Webster and Horsfall celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2020. Here we take a look back at some of the company’s history and highlights – and look forward to the company’s exciting future.
Webster and Horsfall’s contribution to the history of wire and wire rope manufacture cannot be overstated, given that 2020 marks its 300th anniversary. It’s a staggering record in modern industrial terms, and one that will be celebrated with a gala dinner on current managing director Charles Horsfall’s 65th birthday, July 24.
“It’s a coincidence that the dinner will be on the same day, but it’ll be a bigger birthday party than I’m used to,” laughed Charles (pictured), who has worked in the still-family-owned company since the early 1970s.
It’s going to be quite a year for one of Birmingham’s oldest industrial institutions: from February 2020 until the end of September, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery will display an exhibition, Webster and Horsfall: 300 years of innovation; the gala dinner will be held in the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham, and there are plans to create a mobile exhibition on the history and heritage of the Hay Mills site for community groups and schools.
The company also hopes a permanent museum, with a strong online presence, will link the story with partner company Kiswire’s museum in Busan, South Korea, where some of the organisation’s historic machinery is already on display. It will be a fitting anniversary for a business that has made a notable impact on world industry.
Webster and Horsfall (W&H) is remarkable by any standard: one of its innovations was to adopt the use of the “new” steam power in the early 18th Century – and neatly, the company continues to innovate in the energy field.
Webster and Horsfall can claim to have invented modern wire and wire rope manufacture as we know it. Its products have influenced a remarkable diversity of engineering accomplishments throughout the developing industrial world since the Industrial Revolution, and its history embodies British manufacturing so fully that some of its archives have been recorded by the British Historical Manuscripts Commission and held by the Birmingham Wolfson Centre.
Over three centuries the company’s developments have marked major landmarks in UK, indeed world, history. It is not an overstatement to say that W&H’s manufacturing processes and products were central to the growth of the Industrial Revolution; its history covers that of transport from the horse to the aeroplane and of armaments from the sword to the missile.
Webster and Horsfall produced the finest music wire available in the age of Mozart; it made (main picture, top) the 1,600 tons of armour wire laid by Brunel’s Great Eastern (right) for the first successful communications cable between the UK and America in 1866, and in the 20th century it developed the “locked coil” wire rope, invented by one of its partners and adopted around the globe for its strength and durability, particularly in mining.
Webster and Horsfall is also a clear demonstrator of the ever-increasing efficiency of the industry: “When I came here in the early Seventies, around 275 people worked in 10 acres of covered workshops across the site, producing 10,000 tonnes of wire a year. A third of that went to wire rope and the remainder was for the spring industry,” said Charles. “Today, with around 35 people, we handle about 4,000 tonnes of wire and wire rope in just four acres of manufacturing and storage areas.
“That translates into 36 tonnes per head in 1970 – and 114 tonnes per head this year, in a quarter of the space.”
The smaller, more efficient business currently supplies specialised wires for many applications (even including dental orthodontic wire for teeth correction), and thanks to major investment now has greater production flexibility.
The company is today involved in more than 5,000 product lines – many its own, some distributed on behalf of other makers, and some made by other respected companies and supplied under the W&H name after specialist redrawing or other processes.
John Webster and his first partner, John Turton, got together in 1718 and had turned to wire production in 1720, hence the forthcoming anniversary.
A generation later, Webster’s son Joseph acquired a lease on a mill north-east of Birmingham in 1752, where one of his top products was high quality piano wire – additives to which over the decades gave his products greater strength and a competitive edge.
By the mid-1800s the competitors included James Horsfall (right, in his fifties), who had been in business as a wire manufacturer at Hay Mills for several years. Horsfall’s own patent for wire treatment led to the two companies merging in 1855.
The new company flourished, moving into one site at Hay Mills, south west of Birmingham centre on the Coventry Road, in 1859, where it has been ever since.
When the last Webster died in 1860, Horsfall became the sole proprietor, and his descendants remain in control of the company today. Managing director Charles is the family’s fifth generation in charge, with a board of managers and shareholders from within the sixth generation of the Horsfall family.
“It’s very much a family business, and always has been,” he said, acknowledging that one of Webster and Horsfall’s great strengths over the decades has been the family-like closeness between bosses and workers and with the wider community around the 16-acre site. Decades ago, the company built the local parish church (St Cyprian’s, pictured), at the main gate of the site, and is still involved in community matters.
“We have always been the anchor business in this part of Birmingham, even though in modern terms we are quite small,” he explained.
“At our peak in the war years we had around 1,000 workers, but the numbers have gone up and down over the years – we have probably averaged about 250-300 – and today there are only a few dozen.
“This part of Birmingham is far different than it was even in the early Seventies. But we are keen to grow and improve local employment, and have fairly high hopes of doing so as we reorganise and improve the efficiency of our company over the next couple of years.”
The key to W&H’s longevity has been its ability not to overstretch during good times and to shrug-off adversity in the worst. Well-placed mergers and acquisitions over the centuries have helped to keep the company active.
Big blows, like the loss of the UK deep mining industry, had a profound effect on the company. The death of UK mining killed a full third of W&H’s business. In 1885 the firm’s merger with wire rope makers Arthur Latch and Telford Batchelor had led to the latter’s “locked-coil” wire rope design revolutionising deep mining, and it remains the industry standard to the present day, so when UK mining disappeared, so did a huge W&H market.
True to form, the company moved on and production increasingly turned to specialist products for markets including crane ropes, stainless steel wires and wire rope, and wire for the oil and gas industry.
Webster and Horsfall had earlier been one of the first firms to come under direct government control during the two world wars.
During 1914-1918, Hay Mills was the sole manufacturer of munitions fuse spring wire (producing over 80,000 miles of it), as well as helping to develop anti-submarine netting, mine, aircraft and balloon cables. Its strategic importance in World War II led to it being bombed several times by the Luftwaffe. The main crane in the rope mill still has a kink in its rails, caused by track misalignment from one particularly effective raid.
The 1,000 wartime employees made a huge, largely unrecognised contribution to the war effort, but even this didn’t stop the company almost going under in the post-war period, when workers had to be made redundant and talk of nationalisation depressed output.
Again, W&H bounced back, setting up a plant in Canada that ran until 1990, and growing its production of spring wire for automotive, aeronautical and pharmaceutical industries, which remains a major percentage of output today.
In 1955 the threat of nationalisation led the two Hay Mills-based companies to be separated. Latch and Batchelor became a subsidiary of the main company and today, at only 135 years old, with partners Kiswire of Korea and Verope AG, makes specialist ropes for worldwide sales and distributes a wide range of lifting ropes and attachments in the UK and Ireland. One of L&B’s biggest projects was supplying the 78mm locked-coil wire rope for the Warragamba Dam, near Sydney in Australia. The dam is one of the largest domestic water supply dams in the world, four times the size of Sydney harbour and storing 80 percent of the city’s needs. The dam opened in 1960 – and still uses the original rope.
Present and Future
In the 21st Century, W&H has continued to invest in its core business and has moved into others. Wire production capacity has been made more efficient with the purchase of state-of-the-art drawing machines (such as the 10-hole model pictured below) and as a small, expert company, it can produce the small quantities of wire and cable often too complex or specialist for international competitors, for whom several miles of cable might be a minimum order.
What W&H has is expertise and space, so the company keeps a stock of hundreds of tonnes of specialist wires for redrawing and reprocessing to customer specification, acting also as a major wire distributor with the help of a vast stock control system.
But core business consolidation made it obvious that the company didn’t need the entire Hay Mills site to continue production, so when Birmingham University came calling, Charles and his team didn’t need much persuading to embark on a bold new business project.
This period of evolution emerged as Tyseley Energy Park, which covers five innovative phases of regeneration and in some ways could set the standard for future UK industrial energy supply.
The university had been researching clean energy methods and came to Webster and Horsfall for help in establishing a pilot project.
“We were extremely enthusiastic from the start – but I’ll admit we had a little initial trepidation at the thought of stepping out of our comfort zone of wire manufacture,” Charles revealed
But what resulted was a bold plan to redevelop 10 acres of the site as a clean energy hub.
In 2009 the company’s park masterplan was approved, and in 2013 phase one was agreed: a £47 million investment by Cogen and other partners to develop a 10MW – enough to power around 17,000 homes – waste wood biomass power plant (pictured below).
This facility, completed in 2016, now supplies the company’s manufacturing operations – and those of its tenants across the site – with renewable electricity at a significantly lower cost than the grid price.
In so doing, the plant has created 19 new jobs, and each year diverts 72,000 tonnes of waste wood from landfill.
Three years ago, phase two of the plan, for the UK’s first low- and zero-carbon refuelling station, was approved, for the supply of public and commercial vehicles of a range of low- and zero-carbon fuels – including hydrogen, an electric vehicle charging hub, compressed natural gas and biodiesels – to help reduce emissions.
Expansion for the next generation of waste reprocessing technologies is being developed in phase three of the project, which will supply clean energy to a wider grid.
Phase four covers the development of the University of Birmingham’s innovation hub, starting with research facilities looking into thermal energy storage, materials, fuel cells and thermo-catalytic re-forming.
The hub will also have facilities to support teaching and business development.
Phase five sees existing industrial units on the site being transformed into a business incubation hub. This will support the commercialisation of emerging recycling, energy generation and storage technologies.
It’s a startling change of direction for the company, one that harbours well for its future – not that the business that has occupied directors for the past 300 years has been put on a back-burner.
“The need for wire and wire rope isn’t going away and remains our core concern – indeed we can see us going back to 24-hour operations in time. There’s plenty of scope for development.” explained Charles.
“We will be growing that business by adding value to our products and we are hoping to push our employee number to over 100 in the next 18 months.
“But the new project is immensely exciting, with possibilities for supplying fleets and companies beyond our site.
“The possibilities of this new direction are enormous, though being a family firm it has been very difficult to have to lose good people in the face of such massive change.
“People ask me if I feel the weight of all that business and family history.
“I say no – at least not any longer, because we are doing exactly what my ancestors would have done; seeing a great opportunity that demands total commitment.
“Then the family motto kicks in: ‘Incepta persequor’ – Finish what you start.”
Archives and Heritage
In collaboration with Birmingham City Council Archives and the Heritage Department, the Hay Mills Foundation Trust is conducting detailed research into W&H’s 300-year history. Volunteers are working with the company archivist, Sandy Robertson, to record the impact of the company on the people who worked there and on the wider Birmingham area. It will also detail the lasting global legacy the company has left on the industrial world.
Over the past 170 years W&H has been a major employer in Birmingham’s Tyseley and Hay Mills areas, and has played a key role in the development of local infrastructure, including construction of the area’s first school, St Cyprians Church, in 1854, a Memorial Hall, and several homes.
“We don’t see this just as a part of our history,” said Charles Horsfall. “We and the energy park are continuing the community tradition by working with the local community and local businesses to support the regeneration of this part of Birmingham.”
Originally printed in Wire and Cable News