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?”

Copper field trip to North Wales

The windmill is of particular interest as it makes plain why, for a period of about 15-20 years, Anglesey’s copper mining eclipsed that of Cornwall as they didn’t have to spend quite so much time and money pumping water out of the ground to get at the ore.

I have finally completed my itinerary to visit North Wales to kick start a new phase of my copper research.

It is a long way from west Cornwall to north-west Wales. I lament that the once regular costal shipping serving the western Atlantic ports of the Celtic Sea and Irish Sea would have provided a much more atmospheric arrival into Bangor or Amlwch. Then again, I may have ended up ship-wrecked, like so many did, often close to home port.

Railing through industrial heartlands

Instead I will be travelling via mid-nineteenth century routes on the railways. Starting at the end of the Great Western line in Penzance, up to Birmingham (synonymous with copper mogul Matthew Boulton), thence to Crewe and Bangor. My return trip wends me to Wolverhampton, home of art metalware and the famous Bilston enamels.

I will be spending a few days in Bangor University Archives thoroughly going through the records of Williams and Grenfell’s Copper Smelting Firm, 1829-1834. It is in this collection that the rare Ticketing documents are found, and on which I have been conducing some preliminary research. Continue reading