It is general to conceive of the British Engineering Industry as located chiefly in the Midlands and Yorkshire or Lancashire, but the trade is one having a very wide sphere of application and there were many prosperous undertakings scattered up and down the country, and Cornwall did not lagg behind either in inventive ability or skill to give the inventions material form, for instance Holman and sons can trace its foundation back to the times when the Cornish mining industry was flourishing, but although the mines had lost something of their repute, the engineering house which ministered to their needs for so many years survives with increased rather than diminished prestige.

The business carried on by Messrs. N. Holman and Sons, Ltd., is probably one of the oldest existing concerns connected with the engineering interests of Cornwall. It was founded at St. Just by Mr. Nicholas Holman in 1834, in the heart of the Cornish tin mining field, and up to the time of the decay of that industry, catered for all the mechanical needs of the mines. Those were the days when the mines were worked on what was called the "Cost Book" system, under which a body of adventurers made themselves generally and individually responsible for all liabilities contracted in working a mine. They also divided the profits between themselves and while the industry flourished they did well. Mr. Nicholas Holman was interested in this way almost all the concerns in West Penwith (at least 45 mines) but towards the end of his life many thousands of pounds had to be paid out in "calls” and mine after mine was closed down. There is story current among Mr. Holman's descendants that he might have died a very rich man but for these "calls" and especially but for one mine in Cornwall, the whole liability of which fell on him.

Sometimes unscrupulous adventurers played dastardly tricks upon their associates. When their venture was obviously leading for a crash, some would pay men with nothing to lose, to become holders of their shares, and it is said that when this particular mine was "wound up”, no shareholder but Mr. Holman was in a position to meet the "call" and so he had to carry the whole burden. The successor of the founder of the business inherited these liabilities and the “calls” continued to be made until there were perhaps only half-a-dozen mines working in the district. Needless to say all calls were met by the succeeding generation as scrupulously as they had been by the past, but these were anxious days for the partners. The works, situated in a valley below the town of St. Just comprised a large Foundry, Hammer Mills, Boiler works, and Machine shops. The machinery was at first worked by water wheel, but this quickly proved insufficient as machines increased in number and plants were installed. The first power hammers were of the old tilting type, worked by an old-fashioned beam engine and when in use the earth tremors caused by their blows were felt in the neighbouring houses.


In those far off days before railways lent their aid in quick transport from the Midlands, the iron bars and shafts required were "faggotted” on the spot, that is to say small pieces of scrap iron and chain were welded together into ingots six or eight inches square, and were drawn out under the hammers to the size and section required and a very tough material was the outcome of the process. The "tilt" hammers were replaced by steam hammer in 1891, and since then further improvements had been brought about by the installation of a pneumatic hammer, the air for which was compressed by a 20 hp gas engine. Many Cornish boilers were manufactured and installed all over the country, and old men (long since dead) use to tell of these great cylindrical tubes, weighing ten tons or more, being loaded on trollies and dragged up the hill from the works by twenty or thirty horses. The straining animals, the shouting of drivers, the cracking of whips, and the slow but steady progress of the cumbersome load, must have produced an exhilarating sight which would naturally be remembered. One of the first boilers to be sent away from the district was supplied in 1834 to the Portsmouth and Farrington Water Works. It was 20 feet long, and weighed 5 3/4 tons; the price charged was £129 7s. 6d. From foundry, castings of intricate pattern were continually turned out. For instance, probably very few ever noticed the heads of the original cast iron railings of the Public Buildings Penzance. The design for this head was submitted to various manufacturers for castings, and after examination, the order to make them was refused owing to the impossibility of making a pattern in wood to "draw” out of the mould. N. Holman & Sons, in those days had in their employ a very clever pattern maker, an old-fashioned craftsman, whose pride in life was centered in his work. After careful study of the design, he undertook to make pattern for the rail head and "Ould Mathy Eddy", as he was called by his workmates, carved out a mahogany head to match the drawing and then cut it into upwards of 40 pieces in such a way as to enable the moulder draw them out of the sand one by one and eventually leave a cavity into which the molten metal could be poured and solidify into an exact reproduction of the original drawing.

Sometimes the "running" of six to eight tons of metal needed for the cylinder of a Cornish pumping engine gave the foreman moulder and the principals of the firm food for much anxious thought and preparation. Anxiety didn't even cease with the running of the metal, for the casting was left a week in the sand to cool and it was only when dug out, cleaned and examined that it could be ascertained whether the results were sound or a "shedrick," the moulders name for a faulty casting. Responsibility then shifted to the machine shop when the great cylindrical casting was bored for a length from eight to ten feet to a diameter of sixty to hundred inches with the interior walls left perfectly smooth and parallel to take the piston of the pumping engine. These were stirring times in St. Just when forty or fifty “Bals” were steadily turning out the valuable heavy red powder which was sent to the smelter to be converted in to shiny tin and sometimes the workshops were running in full blast night and day to make good some breakdown which had occurred to the machinery of one of the mines.

Holman products were not only fulfilling their purposes on land, but also on the sea. No one throwing a sweeping glance out over Mount's Bay from the Penzance Promenade, can fail to notice a Beacon standing about a mile from the shore and known as the "Gear Pole." It was fixed on the extremity of a reef running out from the Battery Rocks. Originally erected by the Trinity Corporation in 1873, and made by the firm from drawings. The rocks on which it stands are uncovered at low water, but they constituted danger to yachtsmen and others when the tide covered them until the Trinity Corporation not only reminded forgetful boatmen of the rocks existence, but showed exactly where they stood.

A good deal of underground machinery was mounted on timbers, and order to be in a position to provide complete apparatus, a staff of wood workers was employed by Holman, but with the diminishing demand for output in this direction the mine carpenters gave place to wheelwrights, and before the advent of motor transport, the business of making farm carts and other wagons etc., was an active one.

The problem of giving adequate lighting to the works was solved by the installation of a complete coal gas plant. This service was eventually extended to the town, and gave St. Just the distinction of being the only gas lighted community west of Penzance. Gas production had increased steadily owing to the continuously expanding use of gas cooking stoves by the inhabitants. The advantage of having gas manufactured on the premises has gradually resulted in the scrapping of all steam engines and boilers throughout the works. The firm was not contented with producing mine machinery only, and it is interesting to note that, it was these works that the first Cornish Slab was designed and built. This slab, as is well-known, revolutionized the cooking range design in Cornwall and had been copied by local makers throughout the county. Some of its salient features had been adopted by range makers in other parts of the country and advertised as epoch-making improvements on their former designs.

The Holman make of Cornish Slab had been standardized by the Trinity Authorities and they were used in all the lighthouses in British waters, while many hundreds had been exported overseas. In connection with slabs in lighthouses, one the managers had a pleasing experience many years ago when, with a party of friends, he went out to the Longships Lighthouse with the "relief boat."' None of the visitors were recognised by the keeper, who conducted them over the building. Everything evoked interest from the landing-stage to the lantern, and all were struck with the spotless condition in which rooms and apparatus were kept. But extra thrill was provided, when, in the living room, the guide informed the company that the Cornish slab had been made by local firm called Holman, and went on to dilate over its excellences and how the Trinity Corporation used the same make in all lighthouses. After the party had got ashore they got a semaphore message signalled to the lighthouse conveying Mr. Holman's thanks for the unsolicited testimonial he had listened to that morning. The above incident happened in the Longships lighthouse, which was built in 1883. The former erection, which was also the first built on the Longships rocks, was put up in 1795, and in going through some of the firm's old Day books and ledgers an entry may be found recording the making of what is described as a "coal house" for this old structure (the Cornish Slab) in 1811. It must have been a fairly large bin for it weighed just three quarters of a ton and cost £8. 13s. 3d. Also in 1836 iron work was supplied for use in the former Wolf Lighthouse.
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Hi. I am interested in the railings on the promenade in Penzance which carry the name Holman. Would these railing be the ones erected in 1896 ?
Thank you
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