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The story of Smethwick firm's Cleopatra

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 08, 2014

Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment, London, raised by hydraulic jacks made by Tangye's Of Smethwick in 1878

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IN 1889 Richard Tangye was approached by a publication called the British Workman to record his early life and later career as a "Captain of Industry" in the origin and progress of the Cornwall Works in Smethwick, and the result was an autobiography called "One and All".

One of the chapters describes the involvement of Tangye's in the erection of Cleopatra's Needle on the Victoria Embankment of the River Thames in London, a feat ostensibly achieved without any problems because of the use of Tangye's hydraulic jacks. In early 1877 the "Special" steam-pump trade was expanding and Tangye's Cornwall Works had to be extended even further as Richard Tangye explained: "We were compelled to extend our works, until at length they covered twenty acres of ground, some of the workshops being four storeys in height; and since 1857 we have engaged nearly two thousand workers and paid out about £3,000,000 in wages."

Tangye's hydraulic jacks had already been used in the launch of Brunel's Great Eastern, so it was easy to see why the Black Country firm should be employed to help raise a very large stone obelisk. Richard Tangye continued: "An interesting illustration of the great power of these machines was seen when the Cleopatra Needle was brought to London. In 1877 Professor Erasmus Wilson and Mr John Dixon generously undertook to bring the obelisk to England and set it up in London at their own expense. This involved the building of a wrought-iron cylindrical vessel which was shipped to Alexandria in sections. The actual work of removal then commenced, and Mr Dixon's previous experience with our hydraulic jacks naturally suggested their employment in this novel undertaking.

"It was an easy matter to place a jack under one end of the obelisk, and for one man to raise it sufficiently to enable it to be swivelled round broadside on to the beach. Then the cylindrical vessel was built around it, after which the whole was rolled down the beach into the sea."

The purpose built wrought-iron vessel had been named Cleopatra, with Captain Carter and a crew of eight keeping her steady. It was being towed by the SS. Olga, but during its voyage across the Bay of Biscay, a fearful storm arose. Captain Carter's last entry is his log was recorded as follows. "This is a most unpleasant night. The swell of the sea is very high, and the Olga seems determined to tow us through or under the water."

Things were desperate and the Cleopatra was floundering. Six men from the Olga volunteered to rescue the crew of the Cleopatra, but sadly died in the process. Then the Olga, at great risk, drew alongside the stricken vessel and Captain Carter and his crew were finally rescued. The Cleopatra and its ancient cargo was expected to sink, but after four days she was picked up by another steamer and finally made her way to London.

On arriving in London, four of Tangye's hydraulic jacks were used in raising the obelisk, each jack being worked by one man. Richard Tangye was eager to point out how easy the procedure was compared with how difficult it would have been for the Ancient Egyptians: "The time required for this operation was without doubt far less than that occupied by Thothmes III, when he originally set up the obelisk at Heliopolis, and the number of men then employed must have been enormous when compared with those that did it on the present occasion.

"The advance in modern engineering appliances for raising weights could scarcely be better illustrated than by the following. In 1586 Fontana raised an obelisk in Rome with 40 capstans, worked by 960 men and 75 horses. In 1878 Mr John Dixon raised Cleopatra's Needle in London, using four of Tangye's patent Hydraulic Lifting Jacks worked by four men."

As a memorial of the apparatus used for erecting the Needle, one of the Tangye jacks was placed in a recess in the base under the obelisk.

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