For many years I was intrigued by the copper mining at Bunmahon on Waterford’s coast, but it was only recently I realised that the industry had a connection with one of this pages passions, ships.
Bunmahon, on Waterfords coast is home now to the Copper coast Geo park visitor and interpretative centre. The visitor centre brings the working of this mining centre to life in all its glory…or should that be hardship and drudgery?. The mines ran in the area principally between 1825 – 1880 and at the height of production and profitability employed 1200 people. What never occurred to me, until Robbie Galvin the manager of the centre explained it to me, was that one of the key drivers of demand for copper was the sheathing of ships.
All ships and boats, have a recurring problem when in water; fouling. They require regular maintenance and cleaning in order to remove weeds, algae and barnacles from their hulls. Not doing so creates problems with steering and speed, and lay ups are costly and, needless to say, hard work. In the modern era anti-fouling paint is easily purchased however in the past this was not so straightforward.
In the past various methods were employed to maintain ships. A process called ‘Careening‘ ships was used where ships were beached or heaved over and regularly scraped and maintained. Graving banks were used where “graving” took place. To “grave” a ship originally was a process of smearing a residue of boiled tallow and resin onto her hull often accompanied by the nailing of thin strips of timber to act as a barrier. Eventually the term was used for any area where a ship was overhauled, or even for dry docking. Pitch and tar mixtures were also employed, a process I am no stranger to.
An Old Whaler Hove Down For Repairs, Near New Bedford, a wood engraving drawn by F. S. Cozzens and published in Harper’s Weekly, December 1882. (note the regular sized rectangular sheeting below the water line)
With the expansion in European shipping in the 16th C another issue came to the fore. As ships traveled ever further, and into warmer waters around Africa, South America etc a new pest emerged. Teredo Worms, which could grow to 20cm in length and munch through a ships timbers with relative ease. Nothing like seeing it in action. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0MSI50dXG8
The traditional methods of protecting a ships hull from fouling were ineffective against the worms. Other forms of sheathing were trialed. The Greeks and Romans in classical times came up with an idea of using lead, and this was employed but created difficulties, the metal reacted with the ships fixings, eroding the nails and bolts, and leading to ships practically falling apart. Copper sheeting was also trialed, but again the issue of reaction arose.
In the 1780s, while Britain was at war with France, Spain and the American colonists, her Navy prioritised the need for a solution, in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage. Copper was the preferred method, but it was not until a new copper fixing was developed which worked in harmony with the copper sheeting, that the process could be said to be a safe and workable solution. Although expensive it was a success and the navy started a refit of all ships. Needless to say her rival navies were soon keen to have the technology too. The merchant marine would be much slower to embrace it because of cost. A new era of ship design was coming however, and although it would eventually see the end of the need for plating, there were many decades of demand for copper ore to come. Copper and her many associated alloys would move inside the ships and it still has a role to play even today. This link from Mick Walsh highlights a modern use for copper in ships as a means of preventing fouling.
The Copper Coast is on my mind this week as I will have a stand at this Sundays Book Fair which opens from 1-5. Theres a great line up of authors and book sellers. A great ally of mine when it comes to providing ships photos, Andy Kelly, will be there with a selection of his books too.
My book on growing up in a fishing village is now published.
I met with Des Cowman recently wrote a history of the copper coast mines, and Des could tell me that the ore was actually transported in leather bags, by horse and cart to the beach, from there by punt to waiting schooners at anchor off shore. Once loaded the ore was transported to Swansea, Wales for smelting.
I publish a blog each Friday. If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to receive the blog every week.
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