The City of Swansea was known as 'Copperopolis' in the 18th and 19th centuries and is one of the earliest industrial centres of Wales.
Swansea has always been renowned for its history of copper-smelting. By 1820, 90% of all the copper-smelting capacity of Britain was based within twenty miles of the city and it was widely regarded as the world centre for copper-ore smelting and metal manufacturing.
Bristol industrialists started the copper and brass industry in Swansea in 1717 and many domestic vessels were manufactured in the earlier 18 water-powered mills around Bristol. Unlike iron, copper was an easily workable metal that could be readily formed into cooking and industrial vessels, and its popularity rocketed throughout the world.
The Bristol-financed 'White Rock' copperworks of 1737 was excavated by Time Team, which included the revolutionary 'Great Workhouse', with its long single row of 'reverbatory' furnaces revealing fascinating details about the industrialism of this operation. These very furnaces would have led to the manufactured pots and pans which were then distributed from warehouses in London as far as Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
The early copper and brass smelting industry moved to Swansea because it was the nearest large coalfield to the copper-mining areas of Cornwall and Devon. No less than four tonnes of coal were needed to smelt every tonne of copper-ore, so it was naturally deemed uneconomical to build copper-smelters on the ore-field.
For incoming cargo, the deepest three tidal miles of the River Tawe could carry sailing-ships up to the 13 main smelting works built alongside the river. As a bonus, the return cargo to the West Country was coal that could be used to fuel the powerful steam-engines pumping water out of the mines and winding-ore.
The earlier copper-smelting centre of Bristol was also the first port of the African slave trade, and initially a proportion of Swansea-processed copper, that was used to produce copper bracelet-like 'manillas', and the strips of exchange metal known as 'guinea-rods'.
A larger proportion of large-scale industrial vessels were produced for the slave-operated sugar-refining mills and rum distilleries of the West Indies
As the eighteenth-century progressed, the pace of the world's first large-scale Industrial Revolution in Britain quickened and the imperial and commercial might of Britain produced a world-wide trade in copper. This was particularly true of India, when in 1731, the British East India Company began to export copper to India. Between 1774 and 1791, on average, no less than 1,588 tons per annum were exported to the Far East
In tropical waters, wooden-hulled sailing ships were extremely vulnerable to potentially terminal damage from wood-boring worms. In the early 1760s the first ship was clad with copper plates, and by the 1780s the whole of the British navy was plated with the metal, as well as merchant East Indiamen.
Copper-plating ships meant intensive use of copper-rolling mills, and by 1800, annual production of these rolled plates was in excess of 1,000 tons. The use of the term 'copper-bottomed' to mean an absolutely safe investment evolved from this practice. In fact, this streamlining may have given British warships the edge over the French and Spanish fleets in the Napoleonic Wars.
By the 1780s two more of the riverside copper-smelters at Swansea were built and operated by Matthew Boulton and other Birmingham manufacturers. This was to meet their burgeoning needs for copper and brass to manufacture ornaments and utilitarian goods such as candlesticks. Boulton himself opened a mint to manufacture copper coins and by 1800 this trade rivalled that for naval copper.
During the nineteenth-century other uses developed for copper, such as the copper fire-boxes that were essential for the thousands of railway steam locomotives transporting heavy goods. Then, later in the nineteenth century, came the boom in demand for electrical transmission wire and other associated fixtures.
By the 1820s, more than 100 vessels were trading regularly between Cornwall, Devon and the copperworks on the south-west Wales coast around Swansea, and between them carrying around 70,000 tons of copper-ore, each year.
The need to bring in copper-ores helped to create an early globalisation of trade. During the 19th century British sources of ore were gradually superseded by cargoes from Spain, Newfoundland, South Africa, Cuba, Chile, Venezuela and Australia, and often with an initial local refining to reduce the ore to a more concentrated 'regulus'.
By 1866, over a £1,000,000 worth of ore was exported from South America, principally from Valparaiso, Coquimbo, Caldera and Antofagasta in south-west Chile. £200,000 worth of ore also came from South Australia while Cuba exported £150,000 of ore from Santiago de Cuba where Swansea industrialists, as elsewhere, financed large mining concerns. In addition to this, £250,000 of ore was imported from other locations in the world.
The zenith of the copper trade for shipping came in the late 19th century. A 483,248 tonne cargo in sailing-ships and 424,175 tons in steam-ships was recorded in Swansea in 1880, and by 1882, the amount carried by steamers exceeded that by sail. By 1884 steamers were carrying an annual tonnage to Swansea of no less than 836,405 tons, compared to 343,006 tons, by sail.
Most of the sailing-ships involved in the copper trade were the famous 'Cape Horners', often travelling 7-8,000 miles on voyages lasting from a fortnight to several months depending on the available winds. They were built in north Devon or Prince Edward Island off New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Other vessels in the copper trade were built in Swansea, Cardiff, Sunderland, Glasgow, Liverpool and Southampton.
In 1810 the Cornish copper-smeltering firm of 'John Vivian & Sons' founded the first of the copper works employing thousands, rather than hundreds, with the foundation of the riverside Hafod Copperworks at Swansea.
This was designed with an unprecedented 'Model Furnace House', which had two large lines of reverbatory furnaces, in which the heat from the coal-fires was reflected down on the melting copper-ore rather than being mixed with, and contaminating, the metal. Part of this line of the furnaces was excavated by Time Team.
Alongside the works, resident manufacturers built houses and churches for their workers, and large schools for their children. The workers also built Welsh-language chapels in the area on an unprecedented scale. But the community was blighted by sulphur smoke from the works producing a rainfall of diluted sulphuric acid that affected both farmland and those living in the area.
In the later 19th century, copper-ores were increasingly smelted in their countries of origin, and copper-smelting ceased entirely at Swansea in 1923, with all secondary copper-processing at the 'Hafod & Morfa Copperworks' in 1980.
More about Copperopolis can be found in Stephen Hughes' book, Copperopolis: The Landscapes of the Early Industrial Period at Swansea and photographs and information on the individual sites can be found at www.coflein.gov.uk.
The Hafod Copperworks has been animated by www.thinkplay.tv to help in the regeneration of the remaining buildings of the Hafod and Morfa Copperworks at Swansea.