Penrhyn Quarry at Bethesda has always been the largest quarry in North Wales. Its only rival in terms of size or production was Dinorwic. It was owned from the 1780's by the Pennant family and they rapidly developed it. The majority of quarrying was small scale at that time. The gallery system was introduced early on enabling large numbers of men to work on the same vein at different heights. Over 20 galleries were ultimately in use each connected by incline to the dressing mills at lower levels. Over a hundred thousand tons of year was a typical production level with over 2,000 employed. Compared with around 5000 tions produced by 300 men at Bryneglwys.
It possessed its own external and internal tramway system from an early date and had its own port and ships. With the profits from the quarry the Pennants built Penrhyn Castle with its slate four poster bed. Penrhyn was responsible for bringing in some standardisation into the industry most notably in its naming system for the size of roofing slates. This was based improbably on female terms for the aristocracy and some of the terms: Duchess, Countess, Empress and Wide Ladies, remain in use today.
A committee was set up at Penrhyn in 1865 by six men, concessions were granted and this prompted the men to form a union. 1,800 workers joined at once. Quarry owners everywhere were alarmed. Five months later, Pennant, cautioned the men that he would not tolerate the union, and that any attempt to have a union in his quarry would lead to an immediate closure of the quarry, which would only be re-opened to men who declared themselves opposed to the union. Three days before Christmas, 1,229 quarrymen replied that they had totally renounced the idea of setting up a trade union. But they had at least increased their monthly salary.
Penrhyn Quarry employed around 3,000 men in 1869 and producing an output of 93,000 tons, whilst by 1882, even though the quarry only employed 2,809 men, the output had risen to 111,166 tons, compared with 87,429 tons at Dinorwig. George Sholto Gordon Douglas-Pennant took over from his father Edward Gordon Douglas-Pennant in 1885, and in 1886 appointed E. A. Young as chief manager.
In 1874 a series of strikes at Dinorwic and surrounding quarries, led to more negotiations at Penrhyn over union recogntion. Most of the men's demands were met in the Pennant Lloyd Agreement, which was to remain in force until 1885, when the management decided to ignore conditions laid out in the agreement, and the men walked out again. As a result they were able to negotiate a minimum standard wage and the owners recognised a committe set up to negotiate on behalf of the men.
In 1896 the management refused to the men permission to attend a Labour Day rally at Blaenau Ffestiniog. On May 4th 1896, when around 1,500 of the workforce were absent, the manager closed the quarry and suspended all those who had gone to the rally for two days for being absent without leave. There were a series of disputes through the summer of 1896, and eventually on September 15th two men were suspended for a minor infringement of rules, and then dismissed for failing to report to the office to explain themselves.
The union then resolved that in the light of these dismissals, all negotiations would be terminated. Two days later, the management suspended 71 men - the members of the committee and the seven who had signed a list of complaints sent to Lord Penrhyn. The day following the dismissals, the men refused to start work until they received an explanation. It was September 29th, and the following day they were locked out. This lock out, which Young called a strike was to last until August 1897. The men were eventually obliged to go back to work, essentially on the management's terms, in August 1897. This strike became known as "The Penrhyn Lockout".
Young's policy for the next few months was to dismiss anybody who who was prominant in the Union. In June 1899, Robert Davies of Tregarth, the most experienced and respected union leader, was dismissed. The general manager then went on to announce that henceforth, no union dues at all were to be collected at the quarry. Discontent became widespread among the man and on October 26th, 1900, there was violence against a number of contractors. Penrhyn decided to prosecute 26 of his employees, even before they appeared before the magistrates.
All the men marched to Bangor to support the 26 at their trial. Everyone was suspended for fourteen days. The first hearing was adjourned, and the workforce all marched to Bangor for the second hearing. Of the 26 accused, only 6 were convicted and fined. The Chief Constable of the County called in military forces and was condemned by various public bodies as well as his own County Council. The men went back to work on November 19th, but 8 galleries were not let out to be worked. Two days later their suspicions had increased even more. On November 22nd, everybody turned up at the quarry but no work was done. Sometime during that fateful morning, E.A. Young telephoned the quarry with a message to the men to go on working or leave the quarry quietly. The men walked out. The Great Strike of 1900-03 had started.
The union's funds for strike pay were inadequate, and there was a great deal of hardship among the 2,800 workers. About 500 men returned to work, to be castigated as "traitors" by the remainder. Eventually the workers were forced to return to work in November 1903 on terms laid down by Lord Penrhyn. Many of the men considered to have been prominent in the union were not re-employed, and many of those who had left the area to seek work elsewhere did not return. The dispute left a lasting legacy of bitterness in the Bethesda area.
The loss of production at Penrhyn led to a temporary shortage of slates and kept prices high, though part of the shortfall was made up by imports. French exports of slate to the U.K. increased from 40,000 tons in 1898 to 105,000 tons in 1902. After 1903 there was a depression in the slate industry which led to reductions in pay and job losses. New techniques in tile manufacture had reduced costs, making tiles more competitive. The First World War hit the slate industry badly, particularly in Blaenau Ffestiniog where exports to Germany had been an important source of income.
Slate Quarries in North Wales