• A small number of highly mobile and innovative entrepreneurs and a pattern of connecting resources, capital and expertise were responsible for Swansea’s unlikely success as ‘Copperopolis’, the epicentre of the first globally integrated heavy industry.
  • The remarkable global network that Swansea’s copper industry needed to create, transforming the city into a thriving metropolis with its own branch of the Bank of England, was also the basis its decline. Entirely reliant on imported ore, the copper industry eventually lost out to more competitive manufacturers with easier access to ore.
  • The Swansea Project, developed in the 1960s to address the problem of the largest post-industrial landscape in Western Europe, was the first of its kind and succeeded in reversing the environmental damage to the Valley. At the same time most of the evidence of Swansea’s industrial past was eradicated.
  • The current phase of the project combines private and public funding and aims to incorporate and capitalise on Swansea’s copper heritage as a catalyst for inward investment, the creation of jobs, and the development of old and new skills.
  • Swansea offers a remarkable case study into the lifecycle of an industry, revealing the good and bad sides of the capitalist dynamo.

Video Interview


Swansea was an early starter in industrialisation, to the extent that one historian suggests that it was copper, not cotton, that heralded the arrival of Industrial Revolution in Britain. By 1880 the area and its infrastructure was defined by the haphazard development of copper smelting of the previous 150 years. As early as 1800 Swansea smelted an estimated 90 percent of Britain’s total copper output and by the 1860s it was producing around 65 percent of total world output. The most remarkable aspect of Swansea’s industrial ascendancy is that it had no local deposits of copper ore. From the very beginning it was wholly dependent upon imported raw materials.

The effect that the copper industry had on the development of Swansea itself was profound. The nine major copper works operating in 1850 provided employment for some 10,000 men, women, and children.  The wealth generated prompted copper magnates to build estates and country houses around the edge Swansea Bay, and trickled into the burgeoning urban infrastructure. More prosaically, copper magnates sought to provide housing and basic amenities for some of their labour force, developing satellite industrial townships. However, the human costs were considerable. The works were blighted by giant waste tips and the ever-present copper smoke that took a heavy toll on the natural environment.

Swansea’s global industrial network endured beyond its moment of dominance. Swansea knowledge and labour played a key role in the development of competitive processes around the world as workers migrated and took their skills with them.  The legacy of this knowledge exchange and migration can be found in the urban fabric - there are 26 places called Swansea around the world, 12 in America, 10 in Canada, two in Australia, one in South Africa and one in Jamaica.

The demands of global supply chains sowed the seeds of Swansea’s decline. By 1880 industrialists were forced to diversify their portfolios, but despite a second wave of industrialisation, making the Lower Swansea Valley arguably the most intensively and diversely industrialised part of Great Britain by 1908, the process of decline could not be staved off.  Smelting ceased in 1924 and although mergers and takeovers enabled the manufacturing of semi-refined copper to continue at the unified Hafod-Morfa works until 1980, most works were either given over to other forms of metallurgical production or abandoned to become derelict.  Together with the deeply polluted landscape and the general effects of the interwar depression, this created a very strong sense of stagnation and decay, which accelerated after 1945, to the point that the Lower Swansea Valley became the largest post-industrial landscape in Western Europe.  

In 1961 the Lower Swansea Valley Project was set up to identify problems for land use in the area and suggest ways in which it could be developed in the future. It was a prototype for large-scale socio-economic regeneration projects, and attracted very considerable interest as a model for managing blighted post-industrial areas.  Visitors from across Europe and the wider world came to see and discuss what was referred to as Swansea’s ‘experimental method’. However, the early process of regeneration swept away almost all of the remains of Swansea’s industrial past. An unexpected broadening of the project occurred in 2012 when the City and County of Swansea issued a marketing brief aimed at attracting commercial developers to the site of the former Hafod-Morfa copper works. The continued reinvention of the city is now drawing strength and inspiration directly from Swansea’s rich industrial past.

The evening was hosted by Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

The 2016 History of Capitalism lecture series throws the spotlight on the role played by cities and regions that stand out in particular moments within the History of Capitalism.


About the Speaker

Huw Bowen is an internationally-renowned expert on the economic, imperial, and maritime history of Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He joined Swansea University as Professor of Modern History in 2007 having served as Sir James Knott Research Fellow at Newcastle University and Professor of Imperial and Maritime History at Leicester University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and of the Academy of Social Sciences. In 2010-11 he led the ESRC-funded research project 'History, heritage, and urban regeneration: the local and global worlds of Welsh copper'.  On behalf of Swansea University he now leads Cu @ Swansea, a multi-partner project which is undertaking the heritage-led regeneration of the site of the former Hafod-Morfa Copperworks, an internationally significant historic site in the Lower Swansea Valley.

About the History of Capitalism Series​

This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The series' lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.