A closer look at White Rock
The large white jug was old but in startlingly good condition. In large blue lettering which covered the front was inscribed
“This jug belongs to the Club at the Royal Oake at the White Rock. May 5 1771”.
My visit to Swansea Museum on a wet Sunday was transformed in an instant from family chore to intense interest. Up until this moment White Rock was little more than a name to me but here, right in front of me was hard evidence of the history behind the name.
I’m more than a little embarrassed that my knowledge of local history is, to say the least, scant. I was born here, grew up in the fifties and sixties and clearly remember some of the local ‘attractions’ now long gone. The Mumbles Railway – the most fondly remembered. The working South and North Docks, Weavers flour mill, the Carbon Black Works, Tir John and the slag and wreckage of the works in the lower Swansea Valley are not widely missed. But I had no knowledge of the real history.
I rootted around in the Museum shop and for around £3.00 came away with Factsheets on the Copperworks, Coppermen, Copper Industry and White Rock Ferry. With due acknowledgement to the Museum and their contributors I’ve set out some of the story behind White Rock below, but I would urge anyone with more than a fleeting interest to get down to Swansea Museum and buy them for themselves.
The first copperworks in the area was at Aberdulais and the first on the Tawe opened in 1717. The White Rock was arguably the most significant and was established as a copperworks in 1737. It featured on the Swansea Valley landscape for the best part of 250 years.
Swansea was a busy port and market town back then but the population at the time White Rock opened was no more than 3,000. The arrival of the copperworks sparked a period of sustained growth. In 1801 the population was 7,000; by 1901, 130,000 and by 2001 230,000.
The copperworks with local coal mines (in places such as Landore, Penclawdd, Graig, Plasmarl, Morriston and Llansamlet) paved the way for growth in the docks, railways, brickworks, potteries and smelting in lead, silver and aluminium and expansion into tinplate, manufacturing and other industries.
White Rock was set up by John Coster, a Bristolian, who is credited with having perfected the copper smelting process. This process became known worldwide as the “Welsh process”. Copper ore was combined with coal in a mix of 1 part ore to 3 parts coal. The mix was heated and run through a series of 10 furnaces, each one increasing the copper purity, with the final product being 97% pure.
A final treatment would render the metal pliable so that it could be rolled,pressed and cut for the many different copper based end products then in demand.
Swansea quickly became a natural centre for copper smelting. Although some works were set up in Neath and Llanelli, the Tawe provide better navigation. The bulk of the ore was mined in Cornwall a short hop across the channel. But with three parts coal it was cheaper to bring ore to where the coal was.
Most works were set up on the East Side of the Tawe. This was ‘over the border’ from the Swansea Town Burghers who had visions of a resort town that didn’t sit comfortably with sulphur belching copper works. More importantly was the coal wagon-way, later replaced by a canal and a railway which brought in the coal.
Ore bearing ships from Cornwall could navigate the Tawe and White Rock had its own wharf, apparently still visible to this day. Manual labour was used to move the ore around – 70,000 tons a year at its peak. The ships could also add to their profits by taking coal on their return journey.
The copper workers were extraordinary. The finery men, the picklers, polers, splatchers, ladlers, and labourers. The knowledge of the refining process was kept secret and handed down from father to son. Jobs at the copperworks were well paid (by standards of the day) and these jobs were kept within families. Wives and daughters were also employed and made up as much as 15% of the workforce.
One report tells of a girl, Elizabeth Matthew, who received an ear bashing for failing to turn up for evensong. Her excuse was that she had spent the day wheeling 23 tons of ore in 150 separate loads in a nine hour shift. That’s 24 stone each load and some 16 loads each hour.
The boys of 10 – 13 also got involved with shifting the ore and coal. It was manually wheeled up onto the roof of the foundry to create loads of 4-5 tons. A slat was withdrawn to allow the completed load to drop into the furnace. Then the ‘finery men’ would take over. They worked in temperatures of 130 degrees. A foot thick layer of coke and slag would form on top of the copper mix and they would have to draw off the slag from the molten copper.
This was repeated all the way down the line of refineries. But only the slag from the first refining would be thrown out. The rest was recycled back into the furnaces.
Each process would release vast clouds of sulphorous smoke. And a sweating finery man would consume 2-3 gallons of cheap beer each 12 hour shift (the owners later decided that water was a better idea).
The final process was to create the pliable copper which was useable. This was ‘poling’. A layer of charcoal was added to the pure copper and a fresh wooden pole used to manually stir the mix. These activities were all fraught with danger. The skill, agility, tolerance and strength of these people can only be imagined.
By 1850, the industry was at its peak. The Swansea copper market effectively controlled the world copper price. The town was clearly the most important copper centre of the world. There were over 600 furnaces in operation in the Swansea Valley.
Swansea’s position as ‘Copperopolis’ declined from this point. Cornish ore reserves were depleting but new sources were found, notably Chile. This led to a growth in the docks to handle the larger ships but obviously hit profits. The ‘welsh process’ was exported first to America and then to Australia as Swansea people migrated to escape the smoke, the slums and the cholera outbreaks. And a new process using a Bessemer converter was introduced in France.
Despite these developments, Swansea continued to thrive. In 1871, White Rock was changed to a lead and silver works and other works changed to importing and working refined copper. Tinplate works started up and thrived for the next 60 years or more.
But there was an environmental cost. White Rock had produced some 300,000 tons of slag that cut a swathe across the whole Tawe valley. Kilvey Hill, and all points east, had borne the brunt of the sulphur filled smoke. All vegetation was killed off leaving a dark barren wasteland.
White Rock was bought out by ICI and in 1929 they reported that it was working ‘atpressure’ on sheet and pipe making. But terminal decline was now setting in and eventually, White Rock was closed. The works were demolished in 1963 and work to clear up the slag heap began in 1967.
I can’t remember much of Swansea’s history being taught at school. And looking back I have the feeling that the town was quite happy to gloss over its past. The legacy of the industrial past was the polluted wastelands, the dreadful illnesses bequeathed to those who had worked in inhuman conditions and the seemingly insoluble unemployment brought on to a town whose livelihood was in potentially terminal decline.
But now we should be getting over that. There’s an opportunity to celebrate the history whilst looking forward with a new confidence to writing our own. The use of White Rock associated with the new stadium would celebrate this history.
Not just locally. The stadium will become known throughout the UK football world and European rugby world – and hopefully a little beyond that. We can wave a large flag to say – “Hey – we are proud of our history. Swansea was the mineral centre of the world during the nineteenth century. Let no one forget that nor the sweat and toil of those who made it possible.”
It is their descendants who will be at the new stadium to bring it to life with their noise and passion. And the teams will carry the history and values of these earlier generations, who, through their back breaking endeavours and their close knit, tortuous, yet valuable lives created this passion that we know and love today.
Since starting this article The City and County of Swansea have announced the Stadium will be officially called “The City of Swansea Stadium”. I understand the reasons behind this. There may still be an opportunity to incorporate White Rock. Eg – the City of Swansea Stadium at White Rock. In time this will get shortened. And there is an opportunity to get a small monument on the site to set out the history and significance of White Rock
Richard Lillicrap wrote this article – a remarkably good piece of local history – in 2005. Tragically he then died two years later. Richard was a driving force behind the formation of the Supporters’ Trust in the dark days of the Tony Petty. I used to meet him in exotic places such as Mansfeld, Lincoln, and Kidderminster. Now that the club is in the Permier League I often think of Richard looking down on the Liberty Stadium with a pint in one hand and a roll-up in the other, cackling with laughter about how unbelievable the re-birth of the Swans has been since 2001.
Gareth Phillips’s obitiary of Richard
Dan Falchikov’s obituary of Richard
For more on the Swansea copper industry