Pioneers and profits - the South Wales copper industry

Materials World magazine
2 Oct 2011
Making iron ladles for copper casting, Swansea, early 1920s. Image courtesy of Swansea Museum

South Wales is not only famous for its coal mining industry, it was once the epicentre of copper production. Dr Tehmina Goskar, Research Officer for the Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper Project, recounts the region’s colourful history.

The Copper Revolution started on the banks of the River Tawe, Swansea. In 1726, Welsh entrepreneur Robert Morris took over the town’s first copper works after his Bristolian partner, Dr John Lane, went bankrupt. Morris determined to make a profitable business in the absence of local banking facilities, or canal and railway networks.

Lane had gambled on moving from neighbouring Neath to the Lower Swansea Valley because of its situation in the middle of a large coalfield, and its navigable river connecting the valley to the Bristol Channel and beyond. The huge investment required to set up a commercially functioning works, and the long wait for returns, meant Lane’s investment, like those of others, faltered. But Robert Morris held his nerve and personally negotiated favourable deals and partnerships with suppliers of ore, which were then dominated by the Cornish mining barons.

Describing his father’s achievements, Robert Morris Junior stated, ‘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’.

Welsh exports

Others were quick to emulate the success of Morris’s pioneering works at Landore. White Rock was established in 1736/7 and its furnaces ran continuously into the 20th Century. Its enormous smelting hall, known as the Great Workhouse, is a reminder of how technological know-how, combined with business acumen, can generate an efficient and unrivalled capacity for smelting and refining. What became known as the Welsh Process was a procedure for smelting and then refining copper from its ores in a series of reverberatory furnaces. By the mid to late 19th Century, it had been adopted at works in Australia, USA, South Africa and beyond.

This globalising pattern runs throughout the history of Welsh copper. The archives of the copper companies and those of its key customers unequivocally point to markets abroad as being the main stimulus for the industry’s growth. This worldwide trade was made possible by the sophistication of coastal and foreign-going maritime transport networks, their connection with inland waterways, and then rail. The first international markets for Welsh copper emerged in south Asia in the 1730s, overseen by the British East India Company. By the 1760s, Britain had overtaken Japan as the region’s main copper supplier. India proved to be Wales’s longest-standing international customer, and orders came in until the 1950s.

Another early commercial demand for copper came from the Atlantic slave trade. Copper and brass rods, vessels and manillas were used to purchase enslaved West Africans. In 1788, Thomas Williams of Llanidan, Anglesey, famously said that it was the slave trade that led him and his partners to enter the copper industry.

This was hyped talk from Wales’s most notorious copper baron. However, it was his ruthless control of all aspects of the trade that caused one observer of 1790 to say, ‘Let me advise you to be extremely cautious in your dealings with Williams. He is a perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word, and will screw damned hard when he has got anybody in his vice.’

Williams operated the world’s most productive copper mines on Mynydd Parys, Anglesey, in addition to smelters in Swansea and south Lancashire, and mills in the Greenfield Valley, Holywell and the Thames Valley. Offices and warehouses in London, Birmingham and Liverpool gave him complete control of trade, manufacture and transport.

Scientific and technological innovations in copper products drove the industry into the furthest reaches of the world. From the 1770s, Birmingham became Britain’s manufacturing powerhouse, and copper was at its heart. The Midlands factories produced items for industrial and domestic use, from brass fittings used in steam engineering to small objects such as brass buckles, buttons, ornaments and toys. New household items such as saucepans, kettles and silver-plated cutlery (known as Sheffield Plate), became affordable for many more people by 1800.

Birmingham manufacturers such as Matthew Boulton established copperworks in Swansea in the 1790s purely to feed this demand. By the early 19th Century, a shortage of coins opened another market. Boulton’s Soho Mint produced more coins and tokens than London’s Royal Mint, for British and foreign governments and companies.

The biggest domestic consumers of Welsh copper in the late 18th Century were the British naval and merchant fleets. War and growing world trade regularly took ships through tropical waters, where teredo navalis or shipworm caused considerable damage to wooden hulls. In 1761, the Royal Navy began using copper sheets to protect its ships. By the early 1780s, copper sheathing was almost abandoned owing to the galvanic action caused by contact between the copper and its iron fastenings. In 1783, cold-rolled hardened copper bolts were developed to replace iron ones. In 1832 yellow metal, a cheaper alternative to copper, was developed. This alloy was patented by George Frederick Muntz of Birmingham and manufactured at several of the South Wales works.

Assisting advancement?

The Welsh copper industry was also involved in scientific innovations. In 1844, Sir Charles Wheatstone conducted the first underwater telegraph experiment in Swansea Bay. In 1857, Williams, Foster and Company’s Morfa works produced the copper for the first transatlantic cable experiment. Advances in telegraphy and electricity increased the demand for the purest copper. In 1865, a new method of electrolytic refining enabled a much purer form of copper to be obtained. James Elkington of Birmingham installed the world’s first electrolytic refining plant at Pembrey Copper Works, Carmarthenshire in 1869.

Swansea’s most famous copper scientist was also its most well-known industrialist. In 1810, John Henry Vivian helped his father establish what was to become Wales’s most extensive copper works at Hafod. Vivian was sent to Germany to study metallurgy and had a great love for the process of smelting copper, unlike his rival Pascoe Grenfell, the arch-marketeer, whose only interest in copper was the money it generated.

By the 1820s, the sulphurous smoke from the Lower Swansea Valley copperworks choked the town and surrounding area. A number of court cases were brought against the copper companies by local farmers and residents. They contained vivid testimonies of the effect of the smoke on cattle, horses and the growth of crops. John Henry Vivian took a personal interest in the issue of copper smoke, and funded extensive research into alleviating it, enlisting the help of other scientists such as Michael Faraday.

However, by the end of the 1950s, more than two centuries of intensive heavy industry had left an almost indelible mark on the Valley. Waste tips rose like man-made mountains encroaching on people’s living spaces, and abandoned industrial buildings were left to rot. In 1961, Robin Huws Jones of University College Swansea described it as a ‘century-old eyesore’. In the same year, an historic collaboration started a pioneering post-industrial land reclamation scheme called the Lower Swansea Valley Project. More than 20 years of tip clearance, demolition and tree-planting has resulted in the return of a tranquil valley and clean River Tawe. The last Swansea works shut in 1981, and now only vestiges of the area’s global copper heritage are left.

Further information

Tehmina Goskar

Welsh copper website: 

Photo credits
Dereliction of industrial works at Llansamlet, Lower Swansea Valley image courtesy of Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University
Aerial view of Swansea copperworks, 1940s image courtesy of Swansea Museum
Making iron ladles for copper casting, Swansea, early 1920s image courtesy of Swansea Museum
Heritage icons of the Hafod works image courtesy of Tehmina Goskar
Bronze statue of scientist-entrepreneur John Henry Vivian, now in Swansea Marina image courtesy of Tom Goskar