William Arrol was born on 13 February 1839 in the village of Houston, Renfrewshire, the fourth child of Thomas Arrol, a cotton spinner and his wife Agnes Hodgart. William began his schooling at the age of 6 years, learning the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. However, education was not free and within a few years William had to work to earn his keep. At the time there were about 6 mills in Houston, powered by water from the River Gryffe and it’s tributaries, which employed the local population.
By the age of 9 years, William was working in a local mill as a piecer, in order to supplement the family income.
A piecer’s job was to twist together strands of cotton which broke during the spinning process and involved leaning over the spinning mule as it moved backwards and forwards. Children were often employed to do this job as their small fingers were adept at the task but many were injured and lost fingers in the process.
By 1851 the Arrol family, now with 8 children, had moved to Ferguslie in Paisley and William had a job working as a bobbin boy in the turning shop in Coats Thread Mills making bobbins for thread. Little would he imagine as a 12 year old boy that one day he would become a Director of that thread manufacturer, J & P Coats Ltd. As a bobbin boy, William would have had his first introduction to engineering, being required to clean and oil machinery and fix any minor problems with it.
At the age of 14 years, William was apprenticed to Thomas Reid, a Paisley blacksmith, where his vocation with mechanical parts began in earnest. It is at this age that the work ethic and determination which led William Arrol to become such a successful engineer becomes apparent. Up until this time William had only received a very basic education and so, with the money left over after contributing to the family purse, William set out to educate himself, paying for night classes and buying second-hand books. After putting in a full day of physical labour as a blacksmith, his evenings were spent studying. Initially he would have developed his skills in his reading, writing and arithmetic and, with time, progressed onto the principles of engineering and expanded his knowledge of mechanics.
When his apprenticeship was completed William worked as a journeyman blacksmith, taking on jobs wherever he could find them in local factories, shipyards and mills. But jobs were scarce and determined to find work he took the roads walking to Ayr and back, through all the Ayrshire towns in search of employment. He had brief periods of employment at Kerr’s Thread Manufacturers in Paisley and at Blackwood & Gordon’s Shipyard in Port Glasgow. It was not until the age of 24 years, that he finally found more permanent employment, as a Foreman with Laidlaw’s Engineering Works in Glasgow. It was in this job that William built his first bridge, the original viaduct over the streets of Greenock for the Greenock and Ayrshire Railway. Also, while working for Laidlaw’s, William was in charge of building the West Pier at Brighton, England.
Beginnings of family and business life
By the early 1860s the Arrol family was beginning to prosper. William’s father was employed as a Manager in Coat’s Thread Mill and all but the youngest child in the house were working. Like his brother, Thomas was also a blacksmith, James a marine engineer, Janet a threadmill worker, John a joiner and Charles a druggist looking to study medicine. Now that William was earning a regular wage and able to start saving to support a family of his own his thoughts turned to marriage. On 15th July 1864, at the age of 25 years, William married, the girl-next-door, Elizabeth Pattison, a mill worker . Her father was a mechanic in Coat’s Thread Mill, and William and Elizabeth had grown up together in Ferguslie.
William continued to work for Laidlaw’s until 1868, by which time he had saved enough money to go into business with a friend and set up as a boilermaker on London Road, in Glasgow. However, within 2 years the business was failing, as companies they did work for became insolvent and did not pay for work done. Having firm faith in the business and not wanting to follow the insolvency route, William took out a loan to buy out his friend’s share and, as he had done before as a journeyman blacksmith, pounded the streets in search of contracts. Little by little the orders came in and the business began to grow and by 1871 the turning point had come. William and Elizabeth were now living at 309 London Road and William was expanding the business, building new workshops and offices at Baltic Street for the purpose of bridge building and boiler making, and employing 20 men and 4 boys. William Arrol & Company and the Dalmarnock Iron works had begun.