King Copper: South Wales and the Copper Trade, 1584-1895

By Ronald Rees | Go to book overview

Introduction

Overlooking the dock in Swansea’s attractive Maritime Quarter is a weathered bronze statue of the city’s most celebrated entrepreneur: John Henry Vivian, Fellow of the Royal Society, Member of Parliament and, in his day, coppermaster of world renown. If bronze eyes could be made to see, they would be startled by the view presented to them. Although Vivian died in 1855, four years before the official opening of the dock, he would have been familiar with the sights and sounds that characterized it: wharves, warehouses and storage sheds echoing with the reassuring clatter of commerce, long lines of labourers wheeling barrowloads of copper ore and a waterfront bristling with the masts of sturdy barques acquainted with the sea lanes of the Atlantic and the Pacific. Today the dock is still, at least for the winter months. The dockside is home to a maritime/industrial museum and an apartment complex, and the dock itself to a gay flotilla of pleasure craft.

The view beyond the dock and up the river that flows into the bay beside it would be just as disconcerting. A valley floor that in Vivian’s day was ‘cram-jammed’, as one reporter put it then, with furnaces, chimneys and mountainous heaps of slag and furnace ash, has been swept clean of heavy industry. Even the Vivian name, which used to hang on every lip, is fading from memory. The family has gone from the city and its name now is attached only to a pair of statues, an art gallery, a handful of streets and a pub.

So thoroughly has the old industrial landscape been effaced that visitors to the city must take it on faith that in the first half of the nineteenth century Swansea was copper smelter not just to Britain, but to the world. A galaxy of copper works stretching from Pembrey and Llanelli in the west to Port Talbot and Taibach in the east, but heavily massed in the valley of the Tawe, produced virtually all of Britain’s copper and, until about 1860, more than half of the world’s. By any measure it was a remarkable industrial concentration; it produced wealth for the coppermasters and, by the standards of the day, good wages and decent housing and schools for their workers. In Swansea and the neighbouring towns, copper unquestionably ruled.

Yet that reign, though imperious, was not untroubled. Copper ores are

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King Copper: South Wales and the Copper Trade, 1584-1895
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vi
  • Foreword viii
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Creating the Kingdom 3
  • 2 - Shipping and the Ports 23
  • 3 - The Copper Works Towns 46
  • 4 - The Uneasy Crown 63
  • 5 - The Great Copper Trials 75
  • 6 - Copper Smoke and Public Health 90
  • 7 - The Nedd Valley Disputes 114
  • 8 - The Cwmafan Disputes 133
  • 9 - The Decline of the Kingdom 144
  • Notes 149
  • Bibliography 166
  • Index 172
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