The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter IXX

From Graces Guide



The manufacture of tinplate and black sheets is one of high importance to the country, utilising, as it does, some 2,000,000 to 2,500,000 tons of steel yearly. The production of tinplate can be claimed as practically a Welsh industry, being carried on chiefly in Glamorganshire and Carmarthenshire with Monmouthshire, where are respectively centred 288, 91 and 57 tinplate mills. There are, however, many mills in other counties. These roll down steel billets and bars into sheets of the required thickness.

Tinplates are thin steel sheets coated with tin, and are used for the production of holders for petrol, for canning foods, for packing tobacco and other purposes too numerous to mention. Tinplate makes the only metal container capable of being hermetically sealed, and is the safest one in existence. It has proved itself unrivalled for canning vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, tobacco and every other kind of perishable article. Recently, amongst the remains of the Franklin Expedition of 1848 to the North Pole, there was found a tin of preserved beef. When this was opened, the meat, after nearly eighty years, was still perfectly sound and good. The use of tinplate for the conservation of alimentary products and other similar purposes is now universal and constantly extending.

Prior to 1890 the tinplate industry was almost a monopoly of this country. The United States, the home of the canning trade, procured nearly the whole of its supplies of tinplate from the Welsh principality. The American steel-makers, however, determined to secure this valuable trade for themselves, and in 1890 for that purpose succeeded in obtaining an increased tariff against the importation of Welsh tinplate. This was raised from £4. 12s. per ton to £10. 2s. 6d. per ton. Under this protective duty the United States steel-makers speedily built up a large tinplate industry of their own, thus displacing the products of the Welsh manufacturers, who, in consequence, suffered severely. Since 1890, the United States tariff, though varied frequently, has always been maintained to the advantage of the home steel manufacturer, as may be seen from the following record of increases-

1890 McKinley Tariff 2.2 cents per lb.
1894 Wilson-Gorman Tariff 1.5 cents per lb.
1897 Dingley Tariff 1.0 cents per lb.
1909 Payne-Aldrich Tariff 15 per cent ad valorem
1913 Underwood Tariff 1.2 cents per lb.
1925 Fordney Tariff 1.0 cents per lb.

The loss of the United States market was, however, partially compensated for in other directions. The rapid increase in the demand for tinplate in the Far East for packing containers, and the new demand arising throughout the world, stimulated the Welsh makers to exert every means of reducing their manufacturing costs, and they have since been successful to some extent in gaining new markets in place of the field they lost in the United States. This industry, notwithstanding, has always suffered from hostile tariffs, so that although the world's consumption of tinplate has been enormously extended during the past thirty years, the Welsh tinplate makers have secured what is relatively only a small share in the increased supply. This is shown in the appended figures of (1) the world's output of tinplate, and (2) the export from the United Kingdom:—


  1913 tons 1925 tons
European Countries 180,705 200,019
Far East - 88,600
United States 823,719 1,657,795
United Kingdom 822,500 695,320
Total 1,826,924 2,641,734


Year Tons
1890 421,800
1895 366,100
1900 272,900
1905 354,864
1910 482,981
1915 368,778
1920 353,058
1925 511,049

These figures show that whilst in 1890 we had a monopoly, to-day we have less than a third of the world's production. Colonial preference is, naturally, of great value to this trade, but it would be useless for British steel-makers to hope for any legislation that would prevent the import into South Wales of cheap foreign steel. The accompanying figures show the quantity and money value of these imports and the demands of this industry for foreign steel. The steel comes in the form of sheet bars and tinplate bars.

year Quantity Imported in tons Value
1920 36,191 £735,201
1921 100,757 £1,089,043
1922 70,357 £506,194
1923 144,563 1,031,895
1924 377,897 £2,651,268
1925 509,555 3,210,652

The average production of British steel has been, during the last three years, about 8,000,000 tons yearly. If the Welsh tinplate-maker were able to employ exclusively home-manufactured steel, this total might be materially increased. But as the export trade in the finished article depends on its offer at a low price, without which the trade could not be maintained in face of the tariff walls erected abroad, the makers of tinplate sheets are compelled to buy their raw material in the shape of steel billets in the cheapest market, usually Belgium or Germany.

By far the largest firm of tinplate makers in the country is Richard Thomas and Co. It has an issued capital of £5,911,000. It owns 152 tinplate mills, as well as the Grove End Co (Grovesend Co?), with a number of sheet mills, and, like many of the larger manufacturers, draws its supplies of steel from its own steel works in Lincolnshire, as mentioned in Chapter IV, as well as South Wales.

Another of the largest companies making iron and steel and manufacturing tin plates and galvanised and tinned sheets and steel tubes is Baldwins, with a share capital of £5,947,848 in Preference and Ordinary Shares and a Debenture capital outstanding of £2,700,000. This firm owns no fewer than twenty-one different works in South Wales, Denbighshire, South Staffordshire, Monmouthshire and elsewhere. It has ten blast furnaces and forty-three steel furnaces. The capacity of annual output of its various plants is:

Pig iron 360,000
Steel ingots and castings 1,020,000
Semi-finished steel 600,000
Rails and small sections 150,000
Light plates and finished plates 165,000
Black sheets 50,000
Tinned, galvanised or lead-coated sheets 100,000
Tinned plates 1,500,000
Tubes 75,000

Amongst the concerns it has acquired are Alfred Baldwin and Co, whose late Chairman, Alfred Baldwin, M.P., was also Chairman of the Great Western Railway Co., and the father of the Rt. Hon, Stanley Baldwin, M.P., the Prime Minister. The British Mannesman Tube Co and the Brymon Steel Co are others controlled by Baldwins. The Chairman is Colonel Sir W. C. Wright, K.B.E.

The manufacture of galvanised sheets used for the construction of sheds, for cheap farm buildings and for roofing generally, is carried out not only in Wales, but in the Midlands, North of England and in the steel-making districts of Scotland. The production has from time to time varied. In 1913, before the War, the production of tinplates and black sheets was together 822,500 tons. After the War, in 1919, it fell to 308,000, after which it steadily rose, amounting in 1925 to 695,320 tons.

The value of tinplates exported from the United Kingdom in 1925 was £11,605,348; of black plates £627,797 and of galvanised sheets £13,638,013. Of course, much higher prices prevailed during the War, but in view of the exceptional circumstances these could not be expected to continue to govern the trade.



In the primary metallurgical industries, exclusive of iron, South Wales is ahead of any other part of the United Kingdom, and in the variety of the processes carried on is probably not equalled by any other district in the world. Their origin dates back to the time of Elizabeth, when the owners of the Cornish copper mines shipped their ores to Neath for smelting with Welsh coals. This example was later followed by the lead miners of Cardigan and the Cornish tin workers.

The copper industry dates from 1584, when the first smelting was done at Neath by the Mines Royal Co, which owned mines at St. Just and St. Ives in Cornwall. The object of this Company was to supersede the then existing method of smelting the ores with the local wood in Cornwall, by carrying the ores to South Wales and extracting the metal by the aid of Welsh coal. This Company consisted partly of English and partly of German shareholders. The first Governor was the Earl of Pembroke, and there is evidence that Queen Elizabeth was personally interested in the venture. Furnaces were erected at Neath, and in 1584 it is recorded that "one John Bwaple of Wales had delyvered into his Bark at St. Ives a frayt of Copp'r owre of 15 tonnes 2 hundreds waight in seven daies."

The process proved a success, and Ulricks Fosse, the Manager of the Neath Furnaces, on March 1, 1586, reported:

"We will melt in the space of 7 houres the quantitie of 24 c of owre, and spend not above 8 or 9 seks of chare coles, and three horslods of sea coles, and if the owre be well and clean sorted the more copper stone will it yield; melting many sorts of ewres to gither is the most proffet, and will melt a greatayll souner."

Since then South Wales has always kept a strong grip on the copper trade. In the best days of the industry, out of 160,000 tons of copper ore imported into the country, Swansea, Port Talbot and Llanelly took 66,000 tons, or more than 40 per cent.

Mellincrythan has been regarded as the oldest of the copper works in the country, and the Abbey works at Neath are undoubtedly next in succession. The Landore Works were subsequently used for the manufacture of hardware. The White Rock Works of Swansea were established by Percival of Bristol, and before the end of the eighteenth century copper was smelted at Penclawdd. About 1800 John Vivian of Truro, representing the associated miners of Cornwall, visited the district to investigate the conditions of copper-smelting as a profitable occupation. In 1810 John Henry Vivian and Richard Hussey Vivian purchased land for the Hafod Works between Landore and Swansea, which acquired, and for long maintained, world-wide fame for their products. Nevill, Druce and Co started at Llanelly in 1805; the Rio Tinto Co had works at a later period, and the Cape Copper Co established a plant at Briton Ferry. In 1830 Grenfell, Williams and Forster established works which became famous as Williams Forster and Co. From 1821 to 1834 Henry Bath and Co conducted the Landore Copper Works, which subsequently became vested in Williams Forster and Co. The firm of Pascoe Grenfell and Co was subsequently amalgamated with the Vivian firm in a new combination called the British Copper Manufacturers. In addition to the above, the works of the Tharsis Co at Cardiff treated burnt cupreous iron pyrites, chiefly imported from Spain to various English and Scotch ports and brought to Cardiff by coasting vessels.

In 1901 about 2,500 men were employed in this industry. This was an increase of 5 per cent over the 1891 census. Since 1901 the industry has had to face the competition created by the now generally adopted custom of smelting copper ores at the point of production, so that, after a considerable period of prosperity, the smelting trade has fallen away. Towards the middle of last century the imports of copper ore into South Wales had fallen from 2,000,000 tons in 1865 to 125,000 tons only in 1879. Since that date copper-smelting, save as a "by-product" in the Mond nickel industry, has disappeared, and the various firms now deal only with manufactured copper, refining, rolling sheets and plates and making tubes in copper and yellow metal.

The Swansea district contains more works for the extraction and smelting of zinc than all the rest of the United Kingdom. In 1901, 631 persons were returned as employed in the South Wales zinc works, compared with 454 in 1891. The imports of zinc ore and metallic zinc at Swansea in 1903 amounted to 53,000 tons and in 1904 to 65,000 tons. Over 30 per cent of the zinc and ore imported from foreign countries and 56 per cent of the ore produced in the United Kingdom comes into the port of Swansea.

Henry Hussey Vivian introduced zinc-smelting early in the nineteenth century at Morriston Works, which had originally dealt with copper. He brought the trade from Germany, and invited German workmen over for training purposes. These works, together with the Dillwyn Works, which were started about the same time, carried on business until 1925, when they ceased operations, but the Upper Bank Works of Pascoe Grenfell and Co, established about ten years later, are still in existence. The Crown Works at Port Tennant, started by Shackleford and Ford, passed to the Richardson firm of copper-smelters, and in 1883 became the present English Crown Spelter Co. The Swansea Vale and the Villiers Works were the next to appear on the scene. The latter have still a separate existence, but the Swansea Vale Works are now owned by the National Smelting Co, which is the most important plant in the industry, and is likely to become the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom.

In addition to the zinc works, there are in Glamorganshire a number of works smelting tin, lead, nickel and other ores from which gold, silver and other metals are extracted. Lead-smelting is of considerable antiquity. The Company of the Fortunate Adventurers in 1669 and the Company of the Mines Adventurers about 1700 smelted lead at their works at Neath. These Companies obtained the lead ore from their own mines in Cardiganshire, and it is recorded in the minutes of their Directors in 1700 that "The Secretary of State writes to ask whether the Company would take any and what number of Pirates condemned to work in the Mines." Amongst the firms smelting lead and extracting silver are Vivian and Sons, Nevill, Druce and Co and James Stephens.

Tin ore is smelted at the works of James Stephens and T. S. Sutton and Sons. The whole of these works are west of Neath. Swansea and Llanelly are the chief centres. In 1904, 190,000 tons of ores and metals other than iron, of a value of £3,133,000, were brought into Swansea by sea, and when it is remembered that the value of the entire annual imports of iron ore into the United Kingdom is less than £5,000,000, the magnitude of these minor metallurgical industries of South Wales can be gauged.

The production of metallic nickel, for which there is a great demand in the manufacture of high-class steel alloys used for shafting, guns, armour plates and steel, in general engineering work, as well as in hundreds of lighter trades, was introduced during the late seventies into the Swansea district by Henry Hussey Vivian (who sat in the House of Commons for forty years and was afterwards created Lord Swansea), carrying on the business under the title of H. H. Vivian and Co. The works at Hafod, dealing with nickel, were afterwards transferred to the Anglo-French Nickel Co, which is still in operation, and is owned by Vickers, John Brown and Co, Cammell, Laird and Co (all of Sheffield), W. Beardmore and Le Nickel. But by far the largest producer of nickel is the Mond Nickel Co (established at Clydach in 1902), whose capital to-day is £5,000,000. This firm has great interests in Canadian ore in the Province of Ontario, and undoubtedly, under the Chairmanship of the Rt. Hon. Sir Alfred Mond, Bart., M.P., controls the nickel trade. The copper—nickel ore is mined at a great depth and smelted on the spot. The product, known as "matte," is shipped to Swansea to the amount of 9,000 tons a year, and is there refined by the very remarkable process invented by the late Dr. Ludwig Mond. In addition to metallic nickel, large quantities of copper sulphate are produced from the matte, as well as gold, silver, platinum, palladium and other rare metals to an appreciable amount.

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