Copper kingdom at Parys Mountain

Thursday 9 February 2012, 10:25

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The old copper mines at Parys Mountain - Mynydd Parys in Welsh - lie just south of Amlwch at the north east coast of Ynys Mon.

parys mountain

The old ship building yards, Parys Mountain

They remain the best (or worst) example of industrial devastation in Wales. Anyone visiting the site cannot fail to be impressed at the deep gullies and crevasses that have been gouged into the land and the overall impression is not of Wales but of the surface of the moon.

There had long been stories of the Romans and even people from the Bronze Age mining in the area but nobody really knew where. From 1764, when Charles Macclesfield was granted a 21 year lease to work the area, some desultory attempts to find copper were made but it was all very low key and half hearted.

It was not until 2 March 1768 that a miner by the name of Rowland Pugh stumbled across what was to become known as "the great lode" and, as a result, serious mining began on Parys Mountain. As a reward Pugh was given a bottle of whisky and a rent-free cottage for the rest of his life - no small gift in those days.

The copper was fairly low quality but its great advantage was that it lay close to the surface and therefore did not require deep mining. It was also present in great quantity. Thomas Williams, a lawyer who originally from Llandinam, was the man who saw the potential.

He was a businessman of great acumen. Acknowledged as the country's first "copper king," over the next 40 years he came to dominate the world copper market.

Once extracted from the ground, the ore was broken up on site by hand, most of the work being carried out by the famous 'copper ladies'. These doughty women worked on the surface using large hammers, smashing the lumps of ore to extract the copper and separate the good metal from the bad. Michael Faraday wrote about them as follows:

"a large group of these, about 8 or 9 women, were working on the ground in the midst of heaps of ore, large and small; their mouths were covered with a cloth to keep the dust of the ore from entering with their breathing."

Working in long timber sheds, the 'copper ladies' were usually seated in long ranks, each of them with a block of iron - the knockstone - alongside them. On their left hands they wore a heavy gauntlet, the fingers protected by iron bands, and usually wielded their hammers with a rapidity and a strength that amazed everyone.

The port of Amlwch

The port of Amlwch - originally a tiny fishing port - quickly developed to keep pace with the production of the ore. At first the ships from Amlwch simply took the ore to places like Swansea where it was smelted but once furnaces and kilns were developed at Parys Mountain they began to transport the finished product.

The village of Amlwch also expanded into other trades. Brewing and tobacco processing were just two of these while there were numerous by-products, such as ochre and sulphur, of the copper smelting process. What had once been a tiny fishing village soon developed into a thriving town that eventually grew to be the sixth largest community in Wales.

Parys Mountain also produced its own coinage for a while, about 12 million copper Anglesey pennies being issued to workers in the mines after 1787 when coins were in short supply. The practice did not last long and the use of private coinage was made illegal in 1821.

What developed at Parys Mountain was a sophisticated and complex industrial process. The ore was kept in purpose-built ponds along with copious amounts of scrap iron to speed up the chemical process. The port of Amlwch was extended in 1793 and soon dozens of heavily laden sailing ships were leaving the place every day.

Parys Mountain dominated the world copper market during the final quarter of the 18th century and by the 1780s it was the largest mine in Europe. In particular, the copper mined here was used to sheath the hulls of wooden warships, thus making Nelson's battleships the fastest in the world as well as protecting them from barnacles and other sea creatures.

The bubble bursts

It was a a bubble that was almost inevitably bound to burst and, coinciding more or less with the death of Thomas Williams in 1802, there was a sharp decline in copper production at Parys Mountain. The more easily accessible deposits of ore had been worked out and now, if they wanted to stay in business, the mine owners had no option other than to dig deep.

It was a process that was begun but it was both costly and difficult. As early as 1799 production was down to 484 tons a year - in 1787 it had been as high as 4,000. John Vivian from Swansea took over Parys Mountain in 1811 and did, for a while, manage to revive its fortunes but by the 1830s, in the face of further difficulties extracting the ore and cheap foreign competition, the mines were just a shadow of their former selves. Closure was inevitable.

There have been various schemes and plans to begin copper, zinc, lead, even gold and silver mining once again. In the main, however, the place has become the domain of cavers, historians and explorers. When the Parys Footway Shaft was opened in the late 20th century it made several early Bronze Age workings suddenly available. From this it was seen that pre-historic mines like Parys Mountain included shafts going as deep as 100 feet.

These days it is the almost mind-blowing sight of the old craters that impresses most, the vast canyons that have been carved from the earth. The ground's rich colours - red and brown, purple, orange and black - dominate the eye. They remain an incredible and lasting tribute to what was once the major copper mines in the country.

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    Comment number 1.

    I was last at Parys Mountain in the early 1970s Phil. We used to do a field course on the wonderful geology of Anglesey and always took a trip to see the copper workings. I find it surprising that from your description it sounds exactly the same now as it was then – except you couldn’t access the old workings in those days. It is also perhaps surprising that with the world price of copper being what it is that the schemes you mention have not been economically viable so that the dereliction could be cleared and any copper remaining recovered. But then we would lose an industrial landscape dating back to the Bronze Age......

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    Comment number 2.

    The Mountain is even more impressive inside! I was there for a radio programme eighteen months ago and spent a few hours walking through water, several hundred feet below ground. My admiration for people who worked there went up a hundred-fold - we had modern equipment, lights and boots. After half an hour I was soaked, exhausted and more than a little afraid. God knows what the eighteenth century copper workers felt.

 

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