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Cable guy's gift the centre of attention; SHARE YOUR MEMORIES OF BRUM.

It was a technological and engineering triumph, the successful laying of the undersea cable by the Great Eastern that would link by telegraphic communication the New World with the Old. And it was an achievement that was praised both for what it did and for what it promised.

The first message was sent from Newfoundland to Valentia Island off the western coast of Ireland in the early hours of Saturday July 28, 1866. It took hours, rather than days, a wondrous feat that led The Times to acclaim the cable as ''a great work, a glory to our age and nation, and the men who have achieved it deserve to be honoured among the benefactors of their race".

Amongst those men were the Birmingham manufacturers James Horsfall and John and Edwin Wright - and of course, their workers. It was at the Hay Mills works of Webster and Horsfall that the armouring wire was made. This was wound spirally around the core of the cable, thus protecting from damage the copper wire along which the electric current was transmitted.

And it was the Wright Brothers of the Universe Works in Garrison Street who had devised the process whereby each armouring wire was covered with yarn of Manilla hemp soaked in a mixture of tar, India rubber, and pitch. Unfortunately the contribution of the Birmingham rope makers to the early cable making industry tended to be overlooked, although that of Webster and Horsfall's was more widely recognised. In June 1864 a reporter from the Birmingham Daily Post visited the works, which lay amidst foliage and fields beyond the little village of Small Heath.

Close to the bridge over the River Cole and by a country inn, the workers joined heartily together in one great labour effort. Like gigantic silkworms, they were spinning miles upon miles of wire to unite two nations in more friendly discourse. In one corner was a gigantic water wheel, used to reinforce the power of the steam engines. Elsewhere were tanks to clean the wire and rows of boilers.

But the most important feature was that of the wire drawers at their benches. Here they took the steel rods fetched in from Sheffield and forced the pointed end through ''one of the eyes of a gigantic iron needle stuck into his bench''. Then each worker fixed a huge pair of pincers upon the end: ''unable to do more himself, the workman places his foot upon a treadle, and sets the giant below at work''.

These steam-driven pincers drew a yard or two of wire through the eye, which was half the size of the metal. Then the wire was attached to a drum, again powered by steam, which turned and turned so as to quickly draw the whole rod down from its original size to that of the eye - and gaining in length as it diminished in diameter.

The Atlantic cable had to pass through three other eyes - each smaller than the last. And each time the wire had ''to submit to be boiled in oil''. At its thinnest point the wire could bear a strain of a PS1,040.

After he had left, the reporter was told that the workers had drunk an enthusiastic toast: ''long life and happiness to our employer, Mr Horsfall, and success to the new enterprise. May it realise the hopes and expectation, of the scientific world and also be a source of prosperity and happiness to Mr Horsfall and all connected with these works''.

Well might the workers have toasted James Horsfall. The Atlantic cable order kept nearly 250 men employed for 11 months in supplying over 30,000 miles of wire. Some of them could earn a very good wage of up to 35 shillings (PS1.75p) a week. This was at a time when a labourer would be fortunate to bring in 75p a week and a widow who took in washing would be hard put to reach 50p a week.

James Horsfall was indeed a remarkable man who was responsible for a new trade. Originally he had set up in 1840 as a steel, iron and musical wire drawer in Oxford Street, Birmingham. Until the mid-1820s, wire for musical instruments had been imported from Germany but since then the domestic market had been dominated by the Websters of Penns Mill in Walmley, Sutton Coldfield.

However, piano makers in particular were demanding a very hard steel wire which would not stretch and come up to pitch quickly and so remain in tune without variation for longer. James Horsfall devoted himself to the problem and solved it through a revolutionary process. The usual way of making wire was to anneal it - soften it by placing it in a fire until it was red hot. The wire was then allowed to cool gradually. This procedure was followed repeatedly until it became sufficiently soft for the workman to reduce it to the size required.

Horsfall did the opposite. He hardened his wire by heating it red hot and then plunged it into cold water or oil. If necessary, the outside of the wire was softened by passing it through a bath of melted lead. The innovation was a real breakthrough and Horsfall patented it in 1854. Charles Lean was an expert on wire drawing and he explained that Horsfall's wire was light, hard and extremely tenacious. Its importance and potential quickly drew the interest of Joseph Webster, who wished to defend his enormous trade in piano wire. Accordingly he offered James Horsfall the massive sum of PS1,000 and an equal partnership with his youngest son, Baron Dickinson Webster.

By 1859 production at Penns Mill and also at Plants Brook had been abandoned and wire production was concentrated at Hay Mills, to which Horsfall had moved from Oxford Street. A year later Baron Dickenson Webster died and Horsfall took complete control of the business. He quickly developed the use of his steel wire in new fields such as the manufacture of needles, fish-hooks, springs, small tools, umbrella frames, and crinolines - as well as for rope in collieries and for ship's rigging.

The mill at Hay had been recorded first in 1495 but it was not until James Horsfall took it over that it became the focus of a busy new village in Worcestershire called Hay Mills. His workers wanted to live locally and so he put up a number of cottages for them. Although he was not a public figure, Horsfall did have a keen interest in the welfare of his workers and in 1861 he erected and fitted out a school room. He paid for a teacher for the local children and for books and newspapers for his workmen to read of a weekday evening. On Sundays the building was used for religious services and it became a chapel after a new school room was erected in 1863. The chapel itself was replaced in 1873 by another gift from Horsfall, the Church of Saint Cyprian.

Its six chancel windows were filled with stained glass made by the celebrated Birmingham firm of Hardman and Co. and at its opening on Easter Monday the Bishop of Worcester preached on the text from Matthew ''where two are gathered in my name; there am I in the midst of them''.

St Cyprian's remains in the midst of Hay Mills and on September 14 its congregation will celebrate its 140 years with a Victorian Day. Refreshments will be served in the Memorial Hall, there will be guided tours of the church and a small exhibition of old photographs - as well as other activities for children and adults.

The next day, Sunday September 15, will be St Cyprian's day and Bishop David Urquart, the Bishop of Birmingham, will take the 10.30am Communion Service and install the Reverend Roy Anetts as priest in charge. Everyone is welcome to both events.

This photo of the choir (above) was taken around the mid-1960s as our present choir master, Phil Taylor, is holding the cross on the back row (fourth from left) and another member of our congregation, Tony Pipe, is also on the back row (second from right).

The inside of St Cyprian's before the Second World War (left). The Reverend Roy Anetts writes that 'the beautifully carved stone reredos (behind the altar) was damaged by a bomb. However it was propped up to be repaired after the war. Unfortunately the builders removed the props and the wall fell down and the reredos was destroyed. The distinctive marble font was presented to the church in 1879 by James and Elizabeth Horsfall as a memorial to their only daughter Mary Elizabeth Simms (the wife of the first vicar) who died in childbirth. The face of the angel is said to be modelled upon their beloved only daughter.

A print of Webster and Horsfall's in the later 19th century (below). Under the proud ownership of the Horsfall family the factory continues to be a symbol of Birmingham's manufacturing prowess.

''The mill at Hay had been recorded first in 1495 but it was not until James Horsfall took it over that it became the focus of a busy new village in Worcestershire called Hay Mills

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A wonderful photo of local people gathered outside St Cyprian's at a time of a celebration.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 7, 2013
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