Robert Francis Fairlie

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File:Robert Fairlie.jpg
Robert F. Fairlie in the 1870s.

Robert Francis Fairlie (born either March 1831 or 5 April 1830,[1] in Glasgow, died 31 July 1885, in London) was a Scottish-born railway engineer.

Early life

Fairlie was born in Glasgow, the son of T. Archibald Fairlie (an engineer) and Margaret Fairlie. He trained at Crewe and Swindon railway works, then joined first the Londonderry and Coleraine Railway as Locomotive Superintendent in 1852, and four years later the Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway before returning to London in 1859 to establish himself as a railway engineering consultant.

Ffestiniog Railway

He is chiefly known for the invention of the Fairlie double-bogie articulated locomotive (patented in 1864) that is particularly associated with tightly curved railways and especially narrow gauge mountain lines. The first such, the Pioneer, was built in 1865 for the Neath and Brecon Railway, but it was with the Little Wonder built in 1869 for the Festiniog Railway that Fairlie made his name as the inventor of something special.

On the Festiniog Railway the new engine could be tested against not one but six engines all of the same tried and tested and improved design (the first ever successful narrow gauge steam locomotive design) and they all came from the locomotive works of George England and Co., the Hatcham Ironworks, Pomeroy Street, New Cross, London, where the Little Wonder was also built. A series of tests, for which detailed performance records survive, were held between 18 September 1869 and 8 July 1870.[2]

File:Ffestiniog PDold 1.jpg
Little Wonder with train of four-wheeled passenger carriages at Portmadoc harbour station on the Festiniog Railway c1870.
David Lloyd George built new in 1991, one of several double Fairlie locomotives operated by the Ffestiniog Railway today.

It was to the Festiniog Railway in north Wales, the first and the narrowest of narrow gauge railways, on 11 February 1870, in the middle of winter, that Fairlie invited locomotive engineers, and their principals, from all over the world, and from all over the world they came, as reported by the north Wales newspapers: The Duke of Sutherland; Mr W. T. Mulvany, from Prussia; M. Tolme, engineer; M. Phillippe Kremer from Paris, engaged on the Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod Railway; Mr Christer P. Sandberg, Swedish Consulate, London; Count Czheni, Russia; Count Alexander Berg, son of the generalissimo of the Russian army, and Viceroy of Poland; Count Bobrinski, Russia; Count Tamoyski, Hungary; Basiley Saloff, Professor of the Imperial Institute of Engineers, St. Petersburg; Charles de Schouberszki, director of the Kursk and Kharkov Railway in Russia; Count Ivan Tlabroburr, Moscow; Count von Desen, St. Petersburg; L. de Kislankske, of the Imperial Institute, St. Petersburg; Mr Preston, solicitor to the London and North Western Railway Company; Capt. Tyler, Government Inspecting Officer for Railways; Mr Preston, engaged on the railway from Tiflis to the Caucasus, in Turkey and Russia; Gen. Sir William Baker, K.C.B.; Mr Power, M.P ., connected with the Mexico and Vera Cruz Railways; Mr Pille [i.e. Carl Abraham Pihl], Sweden; Mr Ayrton, Mr Elias, general manager, Cambrian Railways; Mr Poole, local traffic manager ditto; Mr Charles E. Spooner, engineer, Festiniog Railway Company; Mr Crawley, C.E., London; Mr Danas, Indian Railways; Mr C. Thornton, ditto; Mr Livingston Thompson, Chairman and managing director, Festiniog Railway Company; Mr Dallas, The Times newspaper, and Mr Thomas Cargill, engineer & reporter of the Engineering Gazette – and many others! Further parties of engineers and managers came to Porthmadog on four later occasions in 1870 to observe the locomotive at work.[3]

The success of those public trials gave new heart to all those civil servants challenged with the task of approving one standard gauge line or two narrow gauge lines for the same total budgeted cost. Fairlie was richly rewarded with orders and commissions from overseas including one involving work in Venezuela in 1873/4, which resulted in a serious illness. By 1876 forty three railways operated Fairlie's patent locomotives, not always successfully.[4] For the story of his patent articulated engine see the Fairlie locomotive entry.

Elopement and marriage

However, Robert Fairlie's professional career and social standing had been seriously threatened eight years earlier by a remarkable case (reported in The Times of 8 April 1862) brought against him in the Central Criminal Court by his longtime business associate, George England, who alleged perjury on the part of Robert Francis Fairlie who had eloped with England's daughter Eliza Anne England and, to procure a marriage licence, had sworn a false affidavit that her father, Mr George England, had consented to the union, which was not true. After this marriage they had run away to Spain.

This accusation would, if proved, have resulted in a prison sentence. Under cross-examination by Sergeant Ballantyne (who appeared for Fairlie), George England was forced to admit that he had run away with his present wife, who was the mother of the young lady in question, and that he had a wife living at that time. He had lived with this lady several years but could not marry her until his wife died. By a quirk of English law, at that time, a child born out of wedlock was considered nobody's child. In law she was nothing to do with George England and could marry whom she pleased. There was no case to answer and therefore a verdict of not guilty was returned.[5]

But none of this stopped George England building Robert Fairlie's remarkable double-engine for the Ffestiniog Railway seven years later. Fairlie's Little Wonder was delivered to the FR in the summer of 1869 and George England retired. In September 1869 Robert Fairlie joined with George England's son and J.S. Fraser to take over the Hatcham Works and to form the Fairlie Engine & Steam Carriage Co. but George England junior died within a few months. Locomotive production ceased at the end of 1870 but the Fairlie Engine & Rolling Stock Co. continued as an office for design and for the licensing of Fairlie locomotive manufacture.

By 1881, George England (1811–1878) was dead and Robert Fairlie and his wife Eliza were living at 13 Church Buildings, Clapham with their four children, Robert, John, Lily and Jessie and Robert's mother in law, Sarah England, together with Frances Knight (cook) from Norfolk, also four domestic servants and Emma Bermoker (possibly an au pair or governess) from Vevey in Switzerland.[6] Robert Francis Fairlie died in London on 31 July 1885 and is buried at West Norwood Cemetery.

Other narrow gauge pioneers


  • Locomotive Engines, What they are and What they Ought to be by R. F. Fairlie, London, John King & Co., 693, Queen Street, E.C. 1864
  • Railways or No Railways – The Battle of the Gauges Renewed by R. F. Fairlie, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange. 1872 (Online version –


  1. Hughes, Geoffrey (2004). "Fairlie, Robert Francis (1830–1885)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9101. Retrieved 1 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. Boyd, J. I. C. (1960). The Festiniog Railway. 1. Lingfield: Oakwood. pp. 100, 107.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. The North Wales Chronicle and the Carnarvon & Denbigh Herald, February 1870.
  4. Lewis, M. J. T. (Spring 1999). "The 1870 Locomotive Trials in the Local Press". Heritage Group Journal. Festiniog Railway Heritage Group (57): 21–27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Ransom, John (Summer 1991). "Sensation in Court". Festiniog Railway Magazine. FR Society (133): 20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Wilson, Andrew (Winter 2001–2002). "The 1881 Census & The Festiniog Railway". Festiniog Railway Heritage Group Journal (68): 7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links