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

You can browse the presentation below full screen.


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?”

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,, 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