Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 150,170 pages of information and 235,402 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 3

From Graces Guide
Sidcot School


My elder brothers used to attend a dame's school in their earlier years, the name of the mistress of which was Ann Issha; of her we used to tell a story which was at any rate founded on fact. Her young pupils would be duly seated on the form, when, at a given signal, they would all join in one great sneeze "Annissha," upon hearing which the old lady, looking round, would say "Who was calling me?" eliciting the rejoinder— "Please, mistress, we weren't a-calling of you; we were only a-sneezing."

The younger brothers, including myself, attended the British School, which was taught by an able man; but as he had sixty or seventy scholars and no assistance except boy-monitors, the junior classes had but little attention. I was appointed a monitor myself at eight years old, on the strength of having spelt a five syllabled word promptly and correctly. What made it worse was, the master was allowed to take a class of boys whose parents could afford to pay extra fees, and consequently they had most of his attention. In winter the school was always dismissed before darkness came on, the work of the day being closed with an impressive prayer from the schoolmaster; and, delivered in the twilight, I can never forget the solemnizing effect it had upon the boys. One quotation from the Psalmist which the good man was fond of making always recurs to my mind when I think of that time, "Lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us, and cause Thy face to shine upon us."

On very rare occasions the clergyman to whom I have already referred came to examine the boys in Scriptural knowledge; and once my brother, quite unconsciously, gave him a rebuff which perhaps he fully appreciated. The question was, "Who is my neighbour?" and my brother was not prompt to give a reply, so the rev. gentleman said, "Am I your neighbour?" This time the answer came very promptly and very decidedly, "No!" I don't suppose my brother thought of the cruel distraints for Church Rates, but I hope the parson did.

And now, when I was nine years old, a circumstance happened, which, although it appeared at the time to be an unmixed misfortune, proved to be the turning point of my life: while playing at school, I sustained a compound fracture of my right arm just across the joint. The doctor told my mother I should never be able to earn my living by the work of my hands as my elder brothers were doing, at the same time remarking "he has a good-sized head, try what a little extra schooling will do for him." Accordingly, a better school was found for me at Redruth, where I spent two or three years to great advantage.

While at Redruth I attended my first public meeting, and shall never lose the impression made upon my mind by the speech of the principal orator. Hitherto, the only public speaking I had heard was in the Friends' Meeting House; but on this occasion it was my good fortune to hear Elihu Burritt, the learned American blacksmith, deliver a speech on Ocean Penny Postage, in language of marvellous eloquence and with a wealth of imagery which was a revelation to me. His fine eyes kindled as he appealed to the miners present to assist him in his self-imposed efforts to enable them to communicate easily and inexpensively with their relatives in the mines on Lake Superior. He pointed out that it was not distance; but the costliness of communication, which caused alienation between members of families separated by stern necessity in their efforts to obtain a livelihood, and finally, he showed that brotherhood between nations was best promoted by increasing the means of communication between them. Years afterwards, when Elihu Burritt was United States Consul in Birmingham, I called upon him, and told him how his oratory had inspired me nearly thirty years before.

Soon after Mr. Burritt's visit to Cornwall, he addressed meetings on the same subject all over Scotland, and at one of them my friend Mr. H. G. Reid, late M.P. for Aston Manor, made his first appearance as a public speaker. Doubtless it was the memory of that meeting which inspired Mr. Reid when he made his admirable speech in the House of Commons on March 30th, 1886, in seconding Mr. Henniker Heaton's motion in favour of Elihu Burritt's proposal of an Ocean Penny Postage.

The first newspaper that I ever saw was a little sheet of four pages about four inches square, entitled "Little England's Halfpenny Newspaper." It was published at Bristol, and I remember two things which appeared in it; one was "Everyone can do something for the public if it is only to kick a piece of orange peel off the pavement;" and the other described the difference between the habits of Englishmen and Spaniards— "An Englishman returning from active exercise in hot weather throws a coat off, and sits in a draught; but a Spaniard puts an extra cloak on, and sits in a sheltered place."

On leaving the school at Redruth my parents were enabled to send me to the Friends' School at Sidcot in Somersetshire; and at this admirable institution I received a year's thoroughly good training, feeling myself to be in an entirely new world. The school is charmingly situated at the entrance to the Cheddar Valley, amongst the Mendip Hills. In connection with it is a large and beautiful garden; and the boys' studies were agreeably relieved by a half day's work there every week, while the teacher in charge of the working party read to them some interesting and instructive book.

At the end of the year, having passed my fourteenth birthday, the question as to what my occupation was to be, had to be decided. Instinctively I felt that a commercial life was one in which I should do best; but the difficulty of obtaining such a situation was felt to be very great, and, with some reluctance, I yielded to a suggestion from my schoolmaster that I should become a pupil-teacher in the Friends' School, and was bound there till I was twenty-one. I felt that I was unfitted for the work, and time did not reconcile me to it. My duties commenced at half-past five every morning, and continued with little intermission till nine p.m., when the same bell that summoned the senior teachers to supper (one of them being Mr. C. G. Feinaigle, son of Byron's "memory man") rang me to bed. Even then my duties did not cease, for I was still responsible for good order in the bedrooms,

Time after time I petitioned the school committee to release me from my articles, but it was not till I had passed my eighteenth year that my request was complied with. Certainly there was not much to tempt me to stay. My duties commenced at half-past five in the morning, and there was abundance of work, performed under very disagreeable conditions, fully known only to junior teachers in large schools, who alone can tell how unhappy boys can make teachers who are only a little older than themselves. My remuneration consisted of my board and lodging, my clothing, and a salary of one pound per annum, payable quarterly in silver. But these "emoluments" by no means represented all the good I received from my stay at Sidcot, for, besides having the command of a good library and many opportunities for study, and the great advantage of social intercourse with cultivated minds, I learned there to subordinate my will to the will of my superiors, and, quite unconsciously, was qualifying myself for future command by a willing subjection to the strict discipline of the school.

The worthy master, who is still living, and who was always very kind to me, did his best to make me like the profession, assuring me that I should succeed as a teacher, but the text of a sermon I had recently heard quite settled my determination. I forget the sermon, but the text was "What will the end thereof be?"— and feeling that my heart was not in the work, I knew that the "end" would be failure. Seeing that I was determined to leave, and to try my fortune in commercial pursuits, my master, as a last argument, told me there were thousands of young men wanting similar employment, and that if I succeeded in obtaining a situation, I should probably not get more than £50 a year.

At last I was free, but never shall I forget the great terror that came upon me when I suddenly realised that I was face to face with the world, with but few friends who could help me, and with no business experience. For awhile I fully sympathised with the Israelites when they looked back upon the fleshpots of Egypt, and felt greatly tempted to go back to my school life.

At this juncture my early reading served me in good stead. Up to my twelfth year almost the only books I had read were, The Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, Jacob Abbott's Every Day Duty, and that excellent book for young men, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. These "Best of books" (not forgetting the Bible, which was daily read in our family) were read by me over and over again, and I took courage from Franklin's history of his struggles, and determined to succeed, if possible, in my new career.

In after life I made diligent quest for the same editions of these works that I had read in childhood, but it was twenty years or more before I succeeded. Benjamin Franklin I "picked up" in Holywell Street, London; but for Jacob Abbott (an American author) I long advertised in American and English book circulars without success. One day, however, I received a copy from an English bookseller, notwithstanding the receipt on the self-same day of a letter from the American publishers of Abbott's works assuring me that no such work had ever been published.

While I was a teacher at Sidcot my brother George spent two happy years there, from which he derived great and lasting benefit. In after years, when fortune had smiled upon us, it was with very great pleasure that we found an opportunity of materially assisting our old school. For many years it was our custom to attend the General meeting, and on one occasion on returning to Bristol I travelled with the late George Thomas, the Philanthropist and merchant prince of that city, who long acted as treasurer to the school. Like too many other public institutions, Sidcot School was in a chronic state of debt to its treasurer, and in referring to this circumstance, George Thomas thus addressed me, "Richard, I understand thou art getting on well in business: I shall not live always, and Sidcot will want a friend some day."

What the school required was a more attractive system of modern education and a larger number of pupils, but in order to secure these, new class rooms and increased sleeping accommodation were needed, and these wants it was our privilege to be able to supply. Ever since these improvements have been effected the school has been full of pupils, many of them paying extra fees, the result being that the successor of George Thomas has been the treasurer in something more than a nominal sense.

My eldest brother, James, much against his will, was placed with a country wheelwright; while Joseph, my second brother, equally unwilling, was bound for a term to a shoeing smith; but having completely mastered these trades while yet in their teens, they determined to follow their natural inclinations by obtaining employment as engineers. Their love for mechanical engineering was derived from our maternal grandfather to whom I have already referred; he was an assistant to some great mining engineers in Cornwall during the last years of the eighteenth century. Unfortunately he was engaged with the unsuccessful opponents of Boulton and Watt; and with the failure of his employers he turned to other occupations, and so lost the chance of developing his great natural abilities.

In those days much more depended upon the "all-round" abilities of workmen in charge of machinery than now; and my brother James had the opportunity of seeing some excellent work done by my grandfather, on the many occasions when the old man took him to the engine-house at night "for company." While engaged in driving the engine by night, my grandfather occupied his spare time, amongst other things, by making fuses for the miners; but the invention of the safety-fuse soon after deprived him of this source of income. Curiously enough my two elder brothers, nearly fifty years after, made their first considerable step forward by devising and making machinery for the manufacture of fuse, which greatly lessened the cost of its production, and now (1889) eighty years after, another brother, Edward, is engaged in the manufacture of a greatly improved fuse, by special machinery invented by him.

A hundred years ago, when any small article of Birmingham manufacture was required in the west of Cornwall, it often took several months before it could be obtained; first, the order was given to the local ironmonger, who sent it to the Bristol merchant, who in his turn sent it to the Birmingham "factor," who obtained it from the maker in the town or in the neighbouring Black Country. Once made, it had to wait until a parcel sufficiently large was ready for despatch, and then by a slow, lumbering waggon or on a pack-horse it found its way to Cornwall.

On one occasion a new vice-pin or screw and box were wanted in the mine where my grandfather was engaged, and the necessary delay in procuring it from Birmingham would have been most inconvenient, and so the old man undertook to make one. In these days of screw-cutting lathes such a feat would never be spoken of, but the only tools my grandfather had with which to make the screw were a hammer and chisel, and with these he accomplished the task successfully. One great disadvantage which has been brought about by the great advance in the modern systems of manufacture, is the gradual extinction of the "all-round" workman—the genuine "Jack-of-all-trades."

While my brothers were engaged in their uncongenial occupations with the wheelwright and shoeing smith they spent their evenings in a workshop at home, where they made working models of engines and other machines, while the younger ones turned the wheel. My father was unable to see that any practical advantage was likely to accrue from this occupation, and often used to lament the waste of candles; but my mother, with a keener perception, recognised the natural bent of her sons' minds, and encouraged its development. Unhappily, neither of them lived to witness the ultimate results of her foresight. But it was not long before the brothers demonstrated that the candles were not wasted, for a little beam-engine which they made was sold for a sum that much more than paid for all the candles they had used.

It is well known that the "parallel motion" of a beam-engine requires very exact and careful "striking out;" and it was only after a series of experiments conducted with infinite patience that the brothers were able to make the "motion" for the little engine above referred to. It was not long before these experiments were put to a practical test on a much larger scale. My brother James, while still a youth, obtained a situation at an engine factory in Devonport, the manager of which was Mr. Smiles, a brother of the author of those interesting works, The Lives of the Engineers, Self-Help, etc.

Mr. Smiles had gone to London to get married, and during his absence a twenty-five horse-power engine had to be completed. A difficulty having arisen as to the parallel motion, the master asked the men in the shop if any one among them could strike out the proportions of the links and the radius rods. To this there was no reply until James, who had mastered the principle in making the little engine of which I have spoken, called out that he could do it. Coming from a lad who was looked upon from his age as being little more than an apprentice, this was received with a murmur of derision. However, he was requested to give the dimensions, and the work was completed accordingly.

When the engine was finished, and the trial was about to take place, there was no little speculation as to how the parallel motion would work. At the first starting there was some amount of unsteadiness, and the croakers looked for a triumph, till James, suspecting foul play, sprang up and examined the blocks, when he found that one of them had been unscrewed, either purposely or by accident. The mischief was quickly remedied, and the engine "went off," and once again (and many times since) it was demonstrated that the candles were not wasted!

Some time after this occurrence my brother was offered the management of the whole business, but distrusting his own powers, he declined the post; and work soon after falling short, he left the situation in order that a place might be found for the son of a poor widow who lived near, and to whom constant employment was of greater importance; and in doing so, James jocularly remarked that he "would be all right as his father had had a good crop of turnips that year." Before long he had urgent letters from his old master inviting him to return; but a congenial engagement in the inventing and making of new machinery for the manufacture of safety-fuse, in which he was joined by my brother Joseph gave him full employment near his own home. The promoter of the Safety Fuse Company was Mr. Brunton, a former pupil of Brunel's, and at the time engineer of the West Cornwall Railway under that great engineer.

Mr. Brunton had invented a new bridge, and wanted an ingenious and clever mechanic to make a model of it for him. He had heard of my brothers' doings in their little workshop, and sent for James, and on entering his private workshop Mr. Brunton requested him to place a piece of iron in the vice and to proceed to file it. Now there are two ways of setting about that apparently simple piece of work; and before my brother had used the file two minutes, Mr. Brunton said "All right, I see you know how to handle a file," and straightway engaged him, — the engagement lasting many years.

In those days lucifer matches had not penetrated so far west, and the old style of procuring light by means of flint, steel, and tinder was in vogue, the matches being made of thin strips of pine-wood, with both ends pointed and dipped in sulphur; and I well remember my mother's last question at night, "Is the tinder made?" for my brothers had to get up before it was light on winter mornings to go to their work; and when, later on, they were devising the machinery for making safety fuse, I was often awakened from sleep by hearing one of them striking the steel to procure a light to enable him to make a note of something that had occurred to him.

The advantage of the lucifer matches over the old kind is obvious, but their introduction was the cause of great disappointment to an old blind friend of ours; for, shortly before they came into use, he had commenced making the sulphur dips for sale, in order to contribute to the maintenance of a poor afflicted girl in the neighbourhood; so that, like all new inventions, this did not, at first, prove an unmixed blessing.

And while I am speaking of these "brimstone matches," I must not forget to relate an incident which occurred when I was about five years old, and which, though apparently trivial in itself, I have always felt has had an important bearing upon my subsequent fortunes. My grandfather, who had a horror of waste of any kind, whether of time or material, was once taking me into his stable when he saw a boy, who was employed by him, light a candle with one of these matches, which he threw away, although the other end was still unused. The old man, who, like most Cornishmen, was very emphatic in his tones, said, "Do you waste my property? then you will never be worth a sixpence of your own;" and although I did not understand the full significance of the remark at the time, I never forgot it, and have never lost an opportunity of impressing it upon those in my employment.

A celebrated maker of mustard, who had made a large fortune by the manufacture of that article, was once asked how it was possible for so much money to be made out of an article of which so little was used? He replied that it was not what was used that he had made his fortune by, but what was wasted; and speaking of waste, I have somewhere seen it stated that a Frenchman would grow fat upon what an Englishman wastes, and I believe there is very much truth in the observation. When travelling in New Zealand a few years since, I was shocked to see a servant-girl at our hotel deliberately throw two wax candles into the fire to make it burn!

I believe that in our manufacturing towns every charitable institution, not provided for out of the public rates, could be amply maintained by the money represented by the avoidable waste in the great factories and Other places of business; and this waste could be prevented, almost entirely, if the reflecting portion of those employed would but summon up courage to carry out the admirable injunction contained in indentures of apprenticeship that "he will not waste his master's goods, nor see it done by others."

Another important factor in the success which has attended our efforts has undoubtedly been our abstinence from the use of intoxicating drinks, except under special circumstances. I have entertained Cabinet ministers and other members of Parliament at my house, but my table has never been furnished with wine or other intoxicants. Sometimes, it is true, I have invited my guests to accompany me to my wine-cellar, where is to be found good store of spirits; but they are the spirits of the mighty dead, for the wine-cellar is only another name for my library.

But to return to my own experiences. On leaving my school situation I tried to get a place as stationmaster on a local railway, and waited upon the chairman, who, when a young man, was a fellow workman with my father in a mine. After a few minutes conversation Dr. Smith, the chairman, said to me, "Take my advice, try for something else; you are fit for something better than to be a station-master." These words gave me courage, and I determined to adhere to my resolution to obtain employment in some business house. The opportunity was not long in coming, for replying to an advertisement, I was successful in obtaining a situation as clerk in a small engineering establishment in Birmingham, owned by Mr. Thomas Worsdell, whose father made the first railway carriage — or coaches as they are still called for the London and North Western Railway. My old schoolmaster's prognostication as to my salary proved to be perfectly correct, for I was to receive £50 a year.

It is true the advertisement offered £80; but seeing that I had yet to learn my business, and that doubtless the advertiser expected to obtain the services of an efficient clerk for the salary offered, I thought it prudent and fair to offer to take less until by assiduity and experience I should become of more value; and it is a pleasure, no less than a duty for me here to offer my warmest acknowledgments to my old employer for the great forbearance he uniformly extended towards my inexperience.

And now, having obtained my desire for commercial employment, a new terror came upon me; for having had no experience in business, I was full of misgivings as to how I should acquit myself. Leaving Cornwall with "lingering steps and slow,' I made several calls on my way to Bristol: but at length, casting my fears behind me, I took the train thence to Birmingham, and determined to face my work with spirit.

Punctually at nine o'clock next morning I proceeded to my employer's place of business; but oh! what a change from the scenery in which my school was situated amongst the Mendip Hills. It was winter and the streets were ankle-deep in mud, and the "works" were situated up a narrow lane in the smokiest and most grimy part of the town. The office was in a loft, which was approached by a stepladder. On entering I found my employer, in his hat and overcoat, standing writing at his desk; and on my announcing my arrival he said: "I am glad you have turned up; will you copy these invoices?" and all my fears vanished, and I felt glad that my entrance into business life was in so unpretending a place.

On leaving Cornwall, a worthy old Friend, the late George C- gave me some excellent advice. Said he, "Richard, thou art going into a large town where there are many temptations. Thy father has left thee a good name, and it is an unusual one. It is not like Jones or Brown; and if thou dost anything wrong, everyone will know who it is. See that thou keep it bright." He also gave me another excellent piece of advice which I have endeavoured not to forget, "Begin to give as soon as thou begins to get."

Birmingham was a different place in those days from what it has since become, both in its outward appearance and in its public institutions. There were no Free Libraries or public news-rooms; and, with the exception of the Mechanics' Institute, I believe there were no places where young men could profitably spend their evenings, consequently the music halls and public-houses were largely patronised.

I arrived at Birmingham in the last week of 1852. At that time, provincial newspapers were published but once a week, and were high in price, and so I became a subscriber to a news-room, paying a penny per week. During the spring of 1853 I read a most interesting series of letters in a Glasgow newspaper, signed "Common Sense," where the relations between employers and employed were discussed in a most temperate and enlightened manner. Amongst other things the writer strongly recommended employers to pay wages on Friday evenings, and to close their works at one o'clock on Saturdays. My employer's men left work at half-past four o'clock on Saturdays; And then each in his turn ascended the step-ladder, and the master entered up his time for the week and calculated his wages. But as each separate job was entered, a discussion arose upon it, so that the progress was slow, and murmurings were heard in the shed below. It was often six or seven o'clock before the last man left, and the delay in settling was a fruitful cause of ill-humour between master and men. [1]

At length I ventured to suggest to my employer that the plan proposed in the Glasgow paper was well worth trying, and that by entering up each man's work daily much delay would be prevented. He readily agreed; and it was arranged that the men should work half an hour longer on the first five days of the week (representing the Saturday afternoon's time), and that they should leave off at one o'clock on Saturday; at the same time it was also arranged that the wages should be paid on Friday evenings, the amount due to each man being agreed upon beforehand. The wives of the working men were thus enabled to make their purchases by daylight on the Saturday, instead of by flaming gaslight late at night when the best of everything had gone. It was not long before the system became general throughout the town and district.

About two years after I settled in Birmingham my brother Edward set out for America, but the ship in which he sailed being manned by a drunken crew ran on the rocks after they had been out only four hours, and 195 persons were drowned. My brother saved his life, but lost all his luggage. On his way to Plymouth to join the ship he went from Falmouth in the local steamer, being rowed to it by a boatman whose little boy greatly admired a painted barrel my brother had amongst his luggage. After the wreck my brother walked back to Falmouth, and was the first to bring the news. When he had finished his narrative, stating that nearly 200 people had been drowned, a small voice from the crowd called out, "And is that purty little bar'l lost too?" It was the boatman's little boy. The morning after the wreck I was walking into Birmingham when I saw on the newspaper placard, "Wreck of an Emigrant Ship," and instinctively felt it was my brother's. On looking at the paper I found his name the third on the list of saved.

During the next three years my younger brother joined me as junior clerk; and after much persuasion I induced my two elder brothers to give up their situations in Cornwall and come to Birmingham, where I was sure their mechanical and engineering skill would have much greater scope. My employer at once made James the foreman of his works, while the lathe which they had made in the evenings at home now gave Joseph the leading position there by enabling him to do a class of work (hydraulic) that my employer had not done before.

Soon after my eldest brother came to Birmingham, we were walking in the residential part of the town, and on passing two fine houses, I told him they were owned by two men who entered Birmingham with their tools on their backs many years before, but who had succeeded by great industry and intelligence in building up a large business. On hearing this my brother said, "Why should not we do the same?" I had no idea he entertained such ambitious views; the possibility had never crossed my mind, but his query set me thinking, and from that time I never lost sight of it.

My employer's business greatly increased while we were with him and I might have remained indefinitely, but he took a partner who did not understand the business, but who had not the wit to refrain from meddling with those who did, consequently the place became uncomfortable, and I felt I should have to leave. The crisis came when this partner informed me that he had given orders for a window to be placed between his office and mine, with a curtain on his side. I told him my old employer had never found it necessary to overlook me, and I was sorry that I could not submit to it but he insisted, and I determined to leave. I had been in this situation for three and a half years, my salary having been advanced to £80 in the meantime.

And now I determined to try a new departure and although I had no money capital, being simply not in debt to anyone, I ventured to commence business on my own account as a merchant, while my brothers remained in their situations, and we all lived together. Manufacturers whom I had known when in my situation, encouraged me by offering me their goods on condition of my paying for them "when I could," at the same time remarking that they knew I should not order on speculation. My friends in the Cornish mines and railways gave me commissions, and gradually my connections extended to respectable dimensions.

An old friend, a bookseller in Birmingham, William White, who afterwards became Alderman and Mayor, kindly placed a desk in his shop at my disposal without charge and I stayed there until one day my friend's partner said to me, "Your letters are now more than ours, so I think one of us must move!"

Not thinking it reasonable that I should ask them to move, it became necessary for me to take another step in advance.

Many years afterwards a customer in Glasgow told me that shortly after I had started in business in this bookseller's shop, he was in Birmingham intending to place a good order with me, but after walking up and down the street two or three times, and seeing nothing but a bookseller's shop at the number I had given, he concluded there must be some mistake, and gave his order elsewhere. Inquiring of this gentleman one day as to the commercial character of a fellow citizen of his, he replied, with a shake of the head, "He wadna stick at a big lee!"

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. At Cornwall Works, 2,000 men are paid their wages in less than six minutes.