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World War One at Home: The cost of nickel

Gethin Matthews

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For well over a century, the Mond nickelworks has been a major landmark and an important employer for the people of Clydach, in the lower Swansea valley. The works first produced nickel in 1902, using a process pioneered by a German chemist-entrepreneur named Ludwig Mond whose statue stands nearby, surveying his creation. Although the ownership of the works has changed over the decades, so that it is now operated by Vale, a Brazilian company, to locals it is simply 'the Mond'.

The Mond family prospered as a result of Ludwig's talent. Ludwig's son Alfred took over running the family's businesses when his father passed away in 1909. He was knighted in 1910, the year he became Swansea's MP. Well-connected and ambitious, he served as a government minister from 1916 until 1922 and his upwardly-mobile trajectory continued when he was raised to the peerage in 1928.

Photograph from the Mond Nickel Company brochure showing the benefits of nickel armour

In 1914 the Mond Nickel Company had a virtual monopoly on nickel production in the British Empire. The ore was mined in Canada and shipped to Clydach to be refined, where around 850 men were employed at the plant making it easily the town's most significant employer.

The outbreak of the war led to an enormous increase in the demand for nickel, because nickel-steel is far stronger and more resilient for use in armour-plating than ordinary steel. Thus the Mond Nickel Company's profits were very healthy during the war years, greatly increasing the wealth of the Mond family and the other shareholders.

Benefits of nickel armour plating. Photograph from Mond Nickle Company brochure

Of the 850 employees, 250 volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces in the first few months. Besides any other reasons for volunteering, they were encouraged and supported by the company's management, who promised to pay half-wages to the families of married volunteers, and also to support the dependents of single men who joined up. Looking at the details of exactly who joined up early shows some interesting patterns. Excellent research work has been done by local historian Bill Hyett, detailing the lives of the 33 men from the works who died while serving.

By the end of the war, 450 men from the Mond had volunteered or been conscripted into the armed services, but of course, the demand for nickel kept on growing. The gap was filled by recruiting women to work in the refinery for the first time. This raises all sorts of interesting questions: how did the women fit into what had previously been an all-male environment?

Unfortunately for historians, the sources that should help with these issues prove to be extremely frustrating. The company's employment ledgers give details of the employees through the war years, and tell us which men worked as labourers, fitters, painters etc. However, the occupation of the ladies is simply listed as 'female'!

One aspect of their employment which can be measured is their length of service. It is clear that many women only lasted a very short period at the nickelworks. Of a sample of 23 female employees, three left within a week, four more within a month, and five between one and three months. Only one of this group stayed at her work for two years.

Mond Nickel works employment register

This image gives details of a variety of women who were employed at the Mond from December 1916 onwards.

At the end of the war there was a collapse in the demand for nickel and a slump in its price, which meant that the Mond Nickel Company laid off most of its workforce in 1919, with decreased wages for those who remained.

Many families in Clydach, as elsewhere, paid the price for the fateful decisions of those who pushed the world into war in the summer of 1914. The employees of the Mond did their bit for the war effort, both as volunteers and in labouring to produce the valuable nickel for the war machine.

Find out more about the Mond nickelworks on World War One At Home website.

Listen to the story on BBC Radio Wales.

Dr Gethin Matthews is the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol lecturer in history at Swansea University, and has been employed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to advise BBC Cymru Wales on the World War One at Home project. His grandfather, Arthur Morris James, worked at the Mond for a period after WWII. The research in this piece builds upon the work of Rhian Evans and her final-year dissertation at Swansea University.

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