Global Sources of Copper
Cornish and Welsh mines produced much of the copper ore for the Welsh smelting and refining industry. As demand for copper increased in the mid-nineteenth century new sources were located overseas, particularly Australia, Cuba, Chile and South Africa.
The Cornish Connection
Cornwall and west Devon supplied most of the copper ore to Welsh smelters during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Devon, Morwellham Quay in the Tamar Valley became Britain’s busiest copper ore-exporting port. Devon Great Consols, near Tavistock, were regarded as the richest copper mines in Europe in 1850. Two of the biggest Cornish producers were the Consolidated Mines at Gwennap, near Redruth, and Fowey Consols near Par.
Cornish mining entrepreneurs were heavily involved in the world famous smelting and refining companies of south Wales. In Swansea, Pascoe Grenfell of west Cornwall partnered the Williams copper dynasty of Anglesey to purchase the Middle and Upper Bank Works in 1803-4. Truro banker Ralph Allen Daniell joined Birmingham and London industrialists to set up the Llanelly Copperworks Company in 1805.
The Vivians, originally from Truro, first operated the Penclawdd works in north Gower, then built the Hafod copperworks in Swansea in 1808-9. The Williams family of Scorrier, near Redruth, with William Foster of Norfolk, bought the rival works at Morfa in 1828.
From Cape to Cape
From the 1820s industrialists looked abroad for new sources of copper ore. Larger ships travelled longer distances as the copper trade turned global.
The Swansea-based Richardson family built oak-timbered, copper-fastened ships such as the Glamorgan, Tacna and Corsair specifically for the trade with Latin America. Valparaíso in Chile was one of the world’s most important copper-exporting ports.
We are frozen and starving and must draw lots so that some may keep longer alive. We have drawn, the lot fell on my poor sister. I have offered myself and am taking her place. The horror of it all.
The Queen, a brigantine of 1865, voyaged between Swansea, Newfoundland, Portugal and Liverpool with copper, coal and timber. On 12 December 1867 she was wrecked off Gull Island and the crew marooned without food.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Michael Williams)
The international crews of the famous ‘Cape Horners’ braved the seas between South America and Swansea to bring ore to Wales. Lives and cargoes were often lost to disease, accidents and bad weather. These were regularly reported in the Welsh papers such as The Cambrian.
Discoveries of Australian copper between 1845 and 1860 expanded the trade right around the world. In the 1850s commercial mining began in Namaqualand, South Africa. O’okiep was the most important mine of the Cape Copper Company of Briton Ferry. They constructed a 93-mile railway to carry the ore from the remote mine to Port Nolloth, previously done by ‘mule train’.
Wales and the New World
Countries like Chile, Peru and Bolivia became independent from Spain in the 1820s. They exploited their mineral wealth to stimulate their economies.
Welsh businesses set up mining and smelting concerns in the copper districts of north-western Chile. The Copiapó Mining Company employed a number of Welsh miners from the 1830s. Messrs. Allison and Francis of Swansea managed a smelter at Cerrillos de Tamaya, in Coquimbo.
Chile dominated world supply from 1851 to 1880 but British merchants and financiers were heavily involved in the trade. From the later nineteenth century Chilean smelted copper became a crucial raw material for the Welsh industry. It was exported to south Wales for further refining.
Welsh involvement in New World copper also had a darker side. When east Cuban mines at El Cobre were re-exploited in the 1830s slave labourers formed a ready-made workforce. In spite of the Anti-Slavery movement in Wales businesses such as Mary Glascott and Sons of Llanelli’s Cambrian Copper Works and Pascoe Grenfell and Sons of Swansea tolerated slave-holding in their Cuban company.
These mines are of copper, and the ore is all shipped to Swansea, to be smelted. Hence the mines have an aspect singularly quiet, as compared to those in England: here no smoke, furnaces, or great steam-engines, disturb the solitude of the surrounding mountains.
Charles Darwin on the copper mines of Chile, 1834.
(Source: Charles Darwin, A Naturalist’s Voyage: Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of Countries Visited during the Voyage of the HMS Beagle Around the World, Chapter 12, 18 August 1834)