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.