Copper research funding success!

Excerpt from a copper ore book

Excerpt from a copper ore book

I was delighted to hear on Friday that I had been successful in my application for a small research grant from Glamorgan County History Trust for continued research on my project entitled, Biographies of British copper: The heritage of a global commodity, c.1700-1980. The Trust supports research into any aspect of the history of Glamorgan, south Wales.

The specific aspect of my research this funding will benefit is for further work into business archives relating to the copper industry found in Bangor University Archives. Following my survey of copper business archives held in Swansea, I identified related papers held in Bangor which not only have direct relevance to understanding the supply chain between mines and the Glamorgan smelters but also to further my knowledge about how the Grenfells operated during the formative 1800-1830s period.

The key relation to the Swansea Grenfell Collection are the records in the Williams and Grenfell Copper Smelting Firm collection, 1829-34, held at Bangor University Archives. I will use the grant to enable me to travel to Bangor and study the records and then use copied material for furthering this project in subsequent months. Having already consulted the small number of business records relating to the early years of Grenfell involvement as mine agents and speculators in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury last winter, this will be a crucial stage in gathering evidence for reconstructing supply chain information through the development of one company.

The most valuable part of these fonds are twelve bundles of ticketing documents dating 1829-34 which document a formative period in the growth of the copper industry and the centralisation of smelting and refining processes in Glamorgan, especially Swansea.

These documents are rare survivals which have hitherto escaped the attention of scholars. They bear testimony to the business negotiations that took place between smelters’ agents (overwhelmingly based in Swansea, Neath and Llanelli) and mine companies. The ticketing events took place in Cornwall (Redruth) for Cornish ores and in Swansea for the sale of Welsh, Irish and foreign ores.

While statistical synopses are available for this period in contemporary editions of the Mining Journal and other serials, analyses of these documents will enable me to map actual relationships between specific mining companies and smelting concerns. It will also help to establish how the supply chain centred in Swansea compared with that of Cornwall.

Combining this new research with that I have already undertaken on the Swansea and Buckinghamshire documents, I hope to publish an article on these archives that will also highlight their value as sources for understanding the nature of how business was done and also more about how industrial history can be better appreciated through tracing the biographies of the commodities themselves.

Copper, business history and material culture

Following the discussion of some of the themes I have been exploring related to the historic copper industry through the lens of business archives, I have begun to think more holistically about the relationships between place-industry-business-commodity. My recent relocation to West Cornwall put me in mind of its world-class mining heritage and a landscape and society shaped by the demand for the commodities of copper, tin, and other minerals particularly during the 18th to early 20th centuries. Mining history is the staple of industrial heritage in Cornwall and Britain as a whole and mining landscapes in the rest of the world are beginning to receive similar attention, such as in South Africa and Australia.

But from the perspective of a material culture historian, mining is only part of the story and it has surprised me so far that both scholarly publications and public interpretation has largely been cursory in its treatment of ‘what happened to all that copper, or tin…?’ Those  who appreciate the value of biography as an epistemological tool (or theoretical framework) will have a natural desire to follow a commodity through the whole materials cycle.

The idea of studying the whole materials cycle in an historical context was mediated to me as I wrote a recent piece on the historic copper business, ‘Pioneers and profits‘ for Materials World, the magazine of  the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3). This is an organisation that focuses on contemporary issues related to materials from extraction to their eventual use and even recycling. Their description sums up this approach well:

The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IOM3) is a major UK engineering institution whose activities encompass the whole materials cycle, from exploration and extraction, through characterisation, processing, forming, finishing and application, to product recycling and land reuse.

Historical studies of business and industry tend to compartmentalise one or two aspects of the historic materials cycle. Those that deal with the whole will usually privilege one stage, e.g. mining and extraction or smelting over others. This is particularly the case with the history of metals and metallurgical processes. It was with this in mind that I have begun to hammer out a plan to research copper through several of its materials cycles to try and understand how the supply chain operated, the skills involved, which individuals and companies were connected together (current work on historic social networks will come in handy here) and how changes in demand and technology manifested themselves in this cycle.

I described some of the ways I have been using business archives to  at a recent workshop on the value of business archives in research, held at Swansea University and organised by the Powering the World project. In this paper I suggested that focusing on a firm that dealt with buying raw materials for smelting and refining copper and then supplying its products to onward manufacturing industries was an effective way to exploit the full potential of business archives held in local and specialist collections. Pascoe Grenfell and Sons is one of the firms I am most interested in. Not having been the subject of any major study, PG&S’s activities spanned mining, smelting, refining, transport and part manufacture of copper and brass. Archives related to their business concerns spanning the late 18th to late 19th centuries can be found in Swansea, London, Cornwall, Aylesbury, Birmingham and beyond. They illustrate the huge complexity and balances required in the procurement of materials to produce saleable commodities.

An example I gave of constructing a biography of copper was of craft copper, such as developed in Newlyn at the end of the 19th century. It’s very schematic and only intended to illustrate the idea of looking at materials cycles. Determining accurate percentages of actual Cornish copper in what was crafted in Newlyn and elsewhere is of course an impossible question to answer at the moment. Also bearing in mind that it is estimated that 80% of copper ever mined is still somewhere in use today, the study of materials cycles become even more compelling.

Newlyn copper biography

Newlyn copper biography

Reconstructing the historic global copper industry from business archives

Upper Thames Street, site of 27

Upper Thames Street, site of 27, at Paul's Walk, previously Paul's Wharf, headquarters of major copper firms in the 19th century (Tehmina Goskar)

On 9 November I will be participating in the Historical Metallurgy Society‘s Research in Progress meeting in Sheffield. The day promises to be extremely varied where experimental archaeologists, historians, scientists and others will be getting together to share various aspects of their work. Subjects will range from the excavation of a medieval smithy in Oxfordshire to the lead and copper ‘isotope signatures’ of North American native copper.

Read the draft programme for information on all the contributors (opens or downloads PDF).

My contribution to the day will focus on recent work I have been conducting on the business archives relating to major copper concerns that operated smelting and refining works in Swansea. These copper archives add essential information and colour to a broad picture historians have been building up of the global copper industry, predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries, since the 1950s. However many of these histories have been reliant on runs of statistics from mining and geological journals, import and export information from mercantile shipping records and occasionally, official records government records and occasionally, correspondence and letter collections of prominent figures such as Thomas Williams of Anglesey and the Vivians.

Business archives are found in many county and special collections all over the country. Their content often relates to more than one firm and more than just local activity. For example, the Grenfell Collection held by the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, comprises records relating to their head quarters at 27 Upper Thames Street, London and many of their dealings abroad, including with Spain, in addition to important detail about their major smelting works at Upper and Middle Bank in Swansea.

My Research in Progress paper aims to give an outline and a few examples of the way in which these archives can be used and linked together to reconstruct the elements of the historic global copper industry that remain obscured in mainstream histories that have not delved into these records in any great detail.

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