Websters of Stanstead Abbotts


Probably the largest Stanstead Abbotts employer - ever!


(By Brian Umney and Bob Hunt)



You might not think so now in its rather decrepit state but Websters of Netherfield Lane was once the biggest employer in the village. In its hey-day it employed 200 folk locally and a further 300 in depots in Watford, Portsmouth,  Maidstone and Aldershot. It pioneered the lighting along the northern section of the M25; it became responsible for the lighting on Westminster Bridge (pictured) among other GLC sites and become a creative developer of purpose-built vehicles for the lighting industry. Quite a CV for our village company!


So how did it all begin? In 1960, while working for his uncle in the family firm of Bell and Webster in Lower Lane, Great Amwell, David Webster spotted an opportunity to develop a service to local authorities for their Public Lighting Sectors.

In 1961 he bought out the lighting department from his uncle and marketed it under the name of David Webster Ltd. He turned his Goffs Oak home into his workshop and office and with 2 erection crews and an electrician won contracts for installing new or replacement lighting units with authorities as far apart as High Wycombe, Cardiff and Newcastle.

Business in this zone began to boom and Websters moved from Goffs Oak to new industrial premises at Cole Green, near Welwyn, and established an office and storage yard. In 1965 DWL was the first private contractor to win a contract to maintain public street lighting - previously the domain of ‘in-house’ municipal work units.

A good working relationship was developed with Hertfordshire C.C. together with north London boroughs and the work multiplied yet further. A Sales and Marketing team was set up and to it was added a Contract and Supervisory unit.

This led to even more contracts throughout south eastern England from Norfolk to Hampshire. . But this further increase in business prompted an urgent needto acquire larger premises to meet modern requirements. Eventually an old egg-packing station in Netherfield Lane (in those days still known by some as Elephant Lane!) was purchased in 1970 and major work was undertaken to make it “cutting edge” and by 1971 the recruitment of local staff began in earnest. David Webster Ltd had arrived in Stanstead Abbotts!

The new premises gave scope to create purpose-built machinery and vehicles to transport and erect lengthy, cumbersome columns around the country. The company’s success in developing maintenance contracts meant that it was ready to compete in the public lighting sector throughout southern England. This then led to the need to establish Branch Offices to service these teams.

The firm was being increasingly entrusted to undertake prestigious, innovative projects. It was awarded all the lighting contracts along the northern section of the M25 orbital motorway. This work (which saw them working alongside such household names as Laing, Wimpey and McAlpine) also required the installation of sophisticated traffic surveillance equipment which had to be weaved through other underground cabling and wiring.

In the UK, Websters of Stanstead Abbotts became responsible for maintaining over 200,000 lights - 80% of which were on Motorways and A routes. A contract with the GLC required the maintenance to be carried out at night in order to minimise disruption to traffic so this entailed specialist night teams.

An interesting and unique venture saw an experimented move into the Middle Eastern market. In the period 1978/79 the company investigated working in Saudi Arabia and Libya.It gained an installation contract in Libya under Colonel Gaddafi, and set up an operation base there; however, this ran into difficulties with unfamiliar working practices, forcing DWL to withdraw from the contract.

Around that time they gained a unique undertaking to design and build the “pineapple” lighting for the renovated Covent Garden. Designed and built in Stanstead Abbotts, weighing approx. 2/3rds of a hundred weight each, they were then transported and erected as a feature over the former covered market (see picture).

Websters also gained the contract to provide the lighting for the national and international track events at the Crystal Palace arena. Floodlighting at other sports stadia soon followed. In 1981 they were awarded the contract to undertake the lighting of the first floodlit Olympic golf course in England. These innovative projects resulted in David Webster presenting papers and making key presentations at trade exhibitions and major conferences in this field.

A further unique venture included an invitation “to install a lighting column at sea”.

This entailed erecting the lighting on a pontoon ferry in Portsmouth harbour.

Much contemplation and thinking was required to see that contract through!

Another ‘first’ was the “wagtail stops play” incident on an installation project at Aldershot. The nesting bird inhibited the positioning of a vital bracket and nothing further could be done until the fledglings flew the nest!

The inauguration of Public Finance Initiatives (PFI) contracts meant boom time for the company. In fact the first “Street Lighting” PFI contract in the country was awarded to DWL by the London Borough of Brent, to commence from December 1st 1998.Yet, staying true to their local roots, they regularly maintained the lighting along Stanstead Abbotts High Street - and took responsibility for erecting the village’s Christmas lighting each year! David Webster was very alert to his local social responsibilities and strict guidelines were enforced about not allowing his lorries to race through the village!

But it wasn’t all work at Netherfield Lane. David Webster was very encouraging of company sporting events. As a cricket-lover he was delighted to be involved in 20 over matches with teams from around the county. There was also a ladies rounders’ team. And each year there was a Christmas Dinner and Dance; held first in the Drill Hall, Ware and then, later, in the Castle Hall, Hertford, plus an “Anniversary Special” at the Civic Hall, Broxbourne.

The company grewon the back of its PFI contracts and, in doing so, attracted interest from even bigger enterprises in the sector. Eventually, in June 2005, the company was acquired by ETDE, a subsidiary of the French construction giant, Bouygues. They were particularly intent on expanding Webster’s PFI opportunities and had the resources available to provide the financial underpinning that the PFI schemes needed. So the sale was seen as a real opportunity to secure the future of the company. David Webster died the following year in 2006

But the purchase had a costly downside as far as our village was concerned when it was decided that the intended growth needed more privacy than the Netherfield Lane site could yield. ETDE vacated the building and moved the Head Office to Harlow; subsequently moving to Hatfield. So the village’s largest employer ceased trading here. The site was initially used by the subsidiary Weblight Ltd and when that ceased trading the site was put up for sale. Housing development is its most likely future.



Brian Umney


Probably few are better qualified to write the Webster story than SALHS member, Brian. He and Pamela have lived on Roydon Rd since 1967 and have been involved in a range of village activities. He began working for the company in 1974 and continued there - as Office Accounts Manager - until its sale in 2005, a total of 31 years.

Brian played a key role in Websters’ sporting pursuits. As a keen cricketer who played regularly for Hertford Cricket Club he took responsibility for arranging the cricket matches. He also played in the Waltham Abbey football team but from 1962 onwards hockey for Broxbourne was his major winter activity.

Postscript

Another SALHS member, Jenny Batty, also played a notable role within the Webster organisation. Her job, as “Night Scout” entailed her touring a wide area by car during nightfall to note any lights that weren’t functioning properly. These would then be noted in her book and reported back for immediate, remedial repair.

Jenny had many interesting experiences during her time as this Scout and they are worth an article in themselves!For instance,she averted a disaster some time near the end of the nineteen nineties when, on returning from her night scouting patrol in the early hours, she discovered that a fire had started in the stores area which was part of the main building. By the time the fire brigade had extinguished the fire, considerable damage to the roof and storage area had occurred. Fortunately the offices were only affected by smoke damage, but without Jenny’s prompt action the whole building could have been destroyed!