Museum Copper

Material evidence for copper can be found in many museums, particularly their industrial, maritime, social history and decorative art collections. Learn more about Welsh copper by exploring these objects.

Q1: Why does a copper vase from Birmingham represent a world of Welsh copper?

Birmingham Tea Vase, about 1770 (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)This bronzed copper tea vase or urn was a prototype for what became our modern teapots. Matthew Boulton and John Fothergill started a company which designed various decorative and functional manufactured goods at their Soho Manufactory in Birmingham. They apparently designed this tea vase to show King George III what a 'tripod tea kitchen' (tea set) would look like. Tea urns and related items were also made in silver and Sheffield Plate--a material that combined copper and silver to create 'silver plated' objects.

Find out how Swansea copperworks, Birmingham industrialist Matthew Boulton, the East India Company and all the tea in China are related

Q2: What did a copper magnate want with a silver cup?

Silver cups are familiar objects to all those who follow or take part in sport. During the eighteenth century large silver cups started to become trophies or symbols of wealth and status. They gave the metalworkers opportunity to show off their skills too.

Read more on William Lewis Hughes and a splendid silver cup

Q3: Which copper barque made the fastest ever journey to Chile and back in 1853?

Watercolour ship portrait of 'Delta' (© National Museum of Wales)The ship's portrait on the right is of the copper barque Delta. She was
built by Hills of Cardiff in 1865 for Henry Bath and Sons of Swansea. Delta was employed in the Chilean copper ore trade. She ceased trading in 1908.

There is a model of a copper barque called La Serena on permanent display at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. Ship models and portraits are useful sources of information on how vessels were constructed. Sometimes they can be fanciful or exaggerate certain features.

Did you know?

Copper and other heavy cargoes continued to be transported under sail well into the twentieth century--a long time after steam power was adopted by other vessels in the mid-nineteenth century. Find out more about steam power.

La Serena and the race of the clippers

La Serena was a clipper built by Neath Abbey Iron Company for Henry Bath and other investors, and registered in Swansea in 1848.

She was known for her speed and on 29 July 1853 broke the record for the fastest voyage from Swansea to Coquimbo, Chile, fully laden with copper, in five months and 29 days. She also competed in races and in 1856 La Serena beat Burns in a sailing match of the 'three clippers' from Mumbles to Coquimbo, Chile.

The Cambrian newspaper regularly reported news on ships, voyages and cargoes.

Read more about when Welsh ships sailed the seas

Q4: Why did copper keep everyone in chains?

Copper alloy manilla (© National Museum of Wales)Bristol and other British slavers needed bartering goods when making expeditions to the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa, to purchase captives for export to the plantations of the West Indies and Americas. West African slave merchants valued woollen textiles most of all but they also wanted copper and brass items as a form of slave trade currency.

The Bristol brass industry provided for most of these needs. However Welsh copperworks, notably the Swansea works of Robert Morris and White Rock--started in 1736 by Thomas Coster and his partners partly for this trade--also manufactured copper and brass guinea rods and manillas for the slave economy.

In 1727 trade dead in this article. Price had then before been 9d [pence] now fallen to 7d.

Hard Metal [copper alloyed with lead, zinc and other substances]. Used in making manillas. Price in 1728 £50 per ton then being low.

Robert Morris Junior in his History of the Copper Concern, 1774, comments on the market for manillas in the 1720s when his father, Robert Morris Senior, had just started his pioneering copperworks in Swansea in 1717. By the 1770s bigger profits were to be made from manufacturing these items although it was not the only large market for Welsh copper and brass.
(Source: Louise Miskell (ed.), Robert Morris and the First Swansea Copper Works c.1727-1730, 2010, pp. 58-59)

The Transatlantic Slave Trade also had other copper connections. The slave-driven sugar and rum industries in the Caribbean were big consumers of copper for boilers and stills. Large numbers of slaves continued to be used in Cuban copper mines by companies with significant Welsh involvement even after the Abolition of Slavery.

Did you know?

It is often believed that manillas were desireable because they were used as items of jewellery by West African women to show off their family's wealth. While some manillas were used in this way, they were manufactured in several shapes and sizes and were mostly used as a general purpose currency like we use coins and notes today. They were used right into the twentieth century.

Read more on Wales and slavery

Q5: How did new methods of refining copper help the electrical revolution?

Reel of insulated copper wire (© National Museum of Wales)When you think of copper today, its association with electricity will probably be near the top of your list. We are all familiar with reels of insulated wire and cable. In the early days of manufacturing telegraph cable and electrical wire the insulation was made from a rubbery substance called gutta percha. This reel of copper cable was manufactured by Delta Enfield Cables Ltd. at Llanelli Copper Works. Established in 1805, this was the last surviving Welsh copper works when it closed in 2009.

Several scientists conducted experiments in the 1820s to 1850s to learn more about electricity. The most famous British scientist was probably Michael Faraday who made significant contributions to our understanding of electrochemisty and electromagnetism, particularly Faraday's Law of Induction. Welsh scientist William Grove also made a major breakthrough in this field when he successfully demonstrated the electric fuel cell in 1839.

These new demands for copper prompted better methods of refining the metal so that the purest form of copper could be obtained to more effectively transmit telegraph signals and electric current. James Elkington, a Birmingham silver plater, developed electrolytic refining processes on an industrial scale and opened the first commercial refinery of this type at Pembrey Copper Works in Burry Port, Carmarthenshire in 1869. Other works in South Wales later adopted this technology.

Read more about copper science

Q6: How was a copper ingot made?

Robert Morris had at this time so complete a knowledge of copper-making that wherever he was concerned, he could answer for having good copper made...At this time copper-making was almost a secret art and mystery.

Robert Morris junior on his father’s pioneering work in the industry in 1727 from his History of the Copper Concern, 1774.
(Source: Louise Miskell (ed.), Robert Morris and the First Swansea Copper Works c.1727-1730, 2010, p. 38)

Ingot of 'Best Selected' copper, Cape Copper Company, 1882 (© National Museum of Wales) The Welsh Process was the complex method of extracting copper from its ores during the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries. Different stages of roasting and smelting took place in reverberatory furnaces. The Welsh Process was also adopted abroad, such as at Wallaroo in South Australia.

This copper ingot displays two sets of initials: CCC BS. CCC was the mark of the Cape Copper Company who ran a copperworks in Briton Ferry. They also established mining and smelting works at O'okiep in South Africa. BS stands for ‘Best Selected’ copper. Several qualities of copper were made in the Welsh copperworks and BS or Best Selected was of a very high quality and fetched the best prices. Ingots like this were ordered by the weight, usually several hundred tons, and remelted by manufacturers who then cast them into usable objects, often combining them with other metals to form alloys.

This ingot was produced in 1882 as part of an order that was sent from Swansea to Nantes in France. It was recovered from the ship wreck of SS St George whose remains were found off the north Cornish coast.

Did you know?

One copper ingot would contain copper from several different sources. The global copper trade meant that copper smelted in Wales could contain copper that originated in Cornwall, Chile, Australia, South Africa and beyond.

Welsh copper was truly a world commodity!

Waterfront Gallery Guide to Copper

The National Waterfront Museum in Swansea tells the human story of industry, innovation and achievement in Wales. Find out more about copper's place in Wales's industrial past by using the Waterfront Gallery Guide to Copper.

This useful guide will point you to the objects and areas in the museum where you can find out more about the story of the Welsh copper industry.

Teachers and education officers: Use this guide to help plan a session on the topic of copper. Relevant to history, geography and science case-studies.

Download National Waterfront Museum Gallery Guide to Copper (English only) (PDF, 1.1MB)

Use the National Waterfront Museum Research Library

Learn more July-October 2011:

Copper Events and Talks at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

Find out more:

Explore the Old Copper website

Search copper collections in Wales

Search UK-wide copper collections

Search European copper collections

Recommended reading

Search the Copper Bibliography