Native, or pure, copper would have easily been recognised as metallic masses commonly found at the surface on the Lizard peninsula or in the cliffs around St Just (St Just Mining District). In sea cliffs, such as those between St Agnes and Perranporth (St Agnes Mining District), copper salts create bright green staining that must have attracted attention from the earliest times. The near-surface oxidised zone of Cornish copper lodes produced colourful minerals rich in copper, such as the red oxide (cuprite) and the blue and green carbonates (azurite and malachite).

Copper smelting

The technical complexity of copper smelting meant that sites needed to be close to a plentiful and homogeneous mix of copper ores. In addition, large amounts of coal were needed for fuel and the reduction process; an economic supply of coal was therefore crucial. Copper smelting was carried out in Cornwall in several locations but principally by the Cornwall Copper Company at Hayle (1758-1819). In time however, it made better commercial sense to ship the ore to the coalfields.

Shipments were mostly of hand-picked, crushed (‘cobbed’) raw ore but later partly smelted regulus was sent too. At first it all went to Bristol. Later, most of the copper smelting works were located close to the south Wales seaboard around Swansea. The transport of millions of tons of copper ore accounts for the once extensive mule trade, the tramroads and railways, quays, industrial harbours and shipping fleets. The ‘Welsh Fleet’ brought coal for Cornwall’s steam engines as back loads in the copper-ore schooners.

Diagrammatic section illustrating the enrichment of a copper-ore body. © HES.

In the Swansea region, copper smelting (and indeed much of the tin-plate industry) was in the hands of Cornish industrialists. The Williams family bought the Morfa Copper Smelting Works in Swansea in 1831. Michael Williams (1784-1858) was vested with the responsibility of the Welsh business and became High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1840. Henry Hussey Vivian (1821-1894) was responsible for the success of the family’s Hafod Works, Vivian & Sons, together with much of the enhancement of Swansea as a port and the creation of a railway to the Rhondda coalfield. He became the first chairman of Glamorgan County Council in 1889 and was made Lord Swansea in 1893. Grenfell & Sons (Copper Bank Works, 1803) was where Pascoe Grenfell partnered the great Anglesey mining dynasty of Williams. Ralph Allen Daniell started the Llanelli Copper Works in 1805.

Uses of copper

Defeating the ship worm:
From the mid-eighteenth century copper was used to sheath the oak bottoms of ships to protect them from the teredo or shipworm. The frigate Alarm was sheathed with copper in 1761 which improved her speed. The Admiralty subsequently had virtually the entire fleet sheathed. Large East Indiamen followed suit and copper was used almost exclusively until 1832 when it was replaced by a new patented brass.

Copper coinage:
At a time of an acute shortage of copper coinage Matthew Boulton perfected a steam powered coining press that could produce coins of a standard size and weight. Between 1797 and 1806 4,200 tons of two-penny pieces, pennies, halfpennies and farthings were produced (equivalent to around one year’s production of metal from the Cornish mines). Token money, only to be spent at the owners’ shops, was issued in Cornwall, notably by the Basset and Williams families.
Hafod Copper Works on the Swansea River owned by Vivian & Sons. © Royal Cornwall Museum.
The sugar industry:

The British-led West Indies sugar cane industry used copper to make boiling and refining equipment. It was also used to make brewing vats, distilling and dyeing vessels.

Electric cable:

From the mid-nineteenth century the telegraph system required tens of thousands of miles of copper cable for land- and submarine-telegraphy. Copper was vital to this world-changing revolution in communications and the first trans-Atlantic cable came ashore at Porthcurno in west Cornwall.