James Fern Webster, the "wizard of Warwickshire"

Manufactured aluminum

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. 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 13 July 1883, as “one of the most important modern successes” and 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 Fern Webster

James Webster was born in Basford, Nottingham in 1821 and he married Sabina Wragg in Nottingham in 1845. He moved with his wife and daughter 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, first 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.

Map of Solihull Lodge

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 in 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 available to view at Solihull Central Library. Other material is held by Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

James Fern Webster in retirement

Webster’s great-great grandson, Tom Vincent, created a detailed website (jfwebster.co.uk), the contents of which he has kindly given permission for us to archive as a PDF document (7.5MB).

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