Sir Richard Tangye & the Cornubia: Steam Age dreamtime

Once upon a time (1833) in a small Cornish village (Illogan, near Redruth) two brothers had sons they called Richard. This in itself was not unusual in that time and place as the same names keep cropping up, over and over. Richard Tangey married Jane Michell and they honeymooned on the ship out to Victoria where they eventually settled in Castlemaine and raised 10 children. Richard then moved to Tasmania and inherited and added to a second family, but we don’t speak of that too often.

While my great grandfather was mining and butchering in Castlemaine his cousin Richard Tangye (the spelling wasn’t great in Cornish villages in the early C19) moved to Birmingham to work with his brothers in developing the steam powered future. This may not have been entirely unexpected as Richard’s full name was Richard Trevithick Tangye in honour of the recently deceased Cornish steam engineer Richard Trevithick who had been born just south of Redruth. It would be like calling a Syrian kid in San Francisco Steve Jobs Surname to encourage him to turn into a software mogul.

In any case it worked out that way. Tangye Bros. were major players in the mid C19 steam economy and Richard Tangye is a steam age entrepreneurial hero. The Tangyes first rose to fame by getting the largest steamship built to that time out of drydock and on to the water. “We launched the Great Eastern, and she launched us.” Tangye Bros. had great success with their steam engines and pumps and in his later years Sir Richard Tangye toured the colonies touting his wares. He sold a few to the Chaffey brothers up in Mildura and I saw a pump about 10 k east of town early this century. He was also a philanthropist with a strong cultural bent and he was a significant donor to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. He was so impressed with the Macquarie library in Sydney that he donated a Shakespeare first folio, the only one in Australia. A long time back I picked up an essay prize at the State Library and as I was the closest thing to a relative of Sir Richard’s the library had ever seen they gave us a look at it. Very nice, if you like C17 books.

Sir Richard remained strongly attached to Cornwall and bought a large mansion called Glendorgal near Newquay. He also undertook research into the Tangye family history and traced it back to the middle of the C17 before it all becomes very murky. Cornwall was a long way from anywhere and they did not get the best and brightest from Oxford and Cambridge down there. English language literacy was pretty low and many of the locals then spoke Cornish which is / was a Gaelic language.

His grandson Nigel Tangye, an ex-air force pilot and MI5 agent, converted Glendorgal into a hotel in the early 1950’s and wrote a book about it in the early 1960’s incorporating a bit of family history along with the estate history and ecology. A copy of this Glendorgal advertorial turned up at the second hand market in Stawell to my very great surprise. Nigel Tangye also included some stories from the Glendorgal guest book, one of which I found pretty amazing.

Back in 1865 the Brexit faction of the Parliamentary squirearchy decided in its wisdom to strangle the steam powered road vehicle industry at birth by passing the Locomotives on Roads Act, aka the red flag act which restricted vehicles on roads to a speed of 4 mph and also insisted that the vehicle be preceded by a man with a red flag. This act remained in force until 1896 during which time various Germans, Americans, Frenchmen and others got on with the business of developing the automobile. Mr Benz first started making progress in automotive development in the mid 1880’s. It could all have been so different …..

“The first motor car was seen at Glendorgal in 1901 when Harry Tangye drove his newly acquired 7 1/2 horse-power Panhard down from Birmingham….

My grandfather writes in the book against the time of Harry’s third visit (1902), “Rode in Harry’s motor to Ladock and Truro – first ride in one since the Cornubia in 1863.”

This was a reference to the vehicle the brothers designed and built and which was quickly stillborn by Act of Parliament. Stuart Reid wrote in 1907:

“Road locomotives and traction engines are common enough today – too common indeed for the peace of the pedestrian – but in the early sixties (1860’s) they were unknown, and when the Tangyes turned their attention in that direction they quickly found themselves in sharp conflict with public opinion.

They constructed a locomotive, and, as they were loyal Cornishmen, called it the ‘Cornubia’. It could travel 20 miles an hour, and could carry ten people and was intended to link up outlying country places to the railways.

The machinery was simple, the engine easily managed, and they had good reason to believe, from the public interest in the invention, that they had, as the Americans say, struck oil.

But the landed gentry took alarm; they were afraid their horses would kick the traces, and the matter was brought before the attention of Parliament. The result was that an Act was passed forbidding any machine to proceed along the high roads at more than four miles an hour; even then it was not to proceed unless a man walked in front, armed with a red flag, for the delectation of approaching cattle.

The upshot of all this was that the new method of quick transit was, for thirty years, ‘strangled in its cradle’, as Richard Tangye put it …. The pity, so far as the Tangyes were concerned, was that the ‘Cornubia” was many years in advance of its times.

Many hundreds of miles had been successfully covered in trials by the Cornubia, and there is no doubt it would have become a great asset had it not been for the Act. It was able to get up steam, from cold, within five minutes. The decision of Parliament came as a shock because a judge had ruled “that a horse that would not stand the sight or sound of a locomotive, in these days of steam, constituted a public danger, and that its owner should be punished and not the owner of the locomotive.”

If anyone is trying to date the beginnings of the British industrial decline they could go back and look at the Locomotive Act of 1865 and the Luddism of the Tory squires out in the shires.

Tangye Cornubia





About Greg

Middle aged male, resident at the finest of all latitudes, 37. Reputedly an indoor cricketer.
This entry was posted in Alt History, Family history, Nineteenth Century, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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