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The Webber Premier football was a ball developed and manufactured in South Norwood during the first half of the 20th Century. Thanks to its innovative 18-panel, laceless design, the Premier was selected to be the match ball in the FA Cup finals in 1935, 1950 and 1951.
The Webber Premier helped transform how football was played, allowing for more precision and control. The ball “kept its shape irrespective of how conditions were,” wrote Gordon Banks, goalkeeper in England’s 1966 World Cup winning side, and “never deviated in the air.”
The Premier was made by Webber Bros., a sporting goods manufacturer based at 19-21 Station Road, currently the site of Yeha Noah cafe. At its height, the company employed over a hundred people and produced cricket balls, netballs and more.
George Webber was a former saddler who branched out into the sporting goods trade in 1887. He had some success from the outset: a ball made by Webber’s company was used in the 1901 FA Cup Final, which took place in the original Crystal Palace football ground, in what is now Crystal Palace Park.
But the company reached its greatest success after George’s nephew, Richard, joined the company in 1904 and, after the First World War, took over its management. Under Richard’s leadership in the early 1920s, the company set up a factory at 19-21 Station Road, in the building that is still at this address today.
It was here that Webber Bros developed the Premier football. In the 1930s, footballs were typically made of 10 to 13 leather panels, pulled tight around an inflatable bladder by laces. The Premier had 18 leather panels, giving it a more spherical shape, and a ‘laceless’ model provided a smoother surface.
It is likely that Richard Webber had a close hand in the Premier’s development. “It is a fair claim to call Mr Webber the only master ball maker in the country, perhaps the world,” local newspaper Norwood News wrote in 1950. Richard Webber himself observed that he was the only boss of a football manufacturer in the country to have served as an apprentice in the trade.
Webber Bros. may not have been the first to apply these innovations but the Premier was distinct enough to be selected as the match ball for the FA Cup finals in 1935, 1950 and 1951. Balls were selected in blind tests by match referees; Richard Webber believed they had been ‘taken with’ the balls’ laceless design.
Webber footballs were also used by clubs including Crystal Palace FC and at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. By 1949, Webber Bros was supplying customers as far afield as India, New Zealand and the US.
By 1950, the company was producing around 1,000 footballs a week, with a team of 70 men and women hand-stitching each one. Not only did Webber Bros. branch out into other kinds of ball, Richard Webber also set up a sister company, RSL, located in nearby Stanley Works, which became one of the world’s leading suppliers of shuttlecocks.
In the 1960s, 18-panel leather balls were replaced by plastic balls with hexagonal panels, the design that is still used today. Webber Bros was still based in Station Road in 1968, but was eventually acquired by toy and games manufacturer Jacques of London.