Business and Prices
From its pioneer decades in the 1720s to 1770s, the copper industry developed into a worldwide business network by the turn of the nineteenth century, dominated by the smelters who were not afraid to squash competition, undercut rivals and fix prices.
The Copper Business
Anglesey copper magnate Thomas Williams, set a precedent for how the world copper trade was to operate in the nineteenth century. In the 1780s and 90s his control and manipulation of the industry ensured maximum profits. Deals with manufacturers such as Matthew Boulton of Birmingham attempted to shut out competition from Cornish mine owners, who formed their own cartels.
Smelting companies dictated prices. Before the mid-nineteenth century copper ore was bought and sold at ‘ticketings’ where smelters’ agents would bid for ore from a variety of mines. Sweetland, Tuttle and Co. of Briton Ferry regularly brought in ores from sixteen different ports.
Changes to import tariffs in the 1820s allowed smelters to expand their businesses internationally. Welsh companies such as Vivian and Sons operated from Swansea, London, Liverpool and the USA.
The increased involvement of international investors led to the establishment of the London Metal Exchange in 1877. One of the first commercial uses of the electric telegraph was to set the world price of copper.
Along Industry Lines
Coastal shipping between British and Irish ports was an essential part of the Welsh copper industry’s success. A variety of sailing vessels - schooners, brigantines, sloops and smacks - carried ore and its products from mining ports.
They returned with coal and other resources needed to power the industry.
The maritime network gave rise to several port towns such as Portreath and Devoran in Cornwall. Arklow served the Avoca copper mines of Ireland. Amlwch became one of Wales’s premier port towns. Not only did it transport ore from the Parys and Mona mines but it also became a significant shipbuilding centre.
Smelting companies dictated how this network was run, but they rarely got involved in shipping themselves. Smelters required a steady supply of copper throughout the year but they had limited storage facilities. Copper-exporting ports had to maintain stores of ore at their quays to ensure that bad weather in the winter did not interrupt business.
The Price of Copper
Until 1877 and the establishment of the London Metal Exchange most British and imported copper ore was sold at ‘ticketing’ events in Cornwall and Swansea.
On this ticketing day a dinner almost equal to a city feast is provided at the expense of the mines in proportion to the quantity of ores each mine has to sell...
(Source: William Pryce, Mineralogia Cornubiensis, 1788)
Cornish ticketings started around 1728 and dealt exclusively in ores from the region’s mines. Swansea ticketings started around 1815. They were initially set up for the sale of English, Welsh and Irish ores, but later dealt in imported copper products too.
Ticketing days were set a fortnight after samples of ore from different mines were tested for their metal content or ‘assayed’. This information was provided on the ‘tickets’ which wrapped the samples and were examined by the smelters’ agents.
Ticketings allowed the price of copper to be set in an open market place. Smelters’ agents would bid against each other to purchase the ore from particular mines at the best price.
902 tons of copper ore from several mines in Wales, England, Isle of Man and Ireland were being sold at this ticketing event in Swansea. By this stage the ores had already been sampled to test for their copper content and the samples scrutinised by the smelters' agents. The copper mines are listed in the left-hand column. The smelting firms are listed across the top row. The winning bids are underlined. From top to bottom, the names of the copper mines in this ticketing are:
Mona (Angelsey, Wales)
Allihies (County Cork, Ireland)
Tigrouy (uniedntified, Ireland?)
Conistone [Coniston] (Cumbria, England)
Wicklow (Wicklow, Ireland)--probably refers to several mines in the county such as the Avoca mines.
Llanberris [Llanberis] (Gwynedd, Wales)
Knockmalaur (?Waterford, Ireland)
Laxey (Isle of Man)
Clogwyn Coch (Gwynedd, Wales)
Copper is our oldest contract, first traded in 1877, and today remains one of our busiest as companies around the world use the LME as a price reference, supplier of metal and venue to manage risk.
Chris Evans, London Metal Exchange, commenting on the importance of the copper business in 2011.
Download The Price of Copper / Dadlwytho Pris Copr (PDF, 209KB)