Why I'm in Ore of the Copper Barque; What Is the Most Important Object in Welsh History? Today PROFESSOR CHRIS EVANS University of South Wales, Argues the Case for a Copper Barque

Article excerpt


THERE was nothing showy about this object. The copper barque - the sailing vessel that linked Swansea to the wider world in the 19th century - was a workaday affair. It lacked the sleek lines of the tea clipper and therefore the speed that gave clippers their blue-riband glamour. The copper barque was more lumbering; it was sturdily built to carry Welsh coal on its outward passage and copper ore on the homeward leg. Elegant it was not, but the three-masted barque was an object that embodied Wales' articulation with the world economy in the early Victorian Age.

Copper barques were once a very familiar sight in Swansea Bay. They stood off the mouth of the Tawe, waiting for a tide that would carry them over the bar and float them upstream towards the copper works. Yet most barques spent relatively little time in Welsh waters. Indeed, most of them were built elsewhere, very often in boatyards on the opposite side of the Bristol Channel, in Bideford and Barnstaple, where shipbuilders were used to making tough little ships of shallow draught, capable of being beached in the small harbours and coves of the West Country. Vessels of this sort, made of local oak, had long been employed in the coasting trade that linked together the ports of south-west England and South Wales. In the 18th century they were incorporated into the trade that was carrying larger and larger volumes of Cornish copper ore to the smelters of the Swansea district. By the 1820s there were more than 100 such vessels sailing out of Swansea, mostly running to places like Portreath and Hayle on Cornwall's north coast or Devoran and Fowey on the south.

Moment copper went global The 1830s saw a major expansion in the number of copper barques serving Swansea. This was a moment when Swansea's copper industry went global, drawing on ores from all CLICK ON Take a walk down memory lane and beyond with more Welsh history features online WalesOnline.co.uk /lifestyle/ nostalgia HEADING OVERSEAS - PAGES 20&21 around the world, from Cuba, Australia and Chile. In 1827 ore imports to Britain scarcely registered; by 1847 more than 51,000 tons of high-grade foreign ores were landed at British ports (80% of it at Swansea). There were new challenges here. Home waters could be treacherous, especially around the Cornish coast, but seafarers from South Wales now had to cover greater distances - immense distances, in fact - and venture into enormously threatening environments. Copper barques had to clear the Caribbean before the hurricane season began. They had to negotiate the howling southern oceans. Worst of all, they had to fight their way around Cape Horn if they were to load with Chilean ore. copper barques grew bigger and became more elaborate to cope with these strains. They were "Swansea-fitted". Copper ore was dense; it was also a loose material that could shift about in transit. These factors made ore-carriers potentially unstable. If the ore was packed down in the depths of the hold it would lower the vessel's centre of gravity. In heavy weather the ship could become unmanageable. The hull would sit too low in the water with the masts and rigging yawing about wildly. A Swansea-fitted barque was equipped with trunks to counteract this. These were silos within the hold into which the mineral would be packed. The trunks would raise the centre of gravity, keep the ore in its proper place and head off the danger of capsizing. Seabed littered with wreckage Barques were made for steadiness rather than speed. Even so, crews had to contend with terrifying conditions. A Cape-Horner had to dip below 56deg south if it was to pass into the Pacific. Rounding the Cape could sometimes take weeks as the ship beat into towering seas and westerly gales. It was a gruelling ordeal for professional seafarers; for passengers - smelters and miners on their way out to Chile - it was worse. The diary account of John Chellew, a furnace man who sailed from Swansea on the Florence Nightingale in 1857, tells of days spent battling against wind and currents. …