Discover more from Age of Invention, by Anton Howes
Age of Invention: The Mountain of the Copper King
Anglesey, a large island off the north-west coast of Wales, has seen copper mining since ancient times. But it was not until the late 1760s that miners discovered the sheer extent of the island’s mineral wealth — especially at a place called Parys Mountain, not far from the island’s north-eastern coast. The flood of copper that issued forth from the mountain in the late eighteenth century drove many of Cornwall’s copper mines out of business. And it prompted small towns and villages like Swansea, Macclesfield, St Helens and Warrington — not too far along the coast from Anglesey, but with plenty of nearby coal for fuel — to swell into cities devoted to smelting the mountain’s ore. Cheap copper made it possible for the Royal Navy to sheathe the hulls of its ships against the wood-hungry Caribbean teredo worm. And it fed the extensive brass manufactures of the West Midlands.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve lately been working through the fairly unknown manuscript travel diaries of Samuel More, who for the final three decades of the eighteenth century was the Secretary of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (the organisation that was the subject of my first book). The diaries are all the more valuable because Samuel More was considered by many of the most famous inventors and industrialists of the time to be Britain’s pre-eminent expert on technology. He was close friends with the ironmaster John Wilkinson and with the potter Josiah Wedgwood — who called More a “conjuror” for his chemical expertise. And in 1780, More was the guest in Anglesey of one Thomas Williams, who led the Parys Mine Company — a man who, just a few years later, would for a brief time monopolise Britain’s entire production of copper. Samuel More in 1780 gives us a detailed first-hand account of being the guest and friend of Britain’s future Copper King.
Williams was actually an attorney by both training and profession, but had become involved with Parys Mountain because of a client he represented, the Anglesey reverend Edward Hughes. This reverend had happened to marry well, and after the richness of Parys Mountain was discovered in 1768, Hughes also just so happened to discover that his wife had a claim on part of the mountain, and that many of its mines were technically entailed on his infant son. Williams was the lawyer who represented Hughes, and they succeeded in securing the claim, forcing the mountain’s owner Sir Nicholas Bayly to give up some of his cut. Williams in 1778 — just two years before More’s visit — then came to an agreement to lease the contested mines from Bayly, with Hughes and a London banker John Dawes as sleeping partners. A few years later Williams then secured control of the rest of the mountain by leasing the mines from Bayly’s successor. And having aggressively undercut competing Cornish copper, Williams in 1787 effectively took over Cornwall’s entire copper smelting operations too.
In 1780, however, much of that lay in the future. At the time More visited, Thomas Williams had only just begun his rapid rise to power. He was already a major industrialist and grown stupendously wealthy. When More asked about his stables, Williams apparently could not even estimate how many he possessed to the nearest ten. But Williams not yet even master of the mountain.
Nonetheless, the mining was well underway. The closest port, Amlwch, was already connected to the mountain by a new road that had been built for the Parys Mine Company’s sole use. Having not long ago been a village of just six houses, Amlwch had turned into a bustling port.
The mine itself was a source of fascination. “This differs from any mine I had ever seen or perhaps is anywhere else to be found, for the ore here instead of being met with in veins is collected into one great mass, so that it is dug in quarries and brought out in carts without any shafts being sunk”. Instead, the miners hollowed out the mountain itself, forming vast caverns that they supported by simply leaving vast columns of the ore untouched. He noted at least four or five of these caverns with ceilings forty feet high, with columns of yellow ore: “the whole seemed like the ruins of some magnificent building whose pillars had been of massy brass.”
It’s a fascinating insight into what Parys would have very briefly looked like, because today there is so little of the mountain left. Indeed, some of the caverns More got to see were already collapsing, with the rubble then needing to be sorted. He describes how one such piece of rubble — a two-ton chunk of ore — had to be bored, the cavity rammed with gunpowder and sealed with stones, and then exploded. “They are continually blowing up parts of the mine”, he noted, and was informed that the part of the mine he was visiting alone got through 10-12 tons of gunpowder per year. The mountain was disintegrating, punctuated by the occasional boom.
And as though that were not dramatic enough, the whole place smelled like hell. When More visited there were some seventy vast kilns upon the mountain for calcining the ore, burning off its sulphur. Each kiln held some 2,000 tons of ore, and when ignited with a little dried vegetation or coal it was so sulphurous that it took four months of furious burning for the ore to be sufficiently calcined. He noted that one had to keep to the windward side of the kilns, as “the fumes arising from them are very disagreeable and destroy all vegetables for a considerable distance around them.”
And hell was busy. The ore, once calcined, had to be beaten with hammers — a process apparently known as “buckering”. It was then beaten and stirred in water, where it separated into a red powder slush (“apparently a good material for painters”), and a greenish liquid. This liquid could then be run off into pits filled with scrap iron, where it dissolved the iron and with some more agitation shed copper-rich flakes or powder that could then be smelted. All this buckering and stirring was done by men, women, and children. It didn’t really matter who performed the tasks so long as the work got done. Indeed, More “could not help taking notice of a woman employed in building one of [the] kilns who was working in the habit of a man and had always worn the same dress from her childhood.”
Parys Mountain was in its heyday in 1780 when More visited. But it would not last. Although Thomas Williams briefly monopolised Britain’s copper, his hold over the national was eventually broken by competition, political pressure, and the declining output of the mountain itself, which continued to fall into the nineteenth century. Yet the impact on Britain’s economy and geography, albeit brief, was profound.