Sunday, January 1, 2012

Thomas Harrison and the Copper King


Thomas Harrison and the Copper King

From reading the book on the Radcliffe Trust by Ivor Guest you are presented with the image of Thomas Harrison as a land agent for the trust who was also a gentleman farmer. He does drop hints that Harrison may have had other resources and he does describe his involvement in the ill-fated wooden aqueduct, but overall we are left with the impression that these activites were sidelines. In fact the reverse appears to be true; Harrison had his fingers in many pies, some of them very lucrative indeed. And his administration of the Wolverton Estate may have taken up the smallest amount of his time. His income of £40 a year for managing the Wolverton Estate was not much better than the annual stipend of the Vicar of Holy Trinity and could not begin to cover the lifestyle he evidently enjoyed. One can only assume that it suited him to live at Wolverton because of its proximity to the Watling Street, the major highway that connected him to his business interests in London, the West Midlands and North Wales.

At the time he became land agent for the Radcliffe Trust  in 1773 he was already the principal agent for Earl Spencer, who had come into a vast inheritance from his grandmother the Duchess of Marlborough. The job of managing the Wolverton estate would have been a small bolt-on activity for the energetic Harrison but it may be that the opportunity suited him very well. He was living at the time in the old Wittewronge mansion at Stantonbury, part of Spencer’s Marlborough inheritance. Stantonbury was barely populated at the time but it may have had some advantage for Harrison being midway between the Spencer lands in Northamptonshire and those in Hertfordshire. From there he would have been able to travel where necessary and be no more than a day’s journey away. It is hard to put any other construction on this. The Stantonbury estate by itself, mainly grazing land, could not have supported a man of Harrison’s calibre. A bailiff, for example, at a fraction of Harrison’s income, would have been sufficient to collect rents and attend to the needs of the estate. This mansion had been built in 1662 and was probably brick-built, although we have no way of knowing since no description of any kind survives, but judging by the complete absence of any ruin, a brick building seems most likely as bricks, compared to stones, are more easily cleared from a site. Again this is guesswork, but since this mansion disappeared a few years after the Harrisons vacated it one can assume that the building was in a poor state of repair and probably too difficult and expensive to resuscitate. The Radcliffe Trust job gave Harrison the opportunity to move to more habitable accommodation and live close to the Watling Street.

Somehow, possibly through the Spencer association, he came into contact with the Paget family, Earls of Uxbridge and later Marquesses of Anglesey. The Paget family were an old family with their seat at Beaudesert in Staffordshire’ Cannock Chase and Thomas Harrison was first employed to look after these interests. Caroline Paget was the last of this line and she had married Sir Nicholas Bayly, an Anglesey baronet, and it was this connection that brought everybody in this story into the new world of the industrial revolution.

The Baylys owned half of a mountain in Anglesey which, in this new age that was hungry for metal, was found to have an extremely rich and accessible seam of copper. However, the seam of copper was no respecter of surface land boundaries and inevitably disputes arose with the owner of the other half of the mountain, the Reverend Edward Hughes. The struggle between them was fierce and litigious.

At some stage after Hughes had established his own mining company he engaged the services of one of the sharpest and most enterprising minds of the new industrial age, Thomas Williams. Williams was an Anglesey lawyer without any great prospects ahead of him until he came to represent Edward Hughes in the dispute with the Baylys. From here he was able to use his agile mind and tough bargaining credentials to build up his own industrial empire. He later became known as the Copper King and rubbed shoulders on equal terms with the likes of Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Williams was easily able to bring about beneficial deals for Edward Hughes and himself and leave Sir Nicholas Bayly and his agent Hugh price puzzled and discontented, and it was probably in an attempt to bring the contest to more equal terms that Henry Bayly (Sir Nicholas’s son and heir and the future Earl of Uxbridge) brought in Thomas Harrison. Harrison was up against a very considerable opponent.


The discovery of the copper seam was dated to March 2nd 1768, long before Harrison became involved, and was initially worked by Roe and Company, a firm of Chester mining engineers, with Bayly taking a 1/8 share. Sir Nicholas later had regrets about the arrangement, believing, with some justification, that he had less than he deserved. Issues were further complicated by interventions by the Reverend Edward Hughes, who owned the other half of Parys mountain and there were several litigious dispute during the 1770s.

During this period the Hughes family had engaged the services of an Anglesey lawyer, Thomas Williams. Williams was an opportunist of the first rank and subsequently parlayed his role in this local dispute into a very considerable fortune for himself and an almost monopolistic control of the copper industry in late 18th century Britain. At his death in 1802 his many companies were valued in total at over £1 million – a huge sum in those days. Williams was clever and unscrupulous but clearly had the personality and charm to convince a number of hard-headed businessmen to enter into deals and partnerships with him.

One early sign of his method of operating emerged in 1778 when he persuaded Sir Nicholas Bayly, by then worn down by years of litigation, to lease his share of the mine to John Dawes, a London banker, for 21 years. With the ink scarcely dry on the agreement, Dawes then formed a new mining company with Hughes and Williams, thereby bringing the Parys Mountain mining enterprise under the control of one company. There is little doubt that Williams was behind this move and he became the powerful figure in the partnership. Sir Nicholas Bayly’s share of the lease to Dawes was for 1/3 of the production. A month later the terms were changed and agreed as a fixed sum of £4000 per annum. In retrospect, not the best deal for Sir Nicholas.

Thomas Harrison entered the picture in 1782 when he was asked by Sir Nicholas’s son and heir Henry to compile a report on the mining operations in Anglesey. Harrison had no background in mining and appears to have come into the picture as a land agent for the Pagets at Beaudesert in Staffordshire. However, Sir Nicholas’s land agent at Plas Newydd, Hugh Price, was obviously being outfoxed by Williams and a sharper brain, one more attuned to the times, was needed. Henry Bayly was concerned about his inheritance but Sir Nicholas was still alive, so by asking Thomas Harrison to compile a report Henry Bayly hoped to gather intelligence without outflanking his father or his agent Hugh Price. Price was undoubtedly worried by this intervention and tried to counter any potential criticism by insisting at the outset that he had “repeatedly requested” a copy of the lease between Sir Nicholas and Charles Roe, but that the baronet had kept all negotiations secret. Whether this was true or not Price was obviously sensitive to the inadequate terms of the agreement with Dawes.

Thomas Harrison could not but note the desolate landscape of the mining operation:
Not a blade of any sort can live where the Smoke reaches as is evident from the burning of Ore which destroys and has destroyed every thing of the Vegetable kind within its reach, and such is the stench of it, as well as its tendency to suffocation, that no mortal being can think of living near such works, but those who are employed in them.[1]

Obviously a startlingly different environment from the gentle Cowperian landscape of the Ouse valley.

Harrison then proceeded to describe the mines and the port of Amlwch together with the smelting works in Lancashire and Swansea, which he presumably visited, and their operations. It is not until 1784, after the death of Sir Nicholas, that he is able to report on the accounts. The news was not good. In a letter dated 19th January 1784  he sends a warning to the earl of Uxbridge, “to my great Mortification, I have already proceeded enough to put me in a cold Sweat.” He warns that expenditure appeared to exceed income (albeit a huge figure of £14,000 for December and January) and he could see no immediate solution to the problem. He complained to Paget about the amount of time he was spending on this work. He wrote that his son (presumably John Harrison, then about 24) had “not spent a day in any other Business since the 25th December” and he had spent three-quarters of his time on this work, which was a long way from being finished.[2]

This work brought him into regular contact with Thomas Williams who was angling to increase his control of copper production by acquiring the Cerrig y Bledda mine, a smaller mine, still in the hands of Uxbridge with the lease to Roe and company expiring in 1786. Harrison met with Williams in August 1784 to discuss irregularities in the accounts for the Parys mine, and at this time Williams broached the subject of taking over the lease for the Cerrig y Bledda mine. Harrison wrote to Paget on August 21st 1784 to ask if his lordship wished to work the mine himself or lease it. Paget firmly replied firmly that he wished to retain the mine and work it directly.

This determination may have been prompted by Harrison’s investigation which revealed that Roe and Company had been taking £15,000 a year in profit for the previous three years, although he may not have heeded the caveat that because of the poor drafting of the lease “they could take all the ore they cared to at the least expense and leave the more difficult to a later date,” meaning that the most accessible ore was taken first. In retrospect these were the most productive and profitable years for the mine.[3]

A deal was concluded that involved the ambitious Thomas Williams. On 11th October 1785 Harrison recorded, “We yesterday took possession of the Cerrig y Bleiddia Mine being first agreed with Roe and Co. for all their engines, stock of coal, utensils, implements and iron at the sum of £2,013.6.0d.[4]…The possession of this work by Lord Uxbridge and Mr. Williams as joint adventurers in the proportion of ¾ to His Lordship and ¼ to Mr. Williams commenced on 10 October 1785.”[5]

Something must have happened between September 5th when Uxbridge was minded to take no partners and October 10th when the new company  was founded. What convinced Uxbridge to change his mind we do not know, but plainly, Williams had got his way.

Williams was nothing if not determined to get a share in the new mining company and had several meetings with Harrison in London and Anglesey to pursue his case, and one can only conclude that Harrison’s recommendation had some bearing on Uxbridge allowing Williams a quarter share in the new venture, since as late as September 5th 1785 the earl was determined to go it alone. One can only conclude that something happened that made Harrison more amenable to Williams involvement and that he was able to persuade his lordship..

Harrison could have advanced good reasons for the earl to take Williams into partnership. The best parts of the mine were depleted and Roe and Company had left the mine in a poor state with a lot of clearing up to do. Lord Uxbridge knew very little about mining and with the example of his father before him he may have been reluctant to get into a protracted legal battle with Williams, who was a master of that game. Even so, at least one writer suggests collusion between Williams and Harrison to achieve an outcome desirable to Williams.
One need not look too far to discover Harrison and Williams working together behind the scenes, in part evidenced by Harrison’s inclusion in one of the manufacturing partnerships.[6]

This is difficult territory for the historian because there is absolutely no proof one way or the other of any impropriety on the part of Thomas Harrison but some of the circumstantial happenings around this time should raise some questions.

We can note the following. The Stanley Smelting Company, which had works at St Helens and Swansea, was half owned by Lord Uxbridge and a quarter owned by Thomas Williams. The remaining quarter was shared between the ironmaster, John Wilkinson, the works manager, Michael Hughes, the London banker and investor, John Dawes, and Thomas Harrison. Another company, the Greenfield Copper and Brass Company in Flintshire was another Williams company and Harrison appears about this time as a minor shareholder. And finally there was the Flint Coal Canal company, founded in 1784, which included all the players in the Parys Mountain mining drama, Edward Hughes, Thomas Williams, John Wilkinson, Edward Jones, a lead mine owner at Wepre, Flintshire, and Thomas Harrison.

Unfortunately we still do not know enough about Thomas Harrison’s background to properly assess his wealth. He was certainly well-to-do at his death in 1809 and he was able to make good the damages assessed against him for the failed Wolverton aqueduct, a sum of over £9,000, without significant impact on the family. A few years later his son Richard was able to meet the demands of creditors on the failure of the Stony Stratford Bank without falling into bankruptcy. So the Harrisons had resources, although notably not in land, which would lead me to conjecture that Thomas Harrison did not himself inherit any land and had to make his way in the world without significant assets.  Did he have sufficient cash resources to invest in these companies in the 1780s, and if so, where did the money come from?

Without being able to answer that question one might ask if these shareholdings actual investments by Thomas Harrison or did they represent compensation for services rendered? It is tempting to put the latter construction on this. As indicated earlier, the business of the mines was taking up a lot of Thomas Harrison’s time for no other compensation other than expenses. As land agent for the Pagets at Beaudesert he was probably paid something like £40 a year, a similar sum to that which he drew from the Radcliffe Trust and Earl Spencer. The fee served the function of a retainer for services which involved some regular duties and occasional periods of activity. From the correspondence of the period 1783-5 it does appear that Harrison was under additional pressure of work and at one point is employing his son to assist him. So it is perhaps not surprising that he also looked for other opportunities to make some extra money. Certainly during this period he became a shareholder in several associated companies.

In the Stanley Smelting Company the major shareholders are Uxbridge and Williams, but the smaller shareholders were all active functionaries in the setting up and running of the company, so it is reasonable to infer that they were rewarded with small shares that would one day compensate them for their extra efforts. The same interpretation can be placed on Harrison’s shares in the Greenfield company, except that here Uxbridge was not a shareholder and it can only be deduced that these shares represented a reward from Williams for “services rendered”. These services may have been in conflict with his nominal master Lord Uxbridge and therefore may raise a query about Harrison’s integrity. In a rather rambling letter dated 11 May 1786, Harrison is full of apology to the Earl of Uxbridge, although the exact cause of the upset is not identified. The earl was annoyed with Harrison and Williams about something and one interpretationmay be that he was unhappy with the way Harrison had represented his interests.

The final company, the Flint Coal Canal Company, is more of a puzzle. The company was set up in 1784, involving many of the players in these other companies. They did go as far as obtaining an Act of Parliament approving the canal in 1788, but the canal was never built. The only construction was a bridge over the Wepre river with a plaque bearing the names of the directors, strangely enough nowhere near the line of the proposed canal. The authorized capital was £20,000. Was this capital actually raised? Did anyone lose money? Did anyone make any money? What was the point?

At the time of his involvement with the Anglesey enterprises, between 1782 – 1786, Thomas Harrison was able to build Wolverton House at a cost of £1840. He was able to recover £500 from the Radcliffe Trust, but even so was a large amount of money for the age. And from what we might guess about his “regular” income this figure represents more than ten times that figure – a highly speculative amount in any age, even assuming that he could borrow the money.

It is tempting to conclude that the house was built from the proceeds of his activity in Anglesey during the period. The modernization of the old farmhouse may have begun with modest intentions in 1782, but in the last two years of the building program he must have realized large tranches of money from his industrial shares that enabled him to build Wolverton’s largest house. This is pure speculation on my part but such a conclusion can be drawn from the coincidence of the building of Wolverton House and his adventure in the copper mining industry. One can also observe that the Harrison family lived at Wolverton for almost a decade before attempting a building program.

It is curious that we know so little about the origins of a man who became prominent in his lifetime. His date of birth can be inferred as 1734, but his place of birth and parentage is as yet unknown. He had a sister who married into a Halifax family, which might suggest Yorkshire origins, although his connection to Earl Spencer would suggest Northamptonshire or Hertfordshire or London origins. He had two marriages, but neither one has turned up in records, nor has the burial of his first wife Elizabeth. Any one of these could provide useful clues.

We can make some assumptions: he was well connected, belonging to a middle class family of appropriate status and that he must have had some legal training. There is a record of a Thomas Harrison at the Inner Temple from 1754 to 1757, and this man is recorded as the third son of Sir Thomas Harrison. He may be a candidate, although the age of 20 seems to be a bit late to enter the Inns of Court. Also, if he named his first son John, then, according to the naming conventions of the time, one might look to a John Harrison as father. There are many Thomas Harrisons to choose from during the period, each from various parts of the country, and none with an obvious standout claim to be Wolverton’s Thomas Harrison. During the drafting of the mining leases he uses the services of a Mr. Harrison, a solicitor from Daventry. Was he related?

The quest will continue but for the moment I am inclined to assume that he had some money behind him, but probably not a great deal. It is more likely that he used his brains and ability to take advantage of the opportunities open to him, rather like Thomas Williams, although on a less extravagant scale.

It is tempting to see Harrison and Williams as men cut from similar cloth. Williams father was a middle class landowner in Anglesey, but by no means rich. His son had legal training and was able to build a respectable practise in Anglesey. His first involvement in the copper business obviously inspired him to develop his deal-making skills in this industry and at one time he held monopoly control of all copper mining in Cornwall and Wales, as well as the related processing industries.

By comparison Harrison was a small player but he seems to have been astute enough to develop some wealth from his contacts. On the whole he appears to have held his own with Williams and emerged financially better off from the experience, and the knowledge gained may have encouraged him to invest in other industrial enterprises, which he undoubtedly did.

A final comment about Williams may give us some taste of the character of the man he had to deal with:

Let me advise you to be extremely cautious in your dealings with Williams. He is a perfect tyrant and not over tenacious of his word and will screw damned hard when he has got anybody in his vice.[7]


[1] Thomas Harrison. Mona Mine MS. University of Wales, Bangor: MS3544.
[2] Ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] Thomas Harrison. Memorandum dated 11 October 1785, Mona Mine MS. University of Wales, Bangor: MS 3485.
[5] Thomas Harrison. Memorandum dated 31 March 1788, Mona Mine MS. University of Wales, Bangor: MS 3046.
[6] Dorothy Bentley Smith. A Georgian Gent & Co.: The Life and Times of Charles Roe of Macclesfield. Landmark Publishing Ltd: 2005. P.473.
[7] Letter from Thomas Wilson to James Watt, 15 September 1790.

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