Thomas Williams would fill more than one book on his own and, indeed does, and although he really purchased Temple Mills for his eldest son, as a private company, to all intents and purposes it was part of his great copper empire. This empire also gave him important by-products like vitriol, the basis of the emerging chemical industry which later became ICI. He also controlled what later became the Pilkington Glass Works and was really the founder of the industrial revolution in South Lancashire.
So, once again, Temple Island has its place in the large pageant of British history, and plays its part as a most important pioneer of the industrial revolution.
But first to the redoubtable Mr Williams. He began as a country solicitor in Anglesey. By 1769 he was involved in lawsuits connected with the ownership of mineral rights on the Parys Mountain, about half a mile inland from the small Anglesey harbour of Amlwch. Up to 1761 most of the copper ore had come from deep mines in Cornwall, but it was always expensive as the deeper the workings the more difficult the extraction, at least before the invention of adequate pumping machines. In 1761 old copper workings, probably Roman, were found on Parys by the agent of Sir Nicholas Bayly, later the Earl of Uxbridge. The decision of Sir Nicholas to start mining without consultation with his neighbours led to the great lawsuit in which Thomas Williams acted for the Hughes family, co-owners of the Parys mountain. This legal contest was to last seven years but at the end of it the country lawyer was not only an expert in the mining of copper but a shrewd and accomplished businessman. By the early summer of 1774, Williams and Hughes had obtained an injunction against mining at Parys by Sir Nicholas and, before he could appeal against it, had started mining themselves, even using Sir Nicholas’ own tools. By 1776, agreement for joint working had been reached but Sir Nicholas decided to lease his interest to the London Banker, John Dawes. No sooner had Dawes obtained the lease for twenty-one years that he joined Hughes and Williams to form the Parys Mine Company and by 1778 the whole Anglesey mining interest was under control. The most ‘active’ partner was Thomas Williams and the Parys mine was very productive and easily worked. This was soon to bring William’s into conflict with the vested interest of Cornish miners and the associated smelters, whose products he could undercut at his pleasure. By 1787 he had virtually taken over the administration of the whole Cornish copper industry and by 1792 had the monopoly of copper mining and production in the whole Britain and this meant the largest in the world. The Cornish interests alone had a working capital of half a million pounds and also had two smelting works in Swansea, a group of mills at Holywell, smelting works in South Lancashire, copper warehouses in London, Birmingham and Liverpool, a chemical works in Liverpool and a Bank in North Wales.
The capital he controlled must have been very nearly £1,000,000,000. As a sideline, but of course a profitable one, and an interest for his eldest son, he also brought the two groups of Pengree mills at Wraysbury and at Temple. It is doubtful whether his family inherited their father’s entrepreneurial skill but he secured the prosperity of his eldest son by setting up Temple Mills as a partnership between Owen Williams and Pascoe Grenfell. This was a very sound move for Pascoe Grenfell was Williams’ chief assistant in the London Copper Office, a gifted salesman and an expert in the copper sheathing of navy and merchant ships
This became an important and expanding industry throughout the 19th century and even up to the building of ‘iron’ ships. Even today, boats are taken out of the water at intervals to be ‘antifouled’ with ‘hard racing copper’. This is vital for wooden boats and very desirable even for fibreglass and metal boats.
The reason for this is that the hulls of boats become covered with algae which seriously reduces their speed and efficiency and to prevent this, and attacks by worms, especially in seagoing boats and those which ply in tropical waters, the hulls are given a coat of copper-based paint. Ships had originally been sheathed with another of wood which could easily be replaced but ‘coppering’ was much more efficient and meant more money for the owners as the ships were faster and more manoeuvrable. It also meant a distinct advantage in war. Rodney affirmed that “copper-bottom ships are absolutely necessary”.
There was only one problem, however. Machinery was already in use, and at Temple Mills, which could roll out thin sheets of copper but these had to be nailed or bolted to the hull of the ship with iron bolts. Though the copper was impervious to rust, the iron deteriorated and the ship became like a pincushion and slowly sank to the bottom. Two famous French ships were sunk in this way as well as many others, as Thomas Williams himself reports to the parliamentary committee looking into the copper sheathing. Because of this, despite the early success of ‘coppering’, by 1782 the Admiralty feared that it would have to be discontinued.
Williams eventually found a solution by patronising an inventor of copper bolts and selling ‘Westwood and Collins Patent Bolts’. Westwood had invented a cold rolling method for copper bar which gradually reduced it by passing it through grooved rollers while drawing it out to the required thickness. In 1784, the Admiralty ordered all new ships to be fitted with these patent bolts. Williams sold both the copper and the bolts and he sold them through a travelling exhibition set up by Pascoe Grefell, to the French, Dutch and Spanish Navies.