Category Archives: Liberty

Football is Culture

Dylan Thomas described Swansea as an ‘ugly, lovely town’. He was not a sports fan but he might have said the same words of his hometown’s football club.  For over a century, the Swans have entertained, delighted, frustrated, and angered fans.

The club is part of life in Swansea. It has decided what shifts were worked, when holidays were taken and even when weddings were held.  Results on an afternoon have decided whether nights are for dancing or for moping.  Families have been brought together by parents and grandparents passing on their love and loyalty to their next generation. Some choose to be Jacks, others have it forced upon them but appreciate it all the same.

Even for those not much interested in football, the Swans have always mattered. Football meant crowds to avoid and parking problems to complain about.  It meant the annoyance or relief of family members disappearing for an afternoon. Yet no one had to go to the game to feel pride when the club did well or to hear the noise of cheering crowds drift across the city.

Vetch skyline.jpgThe Vetch was part of the landscape of Swansea, and its irregular floodlights gazed down upon Sandfields and across to the city centre. What it lacked in elegance, the Vetch made up for in character. It squeezed into a gap between houses that was too small but which ensured some gardens a free view over a wall. The East Stand didn’t fit behind the goal so it sneaked around a corner instead. The old wooden double decker was grand but had to come down because of the fire risk. The centre stand was rickety and uncomfortable; in its last days its roof showered its inhabitants with crumbling paint.

But it was the North Bank that was the heartbeat of the Vetch. That was the place where youngsters yearned to be old enough to stand, where the singing and cheering was loudest, where everyone had their spot surrounded by the same familiar faces each week.  You might not know the name of the bloke in the old rain mac but you knew he had it in for the left back, what his favourite swear words were, and that he cared as much you did.  The North Bank was rough and ready, sometimes vulgar, but always passionate.


The Vetch is no more and the Liberty’s now home: a new, smart, slightly-stiff sweater to replace the comfortable, worn-out but well-loved one we wore for years.  Some say it lacks the Vetch’s passion but everyone says the toilets are better. And slowly it’s making its own memories to be passed down to those too young to know what it was to stand on a crumbling football terrace.

North Bank v Newcastle 1950 .jpg

At Vetch or Liberty, to watch the Swans was to be part of something bigger, an army, a tribe, a family.  On Saturdays, or whenever the tv schedulers decided fit, we’ve cheered, we’ve chanted and clapped.  We’ve taunted the visitors, declared our pride in Wales and our team, and sung for Super Johnny or whoever was our favourite at the time.  And sometimes they more than repaid our love.  When Curt did a turn, or Robbie hit a screamer, or Gylfi flicked a deadball, it was as beautiful as any of Dylan’s poetry, even if an old man might tell you later, ‘Ivor could do it better’.

1950s centre stand

It hasn’t always been like that. There have been plenty of defeats that caused us to curse and despair. Sometimes the men in white just weren’t good enough but the fans forgave that as long as those on the pitch cared as much as we did in the stands or terraces. Sometimes anger was aimed at the board, when fans thought they weren’t doing their best to create a team worthy of wearing the shirt.  Sometimes the fans turned on each other, when someone was felt to be too critical or too quiet. At the Swans, everyone has their part to play.

The size of crowds have ebbed and flowed over the years. There’s only so much money to go round and not everyone wants to watch a team that’s struggling. But even when crowds were down to a few faithful thousand, the rest of Swansea didn’t stop caring.  At ten past five on a Saturday, old ladies would still stop anyone in a scarf wandering through town and ask ‘How did the Swans get on?’ Because, in Swansea, football is part of our culture.

To find out more about Swansea’s bid to be the 2021 City of Culture please visit here.



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Fan Memories – Eileen Morgan (1280 games)

Eileen Morgan saw her first Swans game in 1946, and her survey response contains some very vivid memories.  Click here.

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The Vetch and the Liberty: compare and contrast

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White Rock by Richard Lillicrap

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.

Richard Lillicrap


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

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