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A Band of Builder Brothers: The Rise and Fall of a Swansea Family Business

BC 25-2

Please enjoy this excerpt from our 2024 Q2 issue of British Connections. Our theme was “commerce and money.” Join ISBGFH to access the entire issue and peruse 40+ years of British Connections.

Once upon a time, many people were drawn to Swansea because its streets were lined, not with gold, but with copper. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this port town in the far west of Glamorganshire rose to prominence as the world’s largest copper smelting centre when, at its height, it produced over two-thirds of the world’s copper and was thus crowned with the moniker “Copperopolis.”

Situated as it is on the south Wales coast, at the mouth of the navigable river Tawe and on the south-western edges of the South Wales Coalfield, Swansea had long served the area as a port and market town and had, even prior to the eighteenth century, greeted mariners, merchants, and migrants. It already had some significant, well-established connections with trading centres along the English Channel, including the city of Bristol and the county of Devon, as well as places far beyond. Coal had been exported from its harbour, albeit on a small scale, for centuries, and it had long been a destination for many families and individuals from the surrounding countryside who sought alternative work opportunities.

But as Wales began to take centre stage during the early eighteenth century, when industrialists built some of the world’s first large-scale foundries and sank the country’s first large-scale coal mines, Swansea—because of its location—was destined to become a major focus of the Industrial Revolution. That revolution was powered by coal that existed in abundance on the town’s doorstep and its hinterland. Swansea was also in a prime position to receive copper ore and tin that was mined just across the English Channel in Cornwall (and, later, ore from parts of Europe and South America). Large quantities of clay and flint also began to arrive in its port from the 

English West Country, which, in turn, gave rise to a significant pottery and porcelain industry in the town.

Swansea’s very first copper works opened in 1720—they were established by Cornish copper mine owners on the banks of the lower river Tawe, an ideal location to receive the ore that had arrived in the nearby harbour from Cornwall. The town’s transformation had begun.

Over time, parts of Swansea and its neighbouring villages became unrecognisable as further copper works were built in the vicinity of the river. Their smoking chimneys spewed noxious fumes into the air, transforming Swansea from what had once been described in the eighteenth century as “the best built and most cleanly town in all Wales” into a nightmarish vision that could have been dreamt up by Dante. In 1812, Daniel Webb, a visitor to the town, graphically described a landscape that had been contaminated by pollution:

…towards the entrance to Swansea, the appearance is frightful, the smoke of the copper furnaces having entirely destroyed the herbage; and the vast banks of scoriae surrounding the works, together with the volumes of smoke arising from the numerous fires, give the country a volcanic appearance.

The heavy industries that mushroomed along the Lower Swansea Valley during the nineteenth century, in particular, needed an ever-increasing number of workers, and they duly flowed into the town from different parts of Wales as well as from the southwest of England and beyond.

Many of the English workers—both men and women alike (yes, large numbers of women were employed in the metal works and other Swansea industries)— unsurprisingly came from Cornwall, but also from other parts of the English West Country, including from communities within the Somerset Coalfield to the south of Bristol and Bath. As a result of those coal mining and trading connections and Swansea’s links with Bristol, word quickly went around of new work opportunities that lay over towards the west in Wales, just along the English Channel. 

However, the available work was not confined directly to the town’s industries, for the dramatic rise in the number of people who lived in Swansea meant there were openings for those with a commercial or entrepreneurial bent who wished to set up businesses that would cater to the needs of the town’s burgeoning population. Those enterprising individuals included shopkeepers, tailors, carpenters, and masons. It is this history that forms the backdrop to the story of the Weaver family in Swansea.

An Entrepreneurial Family of Builders

Brothers John and Francis (Frank) Weaver arrived in the town at the height of industrial activity, around 1874 when they were in their mid-twenties. Another four siblings, including their younger brothers Alfred and Thomas, soon followed them.

They were all born in the Somerset parish of East Harptree, located around 10 miles south of Bristol. Their father was a coal miner who would have worked in one of the coal pits local to the family’s home in East Harptree. Their maternal grandfather was a stone mason who was involved with building and repair work in and around the area, and it appears that he passed those skills down within the family to his grandsons, for their individual histories show they followed in his occupational footsteps.

The second half of the nineteenth century was the era of the great migration into the new industrial areas of Wales. John and Frank Weaver followed this trend. With the skills passed down from their grandfather, they set up a building business they called “J & F Weaver & Co” that was located in the Manselton area of Swansea, not far from the main copper works and the densely populated districts of Hafod and Landore. 

Thomas was the youngest Weaver brother, and he followed John and Frank to Swansea. Sadly, he died young, aged only 30, in 1893, at a time when the family’s business success was reaching its height. Just before Thomas’s death, the firm was contracted to build the Moriah Baptist Chapel in the community of Clydach and to rebuild Swansea’s Sailor’s Home, located near to the harbour.

The firm later won tenders to build several prominent buildings in and around Swansea, including the Rhyddings New Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, a new school at Manselton (built in 1900), and extensions to Dyfatty and Plasmarl schools. They also secured contracts to build the Friendly Societies Hall in Cwmbwrla and a new annealing furnace at the Cwmbwrla Tinplate Works. The brothers could clearly turn their hands to industrial and public buildings alike.

One of the most impressive buildings the family worked on was the new Swansea Technical College which still dominates the Mount Pleasant area of the city today. They won the tender against tight competition, as was reported in the Weekly Mail on 2 November 1907. This building has served the community for over a century, and during that time specialised in vocational subjects, including business and computer courses.

The brothers were therefore involved in constructing some of the most notable public buildings in and around Swansea, and their work continued during the First World War when, in 1915, they were commissioned to build a military hospital in Danycoed on the edge of the town.

The brothers’ own sons entered the business during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while the sons of Thomas Weaver started their own separate business (“Weaver Bros”).

Frank Weaver, one of the firm’s original founders, died in 1923, and the last surviving (and oldest) of the brothers, John Weaver, died in 1931, aged 83 years. The success of their business is suggested by the value of their respective estates as noted on their probate records. Francis’s entry on the Probate Calendar shows that his effects were worth £44,356, while John’s were worth £39,501, which would be the equivalent today of over £2million and just under £2million, respectively.

Their deaths heralded a change in the fortunes of the Weaver family, for dark clouds were gathering at that time, as they were for the wider community. During the late 1920s, three of Thomas Weaver’s sons—William John, George Henry, and Charles Ernest Weaver, who had set up the separate building firm of Weaver Bros.—had taken on a large project in the Manselton area of the city where they had built several homes and shops. This development was advertised in the Western Mail on 8 June 1929, and the announcement suggests that the firm was in charge of the whole development, including the rentals. This was clearly a very large and risky project to undertake at a highly portentous time in the world’s economic history, for it coincided with the advent of the Great Depression—the largest economic downturn of the twentieth century that swept from the US to the UK in 1929 when world trade quickly slumped by half. The next few years brought widespread unemployment—in the UK, over three million people found themselves out of work, but in the industrial areas of Wales, unemployment at its height reached a staggering 70%. Swansea, whose fortunes were so dependent on both trade and industry, was therefore hit hard as the world’s heavy industry output fell by a third. This had profound effects on so many of the town’s residents, including the Weaver brothers, whose venture into residential and retail development could not have taken place at a worse time. They were caught in a tide of events that they simply could not control. This change in fortune was clearly signalled in a legal notice that was published in the Western Mail at the height of this economic stress on 30 November 1932, which revealed that 60 years after the family had arrived in the town and had helped shape its modern skyline, Weaver Bros. was declared bankrupt.

Swansea itself did not fully recover from the hardships of this period. International competition had, in fact, started to erode the town’s dominance of copper production some years previously, even though the tinplate industry continued to operate fairly successfully until the mid-twentieth century, thanks in part to increased demand during the Second World War. Nevertheless, that war and its destructive bombing raids also deeply scarred the town and ultimately intensified its economic downturn.

Sadly, many buildings built by the Weaver brothers were damaged during the war, but others, like the graceful Technical College, survived intact. From its elevated position, the building continues to proudly look over the city today, a fitting memorial to a band of brothers who, around 150 years ago, with not much money but plenty of ambition and skills, took a risk by venturing westwards to a distant Welsh port town brought to prominence by the industrial world’s thirst for copper, and ended up playing a key role in its urban development.