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  • Irish-Welsh Ancestry

James Clark – Spelterman

Our client asked us to research their family who had lived in the Welsh town of Swansea for a number of years. Their great grandfather, James Clark, was born on the 6th of March 1867 at the Barrack Houses in Morriston, Swansea. James Clarks’ parents were John Clark and Jane Harvey, both of which were originally from Bristol. The Barrack Houses were built by Vivians and sons, a metallurgical and chemicals business, to house workers that came to Wales to work in their spelter works. Presumably James’ father John would have worked at their Old Forest spelter works as he is named as a spelterman on his children’s birth certificates. From census records James Clark was at least one of eight children and he and his two eldest brothers would join their father in working as speltermen. The children of both John Clark and Jane Harvey include the following:

Mary Anne Clark born about 1844.

William Clark born 1846.

Elizabeth Clark 1850.

Selena Clark 1852.

Edwin John Clark 1859.

Harriet Clark 1863.

James Clark 1867.

Thomas Clark 1877.

There may well have been more children born but died before appearing on the census’ from 1841-1881.

On the 13th of November 1886 James’ mother Jane had an epileptic fit and fell into the fire at their home. She was severely burnt and died a few days later. James was 19 years of age, and his youngest brother would have only been 9.

James Clark married Catherine Morgan in 1888, who’s own father was a tin worker and grandfather a copper smelter. At the time of their marriage James was 21 and had already been working as a spelterman for at least 6 years. They would go on to have 10 children, 9 of which would live to adulthood. James’ sons would work in the nearby British Mannesmann Tube Co. producing steel tubes. The site was next to the spelter works where their father worked.

(Aerial photo of the British Mannesmann Tube Co., Landore, Swansea.)

Their eldest daughter, Mary Jane Clark, was born on the 9th of April 1893. She would later talk about how hard it was helping her mother to prepare baths for her father and seven brothers in addition to cleaning and cooking for them all. In 1918 she would marry Robert Lewis, a colliery stoker who worked at Tirdonkin Colliery. Due to the closure of the Tirdonkin Colliery in 1928, Robert Lewis would go on to work as a coal discharger at the Mannesmann steel tube works where his wife’s brothers worked. They both initially lived at 1a Smyrna Steet and then later 26 Essex Terrace, both in Plasmarl, where the family continued to live until the 1990’s.

(Map of Tirdonkin Colliery.)

Speltermen were workers in foundries who extracted and worked zinc, which was then known as Spelter. Zinc had been found in the lower Swansea Valley which resulted in Swansea becoming the centre of its production in the UK. The production of Zinc in Swansea increased immensely as new uses were identified, due to its anti-corrosive properties, and would be used to galvanise iron and later steel. Subsequently several Zinc smelting works were established along the river Tawe where James and many of his family lived and worked.

(Map of the Landore area of Swansea where the family lived and worked for over 100 years.)

Working in the zinc works as a Spelterman was a difficult and dangerous occupation with many of the workers suffering from disablement and ill health. Lead, Arsenic and Zinc poisoning were some of the toxic risks that Speltermen were exposed to.

Many workers came from Europe to live in Swansea and be employed in the Zinc works. James Clark’s sister Selina Clark can be seen on the 1881 census working as a servant for a father and son who are from Liege, Belgium. They both are working as pipe makers at the spelter works.

By 1912, when James Clark was 45 and had worked in the Zinc works for 25 years, the working conditions for the Speltermen of Swansea were debated in Parliament. The reason for this was due to the shocking conditions that these men were exposed to from the long hours worked and poisonous fumes inhaled. The men would work seven days a week without a days break all year round. Despite these arduous conditions, the Speltermen were paid considerably less wages than workers in steel and tinplate industries.

It was presented to Parliament that there had been 77 cases of lead poisoning in the previous 5 years among the spelter men of Swansea. 10 of these cases were reported as severe with 4 leading to deaths. 30 as moderate and 37 as slight. There were 17 cases of ‘wrist drop’ which is a disorder where nerve damage is caused by lead poisoning and the person is unable to lift the wrist due to damage to the radial nerve. It was documented by RO Roberts in his book, ‘The smelting of non-ferrous metals since 1750’, that the workers ‘endured 24-hour shifts and Sunday working and in addition were susceptible to diseases such as ‘spelter shakes’ which not only brought about a great deal of ill-health but also led to their death at the average age of 35.’

Despite the risks and conditions that the workers experienced, John Clark, father to James Clark, didn’t succumb to an early death like many other Speltermen. In the 1891 census, John Clark is living with his son James Clark on Wern Pit Road age 73. The census documents his occupation as still being a Spelterman.

Speltermen like James Clark carried out several disputes with their employers over pay, working hours, and conditions. In 1893 Dillwyn & Co. workers like James took industrial action and went on strike over pay for four weeks. Even by the turn of the century furnace chargemen like James Clark would have only been earning around 6 shillings a day. Industrial disputes continued over the coming years and speltermen fought in 1912 for a six-day week so they could have every Sunday off from work. They again took industrial action, but this didn’t include the workers of Dillwyn & Co. as they had already obtained two Sundays off in every three. By 1913 it was being debated by Parliament in the Weekly Rest-Day Bill to secure a six-day working week for all workers, in addition to and payment for a week’s holiday per year, a paid May 1st Bank Holiday as well as for public holidays. The outbreak of war in 1914 postponed the bill coming into force.

Post war decline resulted in job losses and decline of the metal industries in the lower Swansea Valley. In the 1921 census James Clark is still working as a Spelterman at the Dillwyn & Co. spelter works at the age of 54 and his role is furnace chargeman. However, four of his six sons were out of work. They had been working for the British Mannesmann Tube Works and Baldwins and Co. Steel works in Landore. Seven years later in 1928, James Clark died aged 61.

(Snuff box belonging to James Clark)

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