John Webster (1687-1757)
John, the founder of the business in 1720, was born in Normanton-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire. He was the second son of Thomas Webster, who was born in London but moved to Normanton after 1680. John’s great-grandfather, William was a London merchant, but the family ancestors can be traced back to the sixteenth century and Flamborough in Yorkshire.
John moved to Birmingham in about 1708 and founded his wholesale and retail iron business in Digbeth, selling all manner of iron and brass goods and his stock of bar iron. In 1718, John married Sarah Ward of Shenstone in Staffordshire and they had four children.
Just after his marriage, he entered into partnership with John Turton at the mill in Perry Barr for the production of bar iron, which then expanded to produce wire; the Webster business was born.
Despite his business interests, John was actively involved in the public life of Birmingham, being both Low and High Bailiff and also Constable. He died at his home, No. 4 Digbeth, in 1757.
Before his death, John had already stepped back from the business, leaving his son Joseph in charge.
Joseph Webster (1720-1780)
Joseph was born at the Digbeth home in 1720. He joined his father in the business and was in effect, already running the business before he officially inherited all of his father’s estates.
Joseph went on to expand the business further, taking the lease on Penns Mill in 1752 and setting up a wire mill there, with a greater capacity then the two at Perry Barr combined.
By 1761 he had taken over Plants Forge and started to produce crucible steel in light of Benjamin Huntsman’s invention, and by 1771 had acquired the lease of Longnor Iron Forge in Shropshire. Joseph was producing steel wire by 1776 and was possibly the first in the Midlands to do so. Production of iron, steel, copper and brass wire was approximately 25 tons in 1777 and producing wire for needles became a lucrative trade which led on to the first international orders.
Once his own son had joined him in the business, they worked together to constantly improve the quality of their wire. The knowledge and production techniques was passed from one generation to the next.
Joseph married twice, in 1748 to Martha Dickinson and then to Ann Brodribb in 1759. Each marriage produced two children. Keeping the premises in Digbeth, he leased Penns House from 1759 and this became the Webster family home for the next three generations. Joseph died at Penns on 13 October 1780, aged 59. The business then passed to his eldest son.
Joseph Webster II (1750–1787)
Under Joseph, the company continued to grow. Websters still produced iron wire and products, but crucible steel production was developed further. At this time, the company had achieved a reputation for quality and crucially, was a convenient local supplier for the gunmakers and swordsmiths of Birmingham.
Business was good and Websters became a customer of Taylor and Lloyd, the first private bank to be established in the town in 1765. Joseph then purchased Penns outright and gave up the Longnor Forge, leasing Hints Forge in Sutton Coldfield instead.
In 1781, Joseph married Phoebe, daughter of John Parkes of Warwick. Phoebe was the great-granddaughter of John Turton, the partner of John Webster at Perry Barr. Joseph and Phoebe had four children together.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Joseph became Low Bailiff of Birmingham in 1787. However, he did not see out the term due to his sudden death; an enthusiastic member of the Warwickshire Hounds, Joseph came down with his horse in Chelmsley Wood. He never regained consciousness and died on 11 October 1787, aged 38.
Phoebe Webster (1759-1817)
The widow of Joseph II was left with four small children to care for at Penns. Her son, heir to the Webster business, was just five years old.
Phoebe took charge of Penns Mill and the business between 1788-1801, never seeking to merge with a male business partner, protecting her son’s legacy in its entirety.
Although wives often inherited their husband’s businesses, it would have been most unusual for a woman to be actively involved in the running of such a manufacturing company; but Phoebe managed to do so for twelve years. Her success can be judged on the performance of the company; sales did not fall, in fact there was a modest increase in production. Websters of Penns were producing 35 tons in 1788 and by 1796, production had reached 44 tons.
Phoebe was living in anxious and volatile times, Britain was continually at war and nervous in the wake of the French Revolution. In July 1791, Birmingham witnessed four days of riots where religious dissenters were targeted, most notably Joseph Priestley.
The Websters were Presbyterians and were therefore fearful of being targeted. The family still had the premises in Digbeth. It is reputed that Phoebe managed to save that house by sticking a paper in the window stating ‘this is Mr. Hick’s house’ – he a well-known high churchman. This was apparently sufficient for the house to remain untouched.
However, news did reach the family that the rioters were approaching Penns. As quickly as they could, with the assistance of the mill workers, furniture and anything else of value was removed and Phoebe fled with her small children, her butler and maid to the nearby home of a friend. Fortunately, the house at Penns was untouched, as the military had arrived and riots abated.
Phoebe eventually handed over control of the business to her son, Joseph in 1801.
Joseph Webster III (1782-1856)
Joseph was sent to school at an early age under the care of Mr Scholefield, a Presbyterian minister in Exeter Row. Then to Birches Green, in Erdington and his school companions included Mr Spooner (who later became M.P. for North Warwickshire) and Gregory, the younger son of James Watt.
Once in charge of the business, he was encouraged by his mother, to enter into a partnership with his brother in law, John William Crompton. The firm became Webster and Crompton, for 14 years.
During Joseph’s tenure, the steel works at Killamarsh were leased and this was where the innovation of high manganese steel was first produced. Websters of Penns went on to achieve a world-wide reputation for the quality of their music wire and production figures for this period demonstrate their dominance. Production in the 1820s was only at 136 lbs but by 1837, the company produced 19 tons of music wire, increasing to 30 tons by 1847.
In public life, Joseph was Warden of the Corporation of Sutton Coldfield for 1809 and was a local magistrate and reputedly a Whig politically. After 1812 Joseph built a number of cottages for his employees on his land close to the mill at Penns (three groups of four back-to-back cottages).
In 1811, Joseph married Maria Mary Payne, daughter of a baronet and they had twelve children. The family became Anglicans and Joseph was a principal founder of St John’s Church, Walmley. Joseph actually left Penns in 1844 and spent time in Derby before returning to Warwickshire and renting Ashfurlong, where he died on 7 July 1856. The family vault for Joseph and his family is at Holy Trinity Parish Church in Sutton Coldfield.
In 1839, Joseph second son, Baron Dickinson, became a partner and when Joseph retired from the business in 1855, Baron succeeded.
Baron Dickinson Webster (1818-1860)
Born at Penns, Baron was educated at University of Cambridge before joining his father in the business.
Trade at this stage had slumped and sales of music wire were down. Another wire producer, James Horsfall had produced his improved ‘patent’ wire. In 1855, Baron and his father entered into partnership with James and Webster and Horsfall was formed.
Although short, it was a successful partnership as a good working relationship was soon established between the two men. Baron drove the business forward sourcing potential markets for their products and James looked after the production side. In 1859, the operations at Penns mill and Plantsbrook forge were closed down and the entire business was moved to Hay Mills, where it remains to this day.
Baron was married twice, to Anna Maria Wolferstan and then to Anna Maria Bristowe. In addition to his business commitments, Baron was also very involved with local institutions and politically with the local Liberal party. In 1857, Baron was a candidate to be the representative for Birmingham and had strong support from some in the party, but others favoured another candidate, John Bright. Once Baron had established, at local party meetings, that Bright appeared to have more support and not wanting to split the party, he withdrew from the contest. John Bright went on to be elected unopposed as one of the two M.P.s for Birmingham.
As a member of the Corporation of Sutton Coldfield, he was Warden in 1843 and 1844 and also Chair of the Board of Governors for Aston Union. Baron was also in the Commission of Peace for the counties of Warwick and Stafford and was Deputy Lieutenant for the Warwickshire Yeomanry. It was while attending the volunteer review of his troop in Calthorpe Park, in extremely wet conditions, that he caught a chill which progressed to inflammation of the lungs; he died on 4 August 1860 at the age of 42.
Just at the time of his death Webster and Horsfall were about to complete the order for the submarine telegraph between Marseille and Algiers. Baron had been keen for Webster and Horsfall to be involved commercially with the exciting developments in communication, seeing the potential for their wire. The future success of the company and its involvement in the Atlantic telegraph cable project can be largely attributed to Baron’s efforts.
Baron Dickinson was the last Webster to be involved with Webster and Horsfall as the partnership was dissolved upon death of either partner.
James Horsfall (1813-1887)
James was born in Birmingham in 1813, his father Joseph, an established wire drawer in Trent Street. Joseph had entered into a partnership with Edward Spawforth in neighbouring Oxford Street, which James continued after his father’s death. His relationship with the Spawforths was further strengthened when James married Edward’s daughter, Charlotte, in 1836.
James was the inventor of Patent steel wire; his special form of heat treatment known as ‘patenting’ that produced a wire of greater tensile strength. This was what pianoforte makers were seeking and James was marketing his ‘improved’ music wire from the works in Oxford Street by 1846. In 1851, his music wire was awarded a prize medal at the Great Exhibition.
After taking out a patent in 1854, it was then assigned to the partnership he formed with Joseph and Baron Dickinson Webster in 1855. At this time, James business was already based at Hay Mills but by 1859, all of the Webster operations were
moved there too. James became the sole proprietor of Webster and Horsfall after Baron Webster’s death, and the company became famous for supplying the wire for the armoured casing of the Atlantic telegraph cable.
Charlotte died in 1862 and James then married Elizabeth Coldwell in 1870; a widow with two children, Mary Elizabeth and Henry Herbert. James had lived at Heathfield House, but moved to The Firs at Moseley, after his marriage to Elizabeth; this was despite purchasing Penns outright in 1865.
James had a philanthropic nature, as demonstrated in the provision of a school, cottages and places of worship for his employees. He was also a governor of the General Hospital in Birmingham, furnishing Ward 11 at his own expense in 1868.
James inherited many staff members from Websters, including wire drawers, forge men and the company secretary, Charles Lean. After his marriage to Elizabeth, he stepped back from the business, leaving the day to day running in the capable hands of Lean. In 1881 he formally retired, the business was then run by Charles Lean, James’s adopted son Henry Herbert and his trustees; the company for some time known as Webster, Horsfall and Lean.
James died in 1887, two years after Elizabeth; they are both buried in the family chapel at St. Cyprian’s.
Henry Herbert Coldwell-Horsfall (1856-1941)
Adopted son of James Horsfall, from his marriage to Elizabeth. Henry was trained in wire drawing by James and joined Webster and Horsfall at the age of eighteen and legally succeeded to the business in 1886.
With his training and understanding of the patented processes, Henry continued to take an active part in the quality developments of the wire produced by the firm. He went on to become an ardent supporter of the locked-coil wire rope, always looking for methods to improve quality and tensile strength. He entered into partnership with Arthur Latch and Telford Clarence Batchelor and formed the company of Latch and Batchelor Ltd, formally amalgamated with Webster and Horsfall in 1892. Henry took the role of chairman and after the death of Latch, became joint managing-director with Batchelor, a position he maintained until his death.
Henry had business interests in other companies and was for many years a director of the Airdale Collieries. His public work involved a term of office as High Sheriff for Warwickshire and he was a Justice of the Peace for the county of Warwick.
One obituary tells how he followed his father’s lead in being interested in the welfare of his employees and the people of Penns and Hay Mills. During his tenure, many employees were engaged in life-time service with successive generations joining the firm.
Henry had married Annie Cooper in August 1879; they lived at Penns with their son and two daughters. Henry and Annie enjoyed a long and happy marriage, celebrating their diamond anniversary in 1938. Henry died at Penns on 21 April 1941, at the age of 84.
Arthur Latch (1847-1910)
Arthur, born in Monmouth, was the son of Joseph and Fanny Latch. After his education he entered the world of business and in 1877 was employed by Messrs George Eliot & Co. of London and Cardiff; they were manufacturers of steel and iron mining rope, hawers and rigging.
This well-established firm had grown out of Glass, Eliot & Co. who had constructed the first Atlantic telegraph cable and so had business connections with Webster and Horsfall.
Arthur had wanted to improve the wire rope being made (ordinary or reverse lay) so he consulted his cousin, Telford Clarence Batchelor, a talented engineer and designer. The result was Telford invention for the Locked-coil wire rope.
The patent for this innovation was assigned to Arthur in 1884, as he had secured the interest of his employer George Eliot. However, relationships soured with Eliot and Arthur eventually entered into partnership with his cousin Telford and Henry Herbert Coldwell-Horsfall, forming Latch & Batchelor Ltd.
Arthur was married to Emma and in 1901 they were living in Edgbaston with their three sons, Cyril, Arthur Ronald (Roy) and Clive Chartress and daughters Margaret and Kathleen. Clive was killed in the First World War.
Latch became Managing Director of Latch and Batchelor in 1895 and remained so until his death on 13 July 1910. Arthur’s descendants remained shareholders until a management buyout 2008.
Telford Clarence Batchelor (1857-1947)
Born 2 Aug 1857 at Christchurch, Caerleon, Monmouthshire, Telford was the only son of Henry and Mary Eliza Batchelor. Telford’s father was an engineer, naval draughtsman and surveyor, with a business in Cardiff. After serving an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering, Telford joined his father in business, forming H & T. C. Batchelor, Patent Moving Diagrams.
Telford was extremely proficient with tools and keen on design and he is best known as the inventor of the Locked-coil and Flattened-strand wire ropes. The essence of the Locked -coil invention was that wires composing the exterior of the rope were shaped of such cross-sections that they would interlock with one another; producing rope of greater flexibility with a smooth exterior.
However, Telford was a prolific inventor throughout his career. He was co-patentee, with his father, for the motion diagrams in 1876 (at only 19 years of age) and his last patent taken out in 1925, was for guide ropes. He also devised plant, tools and methods for the manufacture of locked-coil ropes.
The amalgamation with Webster and Horsfall was founded on the strength of the Flattened-strand patent and the development of this wire rope took place at Hay Mills. The first Locked-coil rope to be made at Hay Mills was despatched in 1899, after the master patent giving Eliot & Co. exclusive rights expired. Telford had designed the necessary machinery and tooling.
Telford married Jennie Watson in 1901 and they had no children. Jennie died 7 Nov 1925 and Telford on 3 March 1947. The other shareholders purchased Telford’s shares in the business.
Lieut. Col. James Henry Coldwell-Horsfall (1881-1948)
James was born at Penns, the only son of Henry Herbert. He followed a military career for twenty-one years, serving with the Royal Horse Artillery (know as ‘the Gunners’) and saw active service during World War I.
After retirement from military service in 1921 he joined the company as a director and succeeded as Chairman in 1941 after the death of his father.
Following family tradition, James was High Sheriff of Warwickshire 1925-6 and also Deputy Lieutenant and a judge for the county. He was keen marksman and a member of the Woodmen of Arden, the Army and Navy Club and the Vesey Lodge of Freemasons.
James and his wife, Doris Frances, had four sons and three daughters. All sons saw active service during World War II; sadly, David, was lost to the conflict. Their daughter, Joan, also saw active nursing service in Burma.
James died at his home, Northumberland House in Leamington Spa in March 1948.
Colonel John Henry Coldwell-Horsfall (1915 – 2006)
John Henry, born in Putney in 1915, was serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers during the Second World War was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) for services at the Italian front.
At the end of the war in 1945, he was invited by his father, James Henry, to join the board of the company and take over the running of the business.
He re-organised the company restoring the name of Webster & Horsfall as the dominant company and asked his brothers, Michael and Colin to join him to provide a strong family influence. He stabilized production and ensured a steady growth and sound financial management. He also expanded the business opening a wire manufacturing factory in Canada to take advantage of the burgeoning markets in the United States of America.
In 1971, to mark the 250th Anniversary of the founding of the business he published a book, The Iron Masters of Penns, which provides a detailed account of the company’s achievements and innovations since it was founded in 1720. He retired as Chair in 1996 and died in Kenilworth in 2006.
James Michael Coldwell-Horsfall (1920–2016)
Michael was born in Leamington in 1920. He joined his brother John Henry, on the board of the company in 1946, having left the RAF where he had flown Spitfires on reconnaissance during the Second World War.
He took over the management of Latch & Batchelor. He set about building up the trade in wire ropes establishing close links with National Coal Board when the production of coal was nationalised in 1946. Throughout his time at Hay Mills he continued to represent the interests of the British mining industry as a whole and its importance to national stability. He fought hard during the last twenty years of the last century against the progressive closure of British coal mines in the face of foreign competition, even organising a roadside demonstration during the EU Summit Conference in Birmingham in 1992.
He retired in 1999. He had married in 1946 and his son, Guy, followed him into the business and three of his grandsons work in the business today.
Colin Andrew Lawden Coldwell-Horsfall (1926-2005)
Colin joined the company in 1948, immediately after completing his National Service. Colin’s main interests centred on engineering; he developed an in-depth knowledge of the machinery and production processes in both rope and wire production. He set about modifying and redesigning the machinery in new and innovative ways to overcome production problems and to enable new methods of manufacture. In this he carried on the tradition of invention and innovation which has characterized the development of the company since its foundation. He retired in 1999.
He married Jane Stevenson-Moore in 1951 and they had two sons. Colin died in 2005 and son Charles, is the current Chair.
Guy Henry Georges Coldwell – Horsfall (1950 – 2008)
Guy joined the company in the early 1970s to assist his father, James Michael, and then took over the management of Latch and Batchelor on the retirement of his father in 1999. Guy brought a fresh impetus to the company and built up the export trade in mining ropes world-wide, travelling extensively in Africa and Australia.
Guy was also interested in the historic legacy of the family business and he started collating and sorting the mass of archival material that had accumulated. He established a relationship with the Birmingham Archives and Collections, to assist in the preservation of such a rich and extensive archive. After his death, this vision and work has continued, with the establishment of the Hay Mills Foundation Trust in 2014.
The Company Today
Following John Henry, the Chair of the company was Patrick Robinson, a family member through marriage (John Henry’s son-in-law). Prior to joining the company, Patrick had also followed a military career, serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers.
After Patrick’s death, the Chair passed to Charles Coldwell-Horsfall. He is joined by further generations of the family, with Jonathan, Robert and David Coldwell-Horsfall, Jeremy Robinson, Michael Liddington and Alex Helliwell, all descendants of Henry Herbert Coldwell-Horsfall, forming the executive board in the tercentenary year of 2020.
Our current executive team