Swansea Copper: A Global History

We wrote Swansea Copper out of a sense of frustration. Histories of global trade and industry seemed to have no place for copper. Cotton, sugar, tobacco: yes. But copper? What could copper tell us that we didn’t already know about global industrial history? Well, quite a lot as it happens.

Here was a commodity with a genuinely global history, but one that was far from simple to tell. What did it look like? Even this basic question has a multitude of possible answers depending on which point in the ‘life cycle’ of copper you care to look at: dug out of the ground, heated, roasted, cast, hammered, rolled, drawn, granulated, alloyed with other metals. It takes on so many different forms that it almost defies categorisation.

And then there’s the question of how to trace its uses and markets. How do you track the journey of a metal that so often disappears from view? In the maritime world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, you have to look below the waterline to find it in thin sheets protecting the hulls of ships from damage and erosion. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was even more deeply buried, in the intricate internal components of steam locomotive boilers, or in the electrical wiring that was beginning to power a new consumer revolution. Copper was everywhere, but at the same time it was nowhere to be seen.

The way we decided to tell copper’s global story was to start with a place: Swansea. From the second decade of the eighteenth century, this fairly undistinguished coal shipping port on the south coast of Wales became synonymous with copper thanks to two game-changing developments.

The first was the invention, in the late seventeenth century, of a new type of ‘reverberatory’ smelting furnace. This used coal instead of timber as a fuel and, at a stroke, propelled coal-rich places – rather than densely forested ones - into the smelting spotlight. Norwegian and Swedish copper, which had supplied European customers for centuries, was unceremoniously elbowed aside.

Not only did Swansea become a major new global force in the production of smelted copper; it also re-defined the way smelting was done the world over for the best part of the next 200 years. The ‘Welsh Process’ of copper smelting with coal broke with centuries of metal smelting tradition. Where previously it was the location of the metal ore that was the main factor determining where smelting took place, the Welsh Process elevated the importance of the fuel – of coal. Everything else revolved around its orbit.

Copper ore mining districts now danced to Swansea’s tune. They sent agents to the town to sell their ores direct to the smelters. At first, it was just English, Welsh, and Irish mines that supplied the ores, but from the late 1820s, the lifting of tariffs on imported ore transformed this Hiberno-British trading network into a genuinely global one. This was Swansea Copper’s second, game-changing moment.

Ships began carrying copper ores to Swansea from the other side of the world: from Cuba, from South Australia, and from Chile. For the next three decades or so, Swansea Copper was at its fullest extent. Thousands of tons of copper from around the world were bought and sold at its fortnightly ore sales. The purchasing firms, almost all of them with smelting works located in the narrow river valley just to the north of the town, turned out copper sheets and other items in a myriad of different shapes and sizes for customers at home and abroad.

It was a lucrative trade that enriched the town, but it had a limited shelf-life. The Welsh Process enjoyed remarkable longevity as the dominant copper smelting technology but, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the development of new, more fuel-efficient variants of the method began to chip away at Swansea’s advantages. And when new electrolytic methods of refining copper began to emerge, the whole rationale for smelting copper in a coalfield location was undermined.

Swansea Copper is not just about copper; nor is it really about Swansea. It is about the powerful impact that a temporary alignment of place, technology, and demand could exert on global trade.

Order Swansea Copper: A Global History – published on October 27, 2020 – at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/swansea-copper

Louise Miskell is a professor of history at Swansea University. She is the author of "Intelligent Town": An Urban History of Swansea, 1780–1855 and the editor of New Perspectives on Welsh Industrial History. Chris Evans is a professor of history at the University of South Wales. He is the author of Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660–1850 and the coauthor of Baltic Iron in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century. Together, Miskell and Evans are the authors of Swansea Copper: A Global History.