A Hundred Years of Engineering Craftsmanship

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THE firm which employed two workpeople in 1858 was employing 8oo by the end of the ‘sixties, and within another twenty years had increased the number on its payroll to 2,000. Such continued rapid expansion could scarcely have been maintained without constant and careful attention to markets. James and Joseph, helped by George especially in works management, had produced excellent machines: Richard enthusiastically devoted himself to selling them. Competition was always growing but Richard’s power of swift decision — sometimes apparently ruthless — was of considerable advantage in his chosen field. Each aspect of the brothers’ work was, in fact, complementary, although they themselves in the heat of the day sometimes found difficulty in appreciating each other’s talents.

Without much of the paraphernalia of twentieth century business efficiency - telephones, typewriters and so on, advertising media, air travel - modern salesmanship was only in embryo a century ago. But Richard possessed a gift for publicity which made people remember the name of Tangye. ‘We launched the Great Eastern, the Great Eastern launched us’ was particularly successful. Some twenty years later he used the erection of Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment for another simple, but telling, advertisement:

‘A.D. 1586 Fontana raised the Obelisk in Rome with 40 capstans, worked by 960 men and 75 horses.
A.D. 1836 Le Bas raised the Luxor Obelisk in Paris with 20 capstans, worked by 480 men.
A.D. 1878 Mr. John Dixon raised Cleopatra’s Needle in London, using four of Tangye’s.Patent Hydraulic Lifting Jacks, worked by 4 men.’


An easy appreciation of novel ideas, amounting perhaps on occasion to over-enthusiasm, was also an invaluable asset in nineteenth century commerce. It was this characteristic which doubtless caused Richard to concentrate so much effort in Australasia and South Africa, but it also reveals itself in smaller ways as, for example, in a letter to Joseph in November 1876: ‘I write this with the new American “Type-writer” and can write faster than with pen and ink, and with not a tenth of the fatigue’.

The structure of the selling organization which the firm built up was not, however, essentially different from that of today. The first step was to establish agencies at home and abroad, followed where possible by branch houses. Richard Tangye’s heroes were Cobden and Bright, with their belief in world-wide free trade, and throughout his life his trading policies actively endorsed his political principles.


By the time of the 1862 Exhibition Tangyes had already built up friendly relations with two London merchants. S. & E. Ransome of Essex Street, Strand, acted as sole agents for Weston’s pulley blocks. From the first they undertook responsibility for this trade and continued to develop it, sending travellers at their own expense throughout Great Britain as well as abroad. Their exclusive agency continued not only for the duration of the original patent but was later extended for the period of a new patent which covered an improved block. The sole agent for all other machinery was Stephen Holman, of Cannon Street, with whom in 1867 the brothers formed a partnership to establish the branch house of Tangye Brothers & Holman, with warehouse and drawing-office at 10 Laurence Pountney Lane, not far from London Bridge. In accordance with the terms of the agreement, Richard started work in the London office, thereby increasing his own commercial experience and considerably extending Tangyes’ business connections. He enjoyed these years in London: ‘I have often felt since that that period of my life covered my happiest experience’.

The agreement was in form somewhat complex. Stephen Holman, himself an engineer, had obtained a number of patents for various types of pump, which Tangyes now undertook to make and to sell entirely through the London firm. In addition, Holman was already agent for a number of other manufacturers, and these arrangements were to be continued. The catalogue of 1870 — an excellent example of a comprehensive trade list with engraved illustrations, descriptions and prices, well-printed and bound — therefore covers not only the whole range of Tangye machines, but also includes a number of products not made at Cornwall Works, such as portable steam engines and locomotive traction engines. For their part Tangyes agreed not to establish any similar business or concern, apart from one already in existence at Newcastle-on-Tyne, nor to appoint any Agent or Agents in any new district without the consent in writing first obtained’ of Stephen Holman. Such a wide and unqualified clause answered well enough at first, but became increasingly restrictive and irksome as trade continued to expand.

The Newcastle partnership of Tangye Brothers & Rake, founded in the middle ‘sixties, enabled the firm to build up a valuable trade in the important northern markets of Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire. Upon the death of A. S. Rake a few years later, the branch continued to prosper under the able management of George H. Haswell. In 1877 it became Tangye Brothers, Newcastle.
In the similar industrial area of South Wales two partnerships were formed: Tangye Brothers & Steel, Newport, and Tangye Brothers & Steel, Swansea. Less fortunate than the northern venture, these branches ran into certain administrative difficulties and the great trade depression at the end of the ‘seventies finally forced their dissolution. T. Dyne Steel, however, continued to act as the firm’s agent for the area.

By the mid-seventies Richard Tangye was determined to end the exclusive London agency and to over-ride Stephen Holman’s veto, which he had chosen to exercise, on the establishment of new branch houses. After several years of prosperous and expanding trade, Tangye Brothers were at the time in a strong financial position and in 1877 they opened two branch houses, one in Manchester the other in Glasgow. The firm was thus represented in the four largest industrial areas outside the Midlands.
Tangye Brothers & Holman, of course, continued to be by far the most important single selling channel, and the commercial prestige and convenience of a London house constantly increased. It was not long before Richard began to think Laurence Pountney Lane too small and out of the way for the display and sale of goods. The yard and warehouse there served well enough and were retained but in 1878 a new block in the recently-built Queen Victoria Street was acquired for the offices and showrooms. In various speeches and writings, Richard was fond of illustrating his conception of progress in the City of London by this example: ‘In London the firm owns the large and handsome block of buildings (known as Cornwall House, 35 Queen Victoria Street), covering the whole of the site of Sir Christopher Wren’s Church of St. Antholin, the bustle of their daily business contrasting in marked manner with the deserted aspect of the old Church for many years before its removal; the Sunday congregation having long been reduced to less than a score’. Here the London House of Tangyes Ltd. remained until its own end came rather more barbarically and certainly more suddenly in the air raid on the eve of 1941. The Church of St. Antholin had, after all, enjoyed a longer life than Cornwall House with all its bustle and activity.


It was not merely fortuitous that Tangyes’ most rapid development coincided with extremely favourable opportunities in overseas markets. Liberalism and imperialism both contributed to the excellent trading atmosphere of these mid-century years. The liberal policy of free trade had won many successes, of which the commercial treaty with France, negotiated by Richard Cobden, was an outstanding example.
In i86o when the French Treaty came into force, Tangyes had just made the acquaintance of Philippe Roux, a merchant trading with France and partner in a Birmingham agency. One clause of the treaty particularly simplified the export of engineering products:
‘The importer of machines or mechanical instruments, complete or in detached pieces, of British manufacture, shall be exempt from the obligations of producing at the French Customs any model or drawing of the imported article’. Exports to France soon increased and at the same time a long-standing personal friendship developed between the Tangye family and the family of Roux in Paris.

Philippe Roux undertook almost the whole responsibility for furthering the French trade during the following decades. He equipped showrooms in the Place de Ia République which were ‘magnificently laid out and managed and kept’. He also opened sub-agencies throughout France entirely at his own expense. At the time of the important Paris Exhibition of 1878 he took full charge of the arrangement and display of Tangye products. The care which he took, coupled with the workmanship at Soho, was rewarded by gold medals for engines, and for condenser and hydraulic jacks, a silver medal for compound and special pumps, and a bronze medal for lathes.
The value and importance of Roux’s organization became particularly evident in the mid-eighties when intense economic depression at home was partly mitigated by an increased demand for Tangye products in France. Philippe Roux died in 1893: to do him honour two of the younger generation, Lincoln Tangye and Harry Tangye, attended the funeral in Paris of one ‘who for thirty years was so pleasantly associated with the Cornwall Works to the great benefit of the general business’.
Roux’s Birmingham partner in the earliest days was H. L. Muller, who dealt with the German trade. The rise of Prussia, the creation of the German Empire, and the growth of German industry, made this a more difficult market than the French. Towards the end of the ‘seventies, however, Richard Tangye determined to break into it and discussed the possibility of setting up a machinery depot in Berlin. The greatest drawback was the impossibility of obtaining patent protection for British goods. In December 1877, Richard Tangye wrote to Muller in high indignation, after failing to obtain protection for the ‘Soho’ engine: ‘We endeavoured to patent this engine in Germany but the respectable German Government took our money

for that object and then declined to grant the patent; a proceeding which we call robbery, but which we presume they call providing for the military budget. Bad success to the cause which requires to be supported by such means. (You will think this coming down hot upon Fatherland, but it is certainly deserved!)’
Other European markets presented difficulties for different reasons. In the early years the Holrnan partnership agreement prevented Tangyes from giving exclusive agencies for particular areas, such as that sought by a Mr. Reska travelling in Austria. Where possible, however, special terms were allowed, to merchants like F. W. Petersen & Co. of Copenhagen, who undertook the Scandinavian markets. This particular agreement excluded the Russian trade where irregularity of payments by St. Petersburg importers created special problems. During the ‘seventies, attempts were also made to capture the southern European trade and agents were appointed in Turin. In i8Si James Bache was appointed Tangye agent in Spain.
The following decade was one of acute commercial depression and little progress was possible. When trade revived the newly developed gas and oil engines helped to extend European interest in Tangye products. Branches were established for short periods at Genoa and Bilbao. George Haswell, now transferred from Newcastle to Cornwall Works, made many useful commercial acquaintances on long jour neys through Scandinavia, Russia and Turkey. But when Haswell visited Constantinople in 1895, he arrived in the wake of ‘a terrible massacre’. In less than twenty years the troubled Balkans were to upset irrevocably the nineteenth century European scene.


For British industry ‘trading under the flag’ played a vital part in its success. This was the age when expansion in Australia, New Zealand, North America, and later South Africa opened up enormous, and entirely untouched, markets. The discovery of gold added to the excitement and increased the attractions
of these countries as potential buyers.

Richard and George soon felt the fascination, and both travelled to Australia and New Zealand on several occasions. In October 1873, George Tangye, in writing to his bank, said: ‘It is intended that the writer Mr. George Tangye and his brother-in-law, Mr. Robert Price, will proceed to Australia in the S.S. Great Britain which leaves Liverpool on the 25th inst. From Australia they go via New Zealand, San Francisco, and New York to England in the autumn of next year’.
A few months after George’s return, Richard set off on a similar trip. On his way back he arrived at San Francisco in March 1876, and George immediately set off to join him in America. They met in Niagara and travelled home together. As a result of Richard’s visit to Australia agents were soon appointed at Melbourne and Sydney. W. B. Jones at Melbourne was offered very favourable terms to help him to become established. His position was particularly advantageous, for he owned a bonded store which enabled him to build up stocks without paying duty until he actually sold the goods. In Sydney, Messrs. Blacket & Davy, described by Richard in 1878 as ‘most respectable young men . . . thoroughly trusted by us’,

undertook the agency. The name of Tangye was not altogether unknown in the continent for orders had already been executed for the South Australian Government and other customers. The agents were to be responsible for furthering and increasing the trade wherever possible. Successes at the Sydney and Melbourne Exhibitions of 1880 and 1890 provided valuable advertisement. At Sydney the firm won nine medals and several first prizes, ‘but from all we hear, obtained the best prize of all in the shape of some very large orders’.
Richard and George stood firmly by the Australian trade and its somewhat unusual conditions and in a few years the agencies were replaced by branch houses at Melbourne and Sydney. But it was not easy to sell in Australian markets on orthodox lines. To attract customers it was essential to carry large stocks on the spot; money came into circulation unevenly throughout the year, for it was plentiful after the annual wool sales but scarce in the preceding months and this made necessary the conduct of business by bills more frequently than was normally justifiable at home. Payment by instalments was also a usual practice. This in its turn led to difficulties during unfavourable climatic conditions which sometimes persisted over several years. Despite repeated explanations by Richard and George to their fellow directors and further Australian visits, these problems caused consternation at home among those members of the firm used to ‘sound finance’ and short-term credit.
Although the branches survived the depression of the ‘eighties, continued drought and other economic difficulties eventually made it impossible to continue. Tangyes closed the Melbourne branch in 1894 and the Sydney branch in 1896. The agency for the whole continent was then successfully taken over by Bennie, Teare & Co.
The New Zealand trade was at first organized from the Sydney branch, which in November 1892 made an arrangement with John Chambers & Son, of Auckland, to act as the sole vendors of Tangye products in New Zealand and to undertake all the travelling and advertising in the islands. This system, however, led to duty being paid twice on each article. Moreover, communications were poor between the two countries so that time was wasted in fulfilling orders. Like Australia, subject to agricultural fluctuations, the New Zealand trade at first only added to the financial difficulties of the Sydney branch. In November 1893, therefore, Tangyes Ltd. made an agreement directly with John Chambers & Son for them to act as Tangye agents throughout New Zealand. John Chambers, before emigrating in the ‘sixties, had taken part in the building of the Great Eastern. His son, J. R. Chambers, also an engineer, had spent two years at Cornwall Works as part of his training, and his knowledge of Tangye machines and business methods was of considerable value.
At first, delays involved in ordering half-way round the world, securing payment in an under-capitalized community, and remitting regular sums to England, caused some doubt of Chambers’ financial acumen among the older members of the Tangye board. The Sydney already put forward by the foremen a few years’ earlier. It was designed to reduce administrative costs and to make possible one standard of benefit; the firm acted as treasurer, and a committee was appointed to represent the men of the various departments. George Tangye became first President, and George Deakin, one of the senior foremen, Vice-President.
In addition to sickness and funeral benefits all members of the Provident Society automatically came within the provisions of the Accident Fund. This Fund was Tangyes response to the Employers’ Liability Act of ‘88°; they wished to tie in their new responsibility with the other welfare schemes. Much attention had already been devoted to safety and accident prevention in the Works and the firm felt they could go further than their legal liability by agreeing to pay compensation even when the injured man might have contributed to the accident. Similarly in the case of accidental death, whatever the cause, benefit would be paid to the dependents. Introducing the Fund, Richard Tangye named two conditions: first, ‘you must be a member of a provident society, because we act on this principle, that we do not help those who will not help themselves’, secondly, ‘the money will be paid in any case, but if you accept our proposal it will be only reasonable that we shall be exempted from any further liability’.


As the firm grew in size and complexity, Tangyes developed a system of suitable incentives and rewards for senior men whose continuous service over long periods was considered to be of first-rate importance. Many of the foremen of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties had begun work at the bench or in the workshop alongside the brothers. It was natural that they should be regarded, therefore, rather as lieutenants of the management than as representatives of the men. Instituting the new Foremen’s Trust Fund in 1878 Richard Tangye explained that in his view ‘a foreman ought to be entirely independent of the men under his superintendence and not subject to be censored at a trade union meeting by the men under his control for anything he had done in the exercise of his duty to the firm’. For this reason any foreman who should in the future join a trade union would be excluded from the benefits of the Fund. The Fund provided for payment of a sum of money to dependents of a foreman who died while in the company’s service, or for weekly payments to a foreman absent through illness.
Of seventeen foremen listed in 1876 eight had been first employed with the firm before i 86o. All were tried and trusted men to whom was delegated considerable authority and responsibility in running their various departments. George Tangye, for instance, instructed Henry Guy when he was promoted to foreman in 1872: ‘you will have full power to employ or discharge the hands inside the large fitting shop doors with the sanction of the office in case of appeal’. The foremen were also consulted in matters of welfare like the Dispensary scheme, and they organized the Hospital Saturday collections and Charity Concerts. The names of many of the foremen appear, also, on the lists of patents taken out or used by the firm. The foremen were often able to see where the efficiency of existing products could be increased and many of their patents are for such improvements.
Throughout the Works, family names constantly recur over the years, and sometime in the ‘seventies, to mark the loyal service of so many, the firm instituted the award of silver medals. They were presented to men like James Hughes, who joined the brothers in January 1858, and was later foreman smith; Alfred Teague, a foreman pattern maker, first employed in January 1859, and whose son was already filling an important post in i 878; George Deakin, who came in February 1859, was a tester in 1869, foreman of the jack shop in 1876, and still at work in 1895 although his poor state of health at that time caused the Board of Directors to seek a gradual and honourable form of retirement for him; Henry Guy, the first workman at Mount Street, of whom George Tangye later wrote: ‘He remained with us for over thirty years, until his death. He was a splendid and faithful workman, and he was honoured by all who knew him’.


All the lists of names which have survived bear reminders of the presence of Cornishmen — Tredinnick in the foundry, Treglown the engineer, Teague, Tregenna. From the first a close association was maintained with the Duchy, local Cornish newspapers frequently carried news about the firm, and, as the depression in tin mining increased, more and more workers were recruited for the Cornwall Works. In September 1877, George Tangye who was visiting Cornwall, received a letter from J. T. Andrews, the office manager, enquiring about brass-casters: ‘Will it be possible to get one or two men from the Perran Foundry to come up here?’ At the end of Whitsun week a year later Richard Tangye was told that a good few of the employees were ‘coming home by excursion today from Cornwall’.
By 1905 there were so many Cornish emigres in Birmingham that they formed a Cornish Association with Richard Tangye as first President. At the inaugural dinner he claimed that he had been instrumental in bringing more Cornishmen to Birmingham than any other man and added ‘with scarcely an exception they have been a credit to their county’.


In the earliest years at Cornwall Works, Tangyes seem to have provided a general engineering training for ‘gentlemen apprentices’. In 1878 Richard Tangye wrote ‘Some years ago we were in the habit of taking young gentlemen to go through all departments, and received large premiums with them, but they were an unmitigated nuisance, disorderly and not answerable to discipline, so that we made a resolution to have no more and have always been glad of it’. One or two indentures were sealed during the next few years, a subscription of £10 to the Works Library being substituted for a premium, but evidently they were no more successful, for in 1885 Richard Tangye reiterated the decision not to take articled pupils.
The organization of the Works on a strictly departmental basis, each shop under its own foreman responsible only to the management, had in any case made the co-ordination of training in different fields almost impossible. Each department continued to attract apprentices bound only to a particular trade — a training of which Richard Tangye wrote: ‘it is good only for sons of workmen, who for the most part only expect to be foremen of their particular branch of the trade’. On this craftsmanship in the shops, however, the firm’s long-standing reputation for fine workmanship and high standards has always rested. Very many of the leading engineers of later years obtained their early training at Cornwall Works.


The liberal and philanthropic efforts of the brothers were not confined to their own workpeople. For many years Richard Tangye played an active part in local politics. He served for a few years on Birmingham City Council and also sat on the Smethwick School Board. Opening new Board schools near the Works in 1883, he made some interesting comments on the educational system:
‘Since the passing of the Education Act more than one thousand Board School Boys have found employment in the Cornwall Works, and the universal testimony concerning them is, that as compared with those of the era previous to the existence of the Board Schools, there is a most marked improvement in every way. The lads are more orderly, more amenable to discipline, and much more intelligent; they show a great eagerness to learn the business of their lives, and as a natural consequence they master it much more thoroughly and in considerably less time.’

Richard Tangye’s insistence upon the importance of scientific and technical education on the same occasion — ‘absolutely essential if this country is to hold its own’ — has a strangely familiar ring today.
The two brothers jointly presented Birmingham with a valuable contribution towards the new City Art Gallery. In 1878 they offered £5,000 towards the purchase of works of art for the City on condition that the Corporation would undertake to build a permanent Art Gallery.
They also agreed to give a further £5,000 if an equal sum could be raised by donations. The conditions were fulfilled and the brothers finally contributed £11,000 with the declared object of improving taste and artistic standards throughout the City.
For his many services to his adopted city, especially in the cause of art education, Richard Tangye was knighted in 1894.
George Tangye, never an active politician, served the community in different ways. He was losely associated over many years with the General Hospital and Sir Josiah Mason’s Orphanage. For a long period he sat as a Birmingham City Magistrate. For over forty years George Tangye lived at Heathfield Hall, James Watt’s old home, which still contained his garret workshop in its original state. His interest in Boulton and Watt, stimulated in his boyhood days, was life-long. Perhaps his most munificent gift after the Art Gallery donation was the Boulton and Watt Collection, presented to the City Reference Library in 1911. It now forms a valuable section for historical research. Watt had brought the steam engine to Cornwall: in some measure George Tangye paid tribute by presenting the Watt memorials to their adopted town.


As in international affairs signs of unrest began to show themselves before the First World War, so in labour relations there was an increasing sense of change. The National Insurance Act of 1911 and other legislation of the 1906 Liberal government was laying the foundations of a Welfare State in which there would be far less opportunity for philanthropy. Among the workers, trade union organization especially in unskilled trades, was becoming rapidly more effective.
As a result of this trade union development, Tangyes Ltd. in 1913 suffered one of their few strikes. The Workers’ Union had greatly expanded during the two previous years, especially in the engineering and allied trades, and eventually put forward two demands; first for a basic minimum wage of 23/- for all adult male workers, secondly for recognition of the union. The struggle began at Tangye’s on i8th February, 1913. By the end of the month, 1,600 workers were on strike. Tangye’s then offered the 23/- basic wage and on 3rd March the men returned to work. As on previous occasions Tangye’s led the way for other employers but elsewhere the claims were not won so easily. The Black Country Strike, as it became known, lasted in many places until July 1913.
The advent of the Welfare State and the increasing power of the unions heralds a new phase of industrial relationships which, affected by wars and depressions, is only bearing its full fruit today.



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