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The Tangye Brothers, pioneers in engineering manufacture

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: April 05, 2014

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel's 'Great Eastern' which the Tangye brothers helped launch with their hydraulic jacks

  • The 'Cornubia' steam carriage built at Tangye's Cornwall Works in Smethwick

  • Tangye Bros. from left : George, Richard, Joseph, James, Edward.

  • (Above) Tangye's first workshop in Birmingham. (Below) The second workshop after a move to bigger premises

  • A Tangye made hydraulic jack

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DURING the industrial depression of the 1870s the Black Country faced the most important change in its fortunes since its coal and iron resources first began to be vigorously exploited nearly two centuries before.

The decline had begun with the exhaustion of much of the Black Country coal and iron ore, the flooding of any coal remaining underground, the development of coal mining at a much lower cost elsewhere, and the introduction of cheap steel.

Despite a temporary stimulus given to the heavy industries by the First World War, it was a decline that continued well into the 20th century.

But there were success stories during this downturn in fortunes, and Bill Pace of Perton, a regular contributor to the Bugle, has provided a comprehensive history of a family that became pioneers in engineering manufacture, first in Birmingham, then in Smethwick, and continued to flourish as a going concern into the 1960s.

They were the Tangye Brothers. and the company's history in Smethwick's industrial archives sits comfortably alongside the likes of the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds, Evereds, Chance Brothers, and Phillips Cycles, etc.

It is a story that begins in Cornwall at the small village of Illogan near Redruth, and ends at the massive Cornwall Engineering Works in Soho, Smethwick, and Bill, an engineer in his own right, couldn't resist exploring a hundred years of the history of Tangye's engineering craftsmanship from 1857 to 1957.

As Bill explains, "The Tangye family, parents Joseph and Ann and their nine children, six boys and three girls, were members of the Society of Friends and from their faith sprang a spirit of service for others and a pursuance of hard work and moral courage.

"Of the boys it was Richard Tangye (b.1833) who left home to seek advantage in Birmingham and obtained a clerkship in a small engineering firm in Birmingham run by a chap called Thomas Wordsell, where he remained for a period of four years, obtaining a complete mastery of the details of an engineering business.

"Richard's enthusiasm for Birmingham was such that by 1856 he had started his first business, and his brothers soon followed him to the Midlands. In March 1857 Richard, James and Joseph Tangye started a firm principally engaged in manufacturing hydraulic appliances, in particular lifting jacks, some of which were used to successfully help launch Brunel's Great Eastern on January 31, 1858.

"Like so many workshops in Birmingham at that time it was approached through an alleyway between houses. Power was provided by a belt from a steam engine next door, which of course was only available when the engine was running, and the workshop was heated by a nearby baker's oven. But it was here, in such cramped conditions, that Joseph Tangye, using his excellent workmanship and home made lathe, laid the foundations for the move to Tangye's famous Cornwall Works at Soho in Smethwick.

"Up until 1860 the Tangye brothers had been able to survive without any outside investment, but success meant expansion and George Price was enrolled as a partner in the company. As a result the company was able to build a new premises which was completed in early February 1860.

"In 1863 the brothers became interested in steam vehicles for the open road and despite the red flag legislation of 1865 that required a man with a red flag to walk in front of the vehicle, interest in the Tangye 'Cornubia' steam carriage continued from abroad. In a catalogue from 1870 they were advertised for sale at £500. It had a steam engine at the rear, fuelled by a stoker, and could carry up to eight passengers for 20 miles at 25mph. At the same time the pedal bicycle had been invented and by 1869 Tangye's were manufacturing large numbers of velocipedes at their Cornwall Works.

"The move to Soho took place in 1864 when land became available that suited the company's transportation needs as it was located adjacent to both the canal and railway. Immediately the manufacture of steam pumps and steam engines got underway, mainly for use raising water from wells and for portable fire engines, and as the Black Country began to enter a period of uncertainty and industrial depression, the future for Tangye's looked brighter than ever." (continues next week).

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