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Industry - The Slate Areas outside Wales 

Slate in Scotland

Advertisement for the vessel Hindoo, sailing between Caernarfon and New York, 1 Feb 1843The slate industry in Scotland was never properly mechanised in the way that it was in Wales and slate remained essentially a hand-produced product. And in order to reduce waste as much as possible a vast range of slates were produced. This led to them being laid in diminishing courses where the slate decreases towards the ridge. The can also vary in thickness between 6 and 15 mm.

In certain Scottish quarries, every 1000th slate was stamped with the mark of the quarry, a custom unique to Scotland.

Traditionally sold by number some quarries sold them by weight and these were known as ton slates.

Dating back to the time of the Romans, Scottish slate came into common use by the late 1600's from such quarries as Craiglea near Perth, from Aberfoyle and from Birnam, as well as the Slate Islands.

Zoom in on Easdale

The Slate Islands (also known as the Islands of Argyll) lie in the Sound of Lorn a few miles south of Oban. One of the smallest of them is Easdale, which became the centre of one of the largest industries of Scotland during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

From earliest recorded times slate was taken from the shores of Easdale to cover buildings and as hearth and gravestones. Indeed it is possible that the Vikings did so. But the first recorded account of the use of Easdale slate is in 1554.

AS time went on the technique of splitting and working the slates improved and many ancient and important Scottish buildings such as Stalker Castle in Appin, (1631) Armaddy Castle in Lorn (1676) Cawdor Castle in Invernesshire and Glasgow Cathedral were roofed with Easdale slate.

Because of the links with Nova Scotia, it is not surprising to see many public buildings in Eastern Canada roofed with Easdale slate.

The quarries were always beset by problems of water, and as the shoreline was steadily denuded it became difficult to keep the sea out even at low tide. Walls and sluices were built to keep the quarries dry for a few hours every day. But as the workings increased seawalls had to be built to keep the sea out at all times. An atmospheric engine was used for some time and a windmill in 1800 to pump up the seawater.

However, the great storm of November 23rd, 1881 breached the defences and led to so much flooding that many of the quarries were forced to close permanently and the loss of much valuable equipment. Late in the nineteenth century reinforced concrete was introduced as sea defences. The Easdale quarries closed officially in 1911, but small-scale working is still continued to win slate for monumental and craft purposes only.

Slate in England

In 1913 slate was being quarried in Cumberland, Westmoreland, Leicestershire, Somerset and Devon.

Westmoreland and Cumberland

The origins of the industry in this area can be traced back to the 1600's when slate was just scraped and picked out of the ground. But by the 1750's much development had taken place with the local slate being used to roof Cockermouth Castle. But it was in 1833, under the leadership of Sam Wright who not only developed surface quarrying but also started mining slate underground.

Saws were first used to cut the slabs in 1856 and a trimming machine in the 1890's. Indeed a Gold Medal was awarded at the Manchester Exhibition of 1896 as regards the quality of the slate produced.. Indeed, by 1910 it was claimed that Buttermere slate was of better quality than Welsh Slate. It was used in many large English cities and exported especially so to South Africa and New Zealand.

The Buttermere Slate Company was formed in 1879 and inclines were first built then to transport the slate from the quarry to the port instead of sledges and horses. By 1892, The Hause had developed to become the main centre with roads, tramways, blondins and more inclines built by the 1930's.

Honister developed as the quarrymen's village even though they were only there for weekends. Before barracks were built for them they lived and ate underground during the working week. Workers' cottages were also built at Borrowdale.

It is also interesting to note, that contrary to the situation at Blaenau Ffestiniog that there was no electricity near the mines and quarries as late as 1910 and that pigeons were used to relay messages to the head office at Keswick. (Penrhyn Quarry had a telephone in 1910.)

The slate was split in stone shelters on the mountain side until the factory was built at The Hause in the 1920's.

Three main kinds of slate were produced, the 'light sea green,' the 'dark sea green' and the 'olive green.'

Production ended at Honister in 1986 but resumed again in 1997.


The Plym Valley Quarries

It appears that Plym Valley Slate was only of medium quality and went under the local name of 'shillet'. It was extensively used as flooring and walling material. However it is recorded that slate from the Cann Quarry was used to roof Plympton village school in 1664. But the industry was old even by then as slate was transported down Tory Brook to Southampton as early as 1178

Granite Quarrying was the predominant local industry though whilst Plympton became a major tin mining centre.

The Staverton Quarries

Slate Quarrying was also carried out in the Staverton area on the banks of the river Dart. The first known reference is that in 1338 when Penn Slate was used to roof Dartington Hall.

As many as 100 workers were employed at the Penn Ricca quarry during the eighteenth century but the work tended to be seasonal. A resurgence of activity was experienced in 1845. the population increased, a second village church built as well as workers' cottages near Thornecroft. He population of the parish in 1801 was 1,053 but was to peak at 1,152 by 1851. But by 1861 it had waned to 949 as a result of the decline in the slate industry. Indeed by 1881, agriculture was noted as the main industry of the parish. The quarries closed in 1908.

The Cornish Slate Industry

Even though tin was the paramount Cornish industry one should not forget the slate industry especially the Delabole Slates and the quarries in the Tintagel area. The story of Delabole Slates dates back over six centuries and quarrying has continued without a break since the seventeenth century. By today the quarry is 425 feet deep and over a mile and a half in circumference.

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) five quarries were working within the area of the present one quarry. Slate was sold 'throughout the realm' and exported as far as the Low Countries and Brittany.

In 1841 the five separate companies joined to form the Old Delabole Slate Company.

By 1859 over 1,000 were employed and 120 tons of slate raised every day. Long before the days of the railway the slate was transported on wagons over the six miles to Gaverene.100 horses a day could be seen doing this, and as late as 1890, women were employed to load the slate onto ships at the quay side.

Today only five workers are employed, but using modern methods are also able to raise 120 tons of slate per day.

Slate in Ireland

In 1913 slate was being produced in the counties of Kilkenny, Cobh, Tipperary, Wicklow and Wexford.

Although slate was being quarried at Portroe in the eighteenth century with over 400 employed there, the Irish slate industry only started in earnest by the 1830's. The Irish Mining Company at Audley's Cove and Tilemuck, County Wexford had as many as 500 workers in 1835 and that quarries at Broadford and Killaloe were also in production at the same time Rosscarbury Quarry in County Tipperary was also opened at this time.

But by the 1850's many workers were immigrating from the quarries of County Wexford and County Tipperary for the slate quarries of Vermont.

Even though the industry in Irelands was not developed to the same extent as that in Wales there was some immigration none the less from Wales to Ireland.

Quarrying at Portroe resumed in 1923 after the Troubles until 1956. Production was resumed in 1991 with slate being produced for architectural purposes and for the tourist trade rather than for roofing specifically.

The Australian Slate Industry

The three quarries that formed the slate industry in Australia are to be found on the north-easterly coast of Tasmania on the Bass Strait. These were the Back Creek, Arthur River and Bangor Quarries. 'Black' slate was produced there. It is believed that the quarries were in production from at least 1857.

The 1880's were a period of economic depression in Wales and in 1885 an adertisement appeared in the local press from the Bangor Slate Company, Launceston, Tasmania, inviting quarrymen from north Wales to emigrate. Many responded from the Bethesda and Llanberis areas in 1886.

Forty years previously one could sail from Porthmadog to Australia, but by the 1880's emigrants had to first catch a train to London.


A farewell meeting was held at the market hall, Bethesda early in December 1857 as a tribute to Richard Jones, known to everybody by his bardic pseudonym Owain Glyndwr. The Bethesda Glee Society the Penrhyn Philharmonic Society and the Bethesda Literary Society, as well as various individuals performed. Of course, Owain Glyndwr was only one of many who had and would immigrate. But there is no doubt that he was the first, and maybe the only quarryman from Bethesda to immigrate to a post as a slate quarry manager in Prussia.



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