A Hundred Years of Engineering Craftsmanship

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The outbreak of war in 1914 at first affected Cornwall Works in only minor ways. George Tangye — 1914 found him in his eightieth year — was anxious to keep munition work to a minimum and to refrain entirely from any form of profiteering. It was of course impossible for such a firm not to make some contribution to the war effort and the works were scheduled as a controlled establishment under D.O.R.A. In due course contracts were carried out for lathes

for shells, thread milling machines, cam milling machines, cartridge capping machines, cartridge belt fillers, trench hand pumps, vices for mobile workshops, naval mine sinkers, and food flaking machinery for the Ministry of Food. For the most part these caused no great upheaval in the normal running of the works, and no great change in the type of products being manufactured.
If products and methods had changed little by the end of the war, the workers themselves had been shaken out of many of their old ways. The growing strength of the unions had already been shown in 1913, and to this was added a new air of independence among the men. Hours reduced by the exigencies of wartime never returned to the 6 a.m. start. The dining-room, devoted in earlier years to lectures and discussions, was now licensed for music and dancing. A new emphasis on the importance of outdoor games and recreation was met by the provision of a Works Recreation Ground in Birmingham Road, West Bromwich, which was laid out with tennis courts, bowling greens, cricket and football pitches. The pavilion was built and equipped by the men themselves.


Improved apprenticeship schemes were adopted during and after the war. The importance of thorough training to ensure a supply of good engineers for the future had long been recognized. In December 1914 Tangyes, for the first time since the ‘eighties, invited applications from youths of good education who desired a general five-year training as mechanical engineer. After a three-months trial the candidate would be bound apprentice on payment of a premium of
£30 or £50. Doubtless to avoid earlier difficulties it was particularly stressed that the apprentice ‘will be subject in every way to the ordinary discipline of the shop, particularly as to his time-keeping’. All departments, except the drawing office, were included in the training, and attendance at a technical school was compulsory. These

regulations were re-issued at the end of the first war with the emendations of shorter hours and higher premiums.
From the earliest days boys had entered the firm to learn their various trades and many who reached the highest rank among engineers began their careers at Tangyes. In November 1920 trade apprenticeships were put on a more regular and satisfactory footing. ‘In the old days,’ said the circular describing these trade apprenticeships, ‘when mass production with the inevitable specialization of labour was practically unknown, the ambitious lad, at a very early age, and with scanty education, eager to learn a trade, rose at unearthly hours, and went into the factory or workshops. Helped along frequently with more cuffs than halfpence, he made what progress he could along the stormy path of mechanical knowledge . . . The old conditions of training with meagre pay for a period of years is now untenable, and Tangyes Ltd. put forward the following scheme in an endeavour to minimize as far as possible the difficulties involved under the old apprenticeship scheme.’
Boys were apprenticed after six months probation. They could choose from a wide variety of trades to be trained as fitter for gas and oil engines; fitter for steam engines or in the hydraulic and pump work; machine tool fitter; turner (machinist); patternmaker; moulder; coremaker; brass finisher; or millwright (plant fitter). No premium was required and the rates of pay were to be those decided between the employers and unions. Night school was compulsory twice a week and a bonus was to be awarded for good conduct and efficiency.
Recruitment and training in other departments and at other levels also became a problem during the war years. In 1917 Tangyes introduced a plan for fifteen-year-old boys to enter the Commercial Offices to receive a general office training. The salary started at £2 a month and rose by six-monthly instalments to 6. 10.0 a month at the age of twenty-and-a-half.



There seemed no reason to doubt in 1920 that nineteenth- century prosperity could be combined with a new sense of freedom for the worker to produce the best possible world to live in. Such hopes brought swift disillusion to many. The immediate post-war boom with its subsequent depression, the growth of foreign competition, the uneasy recovery of the mid-decade, led finally to the catastrophic economic collapse of the ‘thirties. For an engineering firm such as Tangyes, created and developed against the expanding Victorian background, this was a testing time. Trade depressions had been met and weathered by patience and retrenchment before 1914, but the crisis which now overtook the world was previously unknown. It was unfortunate for the second generation of the family that they were in control for the most difficult years of the inter-war period. Under their guidance production contracted, reserves were ploughed back, sacrifices made, and the firm kept afloat until it reached calmer waters towards the middle ‘thirties. Understanding and sympathy between management and men played an outstanding part throughout these lean years.
Wherever new opportunities offered they were taken up with alacrity and some promising developments began even during the slump. Experience of Tangye hydraulic jacks in bridge-building, for example, was gained from their increasing use in this field. Most bridges, especially large ones, need powerful hydraulic jacks for the erection and correct stressing of the bridge members. Large Tangye jacks are eminently suited to this work. They were employed on the Sydney Harbour Bridge — the largest arch bridge in the world, completed in 1932. In 1936, when the Kincardine Swing Bridge was built over the Firth of Forth, Tangye hydraulic machinery was built into the permanent mechanism of the bridge to carry out various levelling and locking movements each time the bridge opened and closed. Bridging work made continued progress, both during and since the war.
The arrival of the third generation in 1935, when Sir Basil Tangye became chairman, coincided with a gradual improvement in economic conditions. All too soon, however, the whole picture was changed by the onset of World War II, a conflict in which Tangyes Ltd. were to play a vital part in both armament work and the munitions industry.


Achievement in War and Peace


Although the British rearmament programme was only slowly getting under way the dangers of the international situation cast oppressive shadows over the later ‘thirties. After the Munich crisis it was clear that there would be no time to rebuild or reorganize the munitions industry on a large scale; industrial capacity would have to be used where it was to be found. Rapid industrial mobilization began in September 1939, and Cornwall Works were actively and wholeheartedly engaged in the war effort from the very beginning. For the next six years, in response to the changing demands of the different campaigns, general engineering firms like Tangyes proved particularly valuable for their adaptability and elasticity, qualities which depended upon long and varied manufacturing experience, good management, and skilled craftsmanship. It was soon found in practice that difficult or unusual work could safely be given to these firms in addition to orders for their own specialities.
The first and most urgent need at the outbreak of war was to spread the manufacture of shells for the services and to increase the pace of production. Tangyes were soon drawn into this work, and laid out two shops, for making 37 anti-aircraft shells and 92 howitzer shells. As a safeguard against interruption of electricity supplies the howitzer shop was entirely powered by Tangye oil engines. Women employees, working on a two-shift basis, made hundreds of thousands of shells during the war years.
Among the earliest war contracts was one for the production of many special presses for the extrusion of cordite, an essential stage in the manufacture of this explosive. The work well illustrates the important part played by private industry in the armament field proper, for these machines were supplied to the Royal Ordnance factories. Equally important were the hydraulic presses supplied to other firms, for piercing steel billets for bomb manufacture, for forming the nose of the shell, for squeezing the driving band onto the shell body, and for straightening gun barrels.
Much of the war production at Cornwall Works was, however, an extension or development of peacetime lines. Pumps proved outstandingly useful in many fields. As early as £937 the Ministry of Supply was placing orders for fire-fighting pumps, and Tangyes were entirely responsible for the design and production of a heavy-duty pump which proved popular and reliable not only on the home front but also with all the Services. As a result of this success the firm was later asked to design and produce a number of special fire pumps for use in Russia — not an easy assignment in view of the extreme cold of Russian winters.
One of the essential requirements of troop concentrations is an adequate water supply. Frequently it had to be obtained from a distance, and many Tangye pumps were installed for this purpose at Army camps and Air Force stations.
Another indispensable requirement of modern armies and air forces is petrol and oil, and it was through the manufacture of pumps for petrol that Tangyes became associated with one of the most exciting and successful engineering achievements of the whole war. From the first, Tangye duplex petrol pumps had been used for delivering fuel from storage tanks to road vehicles. Later came a new Contract for a number of large mobile treble-ram pumps to send petrol through pipe lines. The work was duly completed but it was not for a long time afterwards that Tangyes realized the vitally important part they had played in the ‘Pluto’ system for pumping petrol to the front line.
Essential to a successful armament programme are adequate supplies of machine tools. Tangyes Ltd. produced for the Ministry of Supply and the Air Ministry many different types of lathes and boring machines. In addition the spares service was kept at a fairly high level to maintain older Tangye machines doing yeoman service in factories throughout the country.
As always, one of the most universally useful tools, taken everywhere and taken for granted, was the unassuming hydraulic jack. Fighting services, civil defence services, the munitions industry, all required a constant supply of these indispensable tools. As a result, tens of thousands were manufactured — many of them specially designed for special jobs. Such was the bridging jack developed, in conjunction with Sir Donald Bailey at the Bridging Establishment at Christchurch, for lifting Bailey bridges. This highly successful jack is still used for lifting bridges of this type today.
Normal diesel-engine production almost ceased during the war, but experience in this work proved invaluable in building many hundred diesel-engine generating sets mostly for mobile units to supply electricity to radar sets.
In addition to this solid core of production at Cornwall Works some interesting and unusual contracts, sometimes as sub-contracts, sometimes direct from the Government, were undertaken from time to time. Because they were out of the ordinary run these jobs tested the initiative and skill of those engaged on them. Much of the work was, of course, machining such articles as anti-aircraft gun cradles, gun-sight mountings, submarine pistons, and wheels for tanks. A contract of special interest was for the manufacture of corvette rudders by welded construction. At the period when the submarine

menace was at its height the demand for corvettes for the antisubmarine campaign outran the capacity of the shipyards. By using this new method of fabrication the work could be spread among firms far away from the coast, enabling the corvette programme to be enormously speeded up.


At Cornwall Works an important part of the war effort was the protection of the people and the machines making the tools of war. Air-raid precautions were introduced early — in April 1938 — with voluntary recruitment, a training scheme, the establishment of a decontamination squad, and the construction of air-raid shelters. By January 1940 the organization was well advanced with the full complement of air-raid wardens, auxiliary fire services, the Tangye Division of the St. John Ambulance Brigade, and rescue decontamination squads. The Cornwall Works dispensary was extended and adapted as a cleansing and dressing station. A large Home Guard unit was also regularly on duty night and day, and contributed to the general morale.
Throughout the war the excellent spirit of Cornwall Works was shown by the voluntary staffing of all these A.R.P. services. Each night a considerable number of the men had to be on duty to keep an adequate watch on the 20 acres of buildings and yards where fire might start from incendiaries or high explosive bombs, and to deal with casualties and any other emergencies. The impression those years have left is less of danger and difficulty than of the personal comradeship which grows out of adversity, as the following account from one who shared the duties shows.
‘The memories of those nights are not only of air-raids, but of warm fellowship between those on duty, often forty or fifty members of the different services. We got to know and appreciate one another in a way which had never happened before. Unfortunately there seems no way in normal times of achieving quite that degree of mutual understanding which takes place under the stress of war conditions.
‘Apart from this close contact with each other, most of us also got to know the factory in a way we never had before. With dim torches or no light at all we were able to move quickly about the buildings, using basements, passages and rung ladders which in normal times we seldom noticed. The factory roof itself was another world, nearly 15 acres, mostly of “Belfast” construction. Whilst having the advantage that you could go anywhere on it, the fire risk was high, and consequently a complete organization of hydrants, outside staircases, and firefighting points was set up at this level. Many will remember the exhilaration of nights spent on fire duty when they have forgotten the times of weariness and anxiety.
‘Cornwall Works was lucky to suffer no direct hits although surrounded by factories, railways, gas works, and so on, and despite the fact that, as we found later on, it was marked prominently on the German pilots’ photographic maps as an important target. There were many hectic nights of near-misses, not least the night when the land mines came down on their parachutes. The terrific explosions which occurred long after the aircraft had passed did extensive damage in the Smethwick area and displaced many of our roofs and walls.
Smethwick gas works, our next-door neighbour, had one of the largest gas-holders in the country. Many employed at Cornwall Works, and indeed, at other factories in the area, viewed this with considerable apprehension, and in spite of official assurances that, even if there was a direct hit, no explosion would result, some people were not so sure. Anyway, one night a bomb went straight through the centre of this gas-holder and proved the officials to be right. The

most impressive feature was an enormous column of flame which roared up into the night sky, lighting up the whole area. Hearing the German planes cruising around admiring their handiwork we felt very vulnerable, but nothing more happened. The occasion was also memorable for the brave action of the N.F.S. men who succeeded in putting out the flame by pushing plates over the hole made by the bomb.’

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