Industry Development

(c) Vin Callcut 2002-2017. Small extracts can be used with acknowledgements to '' website.

Helpful comments are very welcome.

A Brief Review of the Development of the

Copper, Zinc and Brass Industries in Great Britain

from AD 1500 to 1900.

by W O Alexander, PhD., F.I.M.

(was Production Manager of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd., Metals Division)

reprinted from:  Murex Review Vol. 1 No 15, 1955.


A.D. 1500

Enlightenment in the Elizabethan Era

Calamine Brass

Summary of the Commercial Development in the Seventeenth Century

Copper Smelting and Refining in the Eighteenth Century

More Commercial Considerations

Smelting Zinc, early Eighteenth Century

Some Metalworking Processes developed in the Eighteenth Century

Review of the Eighteenth Century

The Growth of Copper Smelting and Refining in Swansea, Nineteenth Century

Yellow Metal

Fresh Fillip to Zinc Smelting

Sidelines on Copper Smelting

The Welsh Process of Copper Smelting


Countries from which ores were imported 1901

Copper Ore Wharves

Handling Cargoes and Consignments

Birmingham-Copper and Brass in the Nineteenth Century

Review of Copper and Brass in the Nineteenth Century





The main purpose of this essay is to trace the metallurgical development of the copper and brass industry from Elizabethan times to the Edwardian era. A cursory glance at historical authorities on the various facets of the industry reveals that detailed metallurgical information on the mining, smelting and refining of copper and zinc ores and their subsequent manufacture into wrought shapes is woefully lacking between 1600 and 1850. (1-4)   Indeed, it would almost appear that the recordings of Agricola (5) served as the bible of the industry until comparatively recent times.

On the other hand, the histories of the establishment and economic growth of the various principal firms associated with the industry are not difficult to trace, largely because of the legal records involved and because some of the detailed account books and balance sheets have been examined and reported. (1,2,5),   As yet, however, no corresponding records have been revealed of the technical side of the industry; the specialised knowledge and experience acquired in this country and abroad by the master miner, chemist, smelter and refiner, by the smith and the brass-melter or by the hammerman and wire-drawer, appear not to have been noted in technical detail at the time. These trades were all, in fact, closed shops, the secrets being handed down verbally from father to son; indeed, traces of that arrangement remained in the industry almost to the present day, especially in the labour agreements of the more backward portions. In addition to this, particularly in the Swansea district, great rivalry existed between the three principal smelting and refining firms; although the sites were adjacent, technical know-how was not allowed to be divulged, and this attitude was physically enforced by a formidably high boundary wall and by the river Tawe which separated the three works.

 Fig. 1. Agricola: Blast furnace.  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)

 It is proposed, therefore, to attempt to record in rough chronological order the highlights of metallurgical improvements made in the industry over this period and to outline the interplay among the areas of the country which were intimately associated with this growth, namely Cornwall, Swansea and Birmingham.

A.D. 1500

In De Re Metallica Agricola records in employed for extracting copper from ores, some of which also contained lead and silver. (5)

These methods are referred to briefly here metal extraction in Europe and form a starting point for developments in Britain. Following various methods used in Saxony and the Joachimsthal area, he describes hand breaking, sorting and grading of the ores. In the case of gold and tin ores, wet stamping, wet grinding and washing were regularly employed, and even in Cornwall in those days concentration of tin ores was certainly carried out.

The concentrated copper ore-a sulphide-was then roasted with faggots and in some cases allowed to lie in the open air for many days to get softened.  After the roasting treatment the formation and carried out in a small shaft type blast furnace chamber above (Fig. 1). Air was forced in through a bronze or iron tuyère and in the remained open, the matte running out into a forehearth consisted of three parts roasted copper ore, to which were  added such other concentrates and slags as were available.  This was run down into the forehearth, and the resulting cakes were water-quenched and then roasted. Four parts of roasted cakes to one part of crude pyrites were remelted and again run into cakes. Some crude blister copper may have resulted from this operation, but if not the cakes were again roasted and remelted with a soft slag, these operations being repeated until blister copper was obtained.

 Fig. 3. Agricola: Testing refiners .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)

 Agricola in Book XI describes vividly and accurately the refining of the blister copper and also other techniques of liquating out any lead- and silver-bearing constituents, thus leaving the copper cakes in a "dried" condition. The furnaces used were really little better than smiths' hearths built in hemispherical form, lined with a mixture of silica, clay and charcoal and capable of taking one 100-400 lb. of copper. A powerful air blast was directed on to the surface of the metal from a series of one to three copper pipes (Fig. 2). The furnace was preheated with live charcoal, about 200-250 lb. of blister copper was added if of normal quality, more charcoal was added, and pieces were also put into the tuyères, presumably to preheat the air somewhat. When the copper was molten the master pushed an iron bar into the middle to oxidise the copper with a blast of air, the slags were partly cleared, and an iron bar was dipped in.  If the copper was good, it adhered easily to the bar (Fig. 3) and was stripped off as a thin, continuous layer of high malleability.

If, however, the copper was not good, the slags were drawn off two or three times if necessary, and then the master inserted a hazel stick into the crucible and stirred twice. The copper was then removed by an ingenious process of top solidification. Water was poured on to the surrounding brickwork and thus heated ran on to the molten metal, accelerating the formation of a crust of solid copper on the surface. This crust was removed with a wedge-shaped iron bar, the cake immediately quenched in water and the process repeated (Fig. 4). By this means up to thirteen cakes of thin, uniform quality could be made. The first one or two contained some slag and were usually remelted. Precautions were taken to avoid stones, bricks, pieces of iron or calamine from the walls and hood falling into the crucible and contaminating the charge. In addition all copper dust and copper flowers were taken from the water tub weekly.

 Fig. 4. Agricola: Cooling copper cakes .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons) 

Fig. 5. Arms of Mineral and Battery Works, 1568 

This necessarily brief description of the state of the art in Europe in the sixteenth century is sufficient to reveal gross waste of charcoal, which was the only fuel used, probably very inefficient recovery of copper (although slags and dusts were recycled many times), and that quantities of the order of 2-3 cwt. only were handled at a time. In addition, particularly in the operation of smelt­ing copper, the working conditions must have been appalling, and in the refining operation the method of top solidification of copper by means of warm water must have resulted in a very low furnace life.

Enlightenment in the Elizabethan Era

Up to this time Britain had, from the days of the Phoenicians and especially in Roman times, mined and extracted tin, lead and copper from their ores, but the ventures do not appear to have developed in any way. In the time of Elizabeth I, however, Lord Cecil advised her to foster this industry. Consequently Pettus (7) reports: "About the third year of Queen Elizabeth, 1561, she by the advice of her Council sent over for some Germans experienced in mines, and being supplied, she, on the 10th October, in the sixth of her reign granted the mines of eight counties to ... Houghsetter." Besides this, other Germans were encouraged to invest capital in this country to teach the art of smelting copper and making brass, such men being Christopher Shutz, Ulriche Frosse and Jochim Gaunse.

The status of such companies in Elizabethan England was visually enhanced by granting coats of arms, of which a typical example is given in Fig. 5.

The arms and blazoning of the Society of the Mineral and Battery Works 1568 are blazoned thus,: "Silver with a mount vert. A man working within a mine, with two hammers and a lamp, all in their proper colours on a chief azure. A cake of copper between a bezant and a plate on a wreath silver and azure. A demy man (called in Dutch the schicht master) with an escutcheon on his breast or and azure per bend inverted; in one of his hands an instrument called a wedge, and in the other hand a compass, gold mantled; silver doubled azure, supported with two men, the one called the hammer-man, with a hammer on his shoulder; and the other the smelter with a fork in his hand; all in proper colours."

In 1564 an Anglo-German partnership began mining and smelting operations at Keswick, and in 1568 this company was incorporated into a joint-stock company by a royal charter which created the Mines Royal.

During this period Ulrich Frosse smelted copper ores at works which he set up at Perranzabuloe in Cornwall as well as at Keswick and in South Wales at a later date, so that his travelling must have been a heavy burden in those difficult times. It soon became apparent that the quantity of fuel required would favour the location of smelting works near the mines of "sea coal," and not merely where charcoal could be got. It was only at a much later date, when the develop­ment of steam pumping engines of the Newcomen type led to a large quantity of Welsh coal being brought to the Cornish mines, that it was again seriously suggested that it would pay to smelt copper ores in Cornwall near the mines.

In the winter of 1582 Ulriche Frosse, who had been given management of affairs at Neath (probably at Aberdulais (8) , reported that he was able to smelt 24 cwt. of ore every day with one furnace. It seems possible that this was achieved by using a reverbatory furnace. If so, this is the first instance of such furnaces being used in Britain for smelting. But recurrent financial difficulties and repeated and long delays in the supply of ore led to the abandonment of the venture. The first record of the design of a reverbatory type furnace was given by Biringuccioe in 1540. Some interesting information as to the knowledge which these early German smelters possessed can be gleaned from the corres­pondence which they have left behind.

Thus on 7th March 1586 Ulriche Frosse wrote: "Have in readiness as much copper roste and blake copper as will mak a 20 tonne lotte of good fine copper. "We are able to melt it with two fornisses in the space of 40 weekes the quantitie of 560 tonne of ewre if we might have it.

"Send such ores as you have, not caring what ore it is, when you do send, if you can, send all sorts; the better it will melt and with more profits."

They also had clear ideas as to the various impurities in copper ore; for in a description of operations at the Keswick works in 1581 there is an elaborate discussion of the "ix infectyve and evil Humors. 1 The first one mentioned is sulphur= "a mynerall substance w'ch verie quickly taketh fire, and wilbe con­sumed in smoke by blast"; it leaves the copper black and brittle, "so that it wilbe broken w'th the hammar, in manner like glasse." Arsenic was also said to be "consumed w'th fire into smoke, w'ch is a vere daungerous ayer or savor, and by his force maketh the copper white and brether than the sulphur doeth." Antimony, another impurity and a "great let and hinderer to the copper in smeltinge," was eliminated by heat. "Vitriall" was removed by "stamepinge the copper ure into powder and by rostinge the same powder ... before it be smolten, and then letting water passe through the same roasted powder, the water doth not onllie carry the vitriall from the powder or ure, but also carrieth w'th it the burnt powder or sinder of the sulphur, arsenicque, and antimony, whereby it so clenseth the ure that when it cometh to the smeltinge the copper cometh forth easelie, w’thout such quantitie of slagges or drosse, as otherwise woulde be, if the ure were not rosted and the vitriall in the manner taken from it; thus is the vitriall, of an enimye made a friende." Other impurities, such as iron and black stone (the substance in which the ore is embedded when it is taken from the ground), gave rise to much difficulty in smelting, but the remaining materials, 11calcator" (oxide of iron), alum and spar, are mentioned as being "least hurtful to ye copper."

Jochim Gaunse, who was in charge of the works at Keswick, was quite sure that he knew how to deal with all these impurities in order to obtain good copper; besides, it is interesting to notice, he intended making use of these by-products to the "great bennifitt of the Companie." Not more than eight or nine "seks of chare coles and thre horslod of sea coles" were required for smelting 24 cwt. of ore.

The methods employed by the Elizabethan smelters were by no means perfect, and during the next two centuries a great deal of attention was paid to improving the processes in order to get rid of the various impurities in the ore.

Calamine Brass

The elimination of the various impurities from copper were of infinite importance to the brass manufacturer and the brassworker, for the quality of brass depended to such a great extent on the kind of copper employed in its com­position. Brassmaking was in those days a laborious and costly operation, since it was made by a process known as cementation.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries calamine was mined in Somerset and Nottinghamshire by the Mineral and Battery Works, and an interesting account of the methods employed in the former county was given in 1684. (14) 

The method of making "calamine" brass was described by Pettus.' "In one oven they set eight pots or pipkins at once, and let them be warm and hot, and when they are so, they take them out quickly and put the calaminaris in them, also they have a shovel made on purpose, that therewith they may take up and know how to distribute near 46 pounds in such eight pots. Then they lay in every pot upon the Lapis Calaminaris eight pounds of small broken copper pieces, and set in the pots again, and then let them stand nine hours in great heat, and in this nine hours are to be taken one heap and a half of Coals, and when such coals are burnt out, then stir the stuff in the pot with an iron."

According to Houghton, (15) brass plates for wrought metal work were composed of about two-sevenths fine copper, four-sevenths calamine, and one-seventh shruff or old plate brass. The mixture was put into pots, which were then set in the furnace; after being heated for 10-12 hours, the contents of eight to ten of them was poured into a larger one (probably what at a later time was called the king pot).

When the whole mixture was ready, the dross was skimmed off and the brass was poured between two stones "of a tun weight or more," each of which was elevated at one end. The moulds being filled, they were placed in an upright position and the metal was allowed to cool, and so a plate of about 70 lb. weight was obtained.

This method of making brass was carried out with slight variations right down to the nineteenth century, and as late as 1858 there were calamine furnaces in use in South Wales.(3)  

Summary of the Commercial Development in the Seventeenth Century

During this period, while dogged technical perseverance continued, certain economic and political repercussions also had a bearing on the growth of these associated activities. The companies which were floated during this time had been given extensive privileges in the reign of Elizabeth and the government was always ready to expand and protect their powers of monopoly, with the consequence that they had won a firm financial footing in England by the end of the reign. Following this, however, various changes led to an abuse of the legal monopoly, and consequently state assistance was sought and obtained to prevent the importation of competing commodities. This arrangement was much to the detriment of the pinmakers and wire-workers of Birmingham and elsewhere, who were compelled to buy their raw material from the Mineral and Battery Works. In addition to this, after the Civil War copper mining was neglected because the shareholders clung to their privilege, and consequently the industries were at a standstill for almost thirty years. State monopolies had, as a method of helping industries to establish themselves, outlived their usefulness, and so by the Mines Royal Act of 1689 and 1693 these restrictive monopolistic rights were abolished, thereby freeing anyone to mine copper. In addition, the mining and working of calamine and manufacture of brass were allowed to lapse. With such technical improvements as an increase in the supply of ore and improvements in the technique of smelting, and also a growth in demand, the way was open for private enterprise, and several important companies were quickly formed. The copper manufacturers, however, had for a period experienced some diffi­culty in disposing of all their output and successfully approached the government to obtain permission to export such surplus copper duty free. In addition they also pressed to be allowed to use copper for the manufacture of coinage, and a little later several brass concerns were founded. The demand thus created quickly solved the marketing problem of the smelters.

Meanwhile a copper smelter operating at Redbrook, Gloucestershire, had in the years 1685-8 discovered improved ways of smelting lead and copper ores by using coal instead of the charcoal which had hitherto been generally used. (10) This development so cheapened production of these metals that it enabled Britain to be competitive with European and Scandinavian producers for many years to come. This development had a most important bearing in the Swansea area, since it enabled one ton of copper ore to be smelted with three tons of coal. In addition, as we shall see later, the "free burning" Swansea coal was found to be eminently suited when mixed in varying proportions with the coking coal to reduce copper ores by what ultimately became known as the Welsh method. Besides this development it became more and more attractive to carry out the smelting in the Swansea district by shipping the ores from Cornwall, the return voyage being made with South Wales coal for operating the pumping engines, which by that time had been developed and were becoming more necessary as the mines became deeper and natural drainage less practicable.

Some of the Metalworking Processes developed in the Seventeenth Century Towards the end of the seventeenth century rolling mills came to be used instead of battery mills for flattening brass and copper ingots. For instance, there was a rolling mill at Dockwra's works in 1697,(15)and in the early years of the eighteenth century an extensive rolling mill was erected at Maidenhead on the Thames, while about the same time there was one at the Mitcham copper works, where sheets were prepared for coinage. But, of course, the process of battery continued to be used for hammering the round plates of metal into pots, pans and similar articles until about the end of the eighteenth century.


Fig. 6. Ruins of Mines Royal Works at Neath,   .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)



The other main process of the early metalworkers was wiredrawing. Prior to Elizabethan times wire was manufactured in a most primitive fashion. Men sat in swings opposite each other with a thin plate of brass attached to a girdle fastened round their waists, and then by stretching forth their feet against a stump they shot their bodies from it, closing with the plate again; and so on until it was stretched into wire. This method, however, was superseded when wire works were set up at Tintern, where power was obtained from water wheels. This was an essential part of the monopoly of the Mineral and Battery Society; so it was not until near the end of the seventeenth century, when its powers decayed, that other works were erected. A description of wire-drawing in one of the new works in 1697 is given by Houghton. (15) Plates of brass weighing about 70 lb. were cut into seven or eight strips, and these strips were elongated on the rolling mill to the desired thickness, the metal being occasionally annealed to keep it soft and pliable. The strips were next cut into many long threads, and were drawn through holes in iron to such sizes as were required. It is interesting to notice that this method of making wire by slitting from strips is still operated to a very limited extent.

Copper Smelting and Refining in the Eighteenth Century

Reverting for a moment to the cradle of Welsh copper smelting, Sir Humphrey Mackworth re-established this at Melincrythan near Neath in 1695 and promoted the Company of the Mine Adventurers in 1698. Subsequently in 1713 a new company was formed to manufacture articles made from copper, brass and lead, such as brass battery kettles and wire. The various mills were laid out in his grounds and linked by an ingenious system of watercourses to provide motive power.


Fig. 7. Ruins of Mines Roval Works at Neath   .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)



Smelting was also commenced on land adjacent to the Old Abbey at Neath, probably somewhat earlier than 1700, by the Mines Royal, who continued to operate the plant for about a hundred years (Figs. 6 and 7).

In 1717 Dr. John Lane and Mr. John Pollard built the Llangavelach Copper Works at Landore, Swansea, which was almost certainly the first copper smelter directly associated with the town. The works, shown in Figs. 8 and 9, consisted of a double house 80 ft. x 40 ft. x 20 ft., a double house 36 ft. x 40 ft. for calcining, another round house, twenty furnaces for smelting copper, lead and silver, a refinery house, accounting house, smith's forge, laboratory, test house, rod mill, blast house and two other refining houses.

In 1726 Dr. Lane and his associates became bankrupt with the breaking of the South Sea Bubble; but smelting continued, so that although only some forty men were employed the costs of production were some £40 less per ton of copper than at Hayle in Cornwall. About this time Neath had 100 workers, but by mid-century half of the copper and other ores were claimed to be smelted in Swansea.

As an example of the trade at this time, reference to the balance sheet on 31st December 1745 shows that on the assets are the following items:

5 copper teaches at Lisbon. 9 tons of metal at Dublin.

15 tons of battered copper to London. 78 oz. of silver in the works.

11 tons of battered copper at the works.

7 tons of fine copper in London at £1 12 per ton.

In 1794 the Mines Royal at Neath Abbey had 1277 tons of ore in stock, and 230 tons per week of ore were smelted to give 18 tons per week of copper. These operations were apparently carried out on 38 furnaces and used 315 tons of coal.  399

  Fig. 8. Langevelach Works, 1845  .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)

More Commercial Considerations

During the latter part of the eighteenth century the smelting companies had become so powerful that they were able to prevent new undertakings being formed and also to impose low prices on the Cornish miners for their ore and, on the other hand, high prices on consumers for their cake and other manu­factured copper. The discovery and opening up of several copper mines in Anglesey, however, led to a period of economic instability in the industry, and after bitter competition between the two mining centres, a scheme was put forward on 18th July 1786 by John Vivian (deputy governor) proposing the formation of the Cornish Metal Company. This was a buying and selling concern with power to unify the output of the mines. John Vivian showed after detailed investigation that the average difference between the standard manufacturing price and the market price was £14 19s. l0d. per ton. By transacting the business on the lines above at a differential of £3 15s. per ton a saving of some £47,215 per annum was claimed. Additional savings were also claimed by the elimination of internal competition among the eleven mines and their amalgamation to form six mines. More economic working enabled them to cope with foreign com­petition for export markets and the elimination of the merchant or middleman of this country.


Fig. 9.     Works at Glasmount (1850), after T. W. M. Turner  .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)


The main markets of that time which determined the price of copper were the Indian contract, the Birmingham market price and the London market. This particular association of the Cornish miners, however, was fairly short lived, and it seems to have died out about 1791. The South Wales smelters, however, continued to act as a combination, and during the early nineteenth century the Association of Copper Smelters of Swansea was organised, "on the one hand for the purpose of keeping the price of copper ore and regulus low and on the other hand for keeping up the selling price of tough and other kinds of copper." Meanwhile in Birmingham the Birmingham Mining and Copper Company was formed by consumers of copper as a co-operative venture to purchase mines and establish smelting works for supplying their own needs. The success of this venture was followed by the formation of other companies in Birmingham, notably the Rose initiated by J. Gibbins and the Crown and the Union, each of which operated smelters at various times in the Swansea area.

During this period another important personality should be mentioned, namely Thomas Williams, who floated two important companies to mine the copper ores in Anglesey and subsequently smelt them in Swansea.

Smelting Zinc, early Eighteenth Century

In 1738 William Champion took out a British patent for the invention of distilling metallic zinc from calamine by reduction with charcoal or coal. It is, however, reasonably certain that in India and China smelters had distilled metallic zinc some centuries earlier, but the knowledge had not permeated to central Europe, Scandinavia or Britain. Whether, therefore, Champion had heard of the art in Bristol from East Indian traders or had independently dis­covered the technique is not known. The zinc manufactory he established at Bristol had an output of 200 tons per annum and the quality of the metal produced appears to have been of a very high order, for the manufacturers of Birmingham and Wolverhampton, who used large quantities, declared that it was as good as any brought from the East Indies.

Strangely enough, the manufacture of metallic zinc at Bristol did not lead to an immediate change from making calamine brass, and it was not until 1781 that the direct alloying of copper and spelter was patented by James Emerson. It may be possible that up to that date the cost of metallic zinc, and hence alloying with copper to make brass, was far greater than via the calamine route. Even then the new method only came very slowly into use.

During this period brass and copper were cast in the form of billets and cakes in moulds made of stone brought from "St. Maloes" in France.'" The billets were hammered and then drawn into wire, while the cakes were flattened by hammers, usually driven by water power.

Some Metalworking Processes developed in the Eighteenth Century

At the beginning of the eighteenth century there were at least two brass­founders in Birmingham, Henry Carver and Walter Tippin, but by the second half of the century the process of casting was well known, and innumerable articles were manufactured in this way. The town was particularly adapted for this process, since in its vicinity there was a good supply of the special foundry sand necessary for casting.

In the last thirty years of the eighteenth century the new process of stamping came into use, and it has played a very large part in the brass and copper in­dustries ever since. It was the setting up of rolling mills that opened up the way for the extensive use of this process and in fact gave rise to the stamped brass trade. John Pickering, a gilt toymaker of London, was the first to see the possibility of stamping certain articles from sheet metal, and in 1769 he obtained a patent for a limited application of this new process.

This was only the first use of a very important process, the possibilities of which were recognised by Richard Ford of Birmingham when, a few months later, he applied the principle to the making of such articles as saucepans, warming pans, basins, ladles and plate covers. His method was to use "two implements called dyes placed under the hammer of a stamp or screw of a press, the one being concave, the other convex, which by the pressure of the hammer or screw forced into the dye, the shape or the form of the thing designed is accomplished." A few years later another Birmingham man, John Smith, applied the process to the manufacture of buttons and so revolutionised the trade, for up to this time button-making had been a tedious business, since the designs on them were engraved laboriously by hand. Great economy resulted from this invention, for the stamp gave the form to the button, and the press the decorative relief on it. Two other Birmingham manufacturers, John Marston, brassfounder, and Samuel Bellamy, engraver and diesinker, were associated with the new process, and in 1777 they obtained a patent for stamping hat and cloak pins and various ornaments for furniture. Finally, in 1779, William Bell invented a new way of "affixing impressions from dies upon gold, silver, or metals by means of rolling cylinders, on which such dies are engraved, which would be to the great benefit of trade, particularly to the buckle, button and toy manufactories." The new processes were widely applied and used for manu­facturing many household and other articles in copper and brass.

Another process which came into common use towards the end of the eighteenth century was cladding copper with silver, and this too was of parti­cular importance for the button, buckle and toy trades. The credit for the invention is usually given to Thomas Bolsover of Sheffield, who in 1743 showed how silver could be rolled on to copper in the manufacture of buttons, snuff-boxes and other light articles. This idea, however, was not a commercial success in his lifetime; but another Sheffield manufacturer, Joseph Hancock, took it up later on and employed it in the manufacture of candlesticks, teapots and similar articles. Perhaps allied to this new method, which came to be used extensively in the button, buckle and toy trades, was one which John Bootie patented in 1768 and which dealt with the tinning of copper and brass vessels such as ships' kettles and kitchen furniture.

Review of the Eighteenth Century

Thus we may summarise the close of the eighteenth century by saying that it saw the firm establishment of Swansea as the copper smelting centre of Great Britain, the bulk of the ore still being obtained from Cornwall and to a smaller extent from Anglesey. Meanwhile in Birmingham the metalworking skill of the people had been turned to the manufacture of small articles of brass and copper, and the town population at that time was strengthened by the arrival of numerous dissenters who brought new ideas, so that by the mid-century Birmingham was the most important centre in England of the brass and copper manufacturing trades. This business was guarded with considerable acumen, and in 1780 a severe blow was given to the Association of Brass Manufacturers by the Bir­mingham manufacturers establishing a co-operative concern to make brass for themselves. As indicated earlier, they also safeguarded their interests in copper smelting. So far as trade was concerned the home markets had been completely dominated, and copper and brass in all cast and wrought shapes were exported to Europe, India, Africa and America.

In copper alone the part played by John Vivian throughout the latter half of the century was very significant, although his firm did not reach its full prominence until the nineteenth century. About thirty years before his attempt to improve the position of the Cornish copper producers in 1786 he had been one of the original partners in a firm he set up in the year 1754 to smelt copper ores near his home in Cornwall. This was begun at Entral, near Camborne, but soon removed to Hayle, where coal was being brought in. The Cornish Copper Company's smelting operations with 4000-6000 tons of ore annually were carried on there until about 1818, giving the name Copperhouse to a small town, and Vivian remained the moving spirit even after the commencement of his Welsh works following the Cornish association of 1786-90.

Thus it was a man with many years of experience in copper smelting who finally threw all his weight into the enterprise in Wales with the certainty that the industry could best develop there, and not only founded a dynasty but brought British copper smelting to the threshold of its greatest period. Two other Cornish enterprises, those of Williams Foster & Co. and of Pascoe Grenfell, followed the example of Vivian, and the long competition began which was to stimulate the perfection of the Welsh process.

The Growth of Copper Smelting and Refining in Swansea, Nineteenth Century

This very healthy state of the industry as a whole in Great Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century led to further capital being invested in copper smelting and consequent further expansion in the copper trade. At this period many works were erected near those coal districts which it was supposed would best supply the proper fuel for smelting at a fair and reasonable charge, together with ensuring certainty and continuity of supply of the ores. This in practice meant one district only, namely the Swansea valley of the river Tawe. It was estimated about this time that three smelter works, each consisting of some fifty furnaces, might smelt and refine about 10,000 tons of copper per year.

The growth of the industry in the nineteenth century is probably best typified by selecting one works only, say Vivian & Sons. (12)  This company was formed by John Vivian, who formed the Cornish Mining Company in 1785. Subsequent to the dissolution of that company he moved to Swansea and became interested in the copper smelting works at Penclawdd. Mr. Vivian's son, John Henry, was sent to Germany, where he studied at Freiberg University and became the favourite pupil of the geologist Werner and of the chemists Breithaus and Lampadius. He also made an extended tour of Germany, Austria and Hungary, returned to Wales, and finally took over the management of the copper smelting works at Penclawdd in 1806.

It was soon clear that this establishment could not be a success, partly since it was based on a shallow estuary of the river Loughor and was remote from the centres of coal and commerce. Subsequently in 1809 freehold property was purchased on the river Tawe about a mile above the port of Swansea, and on this ground was erected the Hafod smelting works and mills. An approximate estimate of the labour force required for this venture was made in 1810. The number of furnaces, together with the number of men required to man each furnace, was as follows:

Number of Furnaces

7 calciners



6 ore furnaces



2 slag furnaces . .



3 metal furnaces



4 roasting furnaces



I refinery furnace



Manpower total




Of which there were: -

4 Chargemen, 1 Coalman, 1Metalman, 1 Slagman, 1 Limeman                , 2 Bricklayers, 1 Smith,  1 Carpenter, 1 Refiner, 1 Argent, making a total of 50 men.


On the more personal side and well illustrating the status of the individual and the exclusive nature of his vocation one may quote here an agreement drawn up on 26th July 1811 between William Howell and J. H. Vivian for the exclusive service of the former as a refiner or smelter of copper. This agreement was to be for a period of 21 years, and no disclosures of the art or mystery of smelting or refining of copper were to be made except to William Howell's own children. In return for this he was to receive a weekly salary of 30s. plus 2lb. of candles plus 1 wey of coal plus £10.10s in lieu of a house and garden.


Fig. 10. Hafod in 1840  .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)


The plan of the works was arranged so that the greatest economy in working could be ensured, furnaces being considerably larger than those formerly used and designed to obtain the greatest amount of work consistent with good and economic smelting. To meet the constantly increasing availability of copper ores from Cuba, Chile, Australia and all parts of the world, the smelting works were steadily increased until towards the end of the century they became the largest in Europe. In 1839 Mr. J. H. Vivian leased the ancient copper works and mills of the Governor and Company of Copper Miners in England at Margam and also the rolling mills at Upper and Lower Forrest, also powerful steam mills were constructed for the rolling of copper at Hafod. The works had already a vast number of chimney stacks, as can be seen from Fig. 10. In fact, the appearance of the works from outside is little different at the present day, over 100 years later (Fig. 11).


Fig. 11. Hafod in 1952

Yellow Metal

Up till about 1842 the firm had not embarked on any other trade apart from that of copper smelting and rolling, and an essential part of the rolled copper trade consisted of sheets for sheathing ships. But in 1832 Mr. George Frederick Muntz of Birmingham had taken out his well-known patent for the manufacture of brass consisting of 60% copper and 40% zinc, together with the adventitious presence of a small proportion of iron. The great merit of this alloy was that in addition to being easily hot rolled and capable of accommodating certain chance impurities introduced in the copper it had a relatively high corrosion resistance and was well suited to the sheathing of wooden ships. Because zinc had at that time become considerably cheaper in price this alloy obviously cost less than pure copper. Consequently it threatened to entirely supersede and take away the important consumption of copper for sheathing purposes. Although Mr. G. F. Muntz did, between 1837 and 1842, carry out these alloying and rolling operations in Swansea, yet he transferred them back to Birmingham by the latter date. Messrs. Vivian and Sons saw the dangers arising from the poten­tialities of this new alloy and after prolonged litigation took out a licence under the patent of G. F. Muntz and commenced the manufacture of the yellow metal at the Hafod works.

Fresh Fillip to Zinc Smelting

The immediate consequence of this development was that they became much more interested in the manufacture of zinc, and in 1844 this was commenced on a small scale in Swansea by adopting the method known as the English Process. The ores were reduced in large conventional shaped vertical retorts arranged round the inside of a circular furnace. These furnaces, however, produced only about 1 ton per week of zinc for an extravagant expenditure of fuel-six times as much per ton being used as in 1870. Because of this inefficiency Mr. J. H. Vivian's eldest son, Henry Hussey Vivian, after studying at Eton, Germany and Cambridge, took over the management of the smelter works. He was thus able to introduce the best type of furnaces as used in Silesia and Belgium, which resulted in a considerable fuel economy. The Old Forest copper works, which in those days still maintained the circular arrangement of copper furnaces (Fig. 12), were purchased and converted into a zinc smelter.

Following these developments and in about 1868 some thirty German workers under Mr. Daehne, their German manager, were introduced to Hafod Works to produce zinc, and following further improvements in their zinc smelting practice the works were able to compete with the best Continental works, despite the higher wages then current in Great Britain.

Sidelines on Copper Smelting

Parallel with this development in the industry, copper ores were being received in this country containing gold and silver, and as a consequence in 1848 Mr. Hussey Vivian undertook to extract silver from copper under the patents of Messrs. Augustine by chlorination and of Mr. Ziervogel by sulphating and mixing with water. Up to that time only small quantities of silver had been extracted from copper by the antiquated and costly process of liquation with lead, referred to earlier in this article. The business of extracting silver soon became very important, as large quantities of argentiferous regulus were im­ported from the west coast of South America, because of the ready market open to them by these new facilities at the Hafod works. For this purpose another German, B. G. Herrmann, was engaged from Freiberg. Subsequently, however, the method of electrodeposition largely superseded the processes which were introduced in 1845, but mention of these in some detail is made later. The extraction of gold from copper was first commenced in 1850 by the methods invented by Professor Plattner of Freiberg, who incidentally was the man who introduced blowpipe assay methods into analytical chemistry.

 Fig. 12. Old Forest copper works  .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)

 By this time Swansea had become responsible for smelting about a quarter of the copper ores of the world, and owing to the high sulphur content of such ores the surrounding town and countryside were continually subjected to a sulphurous fume, which was known as "copper smoke," and was so heavily laden with sulphurous and sulphuric acid that all vegetation on the White Rock and Kilvay Hills was completely burnt up. These gaseous products together with the zinc oxide fume from the distillation furnaces yielded a copious white fume which pervaded the whole district. Frequent attempts were consequently made at the Hafod works by J. H. Vivian and his successors to ameliorate this pollution of the atmosphere. At various times he was assisted by his friend, Sir Humphry Davy, and Michael Faraday. These initial experiments were begun in 1812 and extended at that time over some ten years, but no practical success was achieved in avoiding the evolution of sulphurous acid gases from the open reverberatory furnaces. One interesting sidelight from this personal association was that branches of the Royal Institution in London were formed in Swansea and also at Truro in Cornwall. Although these branches do not operate as such today, the society remains and the buildings are still intact and used as a library and museum. No effort was wanting, no expense spared; but alas, success was not to crown their efforts, as may be gathered from the following doggerel, which was applicable not only to the Hafod, but also to the neighbouring copper works:

"It came to pass, in days of yore,

The devil chanced upon Landore.

Quoth he-'By all this fume and stink,

I can't be far from home, I think.'"

This problem was obviously ever present in the minds of the management at Vivians', and in 1864 a further attempt was made to contain these gases and Mr. Gestenhoefer invented a novel type of furnace for roasting the sulphide material. In this the crushed ore and regulus fell through a vertical furnace, the heat being maintained by the self-combustion of the ore, no more air being admitted to the furnace than was necessary to ensure such combustion. This enabled the gases to be controlled, and sulphuric acid chambers were erected and the process eventually applied to all suitable sulphides. It was found, however, that some of the ores or sulphides could not generate sufficient heat to maintain combustion, because they were either too poor in sulphide or too fusible, and consequently this method was only suitable for about half of the roasting operations at the Hafod works.

 Fig. 13. Location of copper smelters, 1771

 Fig. 14. Location of copper smelters, 1822   .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)

 Fig. 15. Location of copper smelters, 1875

 The problem then arose of disposing and utilising the sulphuric acid thus obtained. One method was to take the copper scale and other copper scrap and manufacture copper sulphate, which was used as a liquid spray to inhibit diseases of the vine and other plants. A subsequent outlet for sulphuric acid was found in the treating of phosphate rock to make superphosphate, which was a valuable fertiliser. Large quantities of this were made until quite recent times and shipped to various parts of South Wales and Ireland. Further ramifications of the Vivian concern which were developed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century consisted of the purchase of coal mines to ensure the adequate supply of coal for the smelting of copper ores and also the purchase of additional works to extract silver and lead from complex silver-lead ores.

In the 1850's adjacent to the Hafod works of Vivians' was the Morfa works of Williams, which at that time was the largest in the world. They employed some 620 workers with 120 furnaces for copper and zinc. In this area of South Wales it has been estimated that some 600 furnaces existed, employing 4000 people. An indication of the spread and location of many of these works is given in Figs. 13-15. By this period Bristol had ceased to be an important smelting centre for copper or zinc, and only small works continued at St. Helens, Amlwch and in north Staffordshire.

The Welsh Process of Copper Smelting

With the development of chemistry into a science the analysis and smelting of copper ores through the nineteenth century slowly became more and more objective and efficient. A flowsheet of the fundamentals of the method about that time is given in Fig. 16.

In 1856 Percy's Metallurgy' was published, which gives a very good account of the state of the art in those days.

The copper ores which were received in the various docks in Swansea were sold by auction, a process which had long been known as ticketing. The essence of this was to unload the ores and for the various chemists associated with the different works to carry out their own sampling and analysis. Upon the outcome of their findings bids were made for the parcels of ore on a certain day, and the highest bidder usually took the lot. A summary of such ticketings is given in Fig. 17. The practice had begun in Cornwall about 1728, following some glaring examples of sharp dealing. The four companies of that time had increased to six by 1750 and thirteen by 1778, so that there were numerous bidders at the dinners which were held for the purpose at monthly or fortnightly intervals. The ticketings continued in Cornwall, and in Swansea later, through the nineteenth century. By 1839 the value of the ores being purchased by the Welsh smelters was nearly £l½  million for the year according to the records of W. H. Christoe & Sons, Truro, who were agents there. The first sale of copper ores in Swansea occurred in 1804, and as a result of the arrangement of this market in copper ores Swansea did for a period determine the world price of these ores. The ores were usually then transferred to barges and sailed up the river Tawe for unloading at the various private wharves of the smelters. When the ores were transferred to the various works the rocks were spalled into pieces by hammering, and sorted by girls who carefully separated the ore from the gangue. At Hafod an elaborate rail track system was used to transfer the ores to the appropriate furnaces. The coking and non-coking coals which were available in the Swansea valley were mixed in the proportion of one part of coking to two parts of free-burning. The furnaces in use then consisted in essence of reverbatory types but of differing fire grate to working hearth ratios. Thus the calciner was a reverbatory furnace taking 7 tons of ore at a time with a curtain arch which permitted the entry of air for calcination and a fire grate to hearth area ratio of 1 : 11. On the other hand, the melting furnaces for the regulus had a bigger grate to hearth area ratio of the order of 1 : 4 and also a 20 in. bed of sand on which the matte was worked. The detailed operations in 1848 consisted of the following stages:

  1. Calcination was carried out in the calcining furnaces referred to, and was virtually a roasting operation. About 3-4 tons of ore was charged and heated for 12-24 hours, care being taken to avoid clotting or sintering the mass, and on completion of the process the material was granulated by quenching in water. By this operation an ore containing initially 12% copper, 30 iron, 31 Y. sulphur and 24% silica was reduced in sulphur content to 16%, the total amount of the other constituents remaining the same.
  2. Calcined ore was then transferred to another furnace and melted with metal slag obtained from the fourth operation, to give a regulus or coarse metal. This contained approximately 35% copper together with approximately 35 % iron and 30 % sulphur. There was also a certain amount of ore furnace slag produced as a residue, which was usually dumped on a slag bank, since it contained only 0.4-0-5% residual copper.
  3. A further calcination of the regulus from operation 2 was carried out with free access of air for a period of 24 hours, in the course of which a further considerable quantity of sulphur was evolved and the copper and iron content increased slightly by 1-2%, the sulphur being reduced from about 30 % to 15 % and the oxygen content being raised to about 1 1 %.
  4. This partially oxidised coarse metal was remelted with further additions of oxide in the form of copper oxides, residues and carbonate ores and produced a blue matte or white metal containing 75 % copper and 21 % sulphur, and was essentially a copper sulphide. The oxygen which was originally present in the charge was used to eliminate iron sulphide in the slag. The slag obtained from this operation analysed approximately 34% silica, 56 ferrous oxide and 5-7 % mixed oxides. The white metal from this operation was cast into the form of pigs.
  5. The regulus pigs were charged into a melting furnace and very slowly heated with free access of oxygen so that the operation of melting took 6-8 hours. This operation resulted in the formation of blister copper, which analysed 98-4% copper, 0-7% iron, 0-3% nickel, cobalt and manganese, 0-4% tin and arsenic and 0.2% sulphur. The slag produced was essentially siliceous containing various metallic oxides, the approximate analysis being 47-5y, silica, 17% cupric oxide, 2 % copper, 28% ferrous oxide and 3 % alumina. This slag was then recycled to the metal furnace for operation 3.
  6. The final operation was refining alone, resulting in a marketable copper and a refinery slag which also was returned to operation 3. In these refinery furnaces 6-8 tons of blister copper were melted and exposed for 15 hours to oxidation, the slag was skimmed and dry copper made. At this stage the copper contained approximately 9 % of cuprous oxide, and the treatment had resulted in the elimination of most of the impurities such as tin, iron, etc. The charge was then covered with anthracite or free-burning coal, and a thick birch or oak pole-the greener the better-was placed under the surface of the molten metal. The poling operation, as it was termed, resulted in the evolution of considerable steam and free hydrogen, which eliminated the bulk of the oxygen from the molten metal. The satisfactory completion of these two operations of oxidation with air and reduction by poling was judged by the appearance of the surface "set" of small button samples which were cast in chill iron moulds. A further test of malleability and ductility was given by hammering the button flat into a small pancake shape and bending to fracture across a diameter.

In essence the formation of a depression in the surface of the sample or "sink" indicated under-poling, i.e. excess oxygen, while the formation of a ridge or "spewing" indicated the presence of too much gas, chiefly hydrogen, which was known as over-poled. A satisfactory copper having good malleability usually had a flat, wrinkled surface top, could be bent double after hammering and had a silky fracture. Copper in this condition was known as tough pitch. As soon as this state of affairs had been achieved in the bath the metal was quickly ladled by hand, 30lb at a time, into suitable moulds for solidification as cake, billet or strip. Alternatively, if it was required for brass manufacture it was granulated in water to give feathered shot which was used by the makers of calamine brass. For this latter operation, apparently over-poled copper was preferred. This is understandable in that it yielded copper having a much greater surface area when granulated; also, since the oxygen content was low, it resulted in less loss of zinc and copper by oxidation.


Fig. 18. Vivians' Hafod Works, 1900  .  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)


Brass manufacturers, in addition to demanding this type of product for the manufacture of calamine brass, also required the purest type of copper for the manufacture of brass by alloying. Whereas in the earlier years the Cornish ores solely were used and yielded a fairly pure type of copper, in the nineteenth century ores from all over the world introduced various impurities which made the working of brass for certain purposes difficult. In order to obtain the high quality of copper, therefore, the refiners had to indulge in various techniques for selecting the best refining type of copper, and if a satisfactory purity was not obtained on the first refining operation much of the metal was returned to the furnace for an additional oxidation and reduction by poling. It is interesting to note that at this time arsenic was rarely, if ever, completely eliminated, and considerable amounts are discernible in much of the copper manufactured during this period. It is also interesting to note that locomotive copper firebox plates gave good service with this adventitious presence of arsenic, and in subsequent years, when much purer copper was available, an intentional addition of arsenic was found necessary to ensure an adequate service life where hot toughness and scale resistance were required. Of the other major impurities, antimony could be eliminated by the selection procedure; tin spread into the bottom half of the charge; while nickel and cobalt remained associated with the copper.

Various proposals were made to reduce the number of operations, but no outstanding progress was made until the discovery of more effective methods of concentrating the ores, the use of large reverbatory furnaces, and the blowing of air through copper matte in Bessemer converters radically altered the funda­mentals of the Welsh process.

Following this period in the development of copper smelting, a small works which it was estimated had outputs of 1,100 tons per annum of fine copper run on 10% copper ores could operate satisfactorily with six calcining furnaces and twelve melting furnaces at a cost of £10,000 and a working capital of £35,000. It was reliably estimated that 1 ton of copper could be obtained from 18 tons of coal used, but it was also observed in those days that it is one thing to know how to make iron and copper and it is another to know how to sell metals.

 Fig. 19. Hafod and Upper Bank zinc smelter, 1921    (Figures not included for copyright reasons)


By 1900 many of the small copper smelting firms had closed down and passed out of existence but the well-established ones continued, and Figs. 18 and 19 show Vivians' in 1900 and in 1921 respectively. 1n the latter photograph the foreground shows the zinc smelter still in operation, while on top of the slag dump across the river can be seen the disused chambers of the sulphuric acid made from the Gestenhoefer furnaces. Fig. 20 shows the remains of the White Rock works, which had been largely engaged in extracting precious metals from the slimes remaining after electrolytic purification of copper and of other precious metal residues. The ruins of the original Middle Bank smelting works are shown in Fig. 21.

Fig. 20. Ruins of White Rock Works, 1952  (Figures not included for copyright reasons)



It may be of some interest to record at this stage the maritime aspect of this industry which had for so long been based on the port of Swansea.

In the last half of the century the ships engaged in carrying ore consisted of sailing vessels which were gradually superseded by steam ships. The foreign ores were in the early days brought in principally from Cuba, Venezuela, Spain, Portugal and other parts of the Atlantic seaboard, in sailing ships which were collectively known as "Copper Ore Men."

Fig. 21. Ruins of original Middle Bank smelting works, 1952   (Figures not included for copyright reasons)


Later the Chilean, Bolivian and Peruvian mines were developed, and this meant that ships carried the ore round the Horn on homeward passage, hence the term "Cape Horners."  The vessels were barques or ships of approximately 800 tons with a variation either way of about 100 tons. The outward cargoes would consist of coal and stores for the mines and the homeward cargoes of ores and latterly from Chile of copper metal. These vessels were locally owned, principally by Baths and Richardsons; those owned by Baths were named according to the Greek alphabet, Alpha, Beta, Kappa, etc.

The steamers gradually superseded the sailing vessels, and were in operation long before 1900. They gradually developed into regular traders operating under the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, the Lampert, Holt and Nautilus lines. These traders were of the order of 3000-4000 tons, and they would bring in part cargoes of ore of say 1500 tons and then proceed to Liverpool with the balance of general cargo. These vessels did not round the Horn but came through the Magellan Straits and usually made the passage from Chile to Swansea in about six weeks. Later, of course, with the opening of the Panama Canal this long trip was avoided.

Although these vessels constituted the main source of supply of ores, there was in addition a considerable coastal trade with much smaller vessels of the order of 200-250 tons. These were able to proceed upriver on the spring tides and unload direct at the wharves of the various smelting works. These small steamers, schooners and barges brought refractories from Flintshire, with Laxey blende for the spelter works, pyrites and burnt ore, and ores from Cornwall, Anglesey and Ireland.

To illustrate the wide ramifications of the copper ore trade even as recently as A.D. 1900, a list is given below of some typical cargoes of ores and copper bars and cake.

Countries from which ores were imported 1901

Approx. Copper Content (%)




Per steamer discharging at Port of Wales at King'sDock into barges.

Barnett's carbonate ore. .


Copinpo sulphide ore .. .


Poderosa carbonate ore


Watson's Atacamite ore




Boleo copper bars


Boleo copper matte




Per steamer discharging in North Dock port direct to barges passed into yard.

Cuprous pyrites




Monte Romero cuprous pyrites


Mason and Barry's precipitate




Pomaron cuprous pyrites


Setubalcopper concentrates




Per steamer into barge at King's Dock.

Tilt Cove ore (pyritic) . .




 Occasional, as bulk of these cargoes were taken by Cape J Copper Co.

Cape ores and Regulus


Namaqualand ores and Regulus




Frequent consignments of 100 tons or so at North Dock.

M.T.D. Glance ore, "Messina"




Carn Brea-Tincroft


These small mines were linked to Williams, Foster & Co. and their output was sent a few times yearly by coasting steamer direct to Morfa Quay.

Wheal Kitty mines




Frequent schooners of 150-200 tons which would go up to Morfa Quay for discharging

Cuprous pyrites




Cuprous pyrites




Frequent consignments of 100 tons or so per coasters from London discharging in North Dock to barges.


Paramatta matte and Concentrate.


Whimwell ore . .




New York, U.S.A.

Anaconda Copper Co. pig copper


T.C.C. pig copper


Lake Superior cake copper


"Lota" bar copper


"Vienna" bar copper


Braden bar copper


Turkish copper ("bottoms")


Rough-bowl-shaped-full or half 4-5 cwt.

East Africa

Katanga copper

Copper Ore Wharves

Three main wharves were established for this trade, all situated in North Dock at Swansea, and were managed by Henry Bath & Sons, known as Bath's Yard, or Trelandwr Wharves, Richardson & Co.'s Cobre Yard, and Thomas Elford (late Jose Ford & Co. and eventually Vivians'), known as North Dock Wharf.

The North Dock was originally made by diverting the river Tawe through the "New Cut," thus making the land on which these wharves stood an island, which at one time was often referred to locally as the richest island in the world because of the valuable stocks of ores and metals contained in these yards.

Baths had many years ago been empowered by special Act of Parliament to issue warrants for metals sent to their wharves for sampling, assaying and sale under Metal Exchange conditions. The local smelters often sent considerable quantities of their copper to yards for sale in this way, and it was not unusual for them to repurchase some of their own brand of copper many months later for use in their own works. Baths closed their Swansea yards about 1930, but they still retained wharves at Liverpool.

Handling Cargoes and Consignments

In the early days of the copper ore trade it seems probable that there were few, if any, contracts between the smelters and the foreign mines, and firms such as Henry Bath became intermediaries between mine owners and local smelters. At these wharves the ores were sampled and assayed and ultimately sold. The material bought would be reweighed and transferred by the smelters to their river barges in the North Dock and conveyed upriver to the Morfa and Hafod quays.

With the making of contracts, shipments tended to increase in size, and cargoes were mostly weighed on the ship's deck and tipped direct into barges for conveyance to the works, only a percentage of the cargo-about 5-10%-being landed at the yard for sampling purposes. The cargoes of Boleo and bar copper were always dealt with in this way. By about 1900 the bulk of the Chilean ores were contracted by weighing and sampling to buyers' works and taken direct into barges or railway wagons for delivery, but the cargoes of Norwegian and Spanish pyrites were dealt with in the North Dock in the old way by weighing on deck and sampling in the yards.

Birmingham-Copper and Brass in the Nineteenth Century

While all this very considerable development in the copper and zinc smelting industry had been going on in Swansea during this period, Birmingham had also kept pace with the expanding demands which had arisen from the Industrial Revolution and also from various scientific discoveries. Referring again in some detail to the discovery of yellow metal, G. F. Muntz patented this alloy of 60 copper, 40% zinc in 1832. It was originally devised for the sheathing of wooden ships, as it was very resistant to the corrosive action of sea-water. In addition it was an alloy which could be readily made into sheet form by hot rolling. The alloy was first manufactured in brass rolling mills in Water Street, Birmingham, but in 1837 the business was transferred to Swansea, only to return to Birming­ham in 1842.

As evidence of the importance with which the development of this business was regarded in those days it is interesting to note that the Prince Consort made a special visit to Muntz's works in 1843. The Illustrated London News reported: "His Royal Highness proceeded to the Messrs. Muntz's rolling mills in Water Street, where he was received by Mr. Muntz, who conducted the Prince through the different departments of the mill, where the various operations of manu­facturing the patent yellow metal were being carried on. He was first shown the metal in its liquid state, taken from the furnace and cast in bars or pigs; next the process of heating the solid mass, which, while in this state, was sub­jected to the operation of powerful rollers, turned by not less powerful steam machinery. [The latter operation is shown in Fig. 22.] The flattened bar, after being taken from the rolls, was again subjected to the heat of the furnace, and once more passed under the rollers; and in this way, by four operations, the shapeless mass was converted into a fine sheet of metal, cut by circular shears into the required length, and prepared for coating the wooden walls of old England, for which it is found peculiarly fitted, and is fast superseding, in the British navy and our mercantile marine, the more expensive process of copper sheathing."

By the time iron steamships had replaced the wooden sailing ships it had been found that Muntz metal was very suitable for coating wooden piles of piers to protect them from the ravages of the teredos parasite, especially in tropical and semi-tropical localities. At this time also a good trade was developing with India and other eastern countries in the supply of Muntz metal sheets for working up into cooking and other utensils and ornamental work. Later locomotive tubes of Muntz metal came into favour.

In 1864 James Elkington, the English silver-plater, who had a works in Bir­mingham, invented a commercial electrolytic method of refining crude copper, and in 1869 he founded the first electrodeposition plant using this process, at Pembrey in South Wales. The English patent was dated 1865, but the American patent was taken out considerably later. The process possessed great interest in that in addition to refining copper it was the first to utilise current from the dynamo. One of the later British specifications was worded as follows:

"This invention has for its object improvements in the manufacture of copper and in separating other metals therefrom.

"For this purpose I smelt the copper ore so far as to obtain an impure metal therefrom, which I then cast into plates, and by means of electricity I dissolve these plates and deposit the pure copper on to other plates. The other metals with which the copper was combined fall for the most part to the bottom of the vessel in which I operate. This process in its general outline as above stated is not new, for it has before been patented and used by me.

"My present invention consists in improvements in the method of conduct­ing this process. I prefer to employ copper ores which contain sufficient silver materially to injure to copper if smelted in the ordinary way, and which, consequently, would usually be submitted to a process for extracting the silver before they are smelted. In such ores, frequently, the quantity of silver is not such as to pay for the cost of extraction, but the process has, neverthe­less, been necessary when copper of high quality is required to prevent injury to the copper. These ores are particularly suitable for my use, as the silver they contain, which does not raise their price in the market, is recovered by me without any additional cost."

Excepting the form of the decomposing vessels, which was a little impractical, and the method of arranging the electrodes, which was lacking in simplicity, this process was one which exhibited all the essential features of the modern methods of copper refining, and it must be admitted that Elkington well under­stood how at once to turn to his advantage the discoveries in electro-technology.

Fig. 22.   Visit of Prince Consort to G. F. Muntz Ltd. (not shown) 

The works at Pembrey continued in operation for many years, due to the remarkable fact that both the Elkington process and the apparatus he used were well conceived, and indeed it transpired that these installations could be kept technically abreast of later developments. It was not until towards the last twenty years of the century that the perfection of the dynamo made possible the generation of cheap current. This was followed by the carbon filament lamp and electric lighting, which ultimately led to an enormous demand for pure copper, and the great importance of the Elkington invention was fully realised. Electrolytic refineries were subsequently established by Vivian and Co. at Swansea, T. Bolton & Sons at Oakmoor, Williams Foster at Swansea, W. A. Hill at Chester, and the English Electro-Metallurgical Co. at Hunslet, as well as Elliott's Metal Co. of Selly Oak, near Birmingham, who also subsequently acquired the Pernbrey Works of Elkington, Mason & Co.

Review of Copper and Brass in the Nineteenth Century

The close of the nineteenth century saw the hastening of the decline of the copper smelting industry in Swansea, but zinc smelting was still a profitable and thriving operation. Before closing we must review the changes which had been brought about during that century.

The start of the century saw the ready availability of capital coupled with the certainty that the Swansea valley was the ideal location in Britain for copper smelting, while Birmingham had the craftworkers and techniques to work up the metal into all manner of consumer goods.

Many firms and combines therefore dabbled in copper smelting through these years in the Swansea area, but in general three works which were established early on became pre-eminent and, indeed, survived all others. They were Williams Foster, Pascoe Grenfell and H. Vivian & Sons.

In techniques the efficiency of the copper smelting operation was eventually increased and the Welsh process was perfected, but the only radical alterations to the art were affected by two inventions, the development of yellow metal by G. F. Muntz and the application of electrolysis to the refining of copper. The demand for copper, however, grew considerably, in particular by the develop­ment of steam locomotives, for which firebox plates were universally used, and various other engineering and domestic requirements, and also the birth and rapid expansion of the use of electricity, for which pure copper was the only practical conductor.

In the secondary and tertiary industries, namely the manufacture of wrought metal consumer goods, the century saw in Birmingham the formation and steady growth of many non-ferrous metal firms, who were responsible for the final refining and alloying of copper into suitable cast forms for hot or cold working by rolling into sheet and strip and drawing into wire and tube. Extru­sion was one fundamental new wrought process, introduced by Alexander Dick towards the end of the century. It was found particularly suitable for the manufacture of brass sections, rods and tubes and was also considerably developed in Birmingham. The numerous smaller manufacturers of copper, brass and plated articles also continued to expand and exploit the techniques so largely put into production in the Birmingham area such as sandcasting, coining, drop-stamping, rolled bimetal plate, electroplating, etc.

But whereas Birmingham continued in the twentieth century to expand its production of copper and brass in the sandcast and wrought form, Swansea slowly went the way of Cornwall in the previous century. The Associated Smelters of Swansea, by regulating the prices quoted for ores on "ticketings" and selling the refined copper at a high price, exploited the Chilean mine owners. The latter naturally sought a remedy and commenced smelting operations at the mines, so that between 1855 and 1885 the proportion of copper exported from Chile as blister bar rose from 40 % to 95 % of the total copper content of exported material. This enabled Continental consumers to draw their copper supplies direct instead of purchasing refined copper from Swansea under somewhat arbitrary conditions. Furthermore the foreign ores became less concentrated and more remote, and consequently shipping costs rose, smelting was not modernised in any way, and the trade quickly died away until the beginning of the Great War. The last smelting operation was conducted at the Williams Foster and Vivian works in 1920-1 and at Rio Tinto Works, Port Talbot, in 1938. How truly was it written in 1869: "The days of the copper trade are numbered, and Swansea has seen its grand climacteric." But five million tons of slag banks still scar the Valley, and as they burn out for the last time, besides acting as the "quarries" for heavy ballast, hard core and filling, they become the haunts of the lowlier weeds, grasses, stunted silver birches and seagulls, sparrows and finches. 


The author wishes to acknowledge the help received from Messrs. W. H. Grenfell and Haydn Charles of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd., Metals Division, with regard to the text and illustrations, and Mr. T. Burchell of Murex Limited for helpful criticism and advice in the preparation of this note.

Figs. 1-4 are reproduced from the H. C. Hoover and L. H. Hoover translation of the first Latin edition of De Re Metallica, by Georgius Agricola (1556), by kind permission of Mr. Herbert Hoover.

Fig. 5, from English Brass and Copper to 1800, by Henry Hamilton, is included by courtesy of Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd.

Figs. 8-10 and 12 are by kind permission of Henry Sotheran Ltd. from The Smelting of Copper in the Swansea District, by Col. Grant Francis (second edition, 1881).

Fig. 17 has been reproduced from records by kind permission of W. H. Christoe & Sons (Assayers), Truro.

Fig. 22 is by courtesy of the picture Post Library.


  1. Copper Smelting in South Wales (Col. G. Grant Francis).

  2. The English Brass and Copper Industries to 1800 (H. Hamilton).

  3. Metallurgy (John Percy).

  4. Proc. Roy. Soc. (H. Vivian).

  5. De Re Metallica (Agricola, 1556).

  6. Thesis, University of Wales (unpublished) (R. O. Roberts).

  7. Fodinoe Regalis (Pettus, London, 1670).

  8. Thesis, University of Wales, 1946 (unpublished) (C. D. J. Trott).

  9. De la Pirotechina (Biringuccio, Venice, 1540).

  10. Trans. Bristol and Gloucester Soc., 63, 1946 (Rhys Jenkins).

  11. Collections, No. 258, 9th July 1697 (Houghton).

  12. Mineralogia Cornubiensis (W. Pryce, 1778).

  13. Private Correspondence (Vivian Papers, Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd.).

  14. Victoria County History (Somerset, p. 390).

  15. A Collection of Letters for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade (J. Houghton, 1681-1703).