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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.