Saturday, August 27, 2016

Discovering Swansea's Industrial Heritage #1

The fun part of holidaying with three generations is that you get to do lots of different types of activity. It's easier if the youngest is a teenager and not subject to the tyranny of naps, and that he is amenable to tagging along to things he might not be initially interested in.

Gower is full of history, and the Swansea area in particular, has an amazing industrial past. The Waterfront Museum at the Marina will have your eyes on stalks at the sheer quantity and variety of industry that has existed in Wales. Did you know, for example, that Swansea was known as 'Copperopolis'? It was the heart of the world copper industry in the nineteenth century.

Copper ore was mined in Cornwall and shipped to Swansea, a prime location because of its harbour and easy access to local sources of cheap, suitable coal. You need three to four tons of coal to smelt one ton of copper ore so it made sense to transport the ore by ship up the River Tawe to the copper smelting works in the Swansea valley. The copper was then transported to the factories in the Midlands.

If you take a boat ride from the Marina on the 'Copper Jack', you can see some of the remnants and ruins of this industrial powerhouse.

Take a boat ride on the 'Copper Jack', Swansea Marina
We floated slowly up the River Tawe along with a full boat-load of passengers ranging from pushchair young to wheelchair-bound old. Once out of the Marina, a DVD started on a screen at the front of the boat and described in real time what we were seeing and why.

Notch at far end enabled ships to berth right up to the quay
We learned a lot about the industrial history of Swansea, and the damage done to the environment because of the success of the factories.

Chimneys and remnants of Hafod-Morfa copperworks
Separating copper from copper ore produced mountains of furnace ash and slag, and clouds of smoke laced with arsenic and sulphur. Workers were consumptive and the countryside all around was a desert. My mother was among the people on the boat who were locals and remembered what it was like, where absolutely nothing would grow.

Red brick former ice house
They marveled at the transformation of the banks which are now a verdant green and abundantly covered with bushes and trees. The pollution ended only with the decline and extinction of the copper industry. Good for Nature, bad for business.

However, the Hafod-Morfa copperworks is being regenerated. It's on a twelve-and-a-half acre site that contains twelve significant industrial heritage buildings and structures. Wales has woken up to the importance of its history, and there is funding to make the most of what remains.

The Swansea project was started back in 2010 by the council in conjunction with Swansea University, lead by Professor Huw Bowen, and plans include the creation of a centre for tourism, business, education and work. They are creating interpretation trails and a living history laboratory where visitors can learn about Swansea's leading role in the Industrial Revolution and development of the global economy.


  1. That's such a coincidence that we should spend a day at the copper mines in Anglesey which supplied the copper for Swansea before the Cornish mines took over. Fascinating history and this really was the place for the world trade in copper.

    1. I bet that was interesting. Wales may be small, but it's packed with history, natural beauty and things to do.


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