Cornish copper and Welsh copper

Statue of Cornish industrialist and scientist John Henry Vivian, founder of the Hafod copperworks in Swansea (credit: Jory Juglor).

Statue of Cornish industrialist and scientist John Henry Vivian, founder of the Hafod copperworks in Swansea (credit: Jory Juglor).

I recently co-authored a book that accompanied an exhibition of war art by Graham Sutherland called From Darkness into Light. Graham Sutherland: From Darkness Into Light. War Paintings and Drawings, published by Sansom and Co’s Redcliffe Press in Bristol.

My contribution was called Made in Metal: Cornwall and South Wales and you can read more about it on my work and research blog.

Read a preprint of Made in Metal: Cornwall and South Wales.

The cornerstone of my essay was of course copper. It was copper that shaped the special relationship between Cornish mining and Welsh smelting, albeit that the industrial connections between both regions were far more complex, and interesting.

John Henry Vivian, Cornish entrepreneur and founder of South Wales’s most successful copper smelting and refining works, is probably the person that most embodies the close relationship between the Cornwall and South Wales copper industries in the 19th century.

My supply chain study of the British copper industries has already made me acutely aware of the lack of comparison in industrial history and archaeology studies.

It leads to convenient but perhaps sloppy labels such as “Cornish copper” and “Welsh copper.” I, as much as anyone, am guilty of using these terms as shorthand to describe stages in what is undoubtedly the most elaborate set of major production and manufacturing processes of the major metals.

An international commodity

Metal history nerds will be more sensitive to this than the general interested public.

Technically speaking there is no such thing as Cornish copper, or least there has not been since the Bronze Age when (we assume) single sources of ore were used to smelt small quantities of the metal. Maybe the experimental late 18th-century copper smelter in Hayle attempted smelting just Cornish ores? Perhaps.

Likewise, Welsh copper as a truism was probably a thing of prehistory, although, arguably some of Thomas Williams’s produce from his Anglesey smelter the 1780s could have been crudely smelted from sources from Mynydd Parys and the north and mid Wales copper mines.

My recent research on the science of smelting in the 19th century has shown in sharp relief how international a product an ingot of copper could be. Percy’s Metallurgy, 1861, the classic work on 19th century metallurgy, comprises an absolutely beautiful example of how true this statement is.

I reproduce it here in full.

On the blending of ores, p. 322.

Copper smelting at Hafod in 1848:

The mixture of ores contained the following varieties: Yellow ore, Fowey Consols Mine, Cornwall; copper and iron pyrites, Wheal Friendship, Devonshire; Cobre ore, Cuba, copper-pyrites, containing about 28 ¼ per cent. of copper; Cobre dust, Cuba, copper-pyrites, containing about 12 per cent. of copper; cupriferous residues of oxide of iron produced by the calcination at sulphuric acid works of iron pyrites containing copper from Ireland, known as Irish ore; vitreous-copper in admixture with iron-pyrites and haematite from Levant Mine, Cornwall; residues rich in oxide of iron obtained in the calcination of cupriferous tin ores in Cornwall, known as burnt leavings; and red oxide of copper with blue and green carbonate, Burra-Burra, Australia.

In the context of interpretation, especially in museums, visitors need to know this.

Spot the difference

Here are images of two ingots of Best Selected (BS) copper ingots produced at the Cape Copper Company’s smelter in Briton Ferry and retrieved from the SS Saint George which was wrecked in November 1882.

The ship had left Swansea with ingots and coal, heading to Nantes in France, but ran into trouble off St Agnes Head on the north Cornish coast.

The first is in the collection of the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea (part of Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales) and the second is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

Both have been described as “Cornish” and “Welsh.”

An ingot of Welsh copper (credit: National Waterfront Museum, Swansea).

An ingot of Welsh copper (credit: National Waterfront Museum, Swansea).

An ingot of Cornish copper (credit: National Maritime Museum Cornwall).

An ingot of Cornish copper (credit: National Maritime Museum Cornwall).

By 1882 Cornish copper mines were producing very little of the ore that reached the South Wales smelters. Chilean regulus was a major source of copper for what had become more of a refining industry than a smelting one.

The Cape Copper Company itself had developed mines in O’okeip in Namaqualand, and by this period these South African sources had become just as important as those of south Australia and South America.

Given the historical context of their production, is it right to describe these particular ingots as either Cornish or Welsh?

Cornish? Definitely not. Welsh? Well, maybe. Just. Not really.

Smelter’s Choice: Ticketings and ore purchasing in Cornwall and Swansea

Plan showing the copperworks of the Lower Swansea Valley, 1822 with detail of Upper and Middle Bank belonging to Williams and Grenfell (credit: National Waterfront Museum, Swansea)

Plan showing the copperworks of the Lower Swansea Valley, 1822 with detail of Upper and Middle Bank belonging to Williams and Grenfell (credit: National Waterfront Museum, Swansea)

Belatedly, you can now read my paper and view the presentation on ticketings and ore purchasing in Cornwall and Swansea in a formative period of the industrial history of both regions. I presented the paper in Santiago de Chile as part of the Leverhulme Trust-funded international network World of Copper.

Read Smelter’s Choice on Academia.edu

You can browse the presentation below full screen.

Reflection

It was a formative experience and edifying to be in the company of scholars from around the world with a common interest in the copper industries particularly as they pertained to what Prof. Chris Evans calls the ‘Swansea moment’ from about 1830-70. The stand-out ‘thought for the day’ was mule trains (and indeed canal and river navigation conveyance) and their almost obliteration from the history writing of heavy industry. But more on that another time.

The theme of this workshop focused on copper’s markets. As I am undertaking a material-led supply chain study, which means I am interested in tracing the journey of copper from its ore to the astonishing array of products that comprise it, looking for markets first meant finding out more about the markets for copper ore and related products (e.g. precipitates).

“Did you know that copper ore from Levant ended up at the Middle Bank works in Swansea who then sold copper products to a foundry in Shoe Lane, Lambeth to make one and an eighth inch nails?”

My paper elicited many questions and comments from the audience and other readers of my paper, some of which have led me to refine my ideas and try new avenues for investigation. I don’t think I was particularly successful in convincing some that by the late 1820s, early 1830s the science of ore blending and the logistics of transport were having as much of an influence on the joint purchasing practices of copper smelters as was their desire to control prices. But I remain convinced and I have an awful lot more of the ticketing records to microscopically analyse to prove my hypothesis.

Most of my colleagues are interested in quantifying the copper industry, they are on the trail of outputs in the form of tonnages and fluctuations in prices. These are, of course, important but they do mask the greater complexity of copper industry logistics that I am interested in revealing. For the first time, through this research, I can link the products of specific mines to specific smelters.

Now I have to fill in the gaps and take a look at how the ore was dressed and in what state it was loaded onto ships bound for the smelters.

I also tantalisingly dangled some of the other types of business archive I have been studying, coppersmith’s ledgers for example. In these we can begin to see the onward supply chain from smelters and refiners to factories and foundries that created manufactured goods. An awful lot of them were based in London and the Thames Valley, further diversifying our understanding of the locales of supply and demand.

Apart from anything I think this kind of analysis used in interpretation at relevant heritage sites would really excite a visitor: “Did you know that copper ore from Levant ended up at the Middle Bank works in Swansea who then sold copper products to a foundry in Shoe Lane, Lambeth to make one and an eighth inch nails?”

A Chilean adventure in copper

Chalcopyrite, copper ore, from Wheal Basset in the copper-rich St Day district, Cornwall.

Chalcopyrite, copper ore, from Wheal Basset in the copper-rich St Day district, Cornwall.

Today I begin an adventure that will see me present a paper on ore purchasing and ticketings in Cornwall and Swansea in the 1820s and 30s at the University of Santiago, travel to the Atacama Desert, the region which today yields the richest and largest copper mines in the world, and then return to Cornwall where copper has somewhat faded from our imagination.

The conference in Santiago is the last of three organised by Prof. Chris Evans and his World of Copper International Network, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The first two took place in 2012 in Swansea and Burra, Australia. The idea for the network is to bring together a wide range of scholars with a common interest in the history of the copper industry, with specific reference to the period 1830-1870, defined by Evans as ‘the Swansea moment’ when nearly half of the world’s copper was smelted in the Lower Swansea and Neath valleys, and around Llanelli.

Michael Johnson, coppersmith of Newlyn Copper Works.

Michael Johnson, coppersmith of Newlyn Copper Works.

Having not been able to attend the previous two I am looking forward to meeting up with others who have similar interests and indeed work on similar sources as me. I believe the nature of my project is significantly different because it doesn’t seek to quantify the scale or reach of the industry or any single enterprise, but rather focus on establishing the processes that transformed copper ore into copper metal and skills, science and economics governing them. So this is the first stage (mine to smelter) of my supply chain study that examines the Mine to Manufactory materials cycle.

My paper is called: “Smelter’s Choice: Ticketings and ore purchasing in Cornwall and Swansea, 1829-34” and is based on my first intensive analysis of ticketing documents in the Williams and Grenfell archive at Bangor University. As a result I attempt for the first time to visualise the data that illustrates the range of copper ores that were required for commercial smelting, and directly compares purchasing patterns in Swansea and Cornwall, previously examined quite separately. Amongst other things, I will be discussing the mechanics of ticketing events, ore blending, collusion between smelters and shared purchasing.

For now I’ll leave you with an abstract but I will be posted my paper on my return.

Abstract

Economic historians are used to gathering data about mine output and ore purchasing from the mineral statistics published in mining journals and local newspapers. These are usually presented as summaries and synopses and do not offer detailed scrutiny of the supply chain between specific mines and smelters. However a large number of primary ticketing documents survive in the collection of Williams and Grenfell held by Bangor University. 239 record ticketing events held in Cornwall for Cornish and Devonian ores and 67 from Swansea for Welsh, other English, Irish and foreign ores. They record the full range of bids made by the smelters on different lots of ore and offer a uniquely detailed and comparative insight into copper ore procurement in this formative period. This paper is part of a project that is reconstructing the supply chains of the historical copper industry by giving a preliminary analysis of smelters’ purchasing patterns. It attempts to look beyond the macro-economics of the globalising industry to ascertain the practical and scientific motives behind procurement.

Copper Kingdom in Final Five of Guardian heritage award

Copper Kingdom in Amlwch, Anglesey has made it into the Final Five (of over 500 nominations) of the Guardian newspaper’s museums and heritage awards for innovation in engaging volunteers.

Doors to the Copper Kingdom, Amlwch, Anglesey.

Doors to the Copper Kingdom, Amlwch, Anglesey.

It is the only representation of industrial heritage and the only one from Wales–or indeed anywhere outside of London and South East England.

Public voting is now open and closes on 12 April. Vote Now!

The award is for the “UK’s most inspiring museum or heritage visitor attraction of the past year.”

Copper Kingdom, situated in Amlwch’s old copper bins in the harbour, is a refreshing example of a new heritage attraction that has bags of substance as well as style. It takes its history seriously and presents it wonderfully. If you have not yet visited, I could not recommend it more. I was one of the nominators for Copper Kingdom and this was my nomination pitch:

“Copper Kingdom is the most original, informative and immersive new heritage centre in Wales. A beautiful example of industrial regeneration, the old copper bins now house an inspirational story of how a tiny village port was for a while in the 18th century the centre of the world’s copper industry.”

Copper alloys and compositions in 1848

Commemorative copper alloy plaque/pavement cover, Albion Yard, former site of copper and other metal smiths, near King's Cross, London.

Commemorative copper alloy plaque/pavement cover, Albion Yard, former site of copper and other metal smiths, near King’s Cross, London.

The Mining Almanack of 1849, compiled by Henry English is a fount of information and trivia helpful to those interested in historical metallurgy as well as those curious about the operation and output of mines.

Here is a list of alloys and compositions which contained copper. Of the 21 alloys listed 14 contain copper.

Perhaps our histories of the copper industry are too simplistic when we only look at copper ore and metal ‘output’. The sheer variety of materials and products copper transformed is mind blowing. There follows a post which lists alloys used in other types of products such as candelabras and bells for mantle clocks.  Continue reading