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

By Ronald Rees | Go to book overview

1
Creating the Kingdom

A Secret Art and Mystery

Until deprived of its magic by modern metallurgy, smelting copper was an arcane or mysterious art. Men who could take rough, dull ore and distil from it soft, shining metal that could be beaten into leaves, rolled into fine sheets or drawn into wire, were near-sorcerers who had once been above the law: the smith’s hammer was a universal symbol of power and in ancient Greece as in Gretna Green an oath taken over an anvil could not be broken. By the Renaissance, metal-making had lost most of its mystical associations but it was far from being a commonplace art.1 Copper is an intractable ore and in Europe only the Germans had mastered the techniques of locating and mining the mineral-bearing veins.2 It was Germans, too, in a world where banking, money and industrial organization were becoming more complex, who understood the principles of capital investment and were skilled in the delicate matter of allocating shares and profits among the interested parties in mining and metal-making ventures.3

The British had learned how to mine coal and tin, and make wrought iron but at working and refining the more difficult ores – copper, gold, silver and zinc – they were novices. ‘High Germans are more inventive’, wrote an admiring Maurice Wynn early in the seventeenth century, ‘and no nation can come near them in the mechanical arts.’4 With energy and enterprise to spare, and technical skills to market, German engineers, miners and metallurgists were constantly on the alert for promising ventures at home or abroad and it was only a matter of time until the curves of English needs and German expertise intersected. The catalyst was armaments. Guns were made of iron, copper or bell metal – a mixture of copper and tin – and the copper for English ordnance, as well as the ordnance-makers, had to be imported. Henry VIII’s gun-makers, who were mostly from Flanders and France, frequently ran out of copper, forcing Henry to defend English shores with cannon bought from continental manufacturers. The situation could not endure.5

Although defence was the spur, another, gentler need lay behind the establishment of a home-based copper industry. Wool had been a staple

-3-

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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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