27. John Henry Vivian

Reading about the Port of Swansea ] Swansea Harbour in 1771 ] Swansea's South Dock (c.1870s) ] Swansea's South Dock (c. 1880s) ] Swansea Docks in 1881 ] Brunel's report for Swansea Docks 1846 ] 2. Charter of William de Newburgh ] 6. A Royal Charter ] 9. Trade In The Early Port ] 10. A port Indenture of 1135 ] 11. Salt A vital commodity ] 12. Swansea's Layer Keeper ] 12a. Early Quays and Docks ] 14. The Uncrowned King Of Swansea ] 15. Swansea in the 1790s ] 16. After Gabriel ] 17. 1790s Swansea;The Time For Change ] More about Swansea in the 1790s ] 17a. Smuggling in Swansea and Gower ] 18. The Harbour Act and the Mumbles Lighthouse ] 19. Port Tennant ] Port Tennant in 1827 ] 20. port Development. A Chronology ] 21. The South Wales ports ] 22. Joseph Rutter's pamphlet of 1843 ] 25. Thomas Page's report of 1846. ] [ 27. John Henry Vivian ] 29. The East Dock ] 30. The Prince of Wales opens the East Dock ] The Helwick Lightvessel ] Jack's World: Swansea North Dock in the 1880s ] James Harris Seascape Painter ] Mr Padley of Swansea ] Plan of the Prince of Wales Dock ] Who put the 'Sweyn' in Swansea? ] Swansea's first tugs ] The Victorian port of Swansea ]

Despite bouts of illness, especially in the 1820s, he was a man of enormous energy who worked hard. He expected the same from others: it was said of him that he could not ‘bear the thought of letting out a single fire’ at his works, and only in 1840 was he persuaded to allow his men to work 12-hour instead of 24-hour shifts.

John Henry Vivian 1785-1855

John Vivian and his eldest son had been partly educated in France. One consequence of the Revolutionary Wars was that John Henry was unable to make a similar sojourn. Instead, at the age of sixteen he was packed off to Germany to study languages. Then, in 1803, he enrolled in the famous mining institute of the University of Freiburg in the Black Forest. There he became a pupil of the celebrated German geologist, Abraham Werner, with whom he studied mineralogy, geology, chemistry, metallurgy and mathematics—all subjects which were to prove of inestimable value to Vivian and Sons in the decades ahead. John Henry also dodged the war to tour the mining regions of Austria, Hungary and Germany, so that when he returned to Britain in 1804 he was well equipped to enter his father’s business and later to manage its South Wales branch. No other Vivian had received such an education and there was nothing comparable available in contemporary England. This combination of academic and practical training was the secret of John Henry’s extraordinary success as an industrialist and his considerable reputation as a scientist.

John Henry's published ‘Account of Copper Smelting as practised at Hafod’ earned him a Fellowship of the Royal Society. As one of Werner’s pupils he was also an early member of the Geological Society, and some of his cabinets of minerals, classified according to Wernerian principles, had pride of place in Singleton Abbey; he gave another cabinet to University College, London. He and his friend and fellow-industrialist, Lewis Weston Dillwyn, shared wider intellectual interests. They began a select reading society in 1818 and both were founder members of the Philosophical and Literary Society, better known as The Royal Institution of South Wales (1835). John Henry served as the Institution’s first vice-president while Dillwyn was its first president; it was largely as a result of John Henry’s efforts that it secured a royal title. His interest in zoology was far from cursory too, and by 1833 Singleton had a museum whose exhibits—stuffed birds and animals by the score—were largely intact when the house was sold in 1919. He was a founder member of the Cambrian Archaeological Association in 1846. His foreign travels broadened his cultural perceptions in the tradition of the Grand Tour and enabled him to buy in the sale-rooms of Paris and elsewhere objets d’art for Singleton—marbles, classical and Etruscan antiquities, Italian and northern Renaissance paintings, Brussels tapestries, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century furniture—which were still in the house in 1919

Unlike his father and elder brother, John Henry was a Swansea man and one of the most ardent champions of the town’s development. The extension of its public amenities was closely bound up with the success of his own enterprises, and in the popular mind Swansea became synonymous during John Henry’s lifetime with the metallurgical industry. Though he was no pure philanthropist, it would be wrong to belittle his devotion to Swansea and its inhabitants. He became their first MP when the Reform Act of 1832 enabled the newer breed of self-made industrialists to enter Parliament. As such, he looked after Swansea’s interests at Westminster as well as locally. He became a Trustee of the Swansea Harbour Board in 1809. He sat on the local Board of Health and gave time and money to such local charities as the Swansea Sailors’ Fund. In 1826 he was closely associated with the opening of a branch of the Bank of England in the town and the Bank reciprocated by regarding Vivian and Sons as a firm of ... undoubted respectability’ and worth underwriting. The improvement of Swansea’s commercial facilities and communications was one of his foremost priorities. In 1826-27 he produced detailed plans for a new floating harbour, with upper and lower basins and a toll bridge in between to facilitate communication across the River Tawe. In this he had the help of yet another acquaintance, Thomas Telford, the famous engineer. It was John Henry’s determination that kept the discussions alive for a decade until work began on the new docks in 1838.

Among industrialists, John Henry was a polymath. Whereas his father had taken the decisive step to extend his activities into smelting, it was John Henry, with his unique blend of scientific and technological experience, who expanded Vivian and Sons into coal-mining, shipping, zinc smelting and marketing in South Wales. The family firm was central to his plans; when his elder brother and partner died in 1842, John Henry was determined to avoid ‘parties thrust on him of whom he knew nothing and who might buy the shares [of his two nephews] to make trouble’. In buying them out he shouldered a £40,000 mortgage which took eight years to repay. But it was worth it, for henceforward John Henry was in complete charge and Vivian and Sons was a Swansea-based firm even more certainly that in the past.

He never subordinated its interests to those of any other consortium he might periodically join in order to guarantee copper prices. As a result, in the 1840s the company was the largest British exporter of finished copper and its share capital exceeded £ ¼ M. John Henry assembled his own fleet of schooners to bring ore from Cornwall and elsewhere, returning with coal and finished copper in their holds. These ships became a familiar sight in the western approaches, and one of them was named ‘Singleton’ after John Henry’s new house. They seemed to the onlooker more like private yachts, with polished brass fittings and officers in smart uniforms. The Vivians’ agents, controlled from the Hafod office, were placed in all the main marketing centres, including London (1828) and the U.S.A. (1837).

In South Wales the firm grew rapidly. In 1839 John Henry bought another copper works at Tai-bach near Margam, and installed his brother-in-law as manager. He also acquired coal mines to supply his smelting operations and he formed

his own Swansea Coal Company (1839). The goods of Vivian and Sons were exported to many parts of the world; in 1845 the company was even making coins for the Malay States and Geneva. John Henry had massively diversified his operations. In the process, Swansea became a metallurgical centre of world significance. As The Cambrian put it in 1850, copper was to Swansea what coal was to Newcastle, wheat to Milwaukee and silk to Lyon.

As an employer, John Henry was no harsher than the average industrialist of his day; in some respects, he was more considerate. At Hafod he created a ‘works town’ which for a long time was known as Vivian’s Town or Trevivian. Rows of houses back to back were rented to his workers; with sewerage systems, little gardens and privies, they were more spacious than the cottages built by the owners of other works. He employed the local children in his works, though usually not until they reached the age of twelve; at Margam some were as young as nine. He supplemented his workers’ wages with free coal and rudimentary pensions and he encouraged their temperate behaviour by refusing to allow a pub on Vivian premises. Above: Hafod Copperworks. A sea of chimneys emitting foul and toxic smoke over the eastern side of the valley. The profits gained by the works would have a terrible legacy in the horrendous pollution that the works created
 Above all, he regarded education as the key to industrial efficiency. In the 1820s John Henry subscribed to the National School in Swansea, while his wife Sarah later organised a model dame school in the Swiss Cottage -at Singleton. At Hafod in 1846-48 he built schools that could accommodate 600 children, who were taught the ‘three Rs’ and also geography, history, and religion of a non-denominational sort (though that did not stop ardent nonconformists from denouncing the schools). This paternalism (or ‘grandmotherliness’, as the local newspaper engagingly described it) was not uncommon for the age. He expected the boys from his schools to go into the Vivian Works and the girls should fulfil what John Henry and his wife regarded as their highest calling, good womanhood and motherhood. In a very long life, Mrs. Vivian rarely failed to pay her weekly visit of inspection to the schools and once a year, on ‘Singleton Day’, the pupils marched to the Abbey to be received by their Vivian patrons. Such social improvements and reformist instincts reflected well on John Henry as a copper-master who was largely self-made and maintained close personal and professional contacts with his employees.
 

 

The View for Sunday 4 December 2000

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