Cymdeithas Hanes Resolfen History Society

A web log for the Resolven History Society which publishes articles and stories related to Resolven and the immediate surroundings.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The origins of copper working in Swansea

The terms “Copper Quarter!”, and “Copperopolis”, are terms which are well known today and synonymous with the Swansea area, however the origins of why Swansea enjoys this association is less well appreciated. Luckily, this month’s speaker Peter Rees of Swansea Outreach Speakers was able to more than supply the answer.

Mr Rees began his talk by paying tribute to the massive contribution which the Swansea Valley had played in the metallurgical story of the industrial revolution. The area was not only known for copper smelting but also zinc, lead, iron/steel, nickel, cobalt, gold and silver. The galvanised zinc sheets produced in Swansea had literally roofed the Caribbean much as the slates of North Wales had roofed much of Europe. The question why, lay much further in the past than Dr John Lane’s first modern copper smelting works in Landore in 1717.

Remains of  copper works at Aberdulais
The area had several geographical features which made the smelting of metals easier here than elsewhere. Firstly, the southern limb of the coal measures outcropped between Aberafon and the Loughor estuary. This made extraction relatively easy and secondly in the absence of adequate roads, transport was possible by boat along the Tawe, Neath and Loughor rivers.  As early as 1249, some 150 tons of coal was leaving Swansea and this rose to 5,000 tons by 1500. The third locational advantage was that of coal itself which provided the energy for the smelting. Four tons of coal were needed for every one ton of copper ore so the relative difficulty in transportation meant that it was easier to bring the copper ore to the coal.

The Elizabethan age, heralded a new demand for copper. Elizabeth the First who came to the throne in 1558, was threatened by papist armies on the continent of Europe ten times in number of her own forces. Luckily the sea provided a defence and she gave patronage to some highly able ( some might say disreputable privateers) such as Drake, Frobisher, Raleigh and Rawlins to form the basis of a nascent Royal Navy. However, a supply of copper was essential, both to manufacture cannon from brass (bell making technology). Unfortunately, the Hanseatic League dominated the Baltic ports and could ask a high price for copper (literally a Queen’s ransom, Ed) which meant that she needed a new strategy. The astute Elizabeth recruited 300 copper smelters from Bavaria who had the expertise to begin an English copper industry. Following surveying in Kendal , the search for a suitable site brought the German smelters to the Neath area and a copper works was established in secret at Aberdulais, where the first manager was one Ulrich Frosse. The locally available ore and coal, plus the power of the Dulais river to run a water wheel and bellows made the location an ideal one. The plant worked at its Aberdulais location for over a century and certainly played an invaluable part in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Tall chimneys of reverbatory furnaces
New reserves of copper were found in Cornwall, Dorset,County Wicklow and of course Parys Mountain on Ynys Môn.  In 1688 a new design was patented by Sir Clement Clerke and his son Talbot from Avon for the production of copper – the Reverberatory furnace. This design did not need bellows and a tall chimney was used instead. By the 1800s the Swansea area had 16 copper works, there was also one in Neath at Melincryddan ( Eaglesbush) and others in the Llanelli area.  Robert Morris , bought out John Lane and became a metal magnate, giving his name to Morriston. In 1810, Swansea produced 65,000 tons of copper which equated to 72% of world production. Copperopolis now set the world price of copper in a building which stood on the site of the now Sainsbury’s supermarket.
Mynydd  Parys Mountain

There was a very buoyant market for the copper since the Royal Navy and trading ships needed copper sheeting to stop barnacles developing on the hull of ships, thus slowing the vessel. It also stopped the notorious teredo navalis (worm) from rotting the timbers in tropical waters.  A less commendable aspect of this development was Swansea’s undoubted role in the slave trade centred on the port of Bristol.  It is interesting that none of the main industrialists were originally Welsh , Morris was English and both the Vivians and Grevilles  (of the White Rock Works  – now the Liberty Stadium Ed. ) were of Cornish extraction, though their legacy is still evident in Swansea and their collective wealth would now be valued in many billions of pounds.

The population of the Swansea area grew rapidly, from 7000 inhabitants in 1801 to 72,000 in 1891. It also gave rise to a very proud worker “The Copperman”, who expertly tapped the furnaces and attracted migrants in droves from the surrounding areas to adopt the skill. However, the work was extremely poisonous and it was unlikely that the worker would live longer than forty five years.  Another notable feature of the copper industry was that owner and worker were often seen together on the shop floor trying to improve the techniques and processes of manufacture.

Swansea barques
Inevitably, the Swansea copper industry went into decline after 1860. Local ores were worked out or poor with foreign ore substituting from Cuba or Spain. Later the Swansea barques (manufactured in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia) made the perilous journey to Chile around Cape Horn and even Australia. They were lined with wood to stop the corrosion of the copper ore in transit. Inevitably, despite the world beating expertise in Swansea, the source areas began their own production centres often “head hunting”, the Swansea copper men for their own purposes. The last copper works shut in Swansea in 1923, though production of copper goods maintained until the 1960s in the area. However, Ludwig Mond, set up the famous, and still surviving Mond Nickel Works in Clydach in 1902 owing to the skills in metallurgical trades latent in the Swansea area.

Following a short question and answer session, Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Rees for a fascinating insight into the history of Swansea copper.

The Wonders of the Web of Time

They say that you are only six (or is it seven steps) from anyone else in the world. With the advent of the world-wide web we are all far closer than ever. Paul Bailey and his wife Julia of North Carolina in the USA, were coming to Wales in order to enjoy the tourist delights of our wonderful country but also to find the family roots of Doctor Bailey whose great grandparents hail from the Neath area.

Paul and Julia Bailey at Manteg
A Facebook search asking for some assistance with their task was sent to the Resolven District News and the Resolven Community Council web sites. To cut a long story short, Trefor Jones current Chair of the Community Council and long serving secretary of the Resolven History Society was contacted to meet them. On Monday, September 18th they met with Trefor outside the erstwhile Sion Chapel now the Community Centre. However, they had already been met by the residents of Tan-y-Rhiw (formerly Chapel Row) and next door to Paul’s great grandfather’s house which it is now assumed to have been demolished (Chapel House Ed.) . A whistle stop tour then ensued, firstly of the now renovated chapel which includes the gravestone of the Morgan family, and where Paul’s ancestors were members and his great grandfather a deacon. This was followed by a historical tour of the Resolven area including the canal and what remains of the hamlet of Ynysfach. It appears that Paul’s great grandmother was an orphan who had spent her early life in the workhouse in Neath “Llety Nedd”. They subsequently made two visits to the now Vet’s surgery and saw some children’s clothes from the period. On the way back to their car parked in Resolven, they visited “Sgwd Rhyd yr Hesg”, (Melincwrt falls) and finished their initial visit at Capel Melincwrt (built 1799). By sheer chance, (the chapel which is only used very infrequently), had a harvest service that afternoon and Mr Roy Joseph was delighted to open the chapel and let our visitors experience the inside of a genuine 18th century independent chapel almost as old as the USA itself.

Their second visit to Resolven occurred on the Wednesday of the same week when the Baileys visited Manteg, the home of Mr and Mrs Phylip Jones, and of course President of the History Society. Phylip is literally the 'keeper of records' for the Resolven area and had already prepared a family tree much to the delight of Paul Bailey. Phylip was also able to fill and verify in some of the gaps left in his internet led research. This also led subsequently to other successful leads to Llandyfaelog in Carmarthenshire and the graveyard of St David’s Church in Resolven. They concluded with a visit to Glyncastle and the site of Ty’n-y-Cwm farm which was originally the family home. A subsequent visit unearthed some more details and the location of the family graves.

To show his appreciation of the help he had received, Paul gave a generous donation to the History Society and to the Community Council. It is to be hoped that the Baileys will maintain their association with the area and feel that this is now very much their ancestral home.
Ed: Paul has promised us some photographs of his visit which I will post on the blog.
UPDATE: Paul Bailey has been in touch and has promised more information. He also thanked everyone for making his visit a success.
Paul Bailey's great grandfather John Morgan.