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Sandford Fleming

Born just off the High Street, Sandford Fleming left Kirkcaldy aged 18 bound for Canada and a remarkable career in science and engineering, and much else besides.


Not only did he become a pioneering railway surveyor and construction engineer, he was to be acclaimed the father of International Standard Time and the 24-hour clock, and also found time to design the first Canadian postage stamp (the first stamp anywhere to feature an animal rather than a monarch). 


Knighted in 1897, internationally recognised, revered in Canada, Fleming is probably under-appreciated in Kirkcaldy; ironically so, given the love and debt of gratitude he professed for his home town and what he called "the rich inheritance I received here."


Our detailed story shows how he invested that inheritance to his and Kirkcaldy's lasting credit. 

Sandford Fleming
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Sandford Fleming

Kirkcaldy's Greatest Son?

Sir Sandford Fleming is among Kirkcaldy's most distinguished  sons and yet  remains virtually unrecognised in the town of his birth. He is yet another suffocated by the preoccupation with Adam Smith as the town's favoured son.


Smith is rightly lauded and revered for his outstanding contributions in economics and philosophy, richly deserving the recent celebrations marking his tercentenary. That said, surely the town's other prominent sons and daughters merit better recognition than a clutch of streets named after them on Chapel Level?


The  recent sundial honouring Fleming, sited on the Esplanade, is a solid start but more needs to be done to shepherd other significant figures out  from under  Smith's shadow.


Sandford Fleming was born in Glasswork Street in 1827, the son of a cabinet maker. After attending the Burgh School he was apprenticed as a surveyor to John Sang – yet another pre-eminent figure who has slipped under the radar. His body of work as a surveyor and engineer stands comparison with most. In local terms his surveying, planning and execution of Kirkcaldy's Lothrie Water Scheme  is probably his best known work.


In 1845 Sandford and his brother David sailed for Canada to build a new life and prepare the ground for the whole family to follow, which they did in 1847. The Fleming boys had a tense, difficult and often frightening passage on the wooden hulled Brilliant which carried them to Canada. In stormy seas, iron bars in the cargo hold broke loose and threatened to pierce the hull.  The brothers were so convinced of impending disaster that they wrote a farewell letter to their father and tossed it overboard in a bottle. Miraculously, it did actually wash up on a Cornwall  beach and was forwarded to Mr Fleming senior. Thankfully he had received news of their safe arrival  before the 'letter of doom' made landfall.


By the time Sandford Fleming  had left for Canada, Sang and Kirkcaldy had provided him with the tools and temperament which allowed him to develop into the colossal figure he became. Quite simply – Fleming was made in Kirkcaldy with the training he received standing him in good stead for the challenges and successes which lay in the future.


Although initially finding work as a surveyor/engineer difficult to obtain he was not idle.   He measured and produced maps of local towns which sold well. He was also  a very able artist  and his sketches of local landmarks also found a ready market.  A major break came for Fleming when a friend was finally able  to secure him work as a draughtsman to a Government Surveyor. Fleming also taught the surveyor's children the basics of drawing.


He was now able to study for and gain the Dominion Land Surveyors License. It was this certificate which put him on the ladder to success -  even if it was on a low rung. However, it was the starting pistol for a major part of his life's work –  the surveying and construction of  railways, often carried out over difficult, unexplored and rugged terrain. Fleming helped survey, plan and build three Canadian railways acting, at some point, as Chief Engineer to each. He cut his teeth on  the Ontario, Simcoe and Huron line where he started as an assistant engineer and completed the project as the chief engineer.  This was followed by two major rail undertakings –  firstly, the Intercolonial and secondly the Canadian Pacific which linked Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His railway construction period lasted from 1852 until 1880. He was present, as a director of the Canadian Pacific Railway, when the last spike was hammered home linking Canada from coast to coast. The photograph of the event is one of the most iconic in Canadian history.


The end of his railway construction work saw him move into other spheres where his foresight and determination saw him refuse to be beaten. He was the driving force and leading proponent behind the implementation of Standard Time and the 24 hour clock, both still used to this day. Almost invariably when travelling or making a telephone call abroad it is Fleming's work which determines the time.


He also  planned and championed the  laying of the Pacific Cable which offered telegraphic communication between Canada and Australia/New Zealand. This had the result of an almost instant halving of the costs of a telegraphic message.


Along with these impressive accomplishments there was even more:-


He was a founding member of the Royal Canadian Institute which remains an important and active body to this day.


He designed the first Canadian postage stamp at the age of 24.


Deeply interested in education he served as Chancellor of Queens University in Toronto for 35 years. He had not had the opportunity to attend university himself but he knew the value of education and took great pleasure in taking part in successive graduation ceremonies.


Any one of his achievements is impressive in isolation but as a  body of work they are outstanding. They allow a very strong case to be constructed suggesting Fleming sits at the pinnacle of Kirkcaldy's greats – even if it is  considered a shared pinnacle.


Fleming was showered with honours during his lifetime including honorary doctorates from four universities including Fife's own St. Andrews. In 1882 his native town granted Sandford Fleming the Freedom of The Burgh and five years later in 1887 he was knighted by Queen Victoria.  He is widely acknowledged and remembered in Canada by a considerable number of features, places and buildings,  named after him.


Fleming loved Kirkcaldy and his 1882 acceptance speech on receiving the Freedom of the Burgh contains some of the finest words  written about the town including:-


Any little success I have achieved in the country where my lot was cast, is due wholly to the rich inheritance I received here, to the principles of truth, and honour, and uprightness which were implanted in the home of my boyhood. To those who conducted my early training, and moulded my character in the Lang Toun, I give full credit for all.


It is simply a statement of fact that it was over 100 years from Adam Smith's death before a memorial was finally raised to his memory in the shape of the halls which bear his name. Sadly, in Sir Sandford Fleming's case, it was close to 200 years from his birth that Kirkcaldy has finally produced  tangible recognition in the form of the sundial.


However, the 7th January 2027 will mark Fleming's bicentennial and the hope and expectation is that there will be due appreciation and recognition given to one of Kirkcaldy's most illustrious figures. Sir Sandford Fleming, FRSC KCMG, richly deserves it!

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