Rio Tinto History - Lady Mary Herbert de Powis

The only painting of Mary that survives is allegorical, by Lanscroon and
The only painting of Mary that survives is allegorical, by Lanscroon, on the ceiling of the library in Powis Castle. Mary represents Minerva, the Roman goddess of truth and wisdom, and is seated on a cloud. © National Trust /Michelle Chaplow

Lady Mary Herbert de Powis (1686-1775)

by Chris Chaplow

Lady Mary Herbert de Powis was a remarkable women who led a long and interesting life. In 1727 she emigrated to Spain and, like many expats who followed her, the motivation was to seek new adventures.

Doña Maria Herbert de Powis, whose family seat was Powis Castle in Wales, was awarded a contract by Conde de Cogorani of Compañia Española to drain and work the Pozo Rico silver mine. This is located in Guadalcanal in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, located about 80km east of Rio Tinto. On completion of drainage, she would be paid 40% of her expenses, and thence have the right to mine for Compañia Española and retain 40% of the mines' produce. 

It is not known how this Welsh lady became involved in mining in 18th-century Andalucía, with the accompanying heat and hardships. Mary claimed that her family's lead mine in Llangynog in Montgomeryshire "made a noise in Spain", although this is unlikely. She may have been "headhunted" by a certain Abbé Paretti, a professional intriguer who flitted about the salons of European diplomats, and whom she had probably met at Spa (Belgium) a few years earlier.

Powis Castle the family home of Lady Mary, who decided to move to Andalucia and run the Rio Tinto Mines. ©Michelle Chaplow
Powis Castle, the family home of Lady Mary, who decided to move to Andalucia and run the Rio Tinto Mines.

Mary began work on the project from Madrid, writing letters to family and friends in order to raise money and recruit miners. She moved to Sevilla in early 1729, the same time that Spain's King Philip V and Queen Isabel moved their court from Madrid to Sevilla, a strongly royalist city which then became capital of Spain for four years. Lady Mary had to resist taking part in the royal court alongside grandees such as the Duchess of Alba, Duke of Medina Sidonia, Medinaceli family and Albuquerque family, on account of her limited financial situation.

Mary concentrated on putting together a mining team on minimal finances. The first attempt failed; her father had recruited an Irish lead-miner called Donnelly, whom Mary met in Lisbon and found totally unsuitable. Donnelly continued on to Cádiz and made a point of intercepting other recruited miners en route for Guadalcanal to dissuade them from continuing. Mary's agents in Cádiz tried to limit the damage, and differences appear to have come to a head in an all-night drunken brawl at Plunket's Tavern in Cádiz. 

While Mary mainly attended to affairs in Sevilla, her lifetime suitor Count Joseph Cage managed the mine. David Avery and others claim they were married, but Martin Murphy's more detailed work argues they were not, including accounts of how Mary colluded with her father to keep Joseph Cage forever waiting for her hand.

Mary was desperate to leave Spain in order to pursue legal actions in England and France during the early 1730s, but was prohibited under the terms of the mining contract. She tried, and failed, to obtain a surcéance or legal amnesty - so, as was her way, she started pulling strings. She met a Welsh priest in Sanlucar de Barrameda who suggested writing a letter to the Pope, using a Welsh bishop as a go-between.

On the evening of 18 April 1732 a mule-drawn carriage pulled into the village inn of Santa Olalla del Cala (Huelva) on the road to Lisbon. The presence of two British ladies (Mary and her aunt Lady Carrington) did not go unnoticed, as Mary recounted in a letter to her father:

"We were no sooner arrived there but a message from the Alcalde (Mayor) to know if he could see me. I imagined it to be a compliment to welcome me to the place, so I welcomed him to come in. He came accompanied with 12 men with guns... He said that he was a bearer of an order form the King that forbid me from leaving his dominions. My presence being necessary for Royal service. I replied that I was glad I could be of any use to his Royal Majesty and was willing to return the next day to Sevilla. He said that could not be neither and I was a prisoner there until 'further orders came from the court'."

Acording to Martin Murphy, by July 1732, Joseph Gage and superintendent Richard Richardson had pulled off a heroic feat with a motley crew of 400 labourers, draining the Guadalcanal mine down to level six. David Avery attributes this hands-on feat to Lady Mary herself, whilst Cage was "looking after their northern interests". Either way, a certificate was issued by inspectors, but Conde de Cogorani had no intention of paying her. Mary took eight years to win the case in court, during which time she had to remain in Span, as the mine slowly filled with water.

Gage did not hang around. He found a gold mine in Opresa (Toledo), a silver mine in Cazalla (Sevilla), a copper mine in Casares (Extremadura) and a gold mine in Sierra Jaena (Castilla La Mancha), but he lacked funds to exploit any of them. Mary wrote more letters and also tried to raise funds on a legend that the Fuggers (the German banking family who had been the previous consession holders at the Guadalcanal mine) had hidden large sums of gold behind a false wall in the Guadalcanal mine down at level 10.

Finally, in 1742 she won her long lawsuit against Compañia Española. As compensation, the mine was assigned to her directly and so were all the mines from the original concession to Herbert Wolters, including Rio Tinto. Naturally Samuel Tiquets (Wolters' heir) protested, but in reply a Royal Decree dated October that year declared his forfeiture as Wolters had not exploited the mine in his own lifetime.

With Samuel Tiquets in Madrid appealing the decision, Mary moved in to take over at Rio Tinto, where she started making coperas and vitriol for medicines, and dyes for Sevilla's growing hat-making industry. She also started draining old workings.

In Madrid, Tiquets argued that Lady Mary's coperas and vitriol were inferior to his and he promised to increase production. He obviously made a good impression on the new King Ferdinand VI, who issued a July 1746 decree depriving Lady Mary Herbert of the mines of Rio Tinto and Aracena, and bestowing them on Tiquets for 30 further years.

When Tiquets returned to the mine, he found the Lady had discharged the employees, sold the stocks and stores, disposed of the mules and horses, destroyed the drainage pipes and tanks, and demolished the buildings. 

Looking back, King Ferdinand VI's decision may have unknowingly done a disservice to Rio Tinto, which would probably have benefited from Lady Mary's endeavours.




The full story of Lady Mary Herbert de Powis is told in the 120-page biography "The Duchess of Rio Tinto, the story of Mary Herbert and Joseph Gage" with 237 references by Martin Murphy, although only a few pages concern Rio Tinto.

As a Catholic, Mary was educated outside England, in Ghent (Belgium). Living in Paris, she knew John Law, the Scottish economist who invented paper money and started the Mississippi Company. She made and then lost a fortune in the Mississippi Company bubble, which burst in 1721. Mary constantly moved lodgings to avoid creditors, conducting a lengthy lawsuit against Irish-French banker and merchant Richard Cantillon, who moved to Albemarle Street in Mayfair, London in 1734, and died there in mysterioius circumstances. Most probably he faked his own death and escaped to Surinam. Mary was still pursuing his heirs when her longtime suitor Joseph Gage died in 1768.

Debt, litigation and intrigue dominated her remarkable life. She passed her last years at the Hotel de Boisbodron in Temple precinct in Paris, a state within a state, with a population of about 4,000 aristocrats, debtors and craftsmen who wanted to avoid taxes. During the French Revolution Temple became a prison, and the area was completely demolished by Napoleon in 1808 to prevent it from becoming a royalist pilgrimage site. Today only the street, market and metro name remain.

Mary died in September 1775 aged 89, and was laid to rest at the chapel in the Temple, Paris.

She was remembered in Andalucía for her dreams, and in Wales for her debt. Henry Arthur Herbert, First Earl of Powis and Mary's nephew, calculated in a 1766 submission to the House of Lords that his family's loss in her adventures was 306,175 pounds 8 shillings and 4 pence, a vast amount at the time.

Mary was ridiculed in Alexander Pope's Epistle to Lord Bathhurst (Moral Essays III: On the Use of Riches), published in 1732:

But nobler scenes Maria's dreams unfold:
Heriditary realms and worlds of Gold.
Congenial Souls whose life one Av'rice joins,
And one fate buries in th' Austurian mines.

The only painting of Mary that survives is allegorical, painted by Flemish artist Lanscroon on the ceiling of the library in Powis Castle (now owned by the National Trust). Mary represents Minerva, Roman Goddess of Truth and Wisdom, and is seated above the clouds.

Martin Murphy, a descendent of Joseph Gage, has undertaken detailed research and published accounts of their lives in the Montgomeryshire Collections Vol. 85 and Vol. 86.

SAMUEL TIQUETS starts again at RIO Tinto

Tiquets resolutely began all over again, raising capital for a new company and recruiting old and new miners. One such new recruit was a young tailor from Valencia called Francisco Thomas Saenz, who became his right-hand man.

Most copper was still made from the immersion process. However, a leap in production occurred in 1750 when some problems of smelting ores were solved. A new furnace called El Chorrito was built at a site called Los Planes which could successfully smelt excavated ores and refine the crude copper produced in an old furnace known as the Horno Romano. Even the produce of El Chorrito was still a crude cobre negro (black copper) sold to the government for the Sevilla artillery foundry, and mint for coin making. Due to its impurities, it needed refining again on arrival.

By 1758 the mine was on its way to becoming economically viable, with 14 men in primitive conditions producing 25 tons a year. Samuel Tiquets died on 11 September 1758, and he "bachelor of Stockholm" left his friend Saenz all his personal effects (furniture, domestic silver they used, clothes, valued at 500 reales - €8) in the mine house they shared. He left half his shares in the mine to his mother, or sisters if not alive; and the other half to the wife of the mines' Sevilla agent and merchant. He nominated Saenz as administrator for 20 reales a day.

Continued .......       Francisco Sanz the tailor from Valencia, 1758

Thanks to David Avery and RTZ for their 1974 book Not on Queen Victoria's Birthday, which is the definitive history of the Rio Tinto Mines. Thanks to William Giles Nash for his 1910 book The Rio Tinto Mine: Its History And Romance, from which much of this information was sourced. You can buy a second-hand copy of Avery's book, and a scanned on demand reprint of Nash's book, from Amazon.

Thanks to Martin Murphy,a descendent of Joseph Gage, who undertook detailed research and published accounts of their lives in the Montgomeryshire Collections and the book "The Duchess of Rio Tinto - The story of Mary Herbert and Joseph Cage"  (Click on books in right hand margin of this page)


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..... continued from Liebert Wolters; the bachelor from Stockholm