New horizons in Welsh copper

Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea
Looking out from the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea

In a little under two weeks I shall be starting a new job in the department of History & Classics at the University of Swansea. I will be Research Assistant on an ESRC-funded project entitled, History, heritage, and urban regeneration: the global and local worlds of Welsh copper. Project Leader, Prof Huw Bowen, won the £95,000 funding for this project which will be conducted in partnership with the University of Glamorgan, the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, and the City and County of Swansea.

Much research of the economic and social impact of the copper industry in Wales has already been conducted, by Prof Bowen and by other academics such as Dr Louise Miskell, also of Swansea, and Prof Chris Evans of Glamorgan. And the classic study of industry in the lower Swansea valley since the industrial revolution is undoubtedly Stephen Hughes’ Copperopolis: Landscapes of the Early Industrial Period in Swansea (RCAHMW, 2000). All this material, in addition to unpublished, and little known, museum and archive collections will form the basis for this major public impact project to raise awareness of a very much forgotten industry, not only of Wales, but also of the world. By the early nineteenth century, it has been estimated that two-thirds of world copper was coming out of the UK, and of this, up to 90% [export figures are not precisely known] was being processed in the lower Swansea valley, receiving ores first from Cornwall, then from South America and southern Australia for smelting into ingots and rolls ready for export and manufacture elsewhere. Swansea’s strategic position as a major port with a navigable river (Tawe–thus Abertawe) going right into the South Wales coalfields made it the best place for this industry to take place. So the history of Welsh copper is also a world history of copper which makes its appeal far greater than an industrial heritage project that just focuses inwards on producing regions, rather than also reaching outwards to make local and global links further afield.

This rather unsung metal is still used in so many things that its continued demand and promise of profit has caused a recent spate of copper thefts (much like that of lead from church roofs) of telephone wire and the attempted melting down of high-copper content 2p coins. So the history of copper is not just technological or industrial, it has deep social and political implications too: control of resources, exploitation of labour (the transatlatntic slave trade was fueled by world copper commerce too), mass production of goods that changed our consuming habits and desires, its indispensable role in modern electronics and our (over-)reliance on these products. So much of what is past is reflected in what is now, and this is a particular aspect of this project that holds great appeal. The way I view the history of material culture is directly reflected in these past/contemporary comparisons. Our possessions are not just art or necessity, they are of ourselves and that is why understanding material culture is so crucial to the study of history.

My main roles on the project will be to research and select appropriate material for a major exhibition at the National Waterfront Museum in 2011, followed by a travelling exhibition throughout Wales; and to co-ordinate a programme of digitisation of historical resources. There will be several outcomes: online content, including 3-D animations of important industrial sites which are now no more (such as the Hafod Copperworks in Swansea), a public policy forum on heritage and urban regeneration, a one-day academic conference, and the publication of a major study on the development of Welsh copper industry, all of which will provide an important legacy of new heritage and educational materials. The project has already caused a buzz in the media [here you can see a video of Prof Bowen at the copperworks] and I very much hope that I can capitalise on this and continue the momentum by combining high-quality research and interpretation with genuinely creative uses of the arts and social media to get at least some of the incredible knoweldge and information we have on copper and its profound global reach out to academics and the public alike. I want to involve poets and artists, particularly metalworkers, students and other volunteers, family and local historians, as well as academics who work in related fields and can provide a new dimension to the interpretation of what we call industrial history.

If you have any ideas about how this project can be really made to have an impact, please leave a comment below. I will regularly update my site with news of my progress and will shortly be starting up a sketch site of material on copper history that already exists online.