News from the Archives: John Nettlefold in New York

Winterbourne was built in 1904 for John and Margaret Nettlefold and bequeathed to the University of Birmingham 40 years later by John Macdonald Nicolson. Follow our dedicated team of archivists as they explore Winterbourne’s past and share with you the special objects, photographs and documents contained within the Winterbourne Archives.

John in New York, linocut by Sarah Moss, part of the exhibition ‘They Called it Winterbourne’, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

John in New York, linocut by Sarah Moss, part of the exhibition ‘They Called it Winterbourne’

John Sutton Nettlefold’s visit to New York in 1890 is one of the events featured in ‘They Called it Winterbourne’, our exciting exhibition of linocuts by Sarah Moss. Sarah’s linocuts focus upon eight key moments in the lives of John and Margaret Nettlefold. This blog post is the first in a series which will expand on some of those events.

On 20th September 1890, John Nettlefold set sail for New York on the S.S. Servia. At just 24 years old, John was already helping to run the family firm, Nettlefolds Ltd, a major producer of screws. The Iron and Steel Institute, of which John was a member, had been invited to hold its annual conference in New York. The conference was to be followed by a month-long tour of the main centres of the iron and steel industry throughout America.

It so happens that we have a detailed account of the S.S. Servia’s voyage to America, written by a journalist for the Welsh newspaper, the Western Mail. Calling himself ‘Morien’, this correspondent describes how the passengers gradually formed natural groups, largely based on social class, some gravitating to the upper deck for recreation and others congregating on the lower decks. It is interesting to speculate where John would have been most comfortable. If there were aristocratic passengers aboard, they might not have welcomed an industrialist from Birmingham on the upper deck! There were 170 Iron and Steel Institute delegates aboard, from across Britain, and a good deal of what we might call ‘networking’ must have taken place. Many of the delegates took their wives and families with them.

S.S. Servia ©New York Port, Ship Images, 1851-1891 via, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

S.S. Servia ©New York Port, Ship Images, 1851-1891 via

Morien also speaks of courting taking place between single passengers, particularly on calm moonlit evenings. We can assume, however, that John did not engage in any canoodling. His future wife, Margaret Chamberlain, had waved him goodbye at the quay. During his trip, John was waiting anxiously for Margaret’s response to his proposal of marriage, and wrote to her constantly. In a letter written just before he returned to the UK, he signs off “Your devoted would be husband”.

Extract from Margaret Chamberlain’s diary, 20th Sept 1890, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

Extract from Margaret Chamberlain’s diary, 20th Sept 1890

The most exciting incident during the voyage was the sighting of an iceberg on 25th September. As it came into view, all the passengers flocked to see it. When the sunlight caught it, Morien writes “It seemed like a gloomy, earthly substance, touched by beams from the radiant throne of God”. As there were so many engineers on board, they set about calculating the size of this iceberg. Their conclusion was that it was 800 ft. long, 500 ft. wide and 200 ft. high, and weighed six million tons. A drawing of the iceberg was made by a passenger and featured in Morien’s article in the Western Mail on 14th October.

Sketch of the iceberg sighted from S.S. Servia ©British Library Board. All Rights Reserved, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

Sketch of the iceberg sighted from S.S. Servia ©British Library Board. All Rights Reserved

The Iron and Steel Institute receives one specific mention in the article. Following Divine Service on the Sunday, Morien reported that the Institute members subscribed £122 (a huge amount of money at the time) to the Aged Mariners’ Home in Liverpool. The President of the Institute then congratulated the Captain upon the voyage.

Once the S.S. Servia docked, the British delegates met up with other delegates in New York including members of the German Metallurgical Institute, making up about 600 people in total. Their American hosts, led by the millionaire Andrew Carnegie, had set aside £30,000 (£3.4m today) for accommodation, receptions, excursions and transport. The delegates were put up at the Park Avenue Hotel, one of New York’s most prestigious hotels. The visit must have been a major administrative undertaking.

The timing of America’s invitation to host this important conference was no coincidence. America was in the process of passing a Trade Tariff Bill to restrict foreign imports of raw materials and finished goods to protect its home industries. This was at a time when America had just surpassed England’s iron and steel production for the first time and was continuing to grow; it also had a growing home market, in stark contrast to Europe. America’s success was partly due to foreign capital, and it was hoped that this visit would stimulate further investment. In addition, America was rich in untapped mineral resources, and the hospitality of the Americans was intended to secure capital from Europe to continue this massive growth in American industries.

Park Avenue Hotel, New York ©, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

Park Avenue Hotel, New York ©

John had a couple of days’ rest to get over the journey, before the initial meeting of the conference took place on 30th September, with presentations from American and overseas delegates. These presentations were supported by magic lantern displays. The devices used would have been similar to the magic lanterns displayed on the first floor at Winterbourne House.

John Sutton Nettlefold, around 1888, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

John Sutton Nettlefold, around 1888

On 3rd October, a lavish banquet was provided for the delegates at Delmonico’s, one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York. A visit to the Thomas Edison Works was arranged, where delegates would have heard about Edison’s aim to produce electric vehicles which he hoped would replace all other forms of transport. It has taken more than a hundred years for his vision to begin to become a reality.

The Iron and Steel Institute delegates then embarked on a 3,000-mile round trip, taking in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Alabama and Chattanooga, before travelling to Washington for an audience with President Harrison at the White House. In order to transport the delegates, the American hosts had provided three trains, each with ten Pullman carriages and the usual dining, sitting and sleeping rooms attached. As the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail reported, the delegates “can live and sleep on the train, and thus cover an amount of space which would be impossible in the case of an ordinary traveller”. However, each train weighed at least 400 tons and the railroad systems in some parts of America were not designed for trains of this size. It was only upon returning home that the delegates realised the risk to which the Americans had exposed them. There was in fact an incident of a train leaving the tracks, due to the actions of a disgruntled employee; thankfully nobody was injured, but passengers were slightly shaken up by the experience of being thrown across the carriage.

Whilst travelling across America, the delegates were treated like celebrities, with lavish receptions thrown by local dignitaries who were keen to meet these experts from overseas and demonstrate the progress they had made. However, the visitors were not fully trusted with regard to processes or machinery which had not been patented, and they were refused access to such machinery in case they took the ideas back home and patented them themselves. Nevertheless, all the press reports in the UK were filled with admiration for the success of these American works, especially in Alabama where the raw materials were in close proximity to the iron and steel works, representing a potentially lucrative investment opportunity.

S. S. Majestic ©New York Port, Ship Images, 1851-1891 via, News from the Archives, Digging for Dirt, Winterbourne House and Garden

S. S. Majestic ©New York Port, Ship Images, 1851-1891 via

John travelled home on 30th October on the White Star Line’s S.S. Majestic, which had made its maiden voyage on 2nd April 1890 at a time when all the shipping lines were trying to win the accolade of the fastest crossing between Queenstown in Ireland and New York. Although the Majestic did not achieve the feat on this trip, it was later the fastest on a 30th July 1891 crossing which took 5 days, 18 hours, 8 minutes at an average speed of 20.1 knots. 

John’s courtship of Margaret Chamberlain was successful, and they were married the following year. His association with Nettlefolds Ltd. was short-lived, however. He soon left to become a Director of Kynoch’s, of which his new father-in-law was chairman.

This article was written by Archive Volunteer Tony Bucknall. Tony leads free tours of the house at 2pm most Tuesdays where you can learn more about the history of Winterbourne. Please ask at reception for details.

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