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.

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

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.

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