16th October 2020:

In the second in our series of articles for Black History Month profiling sites that have uncovered aspects of Black prehistory and history, we look at an 18th-century copper works in Swansea and its connections to the slave trade.

Between 2006 and 2008, Oxford Archaeology South carried out an excavation at the Upper Bank works, one of the dense cluster of copper works that filled the valley floor either side of the River Tawe, just to the north of Swansea.

The Upper Bank works were founded in 1757 by Chauncey Townsend. A decade or so after the works was founded, they passed to the control of Thomas Williams, who essentially ran the British copper industry in the late 18th century, using his extensive ore concerns on Anglesey.


Storage rooms, Upper Bank works, Swansea


Swansea was fast becoming the centre of British copper production, and many of the Swansea copper manufacturers made objects directly for use in the slave trade. Williams was no exception, manufacturing copper items such as manillas (bracelet-shaped copper money) and neptunes (large flat copper vessels), which were in high demand to exchange for slaves in West Africa.

When enlightened legislation threatened to curb this trade, Williams petitioned Parliament in favour of the status quo, ‘setting forth, that the Petitioner and his Co-partners have laid out Capital of £70,000 and upwards to establish themselves in the aforesaid Manufactories, which are entirely for the African market,’ and that the proposed Bill to limit the carrying of slaves in British vessels ‘will greatly hurt, if not entirely ruin, the British trade to Africa.’


A wall of the Upper Bank works' river dock


The Upper Bank works eventually passed to the Grenfell family, and in the 1830s, Charles Grenfell became a director of the Company of the Proprietors of the Royal Copper Mines of Cobre, in Cuba, a concern known as La Compañia Consolidada, in which his brother Riversdale was also a shareholder. A census of the mine conducted in 1841, recorded that of the 750 workers employed 104 were foreigners, 167 free people of Cuban or Spanish descent and the remaining 479 were slaves.

Despite the slave trade having been abolished in the British Empire in 1807 – and the use of slaves completely outlawed in the mid-1840s – their continued use by proxy in Cuba, a Spanish colony, continued unchecked. Charles Grenfell cannot have been unaware of the practice, and one wonders what his father, the noted industrialist Pascoe Grenfell and close friend to William Wilberforce, who had spoken out against slavery in Parliament, would have thought.

Very few of the structural remains uncovered by Oxford Archaeology’s excavations can be directly linked to Thomas Williams’s periods of ownership, but evidence attributed to the period include the remains of ore yards, storage rooms, cobbled surfaces, a furnace hall, a residential building (probably for the work’s manager), parts of the canal and river docks, and a cellar with two arched entrances and a ramp.


A cellar in the Upper Bank works, Swansea
A cobbled surface from the Upper Bank works