New report on Swansea copperworks: An industrious future from an industrial past

Morfa Lifting Bridge over the Tawe Navigation, unlisted (credit: Brian Perrins)

Morfa Lifting Bridge over the Tawe Navigation, unlisted (credit: Brian Perrins)

I have recently completed consultancy and research work for Swansea University. In addition to undertaking research on digital heritage in Wales and the potential for creating a digital heritage, history and archaeology hub in Swansea (more on this soon), the university commissioned a report that would provide a vision for the heritage­‐led regeneration of the Hafod-­Morfa copperworks site, an internationally significant industrial landscape in the Lower Swansea Valley. The report was submitted in July and permission has been given to freely distribute it to interested parties.

Read Tehmina Goskar’s Cu @ Swansea report on Academia.edu

The purpose of this report is to gather together the threads of the Cu @ Swansea project, a joint venture between Swansea University and the City and County of Swansea launched in January 2011. The Lower Swansea Valley was the site of pioneering post-industrial land reclamation in the 1960s and 70s but now the unique remaining vestiges of Swansea’s global historic copper industry lie in a parlous state.

The heritage-led regeneration of the Hafod-Morfa site, situated on the west bank of the River Tawe, will be a long-term and complex operation. All stakeholders wish its distinctiveness to be revealed through its industrial and natural heritage. This report aims to summarise and evaluate the position of the project as it currently stands while also offering a detailed vision for its future. The report is intended to be a stimulus for debating how the Lower Swansea Valley can become a ‘must see’ destination as well as a new community in its own right.

Discussed in the report are: a summary of the scope of the project so far; an outline of core themes that unify the site e.g. historic pathways, amenity and opportunity and its role as a working landscape; key assets and opportunities; comparative UK industrial heritage sites including a brief reflection on Heartlands in Cornwall as a site of comparative scale and ambition; a projection of the site’s relationships in comparative Welsh, UK and international contexts; conclusion.

Critical reflections

when it comes to heritage-led regeneration I do object to the identity of industrial features and the distinctiveness of a site to be clinically conserved, reset in a sterile landscape and their stories massaged into a hodgepodge of rugged glamour and tales of Great Men.

It was a pleasure to write this report. I know the Hafod-Morfa copperworks site intimately and while it is always a worry to see buddleia oozing its way through the fragile mortar of nineteenth century industrial brickwork I appreciate having had the opportunity to understand these structures in their unconserved or un-repurposed form. The report also gave me the opportunity and the priviledge to highlight areas and features beyond the demarcated regeneration site that also require embracing such as the White Rock site on the eastern side of the riverbank or the Morfa Lifting Bridge, a material witness to the continued success of the copper industry at the turn of the twentieth century and also to the only link between works on the western and eastern banks when Williams, Foster and Co. took over the liquidated Upper and Middle Bank works of Pascoe Grenfell and Sons in the 1890s.

Industrial heritage used as scene-setting

I recently posted on the subject of different approaches to regenerating industrial heritage sites and the more I think about it, and the more sites I visit, the more I become concerned that industrial structures are merely used as scene-setting while their original functions and purpose are allowed to  drown in an ocean of pastiche interpretation about the glory days of the industrial past.

I hold no opposition at all for industrial features and sites to be repurposed in new and inventive ways that have little to do with their past. Few people would object to Tate Modern being housed in the dramatic surroundings of Bankside Power Station. However when it comes to heritage-led regeneration I do object to the identity of industrial features and the distinctiveness of a site to be clinically conserved, reset in a sterile landscape and their stories massaged into a hodgepodge of rugged glamour and tales of Great Men.

Conserving fabric over function

Far too much emphasis is placed on conserving fabric rather than function. There is a, in my opinion, naïve assumption that preserving fabric will allow future generations to better understand a building and the changes it has undergone but the commitment to sharing knowledge about what role that building had in production and how this impacted on business and society in the past is often the missing element (hang on, what of the products? Where did all this paper go? Through which routes did it get there? And the gunpowder, how was that made? And copper? Why did it stop being made here? Where is it made now?) Some purists are even loathe to place a small plaque on a structure indicating a name or date, preferring a well-conserved ruin to remain in splendid isolation. Many of these issues were recently debated on the LinkedIn Group for Industrial Heritage.

As it once was it now so returns

Industrial heritage sites today usually allow quiet, contemplative and serene passages through a landscape, a diametrically opposed experience of the historic industry that once took place there. This incongruity can be very powerful if harnessed properly either through demonstrations of aspects of historic industry or through a partial experience (e.g. steam locomotive ride) or through conventional interpretation in trails, plaques, panels, audio and film. As it once was it now so returns.

The Swansea Valley is an excellent example of this. The once bright and sparkling Afon Tawe, wending its way around the slopes of Kilvey Hill and the lush pastures around Hafod, was rather rudely interrupted by the metalliferrous and chemical industries that blighted the valley’s environment for two and a half centuries. Today, thanks to nearly 25 years of land reclamation and tree planting, the parched and barren valley is once again somewhat of a green heart in the middle of Swansea city.

A bit more love and understanding

These are some of the issues I have been grappling with recently and the thoughts that have informed this report. The potential for the Hafod-Morfa copperworks regeneration project to do something truly original is high if the partners concerned allow themselves to be momentarily extricated from institutional agendas, heritage policies and on the tail of what funders want or require. In other words, to allow a vision to take shape of its own accord, one that is dictated by what local communities need and would like and equally one led by those with a strong sense of understanding of and love for the site and its history. It is usually easy to tell when industrial heritage sites have been project managed by those with little love or understanding for the place or by committee consensus.

I would welcome comments on the report and on my criticisms of some of the directions I have been heritage-led regeneration go in.

4 thoughts on “New report on Swansea copperworks: An industrious future from an industrial past

  1. Hi Tehmina

    Well said. Do you know Tondu Ironworks? I’d be interested in your views. Whilst I was not the driving force, I was the heritage consultant 15 years ago and I still see it as a kind of baby of mine. Groundwork’s ethic was sustainable regeneration and community involvement. It’s low key, but works well when used properly (fireworks night, iron-making demonstations, young archaelogists club etc). The project has stalled somewhat due to changes in personnel at Groundwork. The housing estate on land outside Groundwork’s control should make Bridgend Council hang its head in shame for ever.

    Rob

    • Dear Rob,

      Thanks for your comment. I know of Tondu but have not yet had the chance to visit. I intend to do a ‘Grand Tour’ of Welsh Iron and Steel sites in the Valleys at some point soon. The kind of activity you mention is exactly the kind of thing that a good industrial heritage site should host. I just feel there needs to be a balance between that which is directly relevant to the site, to ensure its stories are kept alive, and completely unrelated ones e.g. performances of plays that take advantage of a dramatic but unusual setting. I don’t think Bridgend Council has done the local community any favours with the siting of the housing estate. There are similar issues here in Cornwall. Usually the people making the decision are completely insensitive to appropriate location and scale. Developments are seen in isolation and end up as weird islands disconnected from the landscape as a whole. I think historic urban and landscape characterisation studies should be compulsory for all civil servants and elected representatives on LA planning committees. I am convinced it would positively alter their world and local views.

      Tehmina

  2. Thanks for making the report available. I recently was hiking up the vally and was quite surpirsed to find the white rock copper works. While it is a nice park I was disappointed to find the remaining buildings overgrown or not tended to (as far as I can tell). Do you know if the council are activally mounting a conservation effort on this site or providing signage etc?

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