Aird, Sir John, first baronet 1833-1911, contractor, born in London on 3 Dec. 1833, was the only child of John Aird (1800-1876), by his wife Agnes (d. 29 July 1869), daughter of Charles Bennett of Lambeth, Surrey. His father, son of Robert Aird of Fortrose, Ross-shire, originally a mason at Bromley by Bow, was (for twenty years) superintendent of the Phenix Gas Company's station at Greenwich, and started in 1848 a contracting business for himself, laying down mains for many gas and water companies in London.
After private education at Greenwich and Southgate, Aird joined on his eighteenth birthday his father's business, which was soon known as John Aird & Sons. He was entrusted with the removal of the 1851 exhibition buildings (erected by his father) and their reconstruction as the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. The firm now engaged in large enterprises both in this country and abroad. They constructed reservoirs at Hampton and Staines, and the Beckton plant of the Gas Light and Coke Company. Abroad their works included the first waterworks at Amsterdam, and others at Copenhagen and Berlin, as well as gasworks in Copenhagen, Moscow, and elsewhere in Russia, France, Italy, and Brazil. They were also associated with Brassey & Wythes in constructing the Calcutta waterworks, with Sir John Kirk in building the Millwall Docks, and with Peto, Brassey & Betts in civil engineering works in Sardinia.
In 1860 the firm was renamed Lucas & Aird. Ten years later the elder Aird died, and John became a chief partner. In 1895 the concern changed its designation to John Aird & Co. Meanwhile it had carried out much railway and dock work, including various extensions of the Metropolitan, District, and St. John's Wood railways, Royal Albert Docks, Tilbury Docks, East and West India Docks extension, and the West Highland railway. Aird's firm also completed the Manchester canal.
Aird is best known by his great work of damming the Nile; the necessity for this had long been recognised, but its execution was prevented by the poverty of the Egyptian exchequer. In February 1898 Aird offered to construct dams at Assuan and Assyūt, payment being deferred until the completion of the contract, and then spread over a term of years. His offer was accepted by the Egyptian government, and the work, begun in April 1898, was finished in 1902, a year before the stipulated time [see Baker, Sir Benjamin, Suppl. II]. About one million tons of masonry were employed in its construction, and at one time 20,000 men (90 per cent. of them natives) were engaged. Aird received for his services the grand cordon of the Medjidieh in 1902. Later undertakings of the firm include the Royal Edward Dock at Avonmouth (1902-8), the Tanjong Pagar Dock works at Singapore, the barrage at Esneh (opened in 1909), and the elevation of the height of the Assuan dam.
Aird became an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1859 and a member of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1887. In 1886 he served on the royal commission on the depression of trade, and from 1887 to 1905 represented North Paddington in the conservative interest in the House of Commons, where he was well known and respected. He became in 1900 the first mayor of Paddington, and was re-elected in the following year. Aird was popular in City circles, and was in 1882 appointed on the commission of lieutenancy of the City of London. He was a liveryman of the Needlemakers' Company, and served as master in 1890-2 and 1897-8. For many years he was associated with the volunteer movement, and was major and honorary lieutenant-colonel of the engineer and railway volunteer staff corps. He was created a baronet on Lord Salisbury's recommendation on 5 March 1901.
Aird was an ardent collector of pictures from 1874, when he removed from Tunbridge Wells to his London residence, 14 Hyde Park Terrace. His collection was confined almost exclusively to modern British art, of which he was a judicious patron. His artistic treasures included some of the finest examples of Calderon, Dicksee, Fildes, Frith, Leighton, Marks, Orchardson, Noel Paton, Prinsep, Briton Riviere, Rossetti, Marcus Stone, Storey, Tadema, and F. Walker (cf. illustrated description by J. F. Boyes in Art Journal, xliii. 135-140; and a catalogue of the collection by Henry Blackburn, privately printed in June 1884, with miniature reproductions of each painting, water-colour drawing, and sculpture). He was a member of council of the Art Union of London from 1891 until death. An enthusiastic mason, Aird was senior grand deacon for the same period.
He died on 6 Jan. 1911 at his country residence, Wilton Park, Beaconsfield, Bucks, and was buried at Littleworth, near Beaconsfield. His estate under his will was sworn at 1,101,489l. gross.
Aird married on 6 Sept. 1855 Sarah (d. 4 April 1909), daughter of Benjamin Smith of Lewisham, Kent, by whom he had two sons and seven daughters. His elder son, John, succeeded to the baronetcy. Portraits of Aird were painted by (Sir) Luke Fildes in 1898 and by Sidney Paget in 1902; the latter is in Paddington Town Hall.
Engineering (portrait), 13 Jan. 1911
the Times, 7 and 12 Jan. and 23 March 1911
Cassier's Mag. (portrait and sketch), Aug. 1901, xx. 266, 343-4
Pratt's People of the Period, p. 18
Burke's Peerage, 1910.
Contributor: C. W. [Charles Welch]