Webster and Horsfall of Hay Mills: on the Times’ SME 2016 FastTrack list



Part of the FastTrack citation included this paragraph: “Founded in 1720, this family firm works with Birmingham University to develop its wire technologies for customers in the oil, gas, pharmaceutical and automotive industries. Led by chairman Charles Horsfall, 60, it lifted overseas sales to £2.4m in 2015, through online marketing and trade shows”.

Our 2014 history of this company which took us up to 1945, omitted news of its nineteenth century innovations – under Joseph Webster –  in the manufacture of music wire in the first half of the century which led to dramatic improvements in the quality of the sound produced by the concert piano of the age allowing the virtuosity of pianists such as Chopin and Liszt to attain even greater heights

In its account of the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable there was no record that an earlier attempt to lay the cable had failed due to the inferior wire used in its construction, and that Webster and Horsfall was ‘the only company in existence’ able to manufacture wire of sufficient quality to ensure the success of the cable (1866). The Hay Mills Foundation Trust* has, within the archives, a complete record of the company’s part in the enterprise.

A post-war update is provided by the 2007 Telegraph obituary of its chairman, Col. John Coldwell-Horsfall

Following an extensive account of his military career, we read: “In 1946 Horsfall returned to England to take over the running of the family firm, Webster and Horsfall of Hay Mills, Birmingham. The firm, a manufacturer of Atlantic cable, mining ropes and many types of industrial wire, was in severe difficulties at a time of rising post-war demand. Horsfall immediately embarked on a programme of modernisation, scrapping old plant, reducing overmanning whilst maintaining good relations with the trades unions, and taking no salary himself until the firm was back in profit and had cleared its debts. It was back in profit by the end of the year, and by 1966 was enjoying the prosperity it had had in its heyday under his father”.

Proposals to help safeguard jobs within the company, as well as regenerate one of the most deprived areas of the city

In 2014 we reported that work was now underway to redevelop their ten acre Tyseley site as an industrial park with industrial, storage and distribution space. The buildings of architectural interest on the factory site, including the former workers’ housing on the Fordrough and a former schoolroom, will not be affected by the redevelopment proposals. Charles Horsfall, chairman of Webster & Horsfall, believes the proposals will help safeguard jobs within the company, as well as regenerate one of the most deprived areas of the city: “The development of our Tyseley site will generate an income stream from our surplus land to help us do this”.

*The Hay Mills Foundation Trust

webster-hay_mills_school_room_birminghamThe three hundred year history of manufacturing steel wire and wire rope in Birmingham and the histories of the people who worked here is being brought to life at Hay Mills.

Working with the archives of Webster and Horsfall, Birmingham’s oldest manufacturing business, in James Webster’s schoolroom (right) volunteers are delving into employment records and the worlds of music, transport, armaments, telecommunications, mining, oil, food production and health showing how the developments and inventions created here have been at the centre of some of significant and historic industrial events over the last three centuries.

The chairman said: “Our goal is to reach our 300th anniversary, in 2020, fighting fit” –  and it is possible that, with over 114 employees, this British SME with its fast-growing international sales will one day be too large to qualify for that title and so for this website.


For more historical information, go to http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/nra/lists/GB-800819-Webster.htm





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