Fox, Robert Were (17541818), merchant and industrial entrepreneur, was born on 5 July 1754 in Fowey, Cornwall, the second of the five sons of George Croker Fox (d. 1807) and his wife, Mary. The Foxes were a Quaker family holding a long-established and significant position in Cornish commercial life. As mine owner, merchant, and shipping agent, Fox was to play a pivotal role in further enhancing this influence at a time when Cornwall had emerged as an early focus of British industrialization. He was principal partner in the family firm, G. C. Fox & Sons, from 1780 until 1810, and during this period consolidated his company's position in the rich Gwennap copper mines, notably as adventurers (shareholders) in Poldice and Wheal Unity. In partnership with John Williams of Scorrier, another local mining magnate, he also purchased the mineral rights of the duchy of Cornwall for a period of thirty-one years, operating as Fox, Williams & Co.
In 1791 Fox and Williams established the Perran foundry (on an inlet of the River Fal) to supply machinery to the Gwennap mines. Fox sought business partners among the influential group of Quakers involved in Cornish commerce, and principal shareholders were the interrelated Price and Tregelles families of Falmouth and Penryn. Although Fox was anticipating the expiry (in 1800) of Boulton and Watt's patent rights on the manufacture of steam engines, it was not until the 1830s that large Cornish engines were being built at the Perran foundry. In this earlier period, Perran concentrated on the production of smaller components, larger items being constructed at the Neath Abbey ironworks in south Wales, which the partners had acquired in July 1792. Near the Perran foundry was the Perran smelting house, a tin-smelting operation acquired by Fox between about 1802 and 1806 but abandoned by 1811.
About 1799 Fox purchased the lease on Portreath harbour, on the north Cornish coast. Between 1800 and 1805 the port was extensively reconstructed to facilitate the export of copper ore (to south Wales for smelting) and the import of coal (again from south Wales) and timber. In 1809 Fox and Williams began the Portreath-Poldice tramway, with the aim of linking the harbour to the nearby Gwennap mines. As well as establishing more efficient communications, the construction of various spurs and short branches allowed them to exercise monopolistic control over the traffic between port and mines.
Alongside his mining interests, Fox was involved in the maritime trade of Falmouth, then home of the packet service and extensive shipping business. In May 1794 he was appointed consul to the United States of America for the port of Falmouth, a position he held until succeeded by his son Robert Were Fox FRS, in 1815. Fox lived in Falmouth, at Bank House, Grove Place, and at the nearby country residence of Penjerrick. He married in 1788 Elizabeth (17681849), the daughter of Joseph and Sarah Tregelles of Falmouth, with whom he had six sons, the eldest being the geologist and physicist . He died, probably in Falmouth, in 1818.
S. E. Gray, Old Falmouth (1903) · W. Tregoning Hoope, Summary of the history of Perran foundry, Journal of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, 6 (192730), 274 · Boase & Courtney, Bibl. Corn. · D. B. Barton, Essays in Cornish mining history, 2 (1970) · D. B. Barton, A history of tin mining and smelting in Cornwall (1965) · D. B. Barton, The Cornish beam engine: a survey of its history and development in the mines of Cornwall and Devon from before 1800 to the present day, 2nd edn (1969) · Annual Monitor (1820), 24 · Annual Monitor (1849), 12230 · Biographical catalogue: being an account of the lives of Friends and others whose portraits are in the London Friends' Institute, Society of Friends (1888), 250 · J. Griscom, A year in Europe, 2 vols. (1823), 1.202 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1614, sig. 121