Mystery of the Victorian Fairbairn Crane, Esplanade Quay, Dover Marina, Kent, UK

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John Latter on April 5, 2011

The 'mystery' concerns whether or not this Victorian tubular crane is a "small hand-driven rotatory crane", as described in the English Heritage Listed Building text for Wellington Dock appended below, or a decommissioned steam-driven crane whose performance specification was downgraded (EH : "de-rated to 20 tons") at some unknown point in the past, perhaps as a result of the power unit being removed.

The initial search into providing a caption for this photo was based on English Heritage's assertion that the crane had been built by the "Fairburn Engineering Company of Manchester".

Resolving a discrepancy in the spelling of the manufacturer's name (described in "Original Caption") then led to questioning how the machine on Esplanade Quay had first been powered (second entry, "Hand-driven or Steam-powered?")

Original Caption

This 19th Century hand-driven, or manual, rotary crane with its swan-neck jib is located on Esplanade Quay, once called Ordnance Quay, on the southern side of the non-tidal Wellington Dock in Dover Marina.

The crane is of riveted box frame construction and was built in 1868 by the Fairburn Engineering Company of Manchester in the north-east of England. It was once used by the Ordnance Department and originally capable of lifting 50 tons, but this was later de-rated to 20 tons. It could lift yachts out of the Wellington Dock.

William Fairbairn, later Sir William Fairbairn, 1st Baronet of Ardwick, opened an iron foundry in 1816 and was joined the following year by a Mr. Lillie, and the firm became known as "Fairbairn and Lillie Engine Makers", producing iron steamboats (paddle steamers such as PS Lord Dundas, PS La Reine des Beiges, and PS Minerva). (1)

When Mr. Lillie left the firm in 1839, the name changed to "William Fairbairn and Sons" and the company's attention turned to railway locomotives.

Their first designs were of the four-wheeled "Bury" type, built for the Manchester and Leeds Railway. Generally they built to the design of the customer or similar to those being produced by Edward Bury and Company and Sharp, Roberts and Company. In 1852, Fairbairn delivered four locomotives to Estrada de Ferro Maua (Estrada de Ferro Mauá), Brazil's first railway company.

The Manchester company was also noted for its construction of steam cranes, the Fairbairn steam crane being described as a type of harbour-side crane of an 'improved design'.

The sole surviving operational example of a Fairbairn-designed steam crane, built in 1878 by Stothert and Pitt, is located near the Museum of Bristol, once the Bristol Industrial Museum (2), and has a "swan neck" identical to the crane in the photo above: click to see the Bristol Fairbairn Crane.

The Bristol crane was in regular use until 1973, loading and unloading ships and railway wagons with loads up to 35 tons. It has been restored and is in working order and operates on some bank holidays and during the Bristol Harbour Festival.

The foregoing has made reference to the "Fairburn Engineering Company" and to "William Fairbairn and Sons". Although the two surnames Fairburn (more often English) and Fairbairn (Scottish) are known to be variants of one another other, in this instance it appears the names have either been used interchangeably, or perhaps Fairbairn became Fairburn in a later re-branding of the company name:

Extract from a Network Rail webpage about London's Liverpool Street Railway Station:

The station was built by the Lucas Brothers and the roof was designed and built by the Fairburn Engineering Company who also supplied the roof to the Royal Albert Hall.

The Lucas Brothers webpage for 1870 states:

Drawings for the iron and glass roof (for the Royal Albert Hall): Chief engineers, J.W.Grover and R.M.Ordish with modifications by Sir William Fairburn, made by the Fairburn Engineering Company of Ardwick, Manchester.

As stated above, Sir William Fairbairn, the Scottish civil engineer, structural engineer, and shipbuilder, was the 1st Baronet of Ardwick.

After finishing the above sentence, I took a break for my morning cycle ride along the seafront and stopped off to check the name plate on the Dover crane (something I should have done earlier!) While the English Heritage listing text quoted below says, "The Fairburn Engineering Co. of Manchester", the nameplate on the crane is inscribed, "The Fairbairn Engineering Company, Limited. Manchester". Clarifying this minor point, however, has led to a larger question:

The Dover Swan-neck Crane: Hand-driven or Steam-powered?

The power-unit for the Bristol Fairbairn-designed steam crane is enclosed within the crane cabin and the photo of it gave no cause to question the Dover crane's description of being hand-operated.

However, a new internet search with more confidence in using the keywords, "Fairbairn Engineering Company", quickly located an 1877 book titled, "The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart" (3):

In November 1850, Mr. Fairbairn took out a patent for an invention which was very successful, namely an improvement in the instrument called a crane, for hoisting and lifting purposes. Ordinary cranes are usually constructed on one of the plans shown in the two first of the following figures:

Drawing comparing Ordinary Cranes with Fairbairn`s Tubular Crane

In these the inclined strut, called the 'jib,' is placed at an angle of about 40 or 45 degrees with the vertical, so as to obtain the greatest strength. But if the article to be raised be at all bulky, this position of the jib will interfere with the height to which it may be raised.

Mr. Fairbairn's improvement consisted in making the projecting arm of the crane of iron plates riveted together so as to form a hollow tubular girder of curved form, as shown in the third figure. It allowed the article to be raised to a greater height, and at the same time offered greater strength and security.

Six large cranes were soon afterwards made on this plan by Messrs. Fairbairn and Sons for Keyham Dockyard. A description of them was given by Mr. Fairbairn to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and was published in their Proceedings for 1857. Each crane was calculated to lift 12 tons to a height of 30 feet from the ground, and to sweep a circle 65 feet in diameter.

These answered so well that a few years afterwards a still larger one was ordered for the same place to lift 60 tons 60 feet high, with a circle of 106 feet diameter. Cranes of this kind were soon appreciated by the public for their convenience, and strength, and became largely used.

The following figure represents a crane of this description erected at one of the Royal Dock Yards, and worked by steam power:

Drawing of Large Steam Crane on Sir William Fairbairn`s Principle

In this second drawing the steam plant and base of the crane are clearly represented. The illustration strongly suggests that the crane on Esplanade Quay was once steam-powered, which could account for:

It was once used by the Ordnance Department and originally capable of lifting 50 tons, but this was later de-rated to 20 tons.

Fairbairn's 1877 book also states that a change in name from "William Fairbairn and Sons" to "The Fairbairn Engineering Company" took place about 1864 when the business became a Limited Liability Company.

The "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations" (alt. The Great Exhibition, sometimes the Crystal Palace Exhibition in reference to the temporary structure in which it was held) was an international exhibition that took place in Hyde Park, London, from 1 May to 15 October 1851. The Official Catalogue has the following entry:

417 Fairbairn, W. Manchester. - Wrought-lron tubular crane.


Elsewhere in the photo

The cliffs in the background are that part of the White Cliffs of Dover known as the Western Heights. The town in the River Dour valley is to the right and Shakespeare Cliff some distance to the left (somewhere on the cliff-face within this stretch of coastline is the secret location of Dover's Lost Castle of the Court`s Folly). The unseen A20 runs parallel to Snargate Street on the other side of Wellington Dock.

The houses shown are those of Snargate Street with the entrance to the Napoleonic Grand Shaft (an underground spiral triple-staircase) just out-of-shot to the left.

On the right-hand side of the photo is the stone-coloured building (immediately to the right of the reddish-brown one) of Sharp and Enright, Ship's Chandlers and "Marine Equipment Supplies".

Left-of-centre, and partially obscured by the masts of boats and yachts in Wellington Dock, is the light-blue and white premises of Smye and Rumsby: "Communications - Electronics - Marine - Navigation".

Wellington Dock is a Grade II Listed Building (4).

The following extracts are © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence (PSI licence number C2010002016):

Building Details:



LBS Number: 507159 Grade: II Date Listed: 16/12/2009 Date Delisted: NGR: TR3184940985

Listing Text:


685/0/10036 Wellington Dock and associated structures, including crane situated on Esplanade Quay 16-DEC-09

II Dock. Part of the eastern side was constructed in 1832, part of the western side in 1833-4 and the remainder by 1844 by James Walker. The C20 (C20 means 20th Century) swing bridge, C20 concrete extension to Ballast Quay and De Bradelei warehouses are not of special interest.

MATERIALS: Lined in Portland stone ashlar blocks with granite coping.

PLAN: It comprises a number of individually named quays which together comprise Wellington Dock. It is narrower towards the north and widens to the south where it is bounded by Union Street.


ESPLANADE QUAY: situated between the C20 (20th Century) swing bridge at the south end and Slip Quay to the north, is a straight section aligned north east to south west retaining a number of cast iron cleats and a crane.

CRANE: The crane is a small hand-driven rotatory crane with swan-necked jib of riveted box frame construction. It was built by the Fairburn Engineering Co. of Manchester in 1868. It was once used by the Ordnance Department and was originally capable of lifting 50 tons. It was later de-rated to 20 tons and used for lifting yachts out of Wellington Dock.

HISTORY: Although visible fabric does not pre-date the early-C19 (19th Century), Wellington Dock follows the approximate outlines of part of the C16 harbour developments west of the town. The layout of the dock can be traced back to the early outline of the Great Pent built in the C16 as the replacement to the original first paradise devised by John Clerk in the early C16. The arrangement of docks and basins, now comprising the Wellington Dock, Granville Dock and Crosswall Quay, was originally arranged to take advantage of a shingle bar which formed a lagoon behind which the River Dour flowed. A large cross wall was built across the lagoon to form the Great Pent. This relates to the present Wellington Dock, from whose north end the River Dour flows. Water from the River Dour was then released through a sluice to clear the other half, or Great Paradise, of silt. The position of this crosswall is still present as Union Street, now containing a C20 swing bridge, replacing an earlier one of 1849 which was probably in or near the location of the original sluice.

REASONS FOR DESIGNATION: Wellington Dock, Dover Harbour is designated at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

Wellington Dock has historical interest because it occupies the approximate footprint of the Great Pent, shown on maps of Dover since 1595.

The handsome ashlar walls with granite coping date from the early 1830s and were completed by 1844. James Walker, the distinguished maritime engineer who inherited Thomas Telford's unfinished commissions, is responsible for the post 1834 dock walls.

The crane at Esplanade Quay, Cullins slip and various cleats, bollards and mooring rings are reminders of Dover's shipbuilding and trading past.

Source: English Heritage.

Other sources:

(1) Wikipedia entry for William Fairbairn and Sons

(2) Wikipedia entry for Bristol Industrial Museum

(3) The Life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart: Chapter XVIII - The Manchester Manufacturing Business. An autobiography and biography by Sir William Fairbairn, edited and completed by William Pole (1877).

(4) Grade II: buildings that are "nationally important and of special interest".

A Dover Harbour history and industrial archaeology photo taken from Marine Parade between the Sea Sports Centre and Sue`s Seafood Stall by the Clock Tower.

This caption is a good example of how I stumble around trying to find things out - if I had had all the information to hand at the start, the caption would have been completely different! :)

Click to see all photos of Dover's Fairbairn Crane, Listed Buildings, and English Heritage sites.

John Latter / Jorolat

Dover Blog: The Psychology of a Small Town

This is the Images of Dover website: click on any red or blue "John Latter" link to access the Entry Page.

John Latter on April 5, 2011

The "Accompanying Text" in the caption to There`s more to the Dover Victorian Fairbairn Crane than meets the Eye has provided a clue as to how the Dover Fairbairn Crane was first powered.

A link to the full explanation will be added here once it has been uploaded.

Cigoto on April 9, 2011

Voted & Like

John Latter on April 10, 2011

Guia arquitectura, on April 9th, 2011, said:

Voted & Like

Thank you, Pablo - Greetings from Dover, England!

John Latter on April 13, 2011

Click to see the Solution to the Victorian Fairbairn Crane Mystery, Dover Marina, Kent, UK:

"...Four men, each working a winch of 18 inches radius, act by two 6 inch pinions upon a wheel 5 feet 3 and 3/4 inches diameter..."

John Latter on July 24, 2011

**John Latter, on April 5, 2011, said:

The crane is of riveted box frame construction and was built in 1868 the north-east of England.

This should read "north-west" (sorry!)

Grey-Eagle Ray on November 2, 2011

Hello john, Thanks for the History behind this Gem. I'm pleasantly surprised because unknowingly I have blindly passed by this Marina many many times. Perhaps being so deprived of English Nouriture, my preference to date has been 3minutes away…… “The Dovorian” Fish and Chip Restaurant. (Old habits die Hard) Looking at a little blue square on GE maybe we have dined here together? Rest assured that my next visit to Dover will include the Fairbairn Crane, now resting in my Favorites.

Best wishes to you from California Ray

John Latter on November 2, 2011

Grey Eagle, on November 2nd, 2011, said:

Hello john, Thanks for the History behind this Gem. I'm pleasantly surprised because unknowingly I have blindly passed by this Marina many many times. Perhaps being so deprived of English Nouriture, my preference to date has been 3minutes away…… “The Dovorian” Fish and Chip Restaurant. (Old habits die Hard) Looking at a little blue square on GE maybe we have dined here together? Rest assured that my next visit to Dover will include the Fairbairn Crane, now resting in my Favorites.

Best wishes to you from California Ray

Thank you again for your comments, Ray :)

I know the Dovorian, of course, but its a long time since I've dined there. On the other hand, the Dover Launderette is nearly opposite the restaurat (in Worthington Street) and I'm always there on a Saturday morning - pop in and say hello if you're around at that time!


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Photo details

  • Uploaded on March 31, 2011
  • © All Rights Reserved
    by John Latter
    • Camera: PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D
    • Taken on 2011/03/22 07:05:16
    • Exposure: 0.004s (1/250)
    • Focal Length: 50.00mm
    • F/Stop: f/8.000
    • ISO Speed: ISO200
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash