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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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