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The Atlantic Telegraph Cable story
Inside Webster & Horsfall
The Birmingham factory that made history.

Did you know this Birmingham factory made instant communication possible between Britain and the USA?

It also powered the allied effort during the Great War, and was bombed by the Nazis! It's still going strong after 150 years.

SEE ALSO
Your Birmingham index
WEB LINKS
Atlantic Cable.com
Webster & Horsfall
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FACTS

The first messages were transmitted over the Atlantic Cable in August 1858 between Valentia, Ireland, and Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, September 1st was declared as the official day of celebration in New York City.

Birmingham was once known as the 'City of a Thousand Trades'

 

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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.

Linking 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.

See the picture story of Webster & Horsfall's Atlantic Cable. Go to picture gallery

This was at a time when Birmingham was a great manufacturing city, a leader in a rapidly developing world.

Families in Hay Mills ain the 1800's
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 today.

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.

From 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 Atlantic cbale from the ship
Laying the cable from the SS Great Eastern

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.

The 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.

Targetted 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.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR WORKPLACE

If you live in Birmingham, Solihull, Sutton or West Bromwich and think the company/business you work for has an interesting story to tell, let us know birmingham@bbc.co.uk

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