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.


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.

Uses of Chilean copper in smelting

As part of my programme of self-improvement regarding the science behind the economics of the (mainly) 19th century copper industry I have been reading Percy’s Metallurgy, 1861, the classic work on metallurgical processes in use at the time.

Part of the remains of Las Compañías, a smelter established by Charles Lambert, now a rubbish tip (credit: Frank Vicencio López)

Part of the remains of Las Compañías, a smelter established by Charles Lambert, now a rubbish tip (credit: Frank Vicencio López)

An ongoing exchange between me and a colleague in Chile who is assiduously documenting the country’s lost smelting heritage encouraged me to make a note of any sources that would be helpful to his research.

While going through Percy’s Metallurgy I transcribed some of the contents regarding the types of ore that were extracted from Chilean mines and the particular form of smelting that was conducted there. Chilean ores and copper products in the form of blister copper and sometimes regulus were a major source of raw materials for the Welsh smelting industry in the mid-19th century.  Continue reading

Glossary of mining and ore processing terms used in Devon and Cornwall

Mining Almanack, 1849 by H. English

Mining Almanack, 1849 by H. English

Do you know your Attle from your Pril? Did you know a Cornish ton was different to a regular imperial ton? Or that the ores raised from the mine were known as Work before they were dressed? No, neither did I.

That was until I got to work on the Mining Almanack for 1849. The Almanack was compiled by Henry English, Mining Engineer under the patronage of Prince Albert, then Duke of Cornwall and Lord Warden of the Stanneries.

Mining almanack, 1849

The almanack contains, as you would expect, an array of interesting data about the mining industry of the day, as well as more general content about related industries and even a directory of the current peers of the House of Lords.

The kind of information you can get from here include original articles/essays on topics such as the jurisdiction of the Stannary Courts, the Newcastle and Durham coalfields, the science of geology and innovation in the production of iron (as opposed to hemp) rope.

It contains statistical data on engine work, foreign weights and measures for assaying, weights of various items like metal and alloy pipes, tubes and wires, directories of useful contacts, general statistics, legislation and regulation, geological information, miscellanea such as the cost of materials for the Cornish mining industry, and the ever-diverting advertisements including for one for private contracts on mines e.g. Tywarnhaile Mines belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall, geological maps, patented wire and wire rope (iron), patented safety fuse, gutta-percha rubber bands, tubing, valves and buckets.  Continue reading

George Unwin’s guide to copper exports to India, 1811

NPG D39272; George Unwin by Nathan Cooper Branwhite, after and published by  Samuel Medley

George Unwin by Nathan Cooper Branwhite, published by Samuel Medley, 1805 (Credit: National Portrait Gallery NPG D39272)

George Unwin was an industrial lobbyist who is best known for reviving the tin trade between Britain and India in the 1780s, much to the benefit of the British East India Company and to Cornish mining interests which he vigorously defended.

He made further cases for the Indian markets for tin and copper in 1811. I came across one of his pamphlets at the British Library last year. The pamphlet was published in Truro, Cornwall, at the Cornwall Gazette’s office.

…it is a subject of very superior consideration to the county of Cornwall, from the very great consumption of that article in every part of India, and the large quantity annually sent out to that market;

I transcribed some of the contents which I reproduce here. I have not included the information on tin.

The meticulous case Unwin puts forward is suggestive of the importance of Indian and Chinese markets for copper produced in Britain. Indeed India remained the longest standing foreign market for British copper well into the twentieth century. From the point of view of my study into reconstructing historic supply chains, an understanding of the demand and the markets which absorbed so much copper is essential. Prof. Huw Bowen has conducted the most thorough work on the Indian copper markets but little has been done on the actual products that drove the demand. It no doubt partly served the decorative brass ware industries, pejoratively known as Benares Brass, but copper and brass were also used in architectural fittings and for the machines which drove India’s nascent industrialisation.

Vin Callcut, oldcopper.org, Vivian and Sons Yellow Metal stamp on reverse of decorative Indian brass trayWe have direct material evidence linking Welsh copper and brass companies with Indian products, as demonstrated by this manufacturer’s stamp of Vivian and Sons on the reverse of a decorative brass tray. I will post on this and other similar objects separately.

In this pamphlet Unwin uses comparative statistics to demonstrate the strength of the Asian markets. In the year 1810-11, over 1500 tons of copper were exported to Europe, Africa and America, compared with almost 1330 tons just to Asia in the same year.

Unwin argues against open market speculation in India owing to the high costs and uncertain rewards and instead suggests that it would be mutually beneficial for both the Government and mining interests in Cornwall if the East India Company were granted exclusivity by the Cornish mining companies. He goes on to emphasise that without dealing directly with ‘the Company’ Cornish copper would not penetrate the Indian markets effectively and may even bring in a loss.

Unwin’s ability to get to the heart of the matter is clear in the following. Cornish copper needed to more effectively penetrate foreign markets to be profitable. The East India Company needed a firm hold on a major product to continue what was to become its last days as the monopolist of sub-continental markets (the monopoly was eventually broken by an Act of Parliament in 1813). It was exactly in this year that Cornish industrialists Vivian and Sons ventured to Swansea to start their smelter at Hafod. There was a consciousness to streamline copper production and integrate vertically (in all key aspects of the supply chain) to ensure the big investments yielded bigger profits.

Prof. Bowen suggests that Unwin really requires a full length study as his influence and thought on trade with India in particular are deserving of more in-depth research.

Observations upon the Export Trade of Tin and Copper to India,

with reference to the expected Renewal of the Honorable East India Company’s Charter; and also upon the present State of the Tin Trade with Europe and its Colonies, Africa and America;

Respectfully submitted To the consideration of the Noblemen and Gentlemen concerned in the Mining Interest of Cornwall. By Geo. Unwin.

Printed at the Cornwall Gazette Office in Truro, by T. Flindell. 1811.

Continue reading

Cornish copper production by parish

…hardly a patch of Cornwall was not touched by copper mining

In appendix IV of D.B. Barton’s A History of Copper Mining in Cornwall and Devon (1961) the author presents a table of copper ore and copper production by each parish in Cornwall and west Devon between 1815 and 1905. It remains the classic work on Cornish copper mining.

Barton compiled it from statistics published in the Memoirs of the Geological Survey on Copper Ores of Cornwall and Devon. I have taken the liberty to transcribe the table and reproduce it here and compile a bar graph to illustrate the data and allow comparison. I intend to map this data too for a more visual representation of Cornish copper producing areas. The results may surprise you. Continue reading