The ‘Holy Grail’ of coal beneath Swansea lead to the area becoming one of the most heavily industrialised areas of the world over 200 years. John ‘Peter’ Thomas tells the story of the rise and fall of Swansea’s coal mining and copper smelting industries.
The general view of writers investigating Swansea’s metallurgical industries is that with the growth of copper smelting in the lower Swansea valley in the eighteenth century, local attitudes towards copper smelting showed that many accepted that copper smoke was an inconvenience that had to be tolerated if it could not be practically or economically remedied. Certainly, many who suffered the effects of copper smoke owed their livelihood directly or indirectly to the copper industry and were prepared to accept its less attractive aspects. Indeed, “copper smoke”, a cocktail of noxious vapors and particles given off by ores when smelted mixed with coal smoke from furnace fuel, was acknowledged as one of the most potent forms of industrial pollution in Britain.
This sentiment is expressed in the lyrics of the “Song of the Copper Smoke,” which appeared in the 1871 ‘Tourist’s Companion in Swansea’ and includes the lines:
“I touch the tall trees with my vapoury hand,
And their leaves drop off, like courtiers bland…
You may search the vale and the mountain high
There is not a flower to gladden the eye.”
But it ends with the verse:
“The widow’s lone bosom I thrill with joy,
As I fill the hands of her orphan boy,
The miner I help in the sunless cave;
By me rich merchants their fortunes save;
Barristers, bankers, and even clod-hoppers
Would feel very small if they hadn’t ‘some coppers’.”
Those who perhaps suffered the most personal discomfort from copper smoke were employees of copper works and others living in industrial communities near the works, such as Morriston and Vivian Town [Hafod/Landore], but there are no reports to suggest that copper smoke was ever the subject of industrial action on their part. In law, private nuisance refers to the unreasonable interference with another’s use or enjoyment of his or her land, and public nuisance is that which obstructs or causes inconvenience or discomfort to the public. Awareness of potential legal action over nuisance and the early intervention of the local corporation to zone industry ensured that smelting works in Swansea were located on the eastern edge of the town, so that the prevailing westerly winds blew the smoke across wasteland. However, Thomas Williams’ 1854 report on the Copper Smoke claimed the northerly and northwesterly winds frequently brought smoke across the town, and places farther up the Swansea Valley, such as Llansamlet and Morriston, were often affected. If the wind was in the right direction, inhabitants could be forced to breathe in fumes which caused a bitter metallic taste in the mouth, a dry sensation in the throat, loss of appetite, frayed tempers, a tight feeling across the chest, and watering and smarting of the eyes.
The most striking feature of copper smoke, however, was its impact on vegetation. The following description, written by Daniel Webb in 1812, whilst travelling in south Wales, is typical of those made by travellers who passed by smelting sites: “… about a mile or two towards the entrance of Swansea, the appearance is frightful, the smoke of the copper furnaces having entirely destroyed the herbage; and the vast banks of scoriae surrounding the works, together with the volumes of smoke arising from the numerous fires, gives the country a volcanic appearance.”
At greater distances from copper works the concentration of smoke was diluted and the damage less severe, but the effects of acid rain and dry deposition of pollutants were still noticeable. It was claimed by Daniel Webb that animals grazing within a radius of several miles of certain works suffered poisoning from arsenic, and there were frequent complaints about “smoke disease”, or “efrydd-dod”, the symptoms of which were swollen joints and rotting teeth, which would eventually kill the animals unless they were removed to better pasture.
Moreover, the Cambrian of 6 August 1858 reported that the damp atmosphere and high levels of rainfall made acid rain a problem in the towns, as could be seen from its effects on stone and paintwork and the discoloration and corrosion of windows. Its effect on vegetation could be devastating and almost instantaneous. As one farmer complained, “it shrivels up the grass and the straw almost as gone over it.”
Land in close proximity to the copper works affected by both acid rain and the dry deposition of pollutants, such as the western side of Kilvey Hill in Swansea, was often completely denuded.
Confusion about the potential health problems associated with copper smoke tended to complicate potential law suits against smelting firms. In 1842, a Royal Commission report claimed that smelter smoke had kept Swansea free from the cholera epedemics in the early 1830s. Indeed there may be some truth in this claim, as a witness, Morag Leune, suggested the sulphur and arsenic-laced smoke may have served as a chemical fumigant and disinfectant. Furthermore, a bath in the sulfurous “yellow scum covered quenching water” from the first fusion of the Welsh smelting process was once said to cure mange in dogs.
In an attempt to reduce the threat of legal action, and perhaps more importantly, to benefit economically from the recovery of by-products that otherwise quite literally went up in smoke, smelting firms including the Vivian and Sons’ Hafod works and Williams, Foster & Co’s Morfa works, employed eminent scientists like Michael Faraday and Richard Phillips to advise as to the best means of dealing with the problem. The earliest and most widely used technology involved using the Geerstenhofer furnace and constructing tall chimney stacks to which all or most of the furnaces at a copper works were connected by long flues. Some of the arsenic, sulphur, and hydrochloric acid would condense in the flues and the stacks as the smoke cooled, and that which passed out of the stacks was dispersed more widely; materials collected in the flues could be used to produce by-products such as arsenic and sulphuric acid.
When Henry Hussey Vivian was elevated to the peerage as the First Lord of Swansea in 1893, it was claimed over-enthusiastically that one of his major achievements was to transform “poisonous copper smoke into a useful by-product.”
The purpose in writing this account is not to examine the pollution caused by the copper works in the lower Swansea Valley, which is well documented, but to focus attention on the demands placed by the hungry copper smelters on the coal owners and local mining communities situated in the lower Swansea valley, who were employed in the bowels of the earth to cut out the coal to feed them. There were no mechanised coal cutting machinery at this time. Colliers and their families, including children, worked in dark, dismal, cold, cramped, damp, and dangerous conditions using basic hand cutting tools. Where the coal seams were narrow, child labour was usually employed to drag the cut coal in carts or tubs from the face to the mine entrance or pit bottom, for transportation. Moreover, pockets of methane (fire damp) gas lurked at the coal face, awaiting ignition by a spark from the clashing of steel tools or by open candlelight. As we shall see, urban pollution, loss of life, and injury in the name of copper production was inevitable.
Indeed, it was the mining communities, which supplied the bituminous coal necessary to charge the smelting furnaces, which eventually led to Swansea becoming the world centre for copper smelting and aptly named ‘Copperopolis’. I make no apology for the frequent number of quotations in this work. Most are descriptive, and some refer to the work of other writers.
The story that will unfold is complicated, primarily because so intensively was the area mined, and for so long, it is difficult to establish an exact diary of the various undertakings and, in some cases, to differentiate from one undertaking to another. However, most of the mining activities discussed relate to Graig Trewyddfa, in the Swansea district of south Wales.
I especially wish to record my sincere thanks and appreciation to the staff of numerous organisations and libraries who have assisted me in the various stages of my research either by conversation or correspondence, especially the following: Mike Wildin, local coal industry historian; Ian Neville, for his assistance in setting out the manuscript; my son, Julian, and granddaughter, Jade, for archiving the numerous photographs and illustrations; Swansea Reference Library; Swansea Museum Library; West Glamorgan Archives; Glamorgan Archives; Swansea University Library Richard Burton Archives; National Library of Wales; Royal Commission for Ancient Monuments in Wales; South Wales Miner’s Library; Fforestfach Historical Society; the Morriston History Group; the Rev. Ian Rees, for allowing us entry to St. John’s Church, Hafod; and particularly the works of Joanna Martin, Paul Reynolds, Gerald Gabb, Norman Thomas, Treboeth Historical Society and the Welsh Coal Mines Forum on the district’s coal mining industry, which provided useful research platforms.
It is also hoped that the chapter surrounding the ‘Myth of the Clyndu Navigational Canal’ in the Clyndu Level Colliery, in Morriston, will prove to be of added interest to readers.
JOHN PETER THOMAS
The growth of Swansea as an industrial centre is believed to have commenced around 1717, on the initiative of Gabriel Powell. In his post as steward to the Duke of Beaufort he advocated that the copper industry be started in Swansea, pointing out its accessibility and proximity to the ports in Cornwall where copper ore was obtainable, local sources of cheap and suitable coal, and the harbour for transport.
The Industrial Revolution in south Wales brought about a tremendous change in the production of copper and its alloys. An insistent demand arose for more and higher quality raw material. In 1586 Ulrich Fosse, a German who was working the Cumberland copper mines, boasted that he could smelt 560 tons of copper ore in forty weeks. The 17th and 18th centuries saw a vast improvement in this rate of output, largely arising from a faster removal of impurities from the ore during the calcining process. By 1717 the Landore Works at Swansea comprised three large buildings, one of which was devoted solely to calcining. There were also thirty smelting furnaces for copper, lead, and silver, a refining house, a test house, and other outbuildings.
Moreover, by 1794 the nearby Mines Royal at Neath Abbey were smelting 230 tons of copper ore per week to give 18 tons of copper. They used 38 furnaces, which consumed 315 tons of coal in the operation. The presence and availability of good quality coal, in fact, was one of the reasons why the Swansea district became the centre of this industry; charcoal had been used right down to 1688, although as early as 1632 Edward Jorden discovered a new method of smelting by using pit coal, peat and turf as a fuel, and four years later Sir Philip Vernatt was granted a patent for the use of coal alone for that purpose. These developments led to the eventual use of coal as the primary fuel for the smelting of copper.(1)
During the 18th century, production in the nearby Cornish mines increased, and a high output was sustained due to the introduction of steam pumps to remove the water from the diggings. This was the first use of steam power in mining, and arose from the inventive mind of Thomas Newcomen, a Dartmouth blacksmith.
Clearly, the advantages of establishing copper smelting enterprises in Swansea were its unrivalled access to sutable coal and limestone in the Glamorgan coalfield and access to the sea at Swansea, with tidal waters up to many of the locations of smelters. It was the closest location to the copper ore mines of Cornwall, although this could never be considered an easy passage for the small sailing vessels used in the shipment of coal and ore to and from Cornwall.(2) These advantages led to Swansea becoming the greatest centre in the world of copper smelting and refining, a distinction which it retained until the latter part of the 19th Century.
Moreover, it was generally argued that the cost of shipping coal to Cornwall was the main reason for it being uncompetitive to smelt copper ore at its source in Cornwall. In the 1730s it was estimated that the production one ton of copper required 10 tons of ore and five and one half weys of coal, that is, approximately 30 tons.(3) Thus transport costs would appear to be three times greater to smelt ore in Cornwall.
An indication of the growth in traffic is given by the number of vessels using the Port of Swansea:
Year 1768: Vessels: 694
Year 1790: Vessels: 1,697
Year 1791: Vessels: 1,803
Year 1792: Vessels: 1,828
Year 1793: Vessels: 2,028
This represented a near threefold increase in 25 years, of which perhaps half would be in the copper ore and coal trades. Over the same period the tonnage increased from 631 tons to 120,828 tons, an increase of the order of 52%in the size of the vessels using the port.(4)
The growth of copper smelting in Swansea led to greater demands for ore, firstly from Cornwall, then Parys in Anglesey, and finally the wider world of South America, to feed the hungry furnaces of the lower Swansea valley works. But a terrible price was to be paid; the local atmosphere in what had formerly been the beautiful green Tawe valley became so foul with sulfurous fumes that it was said by local inhabitants that if the Devil were to pass that way he would think he was going home.(5)
It follows that copper enterprises began to seek a regular and suitable supply of clean smokeless fuel capable of producing the most intensive heat in smelting furnaces. Their ‘holy grail’ lay buried in the Great Penvilian Five Foot Coal Vein of Graig Trewyddfa, which covered an area stretching from Cwm Clydach to Cwm Burlais, covering Llangyfelach, Morriston, Plasmarl, Landore, Brynhyfryd, Treboeth, and Cwm Burlais; and so local mine owners and copper smelters began their quest to seek out the lucrative ‘black diamonds’. This search, according to some writers, necessitated the construction of an underground navigational canal at the Clyndu colliery, Morriston, to ship coal from the mine to the Forest Copperworks.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND ILLUSTRATIONS
(1) W.O. Alexander. Development of the Copper, Zinc and Brass Industries of Great Britain from AD 1500–1900. Murex Rev, 1955. P.399
(2) Letter Box of the Tin Contract. Truro. 1703–10. Cornish Record Office.
(3) Caution must be observed in the conversion of volume to tons: it varied from port to port.
(4) Universal British Directory Vol. 4 (1791) p.520.
(5) W.O.Alexander, 1955, p.408.