Most of the companies whose good news is reported on this site depend heavily on the custom of the auto industry. This gives rise to fears about the effect of a downturn in that sector. Webster & Horsfall are a welcome exception, making springs, speciality wire for radar and electronic equipment, parachutes, instrumentation, surgical implant wires, spring clips for golf carts and so on. It has clients throughout Europe, North America and Asia.
Webster & Horsfall was established in 1720 and some of the local work-force now are the fifth and sixth generation to work for the company. James Horsfall, a wire drawer from Digbeth, invented high tensile steel wire in 1853; a heat treatment process strengthening the wire was granted Letters Patent by Queen Victoria. It is said that this led to a near world-wide monopoly in exporting piano wire. Another account reports its main exports were to Europe.
James Horsfall leased the Hay Mills site in 1841, when it was a sword and gunbarrel factory, but did not buy it until 1852, relocating the wire manufactory from the Penns and Plants Mills. He replaced a water mill on the River Cole with a steam-driven mill. In 1855, his company merged with Joseph Webster’s of Penn Mill, Sutton Coldfield. He built workers’ houses and a school for their children, later transformed into a chapel. In 1873, he built St Cyprian’s church, now grade II listed.
Webster & Horsfall made the armoured wire for the first Atlantic Telegraph Cable, laid by Brunel’s steamship Great Eastern, in just 14 days in 1866. 30,000 miles of wire were made by 250 workers over 11 months. Read on here.
James’ son Henry was approached by T. C. Batchelor to develop and perfect his inventions for Locked Coil and subsequently Flattened Strand ropes, now used mainly in the mining industry, and an associated company, Latch and Batchelor was formed in 1884 on part of the Hay Mills site.
The companies came under direct Government control in both World Wars. In the 1914 – 1918 war it was the sole manufacturer of shell fuse spring wire, anti-submarine netting, mine, aircraft and balloon cables and in the 1939 – 1945 war it was bombed several times during air raids.
Work is now underway to redevelop the 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.
“Our goal is to reach our 300th anniversary, in 2020, fighting fit.”