Archaeologists digging up a car park in South Bristol have unearthed the full extent of one of the city’s most ‘secretive’ companies – less than 60 years after it closed down. The team from Wessex Archaeology were given access to the old NCP car park on Dalby Avenue in Bedminster – and discovered, almost entirely intact at ground level, what was left of the site of the Bedminster Smelting Works.
And the below ground discoveries are now helping to shed more light on what was one of South Bristol’s darkest – and dirtiest – chapters, when a highly-polluting chemical work operated for more than 100 years, surrounded by people’s houses.
Just a couple of feet beneath the surface of the car park just off the A38 at Dalby Avenue in Bedminster, the archaeologists found the foundations and ground-level footprint of all the huge smelting work chimneys, furnaces, underground furnaces and stoking cellars, where generations of Bedminster residents worked in often unbearable heat and fumes.
The profits from the business meant that, by the third generation of the Capper Pass family-run business, the family was able to buy a huge country estate in Dorset, far away from the fumes, smoke and stench that characterised the smelting works which stood opposite Bedminster’s main tobacco factory at the bottom of Bedminster Parade.
Wessex Archaeology carried out an excavation there between January and March this year, as work began to dig up the car park, clear the site and build huge blocks of student accommodation that will eventually house up to 837 students, as part of the massive Bedminster Green development project.
One of the reasons the archaeologists were called in was because little was known about the company and how it was set up – the site was quickly demolished and covered over when it eventually closed in 1963, and the car park, Dalby Avenue and the St Catherine’s Place shopping centre was built over the top of it.
According to Simon Cox, from the Bristol and Bath Heritage Consultancy, who worked on the dig too, what went on in the smelting works was a closely-guarded secret.
“This excavation shows us that there is still a great deal to be learned about our relatively recent industrial heritage from archaeological investigations in advance of urban regeneration projects. Documentary research undertaken by Bristol & Bath Heritage Consultancy in preparation for the planning application uncovered much about the history of Capper Pass, but it was clear that they were very secretive about their processes, many of which were highly experimental and unpredictable in nature,” he said.
“The firm originated in Bedminster in the early 19th century and had premises there until the 1960s when its operations moved to its premises in Melton, Yorkshire. It ultimately became globally important as a world-leading producer of tin from secondary sources, and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc by the late 20th century.
“The excavation has helped us to better understand the origins and plan form of the 19th and 20th-century works through various phases of redevelopment – information that was largely kept secret and was therefore not available through documentary sources such as historic maps and plans.
“Along with analysis of samples taken of industrial residues, this information should help us to further refine our understanding of the function of the different furnaces, solder pans and pots revealed during the work by Wessex Archaeology, and therefore the evolution of this internationally important Bedminster-based company,” he added.
The archaeologists found most of the excavated remains date from the later 19th and early 20th centuries and comprise the foundations of industrial buildings containing numerous coal-fired metal smelting furnaces with associated underground flues and stoking cellars, and the bases of three huge Lancashire boilers that provided the steam for the steam engines that powered the works.
“This has been a fascinating site to excavate,” said Wessex Archaeology’s fieldwork director Cai Mason. “It’s hard to imagine what a different place Bedminster must have been in the 19th and early 20th centuries – a densely populated area full of heavy industry, noise, and smoke.
“Capper Pass & Sons was a very innovative and secretive company – this was the best way of preventing your competitors from stealing your ideas – and before we started our excavation, we really had no idea how the smelting works was laid out inside, or how it developed over time.
“One of the things our excavations have shown is that the company seems to have been constantly rebuilding the works. New furnaces were built, then a few years later, they’d be knocked down and replaced with a new – presumably more efficient – design. In the early days of the company it seems to have been very much a case or trial and error – were literally making it up as they went along!” he added.
The 200-year history of smelting in Bedminster
The smelting works was established 182 years ago by a local metal refiner called Capper Pass II, who had learnt his trade from his father, who had been transported to Australia for 14 years for handling stolen metal in 1819.
The junior Capper Pass bought a plot of land in Bedminster’s sprawling slums in 1840 on the new Coronation Street – a street that no longer exists, but was laid out and named after the coronation of William IV and Queen Adelaide in 1832. He built a house for his family and a small smelting work around the back, which was experimental, but not particularly successful.
Capper Pass II tried extracting gold and silver from Sheffield plate and gilded buttons, then refining lead, copper and zinc from cheap waste products like metal ashes, slags and poor-quality ores – it didn’t exactly work and for more than 20 years the smelting works barely broke even.
But in the 1860s, the company discovered a new and highly profitable thing to manufacture – solder, the multi-purpose metal glue that was used to stick metal objects together, especially the new invention of mass-produced tin cans.
The production of solder took off, and as soon as they made enough money, the by now old Capper Pass moved the family away from the smelting works to a new large house in the new and genteel suburb of Redland, high above the stench of industrial South Bristol.
He died in 1870, but his son Alfred Capper Pass took over and expanded the business massively, moving north and south of the existing site and occupying much of the area between the ancient main road through Bedminster and the parallel railway line.
“Pass was a typical Victorian paternalistic industrialist, who used some of his wealth to help fund the Bristol General Hospital and Bristol University College and gave land for the building of St Michael’s Church on Windmill Hill,” said a Wessex Archaeology spokesperson.
From 1870 until Alfred Capper Pass’s death in 1905, the company employed more and more men in the dirty and unhealthy work in the smelting yards, and gave some money to local good causes, including helping to fund the Bristol General Hospital in Redcliffe and the University College, as well as giving land for the building of St Michael’s Church on Windmill Hill. Most of the money the family kept, however, and they were able to move out of Redland and Bristol altogether, moving to a succession of bigger and bigger homes, ending up with the purchase of a large country estate at Wootton Fitzpaine in Dorset.
The demand for solder continued to increase into the 20th century, with the new development of electrical goods, circuit boards and cars, and the works needed to expand more – but the site was now surrounded by tightly-packed terrace homes, with space in Bedminster also in demand from the growing tobacco factories and a number of tanneries.
The company found a new site in Melton, near Hill, and from 1937 onwards, production gradually shifted there. The Bedminster Smelting Works closed in 1963 and the site was levelled, and covered with the car park and St Catherine’s Place shopping centre, with a new bypass of East Street – Dalby Avenue and Malago Road – put through the middle of it.
Now the next generation of use for the area – the Bedminster Green regeneration project – will see huge blocks of flats built in the area, including at the car park off Dalby Avenue.