When Welsh copper conquered the world

Hafod Copperworks. Photo: Welsh Copper Project30 June 2011

A major exhibition focusing on the Welsh copper industry opens on Saturday 2 July, examining how this global industry affected Welsh society. The ESRC-funded exhibition explores the impact on social, cultural and urban development, as well as international trade, technological innovations, and modern-day regeneration.

"The copper industry's effect on the development of the Welsh economy was profound, and forged Wales' global trade links," says Huw Bowen, Professor of Modern History at Swansea University.

Workers' housing, Hafod (from Swansea Copper Day). Photo: John Davies)

But it was much later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, with new technology and deregulation of metal mining, that the industry truly became global.

With close proximity to the sea and international trade routes, Welsh copper was exported through international trade routes. The Lower Swansea and Neath valleys became world-leading centres in producing smelted copper, and during the late 18th century up to 40 per cent of the output was exported overseas, mainly across the Atlantic or to Asia.

Film screening, Swansea Copper Day. Photo: Welsh Copper ProjectBy the mid-19th century ore was shipped in from as far away as Chile, Cuba and South Australia. Swansea sailors were known as ‘Cape Horners’ due to their long voyages past Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of South America.

Swansea became a world industrial centre, and Wales developed into the world's first industrialised nation by 1851. "The copper industry particularly affected the Lower Swansea Valley, by creating the most heavily industrialised part of the country," says Professor Bowen.

But as new smelting centres were set up abroad, Wales' copper industry slowly declined. The last smelting company closed in 1981.

The industry may be dead, but it is not forgotten. The 'Swansea Copper Day' on 5 March this year attracted more than 2,000 visitors and generated much interest in the project, Professor Bowen points out.

"We are confident that the interest will be sustained and increased by the World of Welsh Copper exhibition," he adds.