Copper and Economic Growth in Great Britain, 1729-1784


R O Roberts, National Library of Wales journal. 1957, Summer Volume X/1.

Extracted onto the pages of GENUKI with the kind permission of the National Library of Wales

This is a complete (apart from Table I and a graph) extract of this article by Gareth Hicks 2002

The history of the copper ore trade of Great Britain between 1785 and 1787 is characterized by its division between the Cornish Metal Company (a selling organisation for disposing of the Cornish produce) and the Anglesey mining interests. From 1787 until 1792 the history is interesting because the leading Anglesey entrepreneur, Thomas Williams of Llanidan, assumed control over the Cornish Metal Company, and ruled almost the whole British copper industry. Such monopolistic arrangements, however, were not new to that industry. For most of the period covered by Table I below (not extracted) the more important smelting firms named there had associated together to control the price of the produce of Cornish mines and to avoid competition in selling copper. Indeed, so close was their association between 1737 and 1779 that they acquired the collective name of  'The Old Company'. In the 1770's, however, more and more of the Anglesey ores became available and, for this and other reasons, in 1779 there broke out intense competition which continued until the sharing of the market between Cornwall and Anglesey in 1785. There were eleven smelting companies purchasing ore in Cornwall immediately before 1785---their names are given opposite the statistics for the 1780's in Table I---and in 1785 five of them entered into agreements to smelt on behalf of the Cornish Metal Company: three of the five were the Gnoll Company, Morris, Lockwood and Company and Freeman and Company which operated smelting works in South Wales.

Table I (which is based on N.L.W. MSS. 15101-117) gives the amounts of Cornish copper ore sold to various firms between 1729 and 1784. As far as is known this is the only account available which gives the scale and duration of purchases by individual firms in that period. (Information about such purchases in later decades may be found in the Basset Papers in possession of the Tehidy Minerals Company, Cambourne, Cornwall and in such publications as The Mining Journal and The Cambrian.) More important perhaps is the fact that the table gives fairly secure totals for almost all the copper ore purchased in Britain during a half century which is very important for the study of economic growth.

Dr. A. H. John recently considered the net effect of wars on the economic activity in England and Wales immediately before the Industrial Revolution. 1  He argued that government demands in all wars tend to stimulate activity in 'the heavy metal industries, the allied manufacture of munitions, shipbuilding and ... certain sections of the textile industries'; that expansion in these directions more than offsets reduced activity in other directions; and, on the basis of 'admittedly crude indications of war-time economic movements', he 'submitted that war in the first half of the eighteenth century exerted, on the whole, a beneficial influence on the development of the Englisb economy'. In developing his theme Dr. John ..............

  • 1.'War and the English economy, 1700-1763', Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., VII, No. 3 (1955)
  • 2. Ibid., pp. 330. 343.

.................... discussed first the effect of belligerency on the copper industry, and he was undoubtedly correct in viewing the wars of 1689-1697 and 1702-1713 as a main cause of the application of the great technical improvements and of the expansion in copper production around 1700. These wars, however, were only one of the major reasons for the expansion. The abolition in 1689 and 1693 of the monopolistic rights of the Mines Royal Society and the discovery of new veins of copper ore in Cornwall (as a result of deeper mining for tin and the increased use of gunpowder) were also of great importance, and war seems to have had no great effect on them.

The figures of ore purchases given in Table I are a very good indication of the size of the British copper industry, for until the 1770's the overwhelming part of home-produced ores came from Cornwall and imports were relatively very small until the nineteenth century. After 1730, when they were one thousand eight hundred and seventy-eight tons (and thus almost as large as the Cornish output), copper ore imports for decades remained less than a thousand tons a year. 1  For over half a century following the 1770's, however, the Cornish figures became unrepresentative of British ore output because of the large produce of Parys Mountain in Anglesey, and in the nineteenth century importation of copper ore became large. 2 Figures for copper exports in the eighteenth century show an expansion in periods of war due, as Dr. John shows, 3  to the increased share of international trade which Britain, as the leading naval power, was able to secure, but they are misleading if taken as an indication of the activity of the copper industry.

For the period of the War of Austrian Succession, 1739-1748, what Table I reveals is little more than a continuation of the rate of expansion of the previous years. Thereafter, following a fall in 1748-1749, the purchases of ore climbed until 1757 more steeply than in the earlier decades. Between 1757 and 1762, however, i.e. during the five middle years of the Seven Years War, total purchases remained relatively constant---and the trend, obtained from moving average figures, shows this comparative constancy for the whole war period. In the last year of the war purchases climbed to a new peak, which was to be followed by considerably higher peaks in the peace-time years of 1766, 1770 and 1784. The figures are unfortunately missing for all save the last two years of the War of American Independence, 1775-1781, but the fall over those two years and the magnitude of earlier figures indicates that those campaigns did not have a great expansionary effect on Cornish copper sales---though admittedly by that time Anglesey was rapidly increasing her output.

  • 1. House of Commons, Report from the Committee ... [on the] Copper Trade, 1799, Appendix 37, p. 173. The imported copper ore came 'almost wholly' from Ireland.
  • 2. Professor Walther Hoffman erred in basing his series for Britain's copper ore production for the whole period from 1727 to 1857 on the Cornish output and neglecting the large Anglesey produce between 1770 and 1820 ( British Industry 1700-1950, trans. W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner, 1955, p. 232); and it was in South Wales, not in Cornwall as he says (ibid., p. 239), that 80 per cent., indeed 90 per cent., of Britain's output of copper was smelted in the middle of the nineteenth century.
  • 3. op cit., p. 331.

These facts, which are presented more clearly in the accompanying graph (not extracted), suggest that the effects of wars on the activity of the copper industry in the middle decades of the eighteenth century can be exaggerated. That industry did not languish in the inter-war periods, and its rates of growth were not significantly greater in years of war than in times of peace. On the demand side its growth between 1729 and 1785 seems to have been due mainly to increased use of manufactured goods made from copper and brass for peaceful purposes, though these metals were utilised even in periods of peace for producing munitions. But the influence of the enterprises developed and of the crucial new techniques adopted under the great stimulus of the wars between 1689 and 1713 was considerable throughout the eighteenth century. 1

Table I is based on information in nine manuscript Account Books, which were kindly lent to me by the late Captain Hugh Vivian, of Bishopston, near Swansea, and which, along with other Vivian papers, have since been presented to the National Library of Wales. 2   (A large collection of Vivian business papers was also recently acquired by the Glamorgan Record Office, and there are others in the Library of the University College of Swansea and in the works of the Metals Division of Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. at Landore, Swansea.) These notebooks mainly give details of copper ores received at Llangyfelach Copper Works and later at the Forest Works, near Swansea---their sources, by which ships they were carried, the estimated produce according to the assays---and they would be very valuable for the historians of copper mining in Cornwall. But in red ink there is given for almost every year from 1729 to 1758 an account of  'Copr Ore bought in Cornwall' and from 1759 until 1784 an account of 'The Ore sold publickly in Cornwall'. In 1729-1733 and 1741 there is added the phrase, or a variant of it, that the figures were given 'as far as we could procure accots thereof ' (1732); and in 1744 and 1745 the figures are given 'as p. accot kept in London' and 'as p.book kept in London'. The figures refer to the calendar year or, as stated for the 1740's, from Christmas to Christmas; thus the annual figures seem to have, in almost full measure, the 'uniformity in the dating of the year' which Professor T. S. Ashton has emphasised as being essential for such a series. 3

The figures of total ore purchases given in Table I apparently correspond to the totals for 'copper ores sold in Cornwall' in the period of 1729-1773 given in a rare, single sheet Synopsis of Mining from 1729-1833, published by H. Grylles, Redruth. 4  The total figures given in Table I however, do not agree very closely with the decennial figures of sales, according to 'buyers' books', given by W. Pryce in his Mineralogia Cornubiensis (1778) p. xv, and quoted also by J. A. Phillips and ..................

  • 1. I am very grateful to Dr. John for his emphasis of this point and for other comments on this paper.
  • 2. N.L.W. MSS. 15101-117.
  • 3. 'Economic Fluctuations, 1790-1850', Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd Ser., VII, 3 (1955), p. 379.
  • 4. Information kindly supplied by Mr. A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, the eminent historian of Cornish miners and mining. Incidentally Grylles's Annual Mining Sheet published in the middle of the nineteenth century by F. Symons, Bookseller, Redruth, gave statistics of the ticketing sales of copper ores in Cornwall and at Swansea (cf. the 'Preliminary Announcement, in 1848 of the proposed British Copper Smelting Association, in I.C.I. Metals Division Papers at the Landore Works near Swansea).

................. J. Darlington in their Annals of Mining and Metallurgy (1857), p. 30. Especially are the figures for the earlier years of the table (down to 1745) lower than the annual average obtained from Pryce's decennial figures. 1  This may be due to some extent to discrepancies in the matter of including or not including the amounts of ore obtained in Cornwall by companies which owned, wholly or in part, certain Cornish mines. Footnotes (f) and (g) for 1753 and 1754 in Table I show that ore thus obtained by at least one firm smelting outside Cornwall was omitted from the totals for those years. Again the movements shown on the graph based on Table I agree fairly well with those in the less detailed graph given by Professor Hoffman, plotting an index of copper ore output---apart from the much greater amplitude of the swings on his graph for the 1730's and 1740's, and some divergences also in the direction of the movements during the 1730's. 2

Eleven of the twenty-seven companies named in Table I operated in South Wales during the period 1729-1784, though not necessarily for all the years for which they bought Cornish ores. Those companies are listed in Table II in the order in which they appear in Table I and the place and date of their enterprises in South Wales is given and compared with the dates of their purchases of Cornish ores. Two of the other companies in Table I, the Brass Wire Co. of Bristol and Roe & Co. of Macclesfield, had smelting works in South Wales in a later period.


University College of Swansea.

  • 1. Moreover, in a note on 'Cornish Statistical Material' in his Industrial Revolution in Cornwall (Liverpool University Press, 1953) Dr. J. Rowe states that even Pryce's figures, which 'may have been derived from ticketing records', do not include private sales of copper ore. Some of these private sales, however, may only represent transfers of ores from the smaller enterprises to the larger concerns which disposed of them publicly.
  • 2. op. cit., p. 309.

TABLE I   has not been extracted, it comprises 5 pages of data (amounts by weight) for each year from 1729-1784 in respect of 'the amount of copper bought in Cornwall by various firms' (not just those in Wales).




No. of Co. in Table I


Place and time of operation in South Wales

Dates of purchases of Cornish Ore (from Table I)


Lockwood and Co.  (alias Morris, Lockwood and Co.)

Llangyfelach Works, Landore,Swansea, 1726-1748

Cambrian Works, Swansea, 1735-1745

Upper Forest, Morriston, 1748-c.1790



English Copper Co. (alias Governor and Co. of Copper Miners in England)

Melincryddan, Neath, 1742-1763

Taibach, Port Talbot, 1774-1838

Cwmavon, 1841-1848, 1852-1875



Co. of Mineral Manufactures

Melincryddan, Neath, 1713-1731



The Welsh Copper Co. (alias Governor and Co. of Copper Miners in the Principality of Wales)

Neath Abbey Works,  1721-1730-?



Coster and Co.

Melincryddan, Neath     1732-1739



Jos. Percevall and Co. (became  Freeman and Co. in 1764)

White Rock, Landore, Swansea, 1744-1870



C. Townsend and Co. (John Rotton and Co. from 1764)

Middle Bank, Landore, Swansea, 1755-1769

Upper Bank, Landore, Swansea, 1758-? 1777-?

1756-1768, 1780


Mines Royal Co. (alias Mines Royal Society)

Neath Abbey, 1757-1862-?

Rogerstone, Newport, 1772-?



Geo. Pengree and Co

Middle Bank, Landore, Swansea, 1769-1785-?



Gnoll Copper Co. (alias Gnoll Works Co.)

Melincryddan, Neath,  I779-c.1790.



Fenton and Chacewater Co

Rose Copper Works, Landore, Swansea, 1780/81-1797