Welsh Copper Society

The Welsh copper industries of mining, smelting and refining created generations of talented workers. Although dominated by men, women took part too, particularly in the North Wales mines. Copperworking settlements created new communities in Wales and abroad.

Working with copper

Rolling copper plate from copper cake, early 1920s (© National Museum of Wales)Eighteenth-century developments in smelting and refining copper generated a talented and versatile workforce that attracted other metallurgical industries to south Wales in the following centuries.

The different stages of roasting and smelting in reverberatory furnaces, in use throughout the period that Wales dominated world trade, were known as the ‘Welsh Process’. It was adopted elsewhere too, and became the favoured method of smelting. Swansea man Thomas Williams built a successful ‘Welsh Process’ smelter at Burra, South Australia in 1849.

‘Copar ledi’ (copper lady) who worked at the copper mines near Amlwch, Anglesey, late nineteenth century (Trwy garedigrwydd Archifau Ynys Môn | Courtesy of Anglesey Archives)Fewer people were employed in copper than in later steel and tinplate industries. In the eighteenth century an average of 50 people were employed at a copperworks. By 1851 this number rose to about 200 people.

Specialist expertise was required at every stage of the industry. Although dominated by men, women also worked with copper. The ‘copr ladis’ of the north Wales mines sorted and broke up ore ready for roasting. Children were sometimes employed to do this too although far fewer worked in copper and other metal industries than in coal and textiles.




Living with copper

The Welsh copper industry gave rise to new communities and places. Amlwch was a tiny hamlet but grew into a bustling town to serve the Parys copper miners, sailors and shipbuilders of the port. By the mid-nineteenth century its population was 6000-almost double that of today.

Remains of Morris Castle, Swansea, one of the first tower blocks (Crown copyright: RCAHMW)Several workers’ settlements emerged in Swansea, some established by the companies they worked for. In 1775 Morris Castle in Morriston was home to 24 working families. This ‘castle’ was one of the first modern blocks of flats.

Trevivian or Vivian’s Town, Hafod, is one of the best surviving copperworks settlements in the world. Hafod Copperworks School was built around 1847-48. Many chapels, founded by the workers, and pubs supported the social and cultural lives of the workers and their families.

Previously a smelterman’s cottage in copper township Llwchwr (pronounced ‘Loosher’), Burra, South Australia (Stephen Hughes)Welsh copper townships were created elsewhere in the world. Llwchwr, near Burra, South Australia, was a purpose-built copper township, named after the Welsh village of Loughor. In 1848 the Patent Copper Company imported an entire works there from Llanelli, including its staff.




Moving on

By the 1890s copper-producing countries like the USA and Australia had established integrated smelting, refining and manufacturing industries near their own mines. They had adopted the Bessemer Process of producing copper by the 1880s but most Welsh works preferred to continue with the Welsh Process.

Copper salvage from precipitation pits, Mona and Parys Mine, Anglesey (© National Museum of Wales)Copper ore production from Welsh and Cornish mines was significantly reduced by the later nineteenth century. By 1901 the only copper exported from Anglesey came from precipitation ponds.

However the skills of Welsh copper workers and miners continued to be in demand abroad. We do not know the exact numbers of those that moved away but many did. Some returned to Wales, some emigrated forever.

Llanelly Copper Works, about 1818. Wales's longest lasting copper works 1808-2009 (© National Museum of Wales)

Some of the south Welsh copperworks remained profitable by diversifying their activities. White Rock produced silver and lead from 1871. Yorkshire Imperial Metals was the last proprietor of a Swansea copperworks, which closed in 1981. The Llanelli copperworks, started in 1805, was Wales’s longest lasting works. It closed in 2009, by which time it was owned by the Dutch company Draka.



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Grandfather was a Copper Smelter - furnaceman - much in demand in America. He and his family left Perth Amboy (New Jersey) for Washington...the journey on the train took a whole week! Auntie Gert remembered Indians getting on the train at intervals and bring ice for their use...

Apparently there were many Norwegians working at the foundry as well... [Returning
to Wales in 1909] Auntie Gert went to live with Grandpa Ackland and his daughter at the Copperworks Manager’s House in Landore.

William John Ackland’s adventure in North America, about 1899.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Enid M. Ponsford, his grand-daughter, based on the memories of William Ackland’s daughter Gertrude)

Welsh smelting at Wallaroo, South Australia, constructed 1861, at one time the largest smelter outside Swansea (Primary Industries and Resources South Australia)



Download Working with Copper / Dadlwytho Gweithio Gyda Chopr (PDF, 762KB)

Download Living with Copper / Dadlwytho Byw Gyda Chopr (PDF, 791KB)

Download Moving On / Dadlwytho Symud Ymlaen (PDF, 782KB)

Find out more:

Ffarwel Cymru! Copper and industrial migration

Recommended reading

Search the Copper Bibliography