Copper News Archive

24 Apr 2013 Kenneth John Hilton (1920-2013)

news image

The Lower Swansea Valley Project .... an appreciation of my Father’s contribution

 Dr Peter John Hilton

 Kenneth John Hilton .... 1920-2013 .... Director of the Lower Swansea Valley Project 1960-65



The Industrial History of the Lower Swansea Valley is now well established. For over 200

years, starting in 1717 with the first Landore smelter built by John Lane, Swansea supplied

the growing need for copper both in the UK and Asia. Indeed by 1800 there were 9

smelters working day and night, supplied initially with ore from across the Bristol Channel

and later, when the supply had been exhausted, from Cuba and Chile.


For every ton of copper produced there was some 3 ½ tons of waste and by 1960 the

Lower Swansea Valley had become the ‘largest area of Industrial dereliction in Europe’.

The poisoned soil meant that nothing grew .... not a tree nor even a blade of grass.

Coming into Swansea railway station as a boy was a deeply depressing experience. After

Neath, the train would slow to a crawl, almost as if to emphasis the horror of what it was

passing through. Indeed the memoirs of another young Swansea schoolboy recorded his

daily fascination at predicting the colour of the “chemical lake” which he passed each day

on the bus. Reds, yellows, greens and blues all took their turn as the sediments were

stirred up by wind and weather.


This then was the familiar scene which greeted my father when he returned home, after

over 20 years of overseas service, at the still young age of 40. With the British Empire

collapsing around him he, along with many other “colonials”, had come back in the hope of

finding work. Almost despairing of any employment, a chance meeting with Robin Huws Jones,

who was Director of Social Work training at Swansea University, led to an invitation to

discuss a “scheme” he had dreamed up to study the area with the aim of ultimate

regeneration. John Parry [the historian Professor J.H. Parry], whom my father had briefly met in

Ghana, was Principal and with this contact the post of Director was secured.


Directing what though ? Although the Nuffield Foundation had provided some funding there were as

yet, no full-time staff. With his colonial contacts, my father soon accumulated a team of young, able

scientists who were similarly unemployed but had huge experience of big projects overseas. Happy to

start on very short term contracts [Franklin Cardy the Project’s geologist was initially employed for

only 3 months] they were given temporary accommodation in appropriate University Departments,

and started work.


It is now clear to me that my father’s huge administrative experience made him ideally

suited for the task. Not only did he manage to bring together, in an effective way, such a

diverse and talented group of individuals, but he also engaged directly with the people of

the Valley. He immediately realised that to gain their support, they wanted to see real

change quickly ...... not just an academic exercise. Short of funding he asked the Army to

demolish the larger derelict factories as an “exercise”. Rapid progress was made until,

misjudging the amount of explosive need to bring down a huge chimney, hundreds of

windows were shattered. My father, watching from a safe distant with a ‘Post’ reporter,

and fearful of a bad press, turned to him and said ....”I do hope you’re not going to blow

this up too much” ....... “Mr Hilton” replied the reporter “I think you’ve already done that !”.

As well as clearing the land, the Project, through the Forestry Commission, planted over

250,000 young trees as well as acres of grass. Vital to this work was Dr Gordon Goodman,

who had been at the Botany Department since 1951. In an inspired moment he realised

that Swansea had not been the first site of Industrial dereliction as a result of the

processing of metal ores. Over 2000 years previously the Romans had invaded the British

Isles partly for the mineral wealth of lead and silver, eventually leaving behind multiple

smaller versions of the Swansea Valley. Several thousand years of adaptation had allowed

vegetation to eventually cope with the acid and toxic soils. Gordon collected seed from the

grasses and trees and successfully grew them on the slag heaps and waste ground.  A train driver,

used to so many years of a depressing moonscape, made a point of visiting my father to tell him

that “his spirits had soared” when he first noticed the first haze of green amongst the drabness.


Like so many other of the project staff, Gordon Goodman went on the great things, eventually

Directing the Stockholm Environmental Institute. Franklin Cardy also made a name for himself when,

during the Project, the M4 excavations at Port Talbot collapsed. Experience from the valley and a

quick look at the scene told him that the coal measures had been fatally undermined and slipped

down over the fireclay layer below. After much further delay, expense and second opinions from all

over the UK, the young geologist’s explanation and advice were accepted.


The results of their labours was eventually published in 1967, in a huge volume which

even now is a blueprint for similar reclamation schemes around the World. The Duke of

Edinburgh wrote the foreword and the ‘Royal’ interest continued with visits from the young

Prince of Wales. Whether Swansea City Council ever intended to implement the report will never be

known.  Their hand, as well as the Governments, was forced by the events of 21 October 1966

when the primary school at Aberfan was engulfed by a collapsing coal tip. Funds now

became available and work moved forward to implement the report’s major

recommendations which included the River Tawe barrage and Marina. The work is

ongoing still with ‘SA1’ around the old Prince of Wales dock.



The young people of Swansea, cycling and walking through the valley today, have little

idea of what was there before. Only the Hafod copper works remain as testimony to the

great industrial past and also the immense efforts made by a small group of able and

enthusiastic people, over a space of only 5 years, to once again reclaim the land for

everyone’s benefit. In 1969 John Barr published a book entitled Derelict Britain. It says

much for the reputation of the work which my father co-ordinated, that over 80 pages of it

are devoted to ‘The Lower Swansea Valley Project’.


In 1965, unemployed once again, my father took up a position as assistant registrar at

University College Cardiff. It is perhaps surprising that, as well as dealing with

demonstrating students, departmental budgets, and a massive building programme, he

also found the time to encourage Cardiff City Council to set up a working party to look at

the problem of the Taff Valley. He sat on this working group and helped to produce their

report ... “The Taff Valley - a Basis for Action” ... which was published in 1973. The Cardiff

Bay barrage and the redevelopment of the docklands which we see today, can be traced

back to this work and thus ultimately to the Lower Swansea Valley Project itself.

My father had an incredibly varied and interesting Life. War service in India with the

Gurkhas, work as a District Officer in Burma, the Cameroons, Nigeria and Ghana, the

Lower Swansea Valley Project, eventually secretary of Cardiff University and then 36

years of retirement in South Devon.


Out of it all, he confessed to me as we sat drinking Chota Pegs [whisky and water] in the

small nursing home room which was his home for the last few years, until his death in

March .... “Out of it all Pete, it was the Lower Swansea Valley which gave me the most

satisfaction. I felt we really made a difference”.


I am sure that History will judge. Despite the ‘Royal’ connection no honours or recognition

ever came his way. When the project ended so did his salary but I never remember any

bitterness or resentment. He was of a generation which simply “got on with it” ...... a

description which perhaps ideally suits the work which ultimately gave him the most



[I have been asked by the Amy Dillwyn Society to give a talk about the LSVP on April 28th

2014 at 7:30pm Sketty Hall]


Copper News

You are currently in the archive area. You can switch to view the current news.