Slate Quarries in North Wales

The Slate industry in North Wales was as important to the local economy as was the Coal industry of South Wales. The main production areas were around Blaenau Ffestiniog, Bethesda, Llanberis, Corris, Nantlle, and Llangollen/Glyn Ceiriog.

The three dominant quarries were Penrhyn quarry, Bethesda: Dinorwic quarry, Llanberis: Oakeley quarry, Blaenau Ffestiniog. These three accounted for over half of all production in the industry. They set the standards in engineering, quarrying techniques, wage rates and transportation.

slate district map

Welsh slate was exported all over the world from small ports like Porthmadog or purpose built harbours like Port Dinorwig or Port Penrhyn. Narrow gauge railways carried the slate to the ports. Because many of these lines ran through high mountains terrain it was often necessary to incorporate inclined planes to ease the gradients.

The quarries extracted the slate, split and dressed it, befoer sending it off to their port for export. Up to 90% of rock extracted became waste. which would be dumped using end-tipping rubbish wagons over the nearest available slope. The slate waste heaps that developed in this way are the single most noticeable landscape feature today.

To start with water power was the primary source of energy. A network of dams supplied water wheels at the quarry with the water, and sometimes the water would be carried for long distances in wooden or slate lined leats. Electricity came around 1900.

Quarries were dangerous places. Unguarded machinery, roof falls and lung diseases were paer of the job. Working underground in the industry was more dangerous than in coal mining. Barracking was common practice in the industry, men would arrive for work early on a Monday morning and remain there until lunchtime on Saturday. Many of the barracks were cold and miserable places to spend the week but often the quarry was too remote to make daily travel possible. The use of electric saws and other machinery reduced the hard manual labour involved in extracting the slate, but produced much more slate dust than the old manual methods, leading to an increased incidence of silicosis. Blasting operations responsible for many deaths. A government enquiry in 1893 found that the death rate for underground workers in the slate mines was 3.23 per thousand, higher than the rate for coal miners.

The industry reached its peak in the 1890's when half a million tons of dressed slates were produced and nearly 17,000 men were directly employed. From then on decline set in - capital dried up, imports grew, roofing tiles became cheaper than slate and men left for easier ways to make a living. One by one the quarries closed and the people left.

In 2007, Penrhyn Quarry is still operating. In the Blaenau Ffestiniog district Oakeley and Llechwedd remain open while, in the Corris area, underground mining has recently ended at Aberllefenni.

Until the late 18th century, slate was extracted from many small pits by small partnerships of local men, who did not have capital to expand. The quarrymen usually had to pay a rent or royalty to the landlord. The large landowners were initially content to issue "take notes", allowing individuals to quarry slates on their lands for a yearly rent of a few shillings and a royalty on the slates produced. The first landowner to take over the working of slates on his land was the owner of the Penrhyn estate, Richard Pennant, later Baron Penrhyn. In 1782, the men working quarries on the estate were bought out or ejected, and Pennant appointed James Greenfield as agent. By 1792, Penrhyn Quarry was employing 500 men and producing 15,000 tons of slate per year. At Dinorwig in 1809, the landowner, Thomas Assheton Smith of Vaynol, took the management of the quarry into his own hands.

The Ffestiniog Railway line was constructed between 1833 and 1836 to transport slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the coastal town of Porthmadog, where it was loaded onto ships. This helped expansion at the Blaenau Ffestiniog quarries. There was further expansion at Blaenau when J. W. Greaves, took a lease on the land between this quarry and the main Ffestiniog to Betws-y-Coed road. After years of digging he struck the famous Old Vein in 1846 in what became the Llechwedd quarry.

The Corris Railway opened as the horse-worked Corris, Machynlleth & River Dovey Tramroad in 1859, connecting the slate quarries around Corris and Aberllefenni with wharves on the estuary of the River Dyfi. Talyllyn Railway was opened in 1866 to serve the Bryneglwys quarry above the village of Abergynolwyn. Bryneglwys grew to be one of the largest quarries in mid Wales, employing 300 men and producing 30% of the total output of the Corris district. Nevertheless it was only producing 5000 to 6000 tons of slate per year at its peak.

Mechanization was gradually introduced, particularly at Blaenau Ffestiniog where the Ordovician slate was less brittle than the Cambrian slate further north, and therefore easier to work by machine. The slate mill evolved between 1840 and 1860 for sawing, planing and dressing. The splitting of the blocks to produce roofing slates proved resistant to mechanization, and continued to be done with a mallet and chisel.

Quarries expanded and the population of the quarrying districts increased, for example the population of Ffestiniog parish increased from 732 in 1801 to 11,274 in 1881. Total Welsh production reached 350,000 tons a year by the end of the 1860s. Of this total, over 100,000 tons came from the Bethesda area, mainly from the Penrhyn Quarry. Blaenau Ffestiniog produced almost as much, and the Dinorwig Quarry alone produced 80,000 tons per year. The Nantlle Valley quarries produced 40,000 tons, while the remainder of Wales outside these areas produced only about 20,000 tons per year.

Quarry Workers

There were several different categories of worker in the quarries. The exact nature of the work embraced by the word seems to vary, in the census returns, from place to place and from decade to decade, no doubt partly according to the whims of the enumerators and partly according to local fashion. It seems that the term 'slater' was not used in North Wales quarries. Neither Lindsay nor Lewis, in their books on the slate industry of North Wales, makes any reference to 'slaters', and Burn uses the term only in respect of the man who lays a slate roof. Lindsay states specifically that the category 'quarryman' included those 'who worked in the slate mills and split the blocks into slates'.

Conditions at the quarry were extremely harsh. Facilities like canteens, places to wash and keep clothes dry were minimal, as were the quarrymen’s wages. Workers had to take a five-year apprenticeship to become a fully-fledged quarryman. It may have been skilled work but it was also dangerous, dirty and unhealthy.

The rockmen had to learn to use explosives and how to handle heavy hammers and chisels - the tools of their trade - whilst dangling on ropes wound round their legs and body to leave their hands free to work at the terraces of slate. Two steel pins inserted into holes at the top of the terraces were the means of fastening the ropes. These men worked in all weathers. Even in the summer conditions were often far from ideal because the frequent rain made the slate slippery and hazardous to stand on.

The only medical facility was the quarry hospital run by St John Ambulance trained quarrymen who, being volunteers, received no extra pay for this service. Accidents were usually caused by a fall of rock or fragile ropes breaking. The Quarrymen were responsible for all their own ropes, hammers and chisels, which they had to pay for to be sharpened out of their wages.

Even away from the quarry face, in the dressing shed where the slate was split and cut into uniform shapes, there was another hazard - slate dust. The industrial disease, silicosis, was also rife because of the high dust content of the slate mined.

Knowing how and where to blast the rock meant the difference between profit and loss. The quarrymen had to drill and blast every piece of rock that could be of benefit to them. It was imperative that the production was the very best that could be achieved.

The quarrymen proper, who made up just over 50% of the workforce, worked the slate in partnerships of three, four, six or eight, known as "bargain gangs". A gang of four typically consisted of two "rockmen" who would blast the rock to produce blocks, a splitter, who would split the blocks with hammer and chisel, and a dresser. A rybelwr would usually be a boy learning his trade, who would wander around the galleries offering assistance to the gangs. Sometimes a gang would give him a block of slate to split. The quarrymen were paid according to a complicated system. Part of the payment was determined by the number of slates the gang produced, but this could vary greatly according to the nature of the rock in the section allocated to them. The men would therefore be paid an extra sum of "poundage" per pound's worth of slate produced.

"Bargains" were let by the setting steward, who would agree a price for a certain area of rock. If the rock in the bargain allocated to a gang was poor, they would be paid a higher poundage, while good rock meant a lower poundage. The first Monday of every month was "bargain letting day" when these agreements were made between men and management. The men had to pay for their ropes and chains, for tools and for services such as sharpening and repairing. Subs (advances) were paid every week, everything being settled up on the "day of the big pay". If conditions had not been good, the men could end up owing the management money. This system was not finally abolished until after the Second World War.

Because of this arrangement, the men tended to see themselves as independent contractors rather than employees on a wage, and trade unions were slow to develop. There were grievances however, including unfairness in setting bargains and disputes over days off. The North Wales Quarrymen's Union (NWQMU) was formed in 1874, and the same year there were disputes at Dinorwig and then at Penrhyn. Both these disputes ended in victory for the workers, and by May 1878, the union had 8,368 members. One of the founders of the union, Morgan Richards, described in 1876 the conditions when he started work in the quarries forty years before:
“ I well remember the time when I was myself a child of bondage; when my father and neighbours, as well as myself, had to rise early, to walk five miles (8 km) before six in the morning, and the same distance home after six in the evening; to work hard from six to six; to dine on cold coffee, or a cup of buttermilk, and a slice of bread and butter; and to support (as some of them had to do) a family of perhaps five, eight or ten children on wages averaging from 12s to 16s a week.”

The bad rockmen usually worked in crews of three, removing unworkable rock from the face, and the "rubbish men" cleared the waste rock from the galleries and built the tips of waste which surrounded the quarry. One ton of saleable slate could produce 20 to 30 tons of waste., and they were usually paid by the ton of material removed

In 1879, a period of twenty years of almost uninterrupted growth came to an end, and the slate industry was hit by a recession which lasted until the 1890s.Management responded by tightening rules and making it more difficult for the men to take time off. Labour relations were worsened by differences in language, religion and politics between the two sides. The owners and top managers at most of the quarries were English-speaking, Anglican and Tory, while the quarrymen were Welsh-speaking and mainly Nonconformist and Liberal. Negotiations between the two sides usually involved the use of interpreters.

There was an upturn in trade in 1892, heralding another period of growth in the industry. This growth was mainly at Blaenau Ffestiniog and in the Nantlle Valley, where the workforce at Penyrorsedd reached 450. Slate production in Wales peaked at over half a million tons in 1898, with 17,000 men employed in the industry.

An extended stike/lockout at Penrhyn led to a temporary shortage of slates and kept prices high, but part of the shortfall was made up by imports. 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. Eight Ffestiniog quarries closed between 1908 and 1913, and the Oakley dismissed 350 men in 1909. R. Merfyn Jones comments:
“ The effects of this depression on the quarrying districts were deep and painful. Unemployment and emigration became constant features of the slate communities; distress was widespread. In the quarries there was short-time working, closures and reductions in earnings. Between 1906 and 1913 the number of men at work in the quarries of the Ffestiniog district shrank by 28 per cent, in Dyffryn Nantlle the number at work fell even more dramatically by 38 per cent.”

The First World War hit the slate industry badly, particularly in Blaenau Ffestiniog where exports to Germany had been an important source of income. Cilgwyn, the oldest quarry in Wales, closed in 1914, though it later reopened. In 1917, slate quarrying was declared a non-essential industry and a number of quarries were closed for the remainder of the war. The demand for new houses after the end of the war brought back a measure of prosperity; in the slate mines of Blaenau Ffestiniog production was almost back to 1913 levels by 1927, but in the quarries the output was still well below the pre-war level. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to cuts in production, with exports particularly hard hit.