James Fern Webster – the “wizard of Warwickshire”

James Fern Webster was an engineer and prolific inventor who lived and worked in the High Street, Solihull Lodge in the 1870s/80s.

He developed a process for making the extraction of aluminium sufficiently cost effective for the metal to be used in the manufacture of everyday objects, patenting a process that enabled him to sell aluminium for £4 per pound instead of the £60 per pound that it had been previously. Prior to this, aluminium was considered a precious metal, and bars of aluminium were exhibited alongside the French Crown Jewels in the Paris Exhibition of 1855.

Webster’s process was described in The British Architect of 13th July 1883 as “one of the most important modern successes.” Its effect on the German-silver, brass and copper trades was likened to the effect of the Bessemer and Martin processes on the iron and steel industries.

James Webster was born in Cinderford, Basford, Nottinghamshire on 6th March 1821 and was baptised at Basford on 15th April 1821. His parents were recorded in the baptism register as Thomas and Ruth Webster. He was not baptised with the middle name ‘Fern’ and it is not known when or why the name was added.

A cased daguerrotype portrait of James Webster, believed to have been taken c.1842, when he was 21. (ref.: JFWEBS/1/1/1)

He married Sabina Wragg (also recorded as Ragg) in August 1841 in Basford,  Nottinghamshire. The marriage certificate records his father as Thomas Perry.

James and Sabina Webster had four children:

  • Thomas Fern Webster (1842-1842)
  • (H)Ellen Webster (1844-1914)
    (married 1. Henry Harris (in 1865), married 2. Joseph Shaw (1844-1933) in 1876)
  • Emily Mary Webster (1852-1890)
  • Frederick William Fern Webster (1859-?1924)
    (married Ann Unitt in 1881)

The family moved to Leicester sometime between 1844-1851, and then moved to Birmingham between 1852-1856. Webster was operating a blacking factory and two steel refineries in the city by the late 1860s.

James Webster moved from Edgbaston, Birmingham to the more isolated location of Shirley in the 1870s, enabling him to carry out secret experiments, firstly at the remote Whitlocks End Farm and then at Fern House, High Street, Solihull Lodge.

A sale catalogue suggests he acquired these properties in 1875, and he appears on electoral registers in Solihull Lodge from 1877-1887.

He patented his process of making aluminium in June 1881 and, four months later, established Webster’s Patent Aluminium Crown Metal Company. He built a factory, the Hollywood Works, on the High Street in Solihull Lodge.

One of the first ingot castings of aluminium produced by James Fern Webster at his refinery and works, High Street, Solihull Lodge (ref.: JFWEBS/3/4/4)

The company was sold in 1887 and, following the death of his wife in 1888, James Fern Webster moved back to Edgbaston, where he died on 1st November 1904. He is buried with his wife and other family members in St James’s churchyard, Shirley.

The Hollywood Works was demolished in 1911, and houses have been built on the site situated between the present Lawford Grove and the canal.

Thanks to the efforts of James Webster’s family, particularly his grandson, Arthur Fern Shaw, many of Webster’s papers have survived and are held by The Core Library Solihull. Other material is held by Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

James Fern Webster’s great-grandson, Professor Tom Vincent MBE, has created a detailed website about his ancestor’s life and work.

Heritage & Local Studies Librarian

email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk
tel.: 0121 704 6977

Further reading

  • James Fern Webster: Britain’s Pioneer of Aluminium by Arthur F. Shaw
    (available for reference at the Core Library, Solihull (ref.: RB WEBS)
  • Transcript of Silver Pimpernel (the life and work of James Fern Webster, broadcast on BBC Birmingham 18th October 1977
    (available for reference at the Core Library, Solihull (ref.: RB WEBS)
  • “Britain’s pioneer of aluminium,” by Robert Shaw. In Solihull Magazine, 1963 pp.11-12
    (available for reference at The Core Library, Solihull)

© Solihull Council, 2019.
You are welcome to link to this article, but if you wish to reproduce more than a short extract, please email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

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