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Available atThe Core Library Solihull
TitleShaw collection of papers on James Fern Webster, metallurgist and engineer
DescriptionDocuments and artefacts relating to James Fern Webster and the Aluminium Crown Metal Co., High Street, Solihull Lodge.
Admin/Biographical historyJames 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.

He is believed not to have received any formal schooling and to have started work at the age of 7. 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) and Frederick William Fern Webster (1859-?1924) (married Ann Unitt in 1881).

James Webster had moved to Sneinton, Nottinghamshire by 1844, where he worked as a gas engineer at the County Asylum. By 1850, he had moved to Leicester and then to Birmingham, Warwickshire sometime between 1852 and 1856. According to notes taken from his experimental books, he was resident at 137 Bath Row, Birmingham in 1856 and then at 3 Lee Crescent, Edgbaston, Birmingham in 1858. By 1873 he was resident at Ryland Road, Edgbaston and, in 1874, he was at Whitlocks End Farm, Tidbury Green, Shirley. Electoral registers suggest that he moved from the farm at Whitlocks End to Fern House, High Street, Solihull Lodge, between July 1876 and July 1877.

He had two steel-refining factories in Birmingham (The Globe, refined iron and steel works, 28 Freeth Street, Birmingham and Birmingham Heath) and a blacking factory (James Webster & Co., 42-43 Oozells Street, Birmingham) at which he manufactured his Patent Oil Blacking.

At Whitlocks End and Solihull Lodge he carried out secret experiments that helped him to develop a process that made the extraction of aluminium cheaper and easier, so that the metal could be used in a wider variety of ways. In 1877 he built a factory, the Hollywood Refinery, on High Street, Solihull Lodge. He took out over 200 patents on a range of topics, and the process that he patented in 1882 enabled him to sell aluminium for £4 per pound instead of the £60 per pound that it had been previously.

On 1st January 1884, Webster established the Patent Aluminium Crown Metal Company Limited, which he sold in 1887 to a company based in Oldbury, Staffordshire. The Hollywood works were apparently purchased in 1911 by a Mr Vaux and subsequently demolished.

On 17th October 1888, Webster's wife Sabina died and was interred in the family vault in St James's churchyard, Shirley. By 1891, Webster had left Fern House and was living at 82, Ryland Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham. The contents of Heath House, 82 Ryland Road were sold at auction in April 1897 and Webster moved to Lee Crescent, Edgbaston, next door to his daughter Ellen, and her husband Joseph Shaw.

Webster died in Birmingham on 1st November 1904 and was interred at the family vault at St James's church, Shirley. Probate was granted in London on 15th November to his executors – his son, Frederick William Fern Webster, and his son-in-law, Joseph Shaw. The value of his estate is given in the National Probate Calendar as £1932 7s 2d. The family believe that he buried a fortune in gold for safe-keeping somewhere in the vicinity of Solihull Lodge, and that this gold has never been found.

Webster's grandson, Arthur Fern Shaw (1884-1961) began gathering documents and memorabilia in the 1930s with a view to writing a biography of James Fern Webster. The manuscript was completed in 1949 and copies were retained within the family. Shaw's son, Joseph Robert Shaw, produced an edited version of the manuscript, which is included in this collection. The original version was privately published by a grandson of Arthur Fern Shaw in 1992.
Access StatusOpen
Access ConditionsNo restrictions on access.
Finding AidsA handlist detailing items in the collection is attached (PDF).
Related MaterialJames Fern Webster: Britain's Pioneer of Aluminium by Arthur F. Shaw (RB WEBS); Transcript of "Silver Pimpernel" (the life and work of James Fern Webster, broadcast on BBC Birmingham 18th October 1977 (RB WEBS).
Document/photo attached (click image to open)


Creator_NameWebster; James Fern (1821-1904)
Shaw; Arthur Fern (1884-1961)
Shaw; Joseph Robert (1908-1989)
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