Behind some trees, next to a small
roundabout in Hay Mills, in the Small Heath area of the City, you
can just make out the roof of an old factory and a church spire.
The factory - Latch & Batchelors/Webster
& Horsfalls - make wire. Wow. What’s so good about that, you ask.
Well, the wire needed to help fly
planes and power combustion engines was invented by the family who
own that factory. They’re a piece of world history - there - in
little Hay Mills.
the old and new worlds
A hundred and fifty years ago, that
tiny Birmingham factory and its workforce produced the first ever
Atlantic Telegraph Cable, allowing permanent telegraphic communication
between the old world and the new.
the picture story of Webster & Horsfall's Atlantic Cable.
This was at a time when Birmingham
was a great manufacturing city, a leader in a rapidly developing
|Hay Mills families celebrating
Queen Victoria's Jubilee.
James Horsfall moved his wire mill
from the centre of Birmingham to Hay Mills - a disused sword factory
- in 1856. The area took its name and is still called Hay Mills
Horsfall had already achieved fame
with his revolutionary heat treatment process for wire in 1853 and
was granted Letters Patent by Queen Victoria.
His process meant the creation of
the word 'patenting', now known throughout the world.
piano wire to bomb fuses
James Horsfall patented a wire that
was twice as hard as anyone elses, and thus whole new industries
were born. Without this wire, planes and cars probably wouldn't
have been invented.
The Birmingham factory produced piano
wire - having the entire world trade at one point, which is where
the Horsfall family fortune came from.
Then in 1864 the company won the
whole wire order for the Atlantic Telegraph Cable - 1600 tons to
be delivered within 12 months. It put the company on the map and
ensured the prosperity of the local workforce.
|Laying the cable from the SS
Even more so when they received a
repeat order the following year when the cable was lost in the final
stages of laying it. The new cable was successfully laid by Isambard
Kingdom Brunel’s great ship - the SS Great Eastern - the largest
ship afloat in 1866. It took 14 days to lay the cable.
company was one of the first to come under direct Government control
in both World Wars. In the 1914 - 1918 war we were the sole manufacturer
of shell fuse spring wire for example, producing 80,260 miles, according
to company records, along with anti-submarine netting, mine, aircraft
and balloon cables.
by Nazi bombers
The works did not fare so well in
the 1939 - 1945 conflict receiving several direct hits during air
raids. The main crane in the rope mill still shudders half-way down
the shop caused by slight track misalignment from this time.
In the 21st century the company is
still going strong - with a local workforce made up of many Birmingham
relatives. Dads bring their sons, uncles bring their nephews - nepotism
is effectively maintained at all levels according to the management!
The factory might not look much different
to the dark, hot and smoky caverns of the 19th century, but it produces
essential products for our modern lives - including surgical implant
wires and spring clips for golf carts.
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