Q is for Quarries

If you have ever traveled to North Wales chances are you’ll notice some of the many abandoned quarries that dot the landscape, these quarries are a hallmark of the nation’s once illustrious slate mining industry which had fueled the economy of North Wales.

People have been mining slate in Wales for thousands of years, the Roman fort of Segontium had roof tiles made from local Welsh slate and the Cilgwyn quarry, found at the bottom of the Nantlle Ridge, had been in operation since the 12th century, with King Edward I reportedly staying in a house made of Cilgwyn mined slate during his Conquest of Wales.

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The remains of Segontium

In this period slate mining was a small enterprise, usually consisting of a close-knit partnership of locals who had to pay rents to local landlords. Their produce was often sold locally, or transported by horse cart to ships and then taken over to Dublin.

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Most early slate mining took place around the Nantlle Mountains

However all this changed by the late 18th century when Richard Pennent took over the slate mining operations on his land and then proceeded to open a new mine near Bethesda in 1782. By the 1800’s most major slate mines in North Wales were under the control of wealthy landowners and companies and they were now producing more than half of the UK’s slate. By the early 1810’s the horse drawn carriages had been replaced with steam powered trams which took the mined slate directly to the seaports. With the introduction of steam-powered locomotives and further mechanization, production of slate reached 350,000 tons by 1860 and by 1880 this had risen to 450,000 tons. In 1882, 92% of the United Kingdom’s production was from Wales with the quarries at Penrhyn and Dinorwig producing half of this amount between them, by the end of the century these two sites were the biggest slate quarries in the world. Its estimated that half of the total revenue of Wales came from North Welsh slate mining.

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The Penrhyn Family made millions from the slate industry, allowing them to build a mock-castle, Penrhyn Castle

However all good things must come to an end. Between 1896 and 1903 Penrhyn Quarry was hit by a series of workers strikes over pay and safety conditions, known as the ‘Great Strike of Penrhyn’ it remains the longest running dispute in British industrial history, this event cast a long shadow over the future of production at the slate quarries.World War One also hit the industry hard as Germany had been a major importer of Welsh slate, this was followed by the Great Depression which led to further cuts in production.

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Looking over the Penrhyn Quarry

But it was World War Two that delivered the hardest blow to the slate industry. The war caused a severe drop in trade and the number of men employed in the slate industry in North Wales dropped from 7,589 in 1939 to 3,520 in 1945. In addition by 1945, total slate production was only 70,000 tons a year, and fewer than 20 quarries were still open compared with 40 before the war, a stark contrast to the golden days in the mid 1800s. Production continued to slide throughout the late 1900s and this declined was embodied when the Dinorwig Quarry, once the second largest in the world, was forced to close.

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The Dinorwig Quarry disfigured half of the Elidir Fawr mountain

Today the Penrhyn Quarry continues to produce slate, still accounting for half of the UK’s total production though at a much reduced capacity, a relic of days of better days. The slate industry did not only fundamentally change the the economy of North Wales but it also had a severe and damaging effect on the landscape of the country.

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Huge piles of waste slate smear the Welsh countryside
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The remains of an old quarry
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Penmaenmawr Mountain was once crowned with one of the largest hill forts in Europe until it was destroyed to make way for a slate quarry
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Though the golden days of the slate industry and now gone, its mark on North Wales shall remain for many years to come.

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12 Comments

  1. Very interesting story and information. It’s hard to see the land scarred by mines but it also makes sense from an industrial perspective. Around here sometimes they turn old mines in to parks which can spin a positive note. I am saddened to hear of the loss of the large ring fort however…so much history/archaeology destroyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For sure, most of the bigger quarries have been re-purposed for some recreational activities, mainly scuba-diving. Though Penrhyn quarry now boasts the longest zip wire in Europe and Dinorwig is now an hydro-electrical power station

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I particularly enjoyed this post as I’m researching the life of a quarry man for my next book. My great-great grandfather was a quarry man in England in the mid 1800’s. They must have been very hardy men to do that sort of work without the help of modern day machinery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very interesting about your great-great grandfather. Many people during those days started quarrying as children, so I assume working down there became something of a second nature to them after so many years

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The story in our family is that my g g grandmother ran away from home in Ireland but nobody knows much about it. I found her marriage record in Sunderland and her husband’s occupation states quarry labourer. His father is recorded as a fisherman, deceased, and they were both from a fishing village in Ireland. I assume they returned to Ireland as their children are recorded as being born there. I’m beginning to feel like a quarry worker myself, with all this digging into the past, searching for answers. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s really cool Jean 😀 I’m impressed with our family history research. Me and my brother have also been trying to research our ancestors, though our results haven’t nearly been so detailed

        Liked by 1 person

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