William Blackwell Horner was the second son of William Horner (1787-1839) and Mary Martha Blackwell (?-1864), who were married in St. Martin's Church, Lincoln, on 14 December 1815. He was born in Yorkshire and was later described as having come from "an old Yorkshire family" and was "a native of Wakefield"
William Horner (the father) died in London on 5 May 1839, aged 52. Of his four sons, the eldest, Joseph Lamb Horner, born in 1816, died in 1833, aged only 17. Henry Horner, born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, on 15 May 1819, lived his whole life in Yorkshire and reached a respectable 83 years before his death in 1903.
William B. was educated for the ministry and was a 23-year-old student at the time of the first British census in 1841, then living in Sheffield with his younger, 18-year-old brother, Frederick, whose occupation was given as schoolteacher. The three brothers were soon set up in business together as the firm of Horner Brothers, trading as "Engineers, Steel Rollers, and General Merchants" in Sheffield and Manchester. The partnership between the three was dissolved by mutual consent on 3 September 1846.
Horner had a roving disposition and had travelled to America in January 1844 but returned to the UK to marry Fanny Eadon in Sheffield in 1846. Although always known as Fanny, she was born Frances Eadon, the daughter of John and Sarah Eadon, in Sheffield on 6 March 1817 and baptized at Queen Street Chapel, Sheffield, on 25 May 1817.
William B. returned to New York in 1848 but was again to be found in the UK in August 1851, when the partnership between W. B. Horner and Robert Beck Froggart, in business as Horner and Froggart, oil refiners of Manchester, was dissolved by mutual consent.
In 1852, William B. (described as a merchant), Fanny and her children William W. (aged 5) and Fanny E. (aged 2) travelled from Liverpool to New Orleans.
The monthly Horner's Chicago and Western Guide, a forerunner to the railway guides was first published in 1853 and gave steamboat and stage routes in the Northwest and to every major American city as well as railways. Horner & Crane also published the weekly The Chicago Pathfinder from 21 April 1855, a record of railroad and real estate transactions, but it existed only briefly.
An obituary in The Times records that Horner "helped to start the Chicago Tribune, with which he was connected for many years." Horner's name does not come up in the Wikipedia entry for the newspaper, which briefly relates its 1847 origins; it would seem odd that Horner was involved in the paper which "by late 1853 ... was frequently running xenophobic editorials that criticized foreigners and Roman Catholics."
"In consequence of the Civil War he came back to England, and about 40 years ago founded a publishing business in Manchester with the object of circulating evangelical literature," records The Times. "He was one of the first men to issue cheap religious publications, his aim being to provide wholesome and attractive reading for the masses."
In 1861, Horner was living at 20 Rosemond Place, Chorlton upon Medlock, Manchester, with his family, including his mother who had divorced his father and, in 1838, married Thomas Shearman in Doncaster. Mary was widowed by 1861 and died in Sheffield in 1864. The Horners had four children: William Whitfield Horner (b. 1847), Fanny Eadon Horner (b. 1849), Victoria Shearman Horner (b. c.1854) and Milton Horner (b. c.1857), the latter two children born in Chicago, Illinois.
The 1871 census sees the family living at Bloomsbury, Chorlton upon Medlock, Manchester, with the two elder children now moved out: Fanny had married John Edwin Harley in 1868 and William had married in 1869.
Some time in the 1870s, William B. Horner moved his family to London where he continued to publish religious works and magazines. He was to be found at 3 Eliot Place, Lewisham, at the time of the 1881 census, which noted that his son, Milton, now aged 24, was also working as a publisher.
"Horner's Penny Stories for the People" was a popular series of novels, priced at a penny, which were published on the first and third Tuesdays of each month. By 1889, 147 novels were being advertised by the company, with the most popular tales being reprinted and achieving sales of up to 450,000. The religious undertones made the stories popular with churchgoers. The Congregational Magazine described them as "forceful, fresh and fascinating as they are wholesome", and The Popular Press Companion to Popular Literature (ed. Victor E. Neuburg) said: "Occasionally one of the novels would be used in a 'service of song' – a popular event in nonconformist chapels, when the reading of an edifying story would be interspersed with the singing of appropriate hymns and solos."
Fanny Horner died in Lewisham, London, in 1887, aged 70, and the 1891 census finds the family at 103 Croxted Road, Streatham. William now 73 and his children Victoria and Milton aged 37 and 34 respectively.
William B. Horner's elder daughter, now Fanny E. Harley, also moved to London, where her husband worked as a architect and land & building surveyor and valuer. Fanny was one of her father's most popular authors, her work appearing under the name Fanny Eadon in the pages of Horner's Penny Stories. In 1891 she was living with her family at 151 Endlesham Road, Streatham. She had three daughters: Fanny Evangeline (1871-1962, married William Glanvill Walters in 1899), Amelia Mabel (1872-1954) and Ruth Alethea (1873-1940, married Edward Merry in 1899), all born in Chorlton. Following the death of her husband (also in 1899), Fanny was living at Hazeldene, Ridgeway Road, Redhill, in 1901 and 1911, with her unmarried daughter, Amelia.
By 1901, William B. had moved to Grassmead, Reigate Road, Reigate; living with him were his daughter, Victoria Woodnutt, and her husband, Alfred, a Wesleyan Minister, and son, Alfred. William Blackwell Horner died on 15 November 1910, aged 92, his effects amounting to just over £40,400—equivalent to £4,000,000 today.
Milton Horner—the "son" of W. B. Horner & Son, who was associated with his father's business for many years as an editor—was, in 1901, living in nearby Firlands, also in Reigate Road, with his wife Ellen Leicester Horner (nee Butler), and children Philip William Milton (6), Howard (4) and Marjorie (3). He later moved to 29 Carlisle Road, Eastbourne, Sussex, where he died on 15 June 1934.
Fanny Eadon Harley, of Green Ridges, The Chase, Reigate, died 6 June 1945, aged 93.
William Blackwell Horner had retired from the business of publishing twenty years before his death, the company continued under the control of his son until its sale to the Amalgamated Press. They published the 1,000th novel on 11 November 1912 and the company was still active in 1927; Horner's Penny Stories continued to appear until 1940. Some authors became associated with the firm, such as Grace Pettman, who wrote 158 stories for Horner's series following the appearance of her first story in 1891.