Thursday, 19 November 2009

Wales…powering the world…really?!

When I mention the title of this project to people, I am sometimes met with a look of scepticism, a look that asks ‘Wales…powering the world…really?!’. So, in my first blog entry of the project, I am going to take the opportunity to both explain and justify the ostensibly grand title.

From the 18th century, through to the mid 20th century, Wales was a major industrial centre, with the export of its rich mineral deposits indeed ‘powering the world’ (or at least assisting with its industrial and domestic need for coal, iron, slate, steel and tin plate). The collections chosen for the project reflect Wales’ advances and achievements, not only on a local and national level, but as part of the global industrial revolution. 3 months, and 1 and a half collections, into the project, I have come across several records which reveal this.

I recently completed cataloguing the first collection, Vivian and Sons Limited, Copper Smelters of Swansea. Swansea was nicknamed ‘Copperopolis’ due to the huge amount of copper production and smelting, and by the mid 19th century, Vivian & Sons were the largest exporters of finished copper in the UK. The technical drawings, reports and patents demonstrate the scientific developments made by the business. Vivian and Sons were also members of the Copper Trade Association which was formed in 1824 to control of the price of manufactured copper internationally.

I am currently working on a collection from Carmarthenshire Archive Service, Emlyn Anthracite Colliery and Brickworks. South Wales was the major source of anthracite coal in Great Britain (anthracite is a hard coal, which burns slowly with a smokeless flame). An article in ‘The Industrial World’ describes how the company was pioneering in their use of scientific methods. They had their own specialised research department, and product guarantees for quality, purity and ash content. Plans and reports in the collection show the lengthy considerations taken into account when designing and installing a modern type of screening and washing plant. The anthracite was exported to Europe, North Africa, Canada, the United States and South America. A photograph in the collection shows an anthracite exhibition at the Salon Des Arts Menagers, Paris in 1938.

It could be said that the heavy industries of Wales, and South Wales in particular, did, quite literally, ‘power’ the world with its exports fuelling steamships, railways, etc and providing metal for war and industry. Wales also ‘powered’ the world through leading by example, with technological and scientific advances in processes such as smelting and mining. The title of the project, I feel, is not over the top, but reflects the chosen collections’ value as a resource for researching Wales’ great industrial past.

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