty, at least initially, considered the compound engine to be too ‘novel’ for them to use in their ships. Shades of Bell’s experience in 1803.

When he retired Randolph had still retained an interest in Clyde shipping particularly challenging the plans of the Navigation Trust for further development of the Clyde which he felt were insufficient. As a trustee he played an important part in the construction of the Queen’s Dock at Stobcross.

He died in Glasgow in 1878 leaving £60,000 to Glasgow University to complete the Bute Hall. Its  ante chamber and the south staircase were named in his honour.

Subsequent to Randolph’s retiral the company was simply referred to as ‘John Elder’. He continued to expand the business building a new engine works, a boiler shop, a floating dock and repair slipway. During 1869 Elder built fourteen steamships and three sailing ships, total tonnage amounting to 25,235, thus maintaining the business‘s reputation as the most successful  shipbuilding and engineering business on the Clyde with a world-wide reputation. To give some perspective to these numbers the next best yard on the Clyde produced ships totalling 13,425 tons. In April 1869 his peers recognized his pre-eminence in the industry by electing him president of the Institute of Engineers and Shipbuilders of Glasgow.

However at some time during the year Elder became seriously ill which initially caused him to go to Harrogate for the ‘benefit of its waters’. This provided no solution to the problem. He then travelled to London to get the best possible medical assistance. Unfortunately, this was to no avail as he died on the 17th September from liver disease. His body came back to Scotland and he was interred in the Glasgow Necropolis. Isabella was his executrix, his estate being valued at £188,000, and became the sole proprietor of the company.

She ran the company for around nine months before handing over the running of the business to a new partnership consisting of her brother John Francis Ure, John Jamieson and William Pearce.

Figure 5. John Francis Ure. From Memoirs and Portraits of One Hundred Glasgow Men. Glasgow, 1886.

From 1852 her brother John had worked for the Clyde Navigation Trust and was the thinking behind the creation of Mavis Bank Quay, the widening and deepening of sections of the river to accommodate the larger ships he foresaw, had designed a dredger for the work, and had planned the Finnieston Crane. His success with the Clyde improvements led to him being recruited in 1859 by the Tyne Conservancy Trust who were keen for the river Tyne to be improved in a similar manner. Again he was very successful. He removed the bars at the river mouth, removed shoals, widened and deepened the river as required and designed the Newcastle Swing Bridge which opened in 1876. He became senior partner in Isabella’s company in 1870, its name subsequently becoming John Elder and Co. in honour of her husband.

John Jamieson became the engineering partner having previously been general manager of the company, with William Pearce becoming the shipbuilding partner.

Figure 6. Sir William Pearce. Caricature from the Bailie July 1879. From

Pearce was born in Kent in 1833 and trained as a shipwright/naval architect at the Royal Navy Chatham Dockyard. Such was his ability in 1861 he supervised the building of HMS Achilles, the first iron clad warship to be built in a naval dockyard. He married in January of the same year Dinah Elizabeth Socoter (or Sowter). They had one son; William George Pearce born in Chatham in July 1861.

He moved to Glasgow in 1863 becoming Lloyd’s surveyor of ships built on the Clyde. Within the year he became general manager of Robert Napier’s, the role John Elder had prior to joining with Charles Randolph. He proved to be the most significant partner of the three taking the business forward both in terms of ship building and the associated engineering, ultimately leading to the creation of the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company.

The new partnership had substantial markets to provide for and to grow. They did this by continuing to apply engineering innovation to their activity, and, in a sense, powerful advertising by claiming and proving their ships were ahead of the competition.

In 1874 A.C. Kirk of the company improved Elder’s compound engine further by developing the triple expansion engine which became the power source of choice for world shipping thereafter. Pearce also introduced a sense of competition between his ships and those of his competitors. He promoted the idea of the Blue Riband for transatlantic crossings, claiming his ships would complete the crossings quicker and would break all records, which they did. This led to a number of new orders from the likes of Cunard and Nord Deutscher Lloyd. Similarly the ships that were built for the cross channel route between Dover and Calais were guaranteed to cover the trip in one hour. The company also was concerned to grow its navy business, which they did as orders grew generally to counter the growth in the German navy fleet.

The partnership lasted until 1878 at which point Ure and Jamieson retired leaving Pearce in sole charge of the business. At that point John Elder & Co. occupied over seventy acres and employed around 5,000 workers. It was one of the most prominent ship builders in the world, building for the world’s largest shipping companies. Pearce was also a shareholder in some of these companies and was chairman of the Scottish Oriental Steamship Company and the Guion Steamship Company.

He had political ambitions and in April 1880 had stood as Conservative candidate for one of the three Glasgow seats. Although he polled over eleven thousand votes he came fourth in the list and was not elected. In May 1885 the Glasgow Herald reported that he was invited by the Lanarkshire Conservative Association to stand as their candidate for Govan in the parliamentary elections to be held later in the year. His response given on the 2nd July was to be pleased at the invitation but felt he could not accept it as Govan was essentially working class and he would have to have some evidence that his candidature would be acceptable to the working men of Govan before he did. It seems he was in demand to be a conservative candidate as on the 23rd July it was reported that the West Ham Association was going to ask him to be theirs. In the event the Herald reported on the 12th September that he formally accepted Govan’s invitation to stand in the election. Whether he got any of the assurances he referred to earlier is not clear.

The election took place on the 4th December, Pearce beating his Liberal opponent Bennet Burleigh by one hundred and fifty five votes. In July 1886 there was another election with Pearce winning Govan again this time with an increased majority of three hundred and sixty two.

The business had continued to be known as ‘John Elder & Co. however in 1886 Pearce converted it into a private limited liability company to be known as the ‘Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company’, the objective being to help ensure Navy work being placed in the yard, notwithstanding his new parliamentary position. Thus Fairfield’s was formally established.

Pearce’s time with Elder’s/Fairfield’s was very successful in terms of output, customer base, growth and innovation. The business’s reputation for excellence and the quality of its output was renowned throughout the shipping industry, with some shippers buying entire fleets from the company, one example being Nord Deutscher Lloyd’s Atlantic fleet.

During his eighteen years with the business over 450,000 tons of ships were built. He promoted the idea of a steamship capable of crossing the Atlantic in less than five days, a model of which was shown at the Glasgow Exhibition in 1888. Other notable achievements were the building of a 5,000 ton Atlantic liner in ninety eight working days, bringing the sea journeys to Australia and New Zealand to less than forty days with efficient, well designed ships, and for the military, building a dozen troop carriers, including a hospital ship, for use on the Nile at the end of  the Sudan War, all built in less than thirty days. A number of modern warships were also built for the Royal Navy the last in Pearce’s time being HMS Marathon, launched in 1888.

Figure 7. The Rusian Yacht Livadia. Public Domain , from Library of Congress

An unusual commission was building the yacht Livadia for the Emperor of Russia to the design of a Russian Navy admiral which specified it to be capable of a specific speed. Despite it being described as an ungainly craft, which caused many shipbuilders to believe the specification could not be achieved, this objective was met.

Pearce also took part in the broader community activity being a Govan Burgh police commissioner; a captain in the 25th Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteer Corp from 1874 to 1878, becoming an honorary colonel of the Second Volunteer Battalion Highland Light Infantry; Provincial Grand Master of Glasgow; Justice of the Peace, and Deputy Lieutenant of the county of Lanark. He provided the funds for the building of a lodge for Glasgow University in University Avenue, the material coming from the gateway of the Old College in High Street which was being demolished to make way for a railway goods yard. The lodge, named the Pearce Lodge, built between 1885 and 1888, includes a stone panel bearing the date 1658 and another with the initials CR2, following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

He also served in a number of Royal Commissions dealing with shipping.

One rather unsavoury event occurred on the 12th August 1885. Two days after Elder Park was opened on 29th June Mrs Elder had a visitor by the name of Francis. He was an inspector of customs in Glasgow and wished to discuss a private matter with her. She was unable to do so at that time and arranged to see him the next day. She did not know him but was aware of a Miss Francis whom William Pearce had mentioned to her about two years before. When Francis appeared he was clearly upset and told a story of improper relations between Pearce and his daughter. He also asked Mrs Elder to see his wife to discuss the issue. She declined indicating that it was not something she could get involved with. Mrs Francis however came anyway and asked her to intercede in the matter and to persuade her husband not to assault Pearce which apparently he had intended to do at the opening of the park. Consequentially Mrs Elder did see Mr Francis again who reluctantly agreed not pursue Pearce.

That however was not the end of the matter. On the 11th August a letter arrived from Mrs Francis asking if she could see Mrs Elder in her London hotel. In the event Mrs Elder was unwell, had not travelled to London and therefore sent her card to Mrs Francis.

On the following day Pearce was assaulted by Francis who called him a scoundrel and seducer. The assault was reported in the Pall Mall Gazette initially without naming the individuals involved merely describing them as a customs official and a royal commissioner, Pearce had just been appointed to a commission on trade. The next day’s Gazette contained a full account of the assault with interviews of Pearce and Francis included.

The rest of the story is rather convoluted but oddly enough, unjustly, Mrs Elder got the blame for it going public, her card sent to Mrs Francis being described as several letters in the press. This led to Pearce’s wife cutting the ties she had with Mrs Elder and her charity activity.

Pearce continued to plead his innocence, however he eventually told Mrs Elder that for a number of years previous he had being paying Mrs and Miss Francis sums of money amounting to £1200. He also told her that he was willing to pay Miss Francis £200 per year and £5000 on her marrying and asked her if she would negotiate such a settlement and pay the money in her name as he did not want his name connected with the payment. When asked why, if he was innocent, he wanted to do this, he repeated his innocence and essentially said he wanted to help the young woman  involved. Mrs Elder declined. Miss Francis, who had sent Pearce a number of love letters since around 1883, eventually married, the whole issue quietly subsiding, or if you prefer, hushed up.

In July of 1887, in Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee honours list, he was made a baronet, becoming Sir William Pearce of Cardell, in Renfrewshire.

His time as a baronet unfortunately was not long. He died in the December of the following year in London of heart disease, general opinion being that his heart problems had been the result of the stresses and strains of his business and public lives. He was interred Gillingham, Kent and a memorial by architects Honeyman and Keppie erected in Craigton Cemetery, Govan. He left over £1million, his son William George succeeding to the title and becoming chairman of Fairfield’s. He married Caroline Eva Coote in 1905, but died without issue two years later at the age of forty six, the baronetcy ending with him.

William Pearce Statue
Figure 8. Statue of Sir William Pearce, Govan. Photograph G. Manzor

In the early 1890’s Lady Pearce gifted to the people of Govan a piece of land at the gushet between Burleigh Street and Govan Road the plan being to erect a statue there of Pearce funded by public subscription. In due course the statue, standing three metres tall and sculpted by Edward Onslow Ford, was unveiled on the 6th October 1894 by Lord Kelvin in the presence of Lady Pearce, her son Sir William George Pearce and various other dignitaries. The statute was and probably still is, referred to as the ‘black man’ and I used to wonder why it was called that. I think I was in my teens before I realised it was dirt on the statue from years of domestic coal fires and industrial pollution.

Around 1892 the idea of a memorial building was being considered but was not proceeded with. However in 1901 began the build of what became the Pearce Institute in Govan Road, opposite his statue. This was a gift to the working people of Govan from Lady Pearce to commemorate her husband. The architect was Robert Rowand Anderson who in the early 1880s had designed Govan Old Parish Church and in 1892 the first proposed building.

Pearce Institute
Figure 9. Pearce Institute, Govan. Photograph G. Manzor.

It was opened in 1906 offering a number of facilities for the men, woman and children of Govan including clubs, reading rooms, a library, gymnasium and much more. It included a theatre called the McLeod Hall named after the minister of the Old Parish Church which had a stage and an organ which became much used for dances and other social gatherings.

On entering the Institute is the following greeting:

This is a House of Friendship. This is a House of Service. For Families. For Lonely Folk. For the people of Govan. For the Strangers of the World. Welcome.”

In summary Fairfield’s owed its existence to four individuals David Elder, son John, Charles Randolph and William Pearce. They had a lot in common in terms of their engineering and shipbuilding skills. Additionally they all had the foresight to see the opportunities for building steam powered ships on the Clyde. However there is one other common factor that should be mentioned and that is at one time or another they all worked for Robert Napier’s.

John and Isabell Elder also brought significant social improvement to the burgh, not only through employment but by various other means.

John had very good relations with his workforce and had great concern about their well-being physically, morally and intellectually. One of the first actions he undertook was the establishment of an accident fund to which he contributed monthly, the amount being equal to what his employees raised themselves. The combined annual sum was in the region of £1,000, worth today in simple RPI terms £100,000.

He had plans to build five schools for his worker’s children and also had well advanced plans for the building of houses for his workers. His untimely death prevented any of these ideas being carried out.

Isabella was like minded both in terms of the people of Govan and in particularly the education of women. Her charitable activities are almost too numerous to mention but listed below are some of the major ones.

  • The creation of the John Elder Chair of Naval Architecture at Glasgow University – 1883
  • Bursaries for working boys to study marine engineering at the University.
  • Purchased North Park house and presented it to Queen Margaret College for Women rent free – 1883.
  • Bought 37 acres of land opposite her husband’s shipyard and created Elder Park. The architect John Honeyman designed it, and it was opened by the Earl of Rosebery, future Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister – 1885.
  • She funded the establishment of a school and paid its running costs, for domestic economy aimed at young women who were taught to cook and run a household – 1885.
  • When Queen Margaret College opened a medical school she funded its running expenses – 1890. First female graduates were in 1894. A key condition of the funding was that the standard of teaching would be the same as that for men. When in 1899 she came to the view that the condition was not being met she withheld her financial support until it was.
  • Funded the build of the Elder Cottage Hospital in memory of her husband. It was intended as a maternity hospital but on opening it became a general hospital instead. The architect was Sir J.J. Burnett. – 1902.
Figure 10. Elder Cottage Hospital. Glasgow Historic Hospitals. Creative Commons Licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
  • Gifted the Elder Park library to the people of Govan. It was designed by Sir J.J. Burnet and opened by Andrew Carnegie. She gave £10,000 for the build of the library and the purchase of books, and £17,000 for its upkeep. One condition was attached, that being that the library was to be open on Sundays – 1903.
Figure 11. Opening of Elder Park Library in 1903.© CSG GIC Glasgow Museums Collection.
  • In her will she set up the Ure Elder Fund for Indigent Widows of Govan and Glasgow in memory of her brother and her husband – 1906. The fund continues to exist in a more modern style and is known as the Ure Elder Trust. She also established the David Elder lectures in Astronomy at the Glasgow Technical College, now part of Strathclyde University. The lectures are now given at the Glasgow Science Centre in partnership with the university.

Isabella was awarded an honorary LL.D by Glasgow University in 1901 as a recognition of all her activity and generosity associated with the education of women. She died in 1905 at her home in Claremont Terrace, her death being certified by Dr. Marion Gilchrist, Glasgow’s first woman graduate. She is interred with her husband in the Necropolis.

Isabella and John Elder Grave
Figure 12. John and Isabella Elder’s Monument, Glasgow Necropolis.

Elder Park has statues of Isabella and John both funded by public subscription. His was erected in 1888 and was sculpted by Sir J.E. Boehm, Isabella’s was erected in 1906 and was sculpted by Archibald Macfarlane Shannon.

Figure 13. John Elder Statue, Elder Park. Photograph G. Manzor

Isabella Elder Statue
Figure 14. Isabela Elder Statue, Elder Park. Photograph G.Manzor

The gifts of the park, library and hospitals were certainly in keeping with both Elder’s social conscience. It’s perhaps difficult to convey today what they meant to the people of Govan, however hopefully my own experiences will give some idea of how beneficial these gifts were.

As a child I went to the park, played in the sandy hole, and on the swings and roundabout. I paddled in the pond, the ‘parkie’ giving me a telling off, and on another occasion I fell in, thus making me a true Govanite. I also watched the model yacht men sail their yachts in the pond. I played hide and seek in the shrubs and bushes with my friends. When older I played tennis in the courts there and putting on the putting green. I was a junior member of the library and in due course became a senior member. Sometimes I did my school homework in the reference library. I also remember visiting my mum when she was a patient in the Elder Cottage Hospital.


Brotchie, T.C.F. The History of Govan. Govan, 1905.

McAlpine, Joan The Lady of Claremont. Glendaruel, 1997.

Rankine, William J.M. A Memoir of John Elder. Glasgow, 1883.

Dalglish, Chris and Driscoll, Stephen T. Historic Govan. Glasgow, 2009.

Murphy, William S. Captains of Industry. Glasgow, 1901.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Maclehose, James. Memoirs and Portraits of One Hundred Glasgow Men. Glasgow, 1886.

University of Glasgow Story.

Addison, W. Innes. Glasgow University Matriculation Records. Glasgow, 1913.

Dictionary of Scottish Architects. 1660-1980.

The London Gazette.

Pall Mall Gazette. August 1885.

The Glasgow Story.

Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.

Get Into Govan.

Historic Hospitals – Glasgow.

Author: harmonyrowbc

Ex aero engineer with a life long passion for Glasgow History

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