Around the World in Welsh Copper

Why should we care about the history of Welsh copper?

Imagine your world without the telephone, coins and cars. Look around you. Copper is everywhere. It brings us hot running water. It brings us information to our fingertips, instantly. But how did our relationship with this enigmatic metal develop, and where has it brought us? If it wasn’t for the innovations and industry in copper that took place from the late 17th to 19th centuries, many of which happened in Wales, the world today would be a very different place. It was arguably the first fully integrated global heavy industry and its study will therefore will help us better understand our relationship with the finite resources we rely on today.

How long has Wales been producing copper?

Wales has a long history of copper production. Over 4000 years ago, miners in Wales began to exploit copper ores (in the form of chalcopyrite - copper iron sulphide) from deep open casts at sites in central and northern Wales such as Parys Mountain in Anglesey. Innovations that took place in prehistory defined the Bronze Age as early metalworkers learned to smelt copper with tin to make a much stronger and versatile alloy. This alloy allowed smiths to make a wider range of tools, for example axe heads of varying shapes and sizes, many of which we discover through archaeology. The copper resources Wales was able to provide from the Bronze Age through to the Roman period were exported far and wide, although we do not often know how far. The slow developments that took place before the Industrial Revolution were the foundations of Wales’ first integrate global heavy industry, and arguably, propelled Wales into becoming the world’s first industrialised nation by 1851.* 

When did copper become such big business in Wales?

Parallel developments in several industries led to Welsh copper being put on the map and its trade taking off on a global scale. New technologies such as the introduction of the reverberatory furnace, which could produce refined copper in quantities that were commercially profitable, in addition to the deregulation of metal mining by the Crown (towards the end of the 17th century) led to increased prospection and the reopening of the old copper mines in north and central Wales. The Anglesey mines on Parys Mountain from the 1760 were to become the largest copper ore producers in the world in the late 18th century. The world-famous Cornish and west Devonian tin mines were also accompanied by large-scale copper production, and this drove much of the early growth in the industry they were early adopters of steam-driven technology (beam engines) to gain access to a massive wealth of metal ore miles underground. Some of these Cornish mining magnates, such as the Vivians, became the famous copper families of Wales as they invested in, and established, smelting works in Neath and Swansea.

Neath, Swansea, Llanelli and other urban centres all had access to sea-going coastal and international trade routes, as well as access to the all-important coalfields in the valleys to the north, and so they proved to be the most strategically important centres for copper smelting from the 18th to the early 20thcenturies as. Towns like Swansea were also well-placed to profit from the large-scale export of coal abroad. Between 1760 and 1890 the Lower Swansea and Neath valleys became the pre-eminent centres for producing the world's smelted copper, and during the late-18th century up to 40 per cent of this output was exported to overseas markets, notably in Asia and the Atlantic world. In turn, the growing demand for copper encouraged prospecting overseas and by the mid-19th century new ores were being brought to Wales from as far away as Chile, Cuba and South Australia.

What impact did the copper industry have on Wales and the rest of the world?

The trade in ores and refined copper grew hand-in-hand with other British maritime commerce. Swansea copper barques circled the globe to bring ore from Valparaiso, Santiago de Cuba, and Adelaide. Refined copper also formed an important part of the East India Company’s international trade. Swansea sailors were known as ‘Cape Horners’ in recognition of their long voyages around Cape Horn (the most southerly point of South America). But there was a darker side to the success of this global commerce. Demand for copper also fuelled the Atlantic Slave Trade. Slave labour was employed in New World mines, particularly in Cuba, many of which were financed by Welsh industrialists who demanded cheaper ores for import to the smelting works in Wales. The canal and rail network connected producers, manufacturers and consumers like never before, multiplying the opportunities for entrepreneurship and profiteering. Copper-bottomed ships gave the British navy the ultimate advantage at Trafalgar as the sheet metal made them more manoeuvrable and protected the timbers of the hull from deterioration. The early days of telegraph communication relied on copper wire for long-distance contact (and we still largely rely on it today).

The refined copper was essential to other industries such as tinplating (which also took place in South Wales, centred at Llanelli), and even its by-products were used, such as sulphuric acid for removing impurities and corrosion from steel, copper and other metal sheets (known as ‘pickling’). The copper slag that was produced after smelting formed useful building materials as it was dense and hard. You can see this dark, hard stone in many of the walls and houses in and around Swansea, for example. It was not just industrial products that benefited from this copper. Mass production techniques which were developing elsewhere in Britain revolutionised consumer products and drove more demand for materials. Two such centres were Birmingham and Sheffield which produced items such as moulded copper saucepans, ormolu ornaments, brass buttons and silver plated cutlery. This made desirable possessions available to a much wider variety of people, particularly the growing middle classes of the Industrial Revolution period. These finished products were also exported to Japan, Italy, France and beyond. Welsh copper could also be found in much of the coinage of the day, particularly that produced at Birmingham’s Soho Mint.

This gradual globalising of the Welsh copper industry had a very profound impact upon the social, cultural, and urban development of South Wales. Swansea was the crucible of this industrial development and it enjoyed a pre-eminent status as a world industrial centre - it is still referred to asCopperopolis today. The Lower Swansea valley area has been described by one historian as hosting the ‘most highly concentrated major British industry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, and it is arguably as significant as Coalbrookdale in the history of British economic development. The wealth that was created from copperworking made a big contribution to the cultural heritage of Wales, particularly in the urban centres. Planned workers’ housing, provided by copper magnates to their workers is still lived in today. Singleton Abbey, built in the Victorian Gothic style, and the founding building of Swansea University in 1920, was originally built as a mansion for well-known copper magnate John Henry Vivian. The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea city centre was founded by John’s fourth son, Richard Glynn Vivian in 1911 after he bequeathed his extensive collection of fine and decorative arts to the city.

When did copperworking fade from the landscape?

As new coal sources were discovered overseas new smelting centres were set up nearer to the sources of copper ore, particularly in North and South America, South Africa and Australia. The quantities of ore coming into Wales for processing began to decline from the last decades of the 19thcentury. Much of the expertise and skilled work needed for this caused a wave of migration from Wales to Australia and the USA. Unlike other industries, the decline in smelting activity was gradual. The last copper smelting company in Wales, Yorkshire Imperial Metals, finally closed its doors at the Hafod Copperworks site in 1981, but the heritage of the metallurgical industries still remains in South Wales, most notably at Port Talbot’s steelworks, now owned by the Indian multinational, Tata Steel.

However, much before this time, communities who lived near copperworking began to realise the devastation that the industry had caused to the environment and landscape. The industrial health hazards associated with smelting prompted a string of litigation against owners from the latter half of the 19th century onwards, and by the end of the Second World War, very few people cared about the once great status enjoyed by copper-producing areas. In Swansea, this led to a campaign of reclamation (the Lower Swansea Valley Project) which began in 1961. The moonscape left by the smelting processes was slowly greened. Today you can see conifer plantations and lush green grass covering the once parched hills and river banks. The river is home to fish and aquatic species again, and is no longer the orange slick it once was. Ironically, amongst all this foliage, a few remains of the old copperworkings in the city can just be seen and are in danger of collapse, and so there is renewed interest in the history of the industry and the impact it had on Wales and the rest of the world.

*The United Nations determines the status of ‘industrial nations’ by comparing the numbers of people who work in industry (such as mining, processing, manufacturing and transportation) with those who work in agriculture. When the numbers in industry outweigh those in agriculture, a nation can be defined as industrialised. The 1851 census suggests that this happened in Wales before anywhere else.