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 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 6

From Graces Guide
The Road locomotive 'Cornubia'


I FIRST visited London on business in 1858, and I shall never forget my experiences on that occasion; but I had been there once before to see the Great Exhibition of 1851. My brother James had been presented with £5 by his employer, in recognition of valuable services he and my brother Joseph had rendered him in the invention and making of the machinery for the manufacture of safety-fuse, and so James determined to see the first and most famous of the great World's Shows; and as I was at home during the school vacation, he kindly took me with him. We arrived in London late at night; but before going to bed, went across Hyde Park and looked into the building, and saw the great locomotive, the "Lord of the Isles," through the glass walls. We trudged many weary miles through the city, seeing all the sights that could be seen without payment, and a few for which payment was necessary, including, of course, Madame Tussaud's, where my brother trod on Cobbett's toe and begged his pardon, thinking he was alive!

My school duties required my return before my brother was compelled to leave London, and so I set out for Bristol on my way homewards. Money was scarce, so I said I was sure to get to Cornwall all right if I once got to Bristol, as I knew the people on board the Cornish steamer, and could obtain credit until my return with the pupils a few days after; so we parted. I must confess I did not feel so brave when I was in the train alone: it was on a very wet day in July, and everything was rendered additionally gloomy because of a total eclipse of the sun, which occurred while we were travelling. However, I reached home without further incident, and my brother stayed as long as his money lasted.

When next I went to London I met one day a member of a firm of Birmingham factors, who was managing the London portion of their business. He was a tall handsome man, and was walking with another gentleman, and, on my coming up to them, he introduced me to his friend with these words: "This is the man who launched the Great Eastern!" Now, I am not tall, and there was a decidedly sarcastic tone in the factor's voice; but he looked somewhat abashed when I replied, "Yes, great events from little causes spring!"

My business in London was to obtain orders for our manufactures. The experience was new to me, and I did not know where to go to obtain them; but happening to pass a shop in Gracechurch Street — the original of Dickens' Dolly Varden's Home — I saw a lifting-jack in the window, and determined to go in and ask for orders. I was timid, however, and walked up and down in front of the shop until I was afraid I should be told to "move on," and then ventured in. I submitted my price list to the proprietor, who was a venerable old gentleman, looking more like one's idea of a duke than a London tradesman, and was told to call again on the morrow, which I did, and was again put off.

My funds were getting very low, and feared I should not have enough to get back to Birmingham; but as I had reason to expect an order I felt I must stay, and was at length rewarded with a very good one. As I had not sufficient money left with which to buy a ticket, I set out from the General Post Office at two o'clock, walking to St. Albans that evening. Where was I to lodge? I must have a clean place, but it must not cost much, and, happening to look into a bookseller's shop, I saw a kindly-looking man behind the counter, so I ventured in and asked him where I could get such a lodging as I was looking for. He said he could send me to just the place, and directed me to a little inn on my road, where he said he had lodged for years, and told me to say that he sent me. There I went, and agreed with the landlady — a motherly old body — for a bedroom for which I was to pay sixpence; and investing twopence in bread and cheese, I retired, after asking them to call me at half-past four on the following morning. The bed was comfortable, and I was ready for it; and so it happened that when I awoke the sun was streaming into the room, and it was half-past eight! I complained to the landlady for not having called me, as I had a long day's walk before me, but she told me I was looking very tired when I went to bed, and she thought some extra sleep would do me good. On the following day I went on to Leighton Buzzard, and then found I had sufficient money with which to buy a ticket for Birmingham.

In 1859 our business had so much increased that we removed to new premises which we had built in Clement Street, Birmingham, and which we thought would be ample for all future requirements. In this year, too, I married Miss Caroline Jesper, [1] whose ancestor, John Jasper, of Rotterdam, or one of the same name, place, and period, was the maternal grandfather of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.

The Jaspers removed from Holland to Essex at the close of the seventeenth century, and brought with them a new industry, the manufacture of "beige," a material for ladies' dresses. For more than two centuries there have not ceased to be representatives of the family in the village of Stebbing, near to Dunmow, and the history of the Friends in Essex, during the eighteenth century, contains numerous instances of the persecution they endured at the hands of the clergy, for refusing to attend "church" and for non-payment of tithes and church rates.

Amongst our visitors while we were in these works (Clement Street) was an agent or accomplice of the patriot Orsini, the Italian conspirator against Louis Napoleon. This man brought a sample of a bomb similar to those which were afterwards used in the abortive attempt to kill the Emperor, and asked us to make some. We had not, of course, the slightest idea as to what the apparatus was; but we did not like the look of it, and declined to undertake the work. Some years later we received another foreign communication from a Greek merchant in Constantinople, who requested us to supply him with a machine for "skinning dogs while alive." We also declined this commission, and sent the inquiry to the papers, without disclosing the name of our correspondent. The incident was referred to in many Continental papers, and we received a letter from the Greek begging us not to disclose his name or he would be ruined if we did.

Up to the beginning of this year (1859) we did no trade with France; but about this time I saw an advertisement in the Birmingham Daily Post which ran something like this: "Manufacturers wishing to open a market for their goods in France are requested to send their price lists to F 122, Daily Post Office." We had often answered advertisements before with very little result save disappointment; but there was something about this which struck my fancy, and I determined to send our price lists. From various causes, however, I put off doing so, and in the meantime lost the advertisement, but, trusting to my memory, I at length sent the lists, and on the following day was waited upon by the advertiser. He examined our productions, and said he thought he could do some trade for us, although the French tariff was almost prohibitory. This was the year before the Treaty; but it was known that Mr. Cobden was about to negotiate a commercial treaty with France, and we determined to persevere until it was concluded.

When the Treaty was about to come into force we had a large quantity of goods at the port ready for shipment, and I believe that ours were among the first to be landed in France; and ever since that time we have done a very large trade with that country, through the agency of the merchant to whom I have referred. And it is worthy of note that although this firm has been our sole agents for France for thirty years, we have never had a serious misunderstanding with them, although the agreement was never reduced to writing. Some years before his death I told the merchant the story of the advertisement, when he said that ours was the only answer he received to it; and as more than a week had passed since he inserted it, he had entirely given up expecting one.

During the time in which Mr. Cobden was engaged in negotiating the French Treaty, he frequently caused it to be intimated that any practical suggestions from merchants and manufacturers in England would be most useful to him, and would have his careful attention. Under the old tariff, amongst other harassing regulations, there was one which gave us a great deal of trouble, and which would have effectually stopped our trade with France if it had not been abolished. This regulation required that with every machine there should be sent a complete drawing, with the various parts coloured in such a way as to denote the different kinds of material used, and also the different ways in which the various parts were finished. For example, rough cast-iron was to be shown of one colour, but if turned or polished, it was to be of another; and so on with wrought iron, steel, gun-metal, brass, etc.; and when gun-metal was used, the composition was also to be given. In some cases the drawing cost nearly as much as the machine; and when the French Customs authorities had finished with it, it was handed over to the Ecole des Arts et Metiers, in Paris, where young French engineers were taught to compete with the foreign manufacturers, at the expense of the latter.

This was a practical grievance, and accordingly I wrote to Mr. Cobden, setting it forth. In reply I received a long letter in his own hand, thanking me for the information, and promising that it should receive due attention. When the Treaty was published, Article III. showed that Mr. Cobden had not overlooked the matter, for it runs as follows:— "The importer of machines or mechanical instruments, complete or in detached pieces, of British origin or manufacture, shall be exempt from the obligation of producing at the French Customs any model or drawing of the imported article." This was a most substantial concession and greatly facilitated the successful working of the Treaty.

A few years since, when the Protectionists of this country endeavoured to excite the public against Free Trade principles by raising a cry for Reciprocity, Mr. Bright, in one of his speeches in the Birmingham Town Hall, alluding to this subject, stated that there was a firm in the town engaged in engineering, who employed a large number of hands upon work ordered from France, and he asked the reciprocityists what was to become of these men if their demands were conceded?

This was in consequence of some particulars I had furnished to Mr. Bright; and while he was delivering his speech I was sitting in the gallery, and by my side sat a gentleman who told me he was a barrister from Australia, and that he had come down to Birmingham from London expressly to hear Mr. Bright, and would willingly have gone ten times the distance. When Mr. Bright made this allusion to our firm, without, however, mentioning any name, I told my Australian friend he was speaking of us, and showed him a letter which I had that morning received from Mr. Bright respecting it; he begged that I would give him the envelope, which was in Mr. Bright's handwriting. This gentleman - Mr. Way - has since become Chief Justice of South Australia.

Up to this time, and indeed ever since, we had been remarkably free from disputes with our men; for, having sprung from their ranks ourselves, we knew their wants and feelings, and tried to meet them as far as possible. But now a strike arose through our putting an intelligent labourer to do a little of the simplest machine work. One of the men who objected to this had been trained by my brother when they were both in the service of our late employer in a precisely similar manner, having been brought out of the ranks of unskilled labourers and put into training as an artisan.

One morning, as my brother and I were discussing some business in the drawing office, a party of about a dozen men entered the room with their coats on and hats in hand, evidently ready to leave the works if their demands were not complied with. Being asked what they wanted, the leader asked if it was our intention to continue to employ the labourer in question at the drilling machine? My brother replied that that was certainly our intention, upon which the leader said that it was against the rules of their Society, and could not be allowed. We declined to alter our decision, and observing that the man whom we had trained under similar circumstances was looking very uncomfortable, we asked him how it was possible that he should join in such a discreditable business? Without waiting for anything further we remarked that as they had evidently come prepared to go out we would not disappoint them; and one of us walking at their head, while the other brought up the rear, we took them through the shops without giving them an opportunity of saying another word, although they tried hard to re-open the question with another member of the firm.

This prompt action evidently disconcerted the men very much, and they looked very crestfallen as they passed through the gates. The leader of the ejected party did his best by picketing the neighbourhood - to prevent other men from taking their places, and also to cause discontent amongst those whom he had left behind; but in all these efforts he was unsuccessful. The next evening after the strike I was going home, and on crossing a street passed close to a knot of men who were busily discussing some subject. My sight being defective I did not see who they were, but presently I heard a well-known voice say, "I feel that bad -" but just then catching sight of me, he stopped, and I said, "What! so bad as that already, John?" and then recommended him to return to his work. This they all did, and so ended our first strike.

Some years after this my brother Joseph invented a machine with which half a dozen screws could be cut at the same cost as it before took to cut one; and, as was his practice with new machines, he demonstrated its capacity by working at it for a week himself. Shortly after the machine was put to work, my brother was walking down the yard when he saw two strangers coming towards him. He asked their business, and they said they had come about this new machine which they understood would do the work of several men. "Well," said my brother, "what of that?" "We cannot allow it to be used," they said, "for it is against the rules of our Society." They were told it was not against the rules of our Society, and were then politely requested to leave the works, and we heard no more of the matter.

Of course these men expected that the new machine would cause fewer men to be employed, but it was soon demonstrated that it had an opposite effect. It has often been noticed that one new invention brings another in its wake, and so it was in this case. The machine was used for cutting screws for lifting-jacks, and the cost having been so much reduced we were enabled to sell them at proportionately low prices, the consequence being that railway and other companies gave much larger orders. It was soon found that this improvement in manufacture, so far from reducing the number of men employed in this particular branch, increased them at least three-fold.

We had now been in business about three years, and our personal expenditure had been confined to absolute necessaries, for our growing business demanded all the surplus arising from profits. At one time our very success bade fair to overwhelm us, for the business increased too fast for our limited capital. It was while we were in this state that I had my first experience of the bankers' "sweating room." Our order book was full of profitable contracts; but although we worked almost night and day, and never had a holiday, we could not get them out with sufficient despatch. We put a great number of orders in hand together, and tried to carry them on simultaneously, but the effect of this was to delay the completion of them all, and we were hard pressed to pay for the supplies of material. What we required was more room and more machinery, so, in my innocence I applied to the bankers for a very modest advance. I was shown into the dreaded "parlour," and after an interval, the manager entered. He was a dry, phlegmatic, old Scotchman; and before our interview was over I had come to the conclusion that nether millstones were softer than some men's natures. We had been customers to the bank for two or three years, but as yet had had no "accommodation;" so our name was not new to the man of "hard cash."

He asked my business, and I tried to explain our position, ending by asking for an advance of £500. His manner made me almost feel as though I was trying to rob him. He asked what security we could give, and I told him we could give none, for all our money was in the business, but that our character would bear investigation. He at once curtly declined to advance a penny. I begged him to send someone to see our books, and our workshops, which were teeming with unfinished work, reminding him that our place was only a few hundred yards from the bank. But all in vain; he was as hard and unsympathetic as a "hanging judge" of the olden time, so we had to get on as well as we could. Fortunately we had reached the "darkest part of the night," and things rapidly began to mend. Before long we had money to invest, and in an evil moment were tempted to buy some shares in this bank — the first investment of our hard earnings. In less than a year after we had bought the shares the bank came down with a crash under the management of a relative of this austere Scot, and we lost all our money.

One great advantage possessed by manufacturers in Birmingham having but small capital, is the practice which has long existed amongst the factors and merchants of paying cash every Saturday, for the supplies of the whole week; and it would have been impossible for us to have succeeded but for this practice. One of the Birmingham merchants had given us large orders upon the understanding that we should be paid weekly; but every week as I applied for the money due, he resented the application. I persisted, having good reasons to believe that he was not too "safe." On one occasion, as I entered his office he said, in a very freezing manner, "Oh, Mr. Tangye, you are like Death, you are sure to come." I replied that we were poor, and that wages had to be paid every Saturday. "Oh," said he, "poverty is no crime." "No," I replied, "but it is very inconvenient." It was not long before my caution was justified, for he failed miserably. Some years afterwards I met this merchant in London. In the meantime we had got on very well, and he congratulated me upon it, at the same time remarking, "Do you know, Mr. Tangye, I used to think I would join you in business, and it was the greatest mistake of my life that I did not do so."

About 1862 my brothers invented a new hydraulic jack for general purposes, and for lighter weights than the ship jacks. They were designed for one man to lift from three tons to sixty tons, and speedily became a great success. But we found it very difficult to introduce the new jack into the South Staffordshire ironworks, where a clumsy old-fashioned apparatus called a "rack" jack was still in use. The greatest weight that this machine was made to lift was twenty tons. It weighed four times as much as a hydraulic jack of the same power, taking up four times its space, and requiring four men to work it as against one with the hydraulic jack.

One day my brother James and I took one of these jacks in a cart to the Black Country, to show its operation and to take orders for them. We called first at a large works, the proprietors of which were supposed to be comparatively free from the prejudices of the regular South Staffordshire ironmaster; and having explained our business, asked permission to show the jack in operation. It happened that the engineer was putting new brasses into the bearings of a large flywheel shaft at the moment, and James offered to do the work himself. The fly-wheel weighed about twenty tons, and the operator had to descend into a pit in order to do the work. They accepted his offer, while ridiculing him for making it, being sure he would fail. But in a couple of minutes they saw the wheel gradually rising; and in a very little time the old brasses were taken out, and new ones put in, and screwed down, and my brother stood amongst them again. I made sure that I should now get an order, having so completely demonstrated the value of the invention, but was met with the sage objection that "perhaps it would not do so well the next time," and a refusal to order.

This is a fair example of the way in which the iron-masters of South Staffordshire treated inventors a quarter of a century ago, the consequence being that their trade has left them and gone to districts where proprietors and managers were more enlightened. Ultimately we succeeded in introducing the jack in the Black Country by employing the maker of the old rack jacks whose trade was decaying.

There has been no more marked feature in the progress of mechanical science during the past thirty years than improvements which have been made in the method of moving and lifting heavy weights. The possession of great personal strength by mechanics has become less of a necessity, thus giving men of a weaker physique opportunities they did not have before, and the tendency is constantly in the direction of diminishing the strain upon the human frame.

The first large piece of machinery made by us, was a hydraulic shearing machine, designed to cut bars of iron six inches square, cold, the operation being performed either by hand or steam power; when completed the machine was tested by cutting a piece of cold iron nine inches by six inches. This machine weighed twenty-four tons, and the pressure exerted to perform its work was equal to a thousand tons. The main casting was made of cannon lost in the sea during the great siege of Gibraltar by the Spaniards, and afterwards fished up and sold by the British Government. These "shears" were made for the Russian Government at a time when there was trouble in Poland, and Punch expressed a hope that the Czar would use them for "sheering off" from that country.

About 1862 the subject of providing "feeders" in country places for the main lines of railway came again into prominence. Branch lines had been proved to be unremunerative from their great cost in construction; and amongst other systems proposed, was that of light, quick-speed locomotives for carrying passengers, and traction engines for the conveyance of heavy produce and other goods. We determined to construct a locomotive of the former class, and succeeded in making a very successful example, with which we travelled many hundreds of miles. The fire-box was made of copper, and there were nearly 100 metal tubes in the boiler, enabling us to get up steam from cold water in a very few minutes. The total weight of the locomotive was 27 cwt., the machinery being simple and very compact, and the whole occupying no more space than an ordinary phaeton, and capable of carrying ten persons. The greatest speed we attained was over twenty miles an hour, the engine being easily managed and under perfect control.

Great interest was manifested in our experiment, and it soon became evident that there was an opening for a considerable business in these engines, and we made our preparation accordingly, but the "wisdom" of Parliament made it impossible. The squires became alarmed lest their horses should take fright; and although a judge ruled that a horse that would not stand the sight or sound of a locomotive, in these days of steam, constituted a public danger, and that its owner should be punished and not the owner of the locomotive, an Act was passed providing that no locomotive should travel more than four miles an hour on the public roads, and that they should all be preceded by a man carrying a red flag. Thus was the trade of quick speed road locomotives strangled in its cradle, and the inhabitants of country districts left unprovided with improved facilities for travelling, while without doubt more horses have been frightened by the red flag than would have been by the locomotives.

On one of my early visits to London a merchant in that city, who had been a successful commercial traveller, gave me some excellent advice, which I have never lost sight of. He said that the best of all studies for a man in business was the study of human nature. "You will find," said he, "that customers are divided into two classes, viz., those who like to do all the talking themselves, and those who expect you to do all the talking for them: the first thing you have to do is to ascertain to which class the man before you belongs. If the former, let him talk till he is tired, and then agree with him as far as you possibly can; you will then find that he will be ready to accept your suggestions; with the non-talkative man a contrary course should be adopted."

As year after year went on our business continued to increase, especially as we were frequently introducing "novelties" in mechanical apparatus. Speaking of "novelties," I remember an amusing remark which a London customer once made to me respecting them. He said that he never considered that a new invention was thoroughly established — so that he could venture to buy for stock — until the Jew dealers in Cowcross Street had begun to sell second-hand specimens of it! Very few engineering firms have introduced more "novelties" than we have; indeed, it has always been our boast that, large as our business is, it has not become so by taking the trade from other manufacturers. I believe that four-fifths of our business, including pumping machinery, hydraulic machinery generally, lifting tackle, and, to a large extent, steam engines, is not only new to Birmingham, constituting a distinct addition to its manufacturing industry, but is also the result of new inventions, or adaptations, previously unknown.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. In the beginning of the eighteenth century the spelling of the family name underwent a change.