Sandwiched between the centre of Swansea and the city’s Liberty sports stadium is a little haven of greenery. A couple of centuries ago it was more hive than haven, and more smoke and industry than green space. It’s the former site of the White Rock Copper Works, where, says Chris Evans, “you’ll find one of the few visible remains of an aspect of early British industrialisation. The copper and brass industries really emerge in the late 17th century, a hundred years or so before what we conventionally think of as the Industrial Revolution in Britain.”
The rise of the copper industry in Swansea was an astonishingly rapid one. “Britain moved from being on the absolute margins of this industrial sector in a European perspective to being its most dynamic centre within the space of just a generation,” notes Evans, and it was all about Swansea. “Wales as a whole by 1820 accounted for over 50 per cent of the world output of smelted copper, and the Swansea district accounted for pretty much all of that.”
Why Swansea? It was all about geography and geology, and specifically about the development of coal power, over wood fuel, to smelt the copper ore. Coal-smelting technology was in its infancy in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the process demanded coal and ore in the ratio of three to one. It therefore made sense for the smelting process to be nearer the coal than the ore.
There was a lot of coal in the Swansea–Neath district, and there was a lot of copper ore in Cornwall. In between the two was open sea, which happily afforded the easiest way of transporting goods at the time. So the copper was shipped from the Cornish mines to Swansea, the coal was brought from nearby pits, and the smelting furnaces were set up along the banks of the river Tawe, in the most accessible site to receive both products.
From the 1770s through to the mid 19th century, Swansea was ‘Copperopolis’. It went from being a small seaside town with a little porcelain production to a sprawling centre of industry, where the farmers lodged court cases against the owners of the works for ruining their once-fertile soil. As geography was the key factor in deciding the location of smelting furnaces, all the copper works were hemmed into a tightly confined area. You could have walked across this globally important industrial area in a day, reckons Evans, and you can do the same now, though you have to use your imagination a little to conjure up what was once there.
“Wales as a whole by 1820 accounted for over 50 per cent of the world output of smelted copper”
You should start your visit at Swansea’s newly built Waterfront Museum on the quayside. Pop in for a look around and you can get a bit of background on the Industrial Revolution in Wales. While you’re in the museum, see if you can spot a print of the painting of the White Rock Copper Works by Henri Gastineau (c.1830), which gives you a taste of the what the landscape you’re about to stroll into once looked like. Then set off alongside the river, heading north towards the city; cross over at the Sail Bridge and walk a little way along the side of the Tawe on cycle route 43. It’s a pleasant woody stroll that will shortly take you to the remains of the White Rock works.
Now be warned: although the place has been designated an Industrial Heritage Park by Swansea Council, there is precious little in the way of signage or interpretation boards. If you get to the car park by the roundabout with the Liberty Stadium looming up in front of you, turn around – you’ve just missed it.
Evans explains what you can see: “There are the ruined wharves, which pretty much date back to the foundation of the works, and there are old abandoned kilns and storage works. There’s also a massive ramp that used to carry the slag up to Kilvey Hill. If you gaze up Kilvey Hill and run your eye across the contours, you can see patches of slag where it’s still recovering from the very toxic nature of copper smelting.”
The works closed in 1929 because by then it was more economic to smelt the ore where it was mined, but the waste tips were not cleared away until 1967. Now it is a pleasant place for a historical mooch around – grassy, quiet and with a view down the Tawe. Perhaps the most atmospheric site is the old dock on the river, where it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the copper barges bringing in the ore and shipping away the finished copper products.
You might be wondering what the finished copper was used for. It was ubiquitous in a domestic context in Britain, in terms of pots and pans and suchlike, but it also had a darker side. “You could buy human beings with copper,’ says Evans. “Copper and brass articles were important as trade goods on the Guinea coast of Africa, either in the form of copper rods, wire or ingots, or as ready-made semi-decorative items, such as manillas (bracelets), that eventually acted as an African currency.”
The White Rock works were started by a Bristol company in 1737, and the leading figure was Thomas Coster, an MP, a mine adventurer, and a dealer in copper and brass. Bristol was, at the time, the main focus of copper production in the country (some evidence remains along the banks of the Avon in east Bristol), but it was also Britain’s premier slaving port.
The Coster family were partners in the 1730s with some of the leading slaving houses in Bristol, and they were interested in expanding their production of copper because it was such an important commodity in the slave trade. The White Rock works, from the very outset, were fully integrated into this. Says Evans, ‘The first-known print of the works, from 1744, clearly identifies one of the structures as the Manilla House, where these objects for the slave trade were produced or stored. It takes Welsh industrialisation from a parochial setting into a hemispheric one.’
White Rock was but one of the smelting works along the Tawe, and you can see further evidence of the industry by continuing a little further north along the river, crossing over just before the stadium and doubling back to the Hafod Copper Works buildings. At the moment, all these remains of Swansea’s industrial past are perhaps a little unloved, but that’s all the more reason to pay them a visit and spread the word about this early stage in Britain’s industrial history.
Nominated by Chris Evans, professor of history, University of Glamorgan
White Rocks Copper Works
National Waterfront Museum, Oystermouth Road, Maritime Quarter, Swansea SA1 3RD
This is an extract from the BBC History Magazine book 100 Places that made Britain, by David Musgrove, published on 2 June 2011.