Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 149,786 pages of information and 235,419 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Autobiography of Richard Tangye: Chapter 1

From Graces Guide
The Cornwall Works
Carn Brae and Redruth Parsonage
Murdock's Locomotive


At Smethwick, near Birmingham, just on the edge of the Black Country, stands the great industrial establishment known the world over as the "Cornwall Works." Had Ruskin known this place thirty years ago, and were he to re-visit it now, doubtless his anger would be kindled, and he would anathematise those who had invaded the pleasant meadows and turned the cherry orchard and flower-gardens into a place where nothing is heard but the hissing of steam, the clanging of iron, and the perpetual thud of the steam hammer. And yet, thirty years ago, the land on which the works stand gave employment to less than a dozen people, who lived in houses damp and undrained whereas now nearly two thousand men and boys earn a comfortable livelihood, under conditions much more conducive to health and happiness than surrounded the former labourers on the soil.

I have often told visitors to the Cornwall Works the story of its origin, how from a little workshop with one solitary worker it has grown in a single generation to its present dimensions, providing the means of subsistence for more than 5,000 persons and I have often been asked to commit the story to writing while my memory was fresh and clear. But in order to clearly understand how so great an industry was built up from such small beginnings, I must go further back, and give some account of the early training and experiences of the founders, and, of course, in so doing it will be necessary for me to write about myself.

Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography says that he was always fond of obtaining any little anecdotes of his ancestors, a desire which is common to most people.

My grandfather was born at St. Columb in 1776, the year in which the American Colonies revolted from Great Britain. He was a tall, strong man, very active and intelligent. One branch of his family had for generations been smiths, and he was possessed of a mechanical turn of mind; but no opportunity occurring for him to develop it, he became an agricultural labourer.

His master, being lame, walked on crutches, and on wet days used to post himself at the door at night as the farm-boys came in from work, and woe betide the boy who returned with a dry smock frock! for the old man would examine every one, and with his crutch, would "cross the pate" of all who were not wet. But it was only the new comers who were caught like this, for if any of the older ones had escaped a wetting they visited the pump before going in for the night.

And when, about this time Boulton and Watt's great "cart-wheel" pennies came out, this same old farmer used to call his boys together at night and ask who amongst them would go to bed without supper for a new penny? Turnips were plentiful and pennies were scarce, and so many of the boys eagerly took the new coin, satisfying their hunger with a turnip. The next morning the old fox would put a new proposal before the hungry lads— "which of you will give a penny for an extra good breakfast?" "I will," "I will," many would say, for "Hunger's power is strong." On Sundays the farmer encouraged his boys to stay in bed all the morning, when they amused themselves by shooting the rats that ran along the rafters.

My grandfather remained an agricultural labourer until he became a man, when he took a few acres of common land, and having enclosed them, stocked them with the savings he had accumulated during his previous life. The land was very poor, and he used to say that it grew nothing but "furze and stones;" but it was not long before he made it as productive as a garden.

About the time he took this land — which he tilled in the daytime — my grandfather obtained a situation as night-driver of a mine-pumping engine. He used to account for his day's work in this manner: "I drove the engine for ten hours, worked on the farm seven hours, and wasted the rest." But it did not seem to disagree with him, for he lived to be nearly ninety-five, and never required the services of a doctor.

It has been said that in extreme old age the events of intervening years are sometimes almost obliterated from the memory, while incidents of early childhood present themselves to the mind with all their original freshness. On one occasion, when my grandfather was nearly ninety years old, his daughter was somewhat alarmed by seeing him suddenly become convulsed with laughter. She begged him to tell her what he was laughing at? At length, restraining himself with great difficulty, he said: "Don't you remember the Squire? Well, one day my brother James and I were coming home from school you know, when who should we meet but the Squire. There he was in his blue coat with gilt buttons, his little wig tied up behind, and wearing his silver buckles and silk stockings; and as we came up he stopped us and said, 'Where have you boys come from, eh?'— `We've come from school, said we.' 'What school?' said the Squire. `Dame Trewen's,' said we. 'What do you lawn at school?' 'We lawn spelling.' 'Larn spelling, do you?' 'What's your name' said he to my brother. 'James,' said he. 'Spell James.' 'J a h m e s.' 'That's not James,' roared the Squire, that's Jah-mees'" and then the old man became convulsed with laughter again till my aunt became quite alarmed.

She remembered hearing her father tell this story when she was a girl fifty years before, but had never heard it in the meantime. While still a boy my grandfather left the service of the lame farmer and came westward to Mogan. He carried the whole of his property — a saddle — on his back, and by his side trudged his faithful dog. Nearly eighty years afterwards, as he lay dying, his mind reverted to this journey, and almost his last words were, "Has the little dog come in yet?"

I well remember my great-grandmother, who died at the ripe age of eighty-eight. When a young woman she had the honour of taking tea with John Wesley, during one of his religious visits to Cornwall. This old lady was born in 1750, six years after the death of Sarah, the famous old Duchess of Marlborough, who was born in 1659, so that, but for an interval of six years, I have conversed with one who might have touched hands with a person born in the time of the Commonwealth.

My father was born at Redruth, a town famous for having been the birthplace of two of the greatest inventions ever made, for it was here that Murdock lived when he invented gas-lighting, and astonished the miners by carrying a lantern, supplied with coal-gas from a bladder which he carried under his arm. Here, too, he constructed the first locomotive ever made in England, and tried it in the lane leading to the church and in front of my father's house. [1]

Dr. Smiles in his Lives of the Engineers well describes the scene. Murdock bad tried several experiments with the little locomotive in his own house but at length he determined to try it out of doors, on which occasion, small as the engine was, it fairly outran the speed of the inventor.

"One night, after returning from his duties at the mine at Redruth, Murdock went out with his model locomotive to the avenue leading to the church, about a mile from the town. The walk was narrow, straight, and level. Having lit the lamp, the water soon boiled, and off started the engine with the inventor after it. Shortly after he heard distant shouts of terror. When he came up to his machine, he found the vicar in great fear, thinking that the hissing, spitting little demon was no other than the Evil One himself." [2]

In his early years my father worked in a mine; and like many miners, he was of a thoughtful, studious turn of mind, and chose his companions accordingly.

Amongst his friends was the late Dr. George S- of Caraborne, who, when a young man, was employed in the same place as a carpenter; and I have heard my father tell an amusing story respecting him and George N-, who was employed as a painter at the same mine.

The painter was something like Colonel John Lilburne, of Cromwell's army, of whom it was said that "if everybody in the world were dead but John Lilburne, John would quarrel with Lilburne and Lilburne with John." Being thus somewhat of a cantankerous turn the painter sometimes said spiteful things. Upon one occasion George S- had offended him in some way, upon which he declared he would never be satisfied until he saw his fellow-workman in the workhouse. Many years passed, bringing with them great changes in various ways. George S-, who was a studious young man, had made diligent use of his spare time, and by constant study had become a well-educated man. Fortune also smiled upon him, and he became a partner in an extensive manufacturing concern, which brought him a large fortune. During this time the old parish workhouse system had been abolished by a new Act, several parishes forming a Union for the purpose of relieving their poor. By this means it often happened that one establishment served for several parishes, and the old workhouses were superseded. So it happened in the case of the C-- Workhouse, which was situated in a commanding position on the side of a hill. The house was offered for sale, and George S-, then Dr. S-, bought it. Some time after, my father happened to meet George N-, and the Doctor, and jocularly remarked, "Well, George, your wish is gratified, for George S- is in the workhouse at last!" The painter could not see the joke, and testily remarked, "I didn't mean it like that!"

My father was well acquainted with the locally-celebrated Methodist preacher "Dick Hampton." Mr. Hampton was generally considered a little deficient in his intellect, but in spite of that he was a most successful preacher amongst the working people. His ready wit was remarkable, and his memory was extraordinarily good. Amongst other things it was commonly reported that he could tell the times of the rising and setting of the sun and moon for any day during the month. On one occasion, a gentleman living near, thought he would put Hampton to the test, and having secured an almanac inside his hat, he presently met him, and bidding him "Good morning," remarked, "I am told, Mr. Hampton, that you can tell what time the sun and moon rise and set for every day during the month." "Well," said Hampton, "and what for that? S'pose of I can?" "Well," said Mr. G-, taking off his hat, "perhaps you would kindly tell me what time the moon rose on the 6th?" Hampton told him. "Quite right," said Mr. G- "And what time did it set on the 9th?" Again Hampton promptly replied, but this time he was wrong but when Mr. G told him so, "No such thing," said he, "I am quite right, I knaw I am." "No, no," said Mr. G—, "Mr. Hampton, you are quite wrong." "I say I aren't how do you knaw I am wrong?" "Why," said Mr. G—, pointing to the almanac, inside his hat, "there you see; the almanac shows you are wrong." "Aw," said Dick, "that's it, es it? Some people carry their knowledge in their 'ats, but I carry mine in my 'ed."

Upon another occasion Mr. Hampton was taking tea in a lady's elegantly-furnished drawing-room. There was a large company present; and while Mr. Hampton greatly amused the guests by his peculiar sallies, he was the occasion of considerable perturbation on the part of the worthy hostess. Dick, like Dr. Johnson, was a great tea-drinker, and could easily dispose of ten or a dozen cups. To the lady's great distress, Mr. Hampton, previous to passing his cup to be replenished, would throw, what in Cornish are called the "grushions," viz., the tea leaves, etc., over his shoulder. The lady endeavoured to prevent a recurrence by closely watching her guest's cup as it was becoming empty; and then at the right moment she said, as she saw Mr. Hampton preparing to repeat his peculiar habit, "Don't trouble, Mr. Hampton, don't trouble; pass me the cup, if you please." "Oh!" said Dick, "it's no trouble at all," and over went the "grushions" again. When tea was over, a gentleman remarked to Mr. Hampton that he ought not to have acted so, and Mr. Hampton was much distressed at having occasioned his hostess so much discomfort: but, he said, "Why didn't she tell me not to thraw the grushions' out? I thought I was saving her trouble. Why can't people be honest and say what they mean? "

Long before the word "teetotaller" was invented my father became a total abstainer under the following circumstances:— Up to 1837 he was connected with the Wesleyan Methodists, and for some years was a class-leader amongst them. Living in a somewhat out of the way part of the country, the travelling ministers used to stay with him, and for their entertainment my father kept a modest bottle of wine. But on one occasion, returning from a visit to a friend's house, he told my mother how much he had been shocked at hearing his friend's eldest son upbraid his father in the strongest terms for teaching him to drink. This son had become a confirmed drunkard.

The whole circumstance greatly impressed my father, who at once determined to banish the drink from his house. But what should he do about the ministers? My mother advised him to consult the Rev. Joseph Wood, a minister who sometimes visited them. This he did, and Mr. Wood strongly advised him to dispense with the wine. "And then," he said, "you will soon find who comes to you for your wine and who for your company." The wine went, and soon friend after friend departed until only one was left — the Rev. Joseph Wood, who continued to visit my parents long after they had joined the Society of Friends.

My mother was a most excellent woman, clear-sighted and possessed of a vigorous intellect. She was quick to discern the bent of her children's minds, and encouraged them in all their efforts at self-improvement. Poor herself, she was always ready to visit and assist her poorer neighbours, and her memory is a precious inheritance to all her children.

John Foster, in one of his essays, says truly that "to recollect the instructions of a former period, will be to recollect also the excellences, the affection, and the death of those who gave them. Amidst the sadness of such a remembrance, it will be a consolation that they are not entirely lost to us. Wise monitions, when they return to us with this melancholy charm, have more pathetic cogency than when they were first uttered."

And although one feels a natural reluctance to reveal to others the sacred admonitions of one's dearest earthly friend, I will venture to give my mother's parting words to me. I was in my 18th year, and was returning to my duties at the school after the holidays, when my mother called me aside and told me she did not expect to see me again, feeling that her end was drawing nigh. She said she had not much to say to me, for if her life had not been an example to us, nothing that she could then say would be availing, and then, in earnest tones and with pleading eyes, she said, "make straight paths to thyself," and I saw her no more.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. In 1889 my brother and I caused a granite slab to be placed in the wall of Murdock's house, having the following inscription in raised letters of lead:— "William Murdock lived in this house 1782-1798; made the first Locomotive here, and tested it in 1784; invented Gas-lighting, and used it in this house 1792."
  2. When James Watt heard of Murdock's experiment, being naturally of a timid disposition, he became much alarmed that Murdock's energies might be distracted from the business of stationary engines, and he requested Boulton to remonstrate gently with Murdock, and get him to drop the project. Accordingly Murdock did so, never taking up the subject again. The model had been continuously in possession of the Murdock family till 1883, when it was purchased from Murdock's great grandson by Messrs. Richard and George Tangye, and lent by them to the Melbourne Exhibition of 1889, where it was exhibited alongside Symington's model of the earliest Marine Engine. It is now in the Birmingham Art Gallery.