The Tangyes of Illogan
December 1, 2015
Historian Stephen Roberts uncovers one of Cornwall’s most notable families, a band of brothers, the Tangyes, and their life’s industrial work throughout Victorian Britain.
When the theatre manager F.W. Davies, speaking at a dinner of the Midland Cornish Association in February 1907, described Richard Tangye as ‘the foremost Cornishman of his day’, no one would have thought this was anything other than a very fitting tribute (1).
At the end of his life Tangye, who died on 14 October 1906, was able to look back on a career in business which spanned half a century and which had evolved from a packing room divided into two by brown paper stretched over a wooden frame into a huge factory complex sprawling over three acres and employing 2000 people. The engines, pumps and jacks produced by Tangye Brothers were in use across the globe.
Indeed, Tangye, on a visit to Australia in early 1887, was able to comment, ‘Everybody seems to know our name, go where I will, and such recognitions generally end with “Tangye’s pumps, sir”’ (2).
In Cornwall Richard Tangye and his brothers were local heroes. News of the considerable commercial success of their Birmingham operation was regularly reported in Cornish newspapers. Though Tangye had left Cornwall for Birmingham at the end of 1852, he regularly returned, spending the summer months from the 1870s onwards at his cliff-top mansion Glendorgal near Newquay.
His Cornwall Works in Smethwick advertised locally for hands but a steady stream of skilled men also arrived from his home county – the Penzance watchmaker John Trewhella was one of many.
Tangye served as one of the county’s JPs, supported local charitable causes and provided funds for Liberal parliamentary candidates in St. Austell. For the Victorians the great success of self-made men like Tangye was the result of determination and hard work; boys leaving Truro Wesleyan College were equipped with a copy of Tangye’s autobiography One and All (1889) as evidence that they too could go on to great things if only they got stuck in.
There is no doubt that Tangye and his five brothers were very hard workers. What caused them to become such wealthy and successful industrialists, however, was the coming together of two things – the brilliance of Richard as an entrepreneur and salesman and the brilliance of his brothers, particularly James and Joseph, as engineers.
After the deaths of their parents and until their marriages, the brothers and their three sisters lived together in the same house in Birmingham, spurning theatres and music halls, saving their wages and restricting their weekly treats to an apple pie cooked by their landlady on a Sunday evening.
I first began to think about Richard Tangye when walking past the School of Art in Margaret Street in Birmingham – a splendid Ruskinian Gothic redbrick building – I noticed that he had laid the foundation stone in May 1884. Intriguing surname, I thought … who this man?
I looked into this and discovered that the Cornish brothers Richard and George Tangye had put up £10,000 to pay half the costs of building the School of Art.
Shortly afterwards, whilst writing a short biography of the Birmingham working class poet and local historian J.A. Langford, I came across a cache of Tangye’s letters, most of them almost impossible to decipher (3). The mystery deepened. Who was this man whose writing I could not read?
The final spur to action came when a few months later, in a second hand bookshop in Abergavenny, I picked off the shelf a copy of Richard Tangye’s Reminiscences of Travel in Australia, America and Egypt (1884). At only £8.50 it was crying out for me to buy it.
Though I struggled to read Tangye’s correspondence with Langford, I discovered that these were hastily-written notes and his letters to men such as the Birmingham MP John Bright and the trade union leader George Howell were perfectly legible.
I began searching digitised newspapers for information on Tangye, and was soon filling notebook after notebook. Writing a book about this interesting man could no longer be put off. I sat down at my desk and began to tell his story. The recently-published Sir Richard Tangye: A Cornish Enrepreneur in Victorian Birmingham is the outcome.
When Richard Tangye died, he left an estate of £226, 319. He was certainly an immensely rich man, the owner of big houses in Kingston-upon-Thames and in Newquay. Yet it had all begun in humble circumstances, in a cottage in Illogan, two miles from Redruth, where Tangye was born on 24 November 1833.
He was the fifth of six brothers, and there were also three daughters. Tangye’s father, Joseph, earned a living as a small farmer and a shopkeeper, selling groceries and medicines; significantly, his grandfather Edward was very mechanically-minded, combining small scale farming with driving a steam pumping engine in copper mine.
George Tangye would recall that ‘there was always enough but perhaps little to spare’ (4). The family subsisted mainly on fish – thirty mackerel could be bought for a shilling – and potatoes.
One year their cow and the bacon their mother had cured for the winter was seized by officials acting for the parson who demanded his tithes and church rates. Walking two-by-two, hand-in-hand on a Sunday to the Quaker meeting house in Redruth, the Tangye family endured mockery from their neighbours. In his youth Richard Tangye learned about hard work and independence, but he also learned about injustice and intolerance.
Richard and George Tangye were sent to board with a Quaker schoolmaster in Redruth: there, along with arithmetic, they learned how to splice a rope and cook a fry-up of eggs, bacon and potatoes. Their education was completed at Sidcot, the Quaker school in the Mendip Hills. The two brothers were to remain close for the rest of their lives.
The two elder brothers James and Joseph also formed a close alliance. If Richard enjoyed his books and collecting birds’ eggs, James and Joseph inherited their grandfather’s interest in mechanical matters. James sat with his grandfather in the pumping engine, mended the clocks of his neighbours, built working model steam engines and, in due course, a functioning telescope.
Unsurprisingly, he found employment in local workshops and foundries, including the Copperhouse Foundry Co. in Hayle, where he saw Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Whilst ‘James’ forte was to initiate … he could grasp the intricacies of engineering problems as well as anyone ‘, George Tangye wrote later, ‘Joseph was the workman par excellence … a perfect master of (the lathe) and it was one of the joys of his life to work it’ (5).
Richard was the first of the brothers to arrive in Birmingham, taking up a position as a clerk in the engineering works of a fellow Quaker Thomas Wordsell in 1852.
As he walked through grime and smoke, mud up to his ankles, to the office where he was to work, he soon realised that the manufacturing town of Birmingham was a very different place to Illogan.
But, as well as muck, there were opportunities. Richard was soon joined by George, who also took up a position as a clerk, and before long James and Joseph followed. Richard struck out on his own in 1855, securing orders from friends in the mines or on the railways in Cornwall for bolts, nuts and nails manufactured in Birmingham.
Deciding to manufacture these items himself, he was joined by Joseph and then by James. In little more than a year they were recruiting other workmen, the first to join Harry Guy remaining for thirty years.
The great commercial breakthrough for the brothers occurred in 1858 when Brunel, aware of the engineering skills of James and Joseph, ordered from the firm a number of hydraulic jacks to launch the Great Eastern.
‘We launched the Great Eastern‘, Richard was wont to say, ‘and she launched us’ (6).
Tied together by family loyalties and pushed forward by the talent of James and Joseph (now assisted by George) for mechanical innovation and by the talent of Richard for securing customers in Britain and beyond, the Tangye brothers soon found themselves making a good deal of money.
Always concerned about the toll that his long days might be taking on his health, Tangye, once his business was thriving, began to spend the summer months relaxing and recuperating in Cornwall.
At first he rented Glendorgal from Sir Arthur Pendarves Vivian, the MP for West Cornwall, but, in 1882, he bought it. The cost was £15,000 but Tangye spent a good deal more on improvements to the house and grounds.
Glendorgal was set on the edge of the cliffs, and Tangye would delight in telling visitors as he pointed seawards that ‘the next parish is New York’ (7). Tangye adored this place, and wanted others to share its beautiful location. A steady stream of friends from Birmingham came to stay.
The antiquarian Samuel Timmins was a regular visitor, on one occasion dressing up as a monk (a moment fortunately captured in a photograph reproduced in my book). Tangye also built a footbridge to Porth Island for the use of local people.
Facing Porth Island was a huge cavern known as the Banqueting Hall. Enlarged by the quarrying of rock, it became a venue for musical performances.
The Cornwall Works in Smethwick may be no longer, the final buildings disappearing in the 1960s. Tangye, however, left permanent memorials to himself in Birmingham.
A great philanthropist, he provided the drive and the money which led to the building of the School of Art and the Art Gallery. Tangye believed it was important for the workmen of Birmingham to be able to see, and be trained to create, beautifully-designed objects – but he also wanted to repay the town that had made him.
Richard was the second of the brothers to die, Joseph expiring four years earlier and being buried in Birmingham in a grave made of Cornish granite.
The last of the brothers to go was George in 1920. For many years he had lived in a house in Handsworth built for James Watt. Six of the longest-serving workers at the Cornwall Works carried his coffin out of the house on the day of his funeral.
- The Cornishman, 21 February 1907.
- The Owl, 6 May 1887.
- Dr. J.A. Langford 1823-1903: A Self-Taught Working Man and the Sale of American Degrees in Victorian Britain (Authoring History, 2014).
- G. Tangye, A Family Cruise (1903), p. 8.
- Ibid., pp. 27-8.
- R. Tangye, One and All (1889), p. 65.
- The Birmingham Magazine, vol. 2 (1899), p. 62.
Stephen Roberts, Sir Richard Tangye 1833-1906: A Cornish Entrepreneur in Victorian Birmingham (Birmingham Biographies, 2015) , 65pp including 11 photographs and 5 drawings is available from Amazon and other booksellers priced £4.99.
Stephen Roberts is Honorary Lecturer at the Research School in Humanities and the Arts in the Australian National University. As an established historian of nineteenth century Britain, he has appeared on BBC Radio and has also published a variety of books on Chartism and Victorian Birmingham.