Between January and March 2022, Wessex Archaeology carried out an archaeological excavation at Plot 3 Bedminster Green – once the site of the Bedminster Smelting Works – for Bristol and Bath Heritage Consultancy, on behalf of Watkin Jones.

The smelting works was established in 1840 by a local metal refiner named Capper Pass II, who bought a vacant plot on Coronation Street (named after the coronation of William IV and Queen Adelaide in 1832), where he constructed a house for his family and a small smelting works. Pass learnt his trade from his father (of the same name), who, following his conviction for handling stolen metal in 1819, was transported to Australia for 14 years, leaving Capper Pass junior in charge of the business.

Initially Capper Pass II experimented with extracting gold and silver from Sheffield plate and gilded buttons, and later tried refining lead, copper, and zinc from cheap waste products like metal ashes, slags, and poor-quality ores. For many years he barely broke even, but in the 1860s, the company finally found a product – solder – that turned out to be highly profitable.

Solder – the multi-purpose ‘glue’ of the Victorian era – was an essential product used for sticking all manner of metal objects together, most notably food cans. The latter allowed otherwise perishable goods to be stored for long periods, which help lower the cost of food for Britain’s growing, and increasingly urban, population.

Capper Pass’ success allowed the family to move to a large new house in Redland, where he died in 1870. The company then passed to his son, Alfred Capper Pass, who undertook a massive expansion of the business. 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. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Pass family moved to a succession of increasingly large houses, culminating in the purchase of a large country estate in Wootton Fitzpaine, Dorset, Alfred Capper Pass died in 1905, and the company continued under the directorship of his son Alfred Douglas Pass.

During the 20th century, various new applications for solder emerged – notably the burgeoning electrical and automotive industries. Increasing demand for solder led to further expansion of the works, but by the 1920s, it was clear that the Bedminster works, which was constrained on all sides by houses and other industrial premises, was far too small. A new site was eventually found in Melton, near Hull, and from 1937 onwards production gradually shifted to the new works. The Bedminster Smelting Works closed in 1963 and the site was subsequently levelled to make way for Dalby Avenue, St Catherine’s Place, and a carpark.

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.

Cai Mason, archaeological fieldwork director for Wessex Archaeology, states: ‘This has been a fascinating site to excavate. 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 an error – were literally making it up as they went along!’

One of the challenges of excavating industrial sites of this nature is the sheer volume of soil and rubble involved, and we are very grateful to Watkin Jones for their support and the demolition contractors Wring Group Ltd. who helped us clear back the rubble to expose the hidden remains of the smelting works’.

Watkin Jones, said: “It’s thrilling to learn about the history of Bedminster Green and how we are continuing the history of South Bristol as a hotbed of innovation, invention and regeneration. Like Capper Pass & Sons we are using the latest technology and techniques to make our places as efficient and sustainable as possible, although they are designed to last for many decades rather than a few years. And, who knows, one of the students or residents making their home here could bring the new big invention or development to the area.”

Simon Cox, of Bristol & Bath Heritage Consultancy, said: ‘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. 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.’