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Welsh slate

As in South Wales it was coal that sustained industrial development and led to the disfigurement of the landscape, so in the North-West it was slate. Poor communications and geographical isolation from the main areas of the Industrial Revolution meant that the North Wales Slate industry was a comparatively late developer. But once the boom was under way, from around 1830, it became an industry of national importance. As Merfyn Jones says:


“The industrial Revolution may have been founded on textiles and powered by steam; it was roofed with slates skilfully wrenched from the Welsh hills.”


At its peak the industry employed about fifteen thousand people and until the close of the last century Penrhyn Quarry, near Bethesda, was the largest slate quarry in the world.


Up to the end of the eighteenth century, a number of the quarries were worked on a small scale by local people, partly for their own needs and partly for sale. By 1800 most such private working had been ended, as the first generation of capitalist quarry-owners began to see the potential that lay in organised, large-scale quarrying. The leases that had allowed the local inhabitants to carry on their own quarrying were not renewed, and partnerships were formed—by landowners, bankers and others—to exploit the quarries and satisfy the demands of the newly-growing industrial towns for slate.


An early problem was that of transport. New harbours were founded by the owners of the largest quarries to serve as ports for their own enterprises: Port Dinorwic for the Dinorwic Quarry, Port Penrhyn at Bangor for Penrhyn Quarry, and Portmadoc for the mines and quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. Ports and quarries were linked by railways, horse-drawn at first but later powered by steam engines. Though the ports declined later in the nineteenth century, after the railways had provided the quarries with easier access to the industrial areas of Britain, they remained important for the export trade. Under the new regime the quarries expanded. Those in Caernarvonshire (now part of Gwynedd) produced less than twenty thousand tons of slate in 1786 but over ninety thousand tons in 1831. In this latter year, after a vigorous campaign by the owners, the government abolished the slate duty, and thus the industry’s fifty ‘‘golden years” began.


Golden years they were for the quarry owners. A handful of wealthy families dominated the slate-producing areas, providing employers, landowners, magistrates and Members of Parliament. Some of their enormous profits were sunk in splendid residences, mostly situated by the sea and far from the grey and monotonous quarrying villages. As late as 1894, Penrhyn Quarry was making an annual profit of £100,000. The average wage in the quarry was six shillings a day.


The quarrymen earned starvation wages in return for doing a job that was at once skilful and intensely dangerous. They differed from their exploiters not just in gross inequalities of wealth and power, but also in religion and language (“the rock does not understand English”, as one of their songs put it). Above all they valued their supposed independence, the fact that they were to some extent in charge of their own work. For one thing, the physical conditions of quarrying-men working in the open, spread over great distances— discouraged close supervision by managers and foremen. For another, their prized “bargain” system left the workers to toil largely at their own pace.


Under this arrangement, a group of workmen acted as partners and took on a specified amount of slate rock. They agreed with the manager a piece rate for the slate they made from this area, the rate varying with the difficulty of the rock to be worked. It was then up to the quarrymen how hard they worked—their working hours were largely of their own choice, and if they wanted the day off they just took it. Of course, the “freedom” granted by the bargain system was illusory, and it did not avoid the degradation and exploitation found in any form of wages system. Nevertheless, the quarrymen saw themselves as in some ways independent of the owner’s control and were prepared to defend this independence.


For the quarry-owners’ opposition to the bargain system steadily increased. They disliked the consequent irregular working hours and the men’s tendency to take a holiday whenever a fair was being held locally. Attempts were made to replace the bargain system by a more straightforward version of the wages system. These met with resistance from the workers, who had since 1874 been linked together in the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union. The nineteenth century’ saw many strikes for higher wages and better working conditions and in defence of the bargain system. But the big struggle came at Penrhyn in 1900-03.


The owners had progressively nibbled away at the bargain system, for example by forcing the workers to accept the manager’s ruling on the operative piece rate, with no bargaining allowed. They had also installed a contract system, whereby the quarryman was simply the employee of a middleman who subcontracted part of the quarry and employed a gang to do the actual work, pocketing in the process part of what would have been the quarryman’s wages. The men’s opposition to the contract system resulted in two contractors being beaten up at Penrhyn Quarry in 1900. The owner, Lord Penrhyn, had twenty-six men arrested, and soldiers were called in to control the situation. On 5 November, all the quarrymen marched to Bangor for the trial, and Lord Penrhyn suspended them all. The great Penrhyn lock-out had started.


The men’s demands included recognition of the Union, a minimum wage of 4s 4d (22p) a day, an annual holiday and abolition of the contract system. In June 1901 the quarry was reopened, without any of the demands being acceded to, and about four hundred men returned to work, attracted by a small pay rise and the “gift” of a gold sovereign. Soldiers had to be called in to the streets of Bethesda to protect the blacklegs from the wrath of those still on strike. Eventually the men were literally starved into submission. On 14 November 1903, broken and defeated, they voted to return to work on Lord Penrhyn’s terms. The workers had lost, and never again could they pride themselves on their independence and autonomy.


The twentieth century has seen a steady decline in the slate industry. This was partly halted by increased demand after the First World War, but on the whole builders tended to use the cheaper tiles, instead of slate, for roofing. Dinorwic Quarry closed in 1969, and only a handful of quarries remain open, employing less than a thousand people in all. They have however given birth to a tourist industry: the workshops at Dinorwic now house the North Wales Quarrying Museum, and the Llechwedd mine at Blaenau Ffestiniog is also open to visitors—both eloquent tributes to the quarrymen and the industry they formed.
Paul Bennett



Main sources


Jean Lindsay: A History of the North Wales Slate Industry, David and Charles, 1974.


Raphael Samuel, ed.: Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977 (articles by Samuel and by Merfyn Jones).