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The History of Quarrying

pre industrial revolution the industrial revolution
in decline

Quarrymen splitting slates The use of slate in the area goes back to the Roman period. The fort at Segontium, (Caernarfon), originally had tiled roofs, which were replaced at a later date with slate. Some of the floors were made of slate slabs in the fourth century. But slate was also used in a much earlier Roman fort at Caer Llugwy, between Capel Curig and the Conwy Valley two centuries before. Slate was used for roofing the eight towers of Conwy Castle between 1283-87. Indeed, during the Welsh wars of Independence, Edward I, of England, while visiting the copper mines of Drws y Coed, is reputed to have stayed at a house in the Nantlle Valley roofed with slates from the Cilgwyn Quarry. In 1317, the great hall of Llywelyn II, (Llywelyn the Last), was removed from Conwy to Caernarfon Castle and slated by one 'Henry le Scaltiere.' Seventy years later, in 1387, John Trevisa in a translation of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon noted:

Valeys bryngeth forth food,
And hills metal right good,
Col groweth under lond,
And grass above at the hond,
There lyme is copious,
And sclattes also for hous.

Around 1358-60, building repairs were carried out at Chester, under the supervision of the Black Prince, when '21,000 slate stones' were bought for the roof of the great stable at Chester Castle. And when Richard II, of England arrived at Conwy in 1399, a year before the Rebellion of Owain Glyndwr, a Frenchman named Creton depicted:

So rode the King, without making noise,
That at Conwy, where there is much slate
On the houses, he arrived, with scarce a pause,
At break of day.

These slates were probably obtained from the quarries at Dolwyddelan or Penmachno.
Another thread of evidence comes from the poetical works of Iolo Goch c1320-c1398 that Owain Glydwr's court at Sycharth; Llansilin appears to have had a slate roof.

A high house with a stone (slate) roof
Chimneys for the gathering of smoke?

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the poet Guto'r Glyn wrote a cywydd* on behalf of Sir Gruffudd ab Einion who lived in the Vale of Clwyd.

'My only job for him from Bangor
Was to order slates on the arm of the sea.
A cairn from the isle of Gwynedd
In a large ship, as wide as a palace?
Carried to Tegeingl will they be,
To Rhuddlan and to Henllan.'

Close to a century later, Sion Tudur wrote a cywydd asking the Dean of Bangor for a gift of a load of slates.

'The ship, with its strong anchor
Will carry twenty thousand (slates) over the deep sea;
Which will be unloaded
On the fair land of Rhuddlan.'

Roof Slates: 100 Years old and good for another century.John Leland during his travels between 1536-39 remarked that 'the houses withyn the town of Oswestre  be of tymbre and slated' and at Is Dulas, on the eastern side of the River Dulas  in Denbighshire, 'they dig oute slate stones to kyver houses.' Slates were also used on houses in Wrexham during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the episcopacy of William Morgan, (translator of the Bible into Welsh) at St. Asaph, (1601-04) the cathedral chancel was slated. In 1682, more slating with Penrhyn slates took place and during renovation in the 1930's, these slates, which were by then over 250 years old were strong enough to be re used on new timbers. 

Another secular building, with ecclesiastical links was Plas y Gogarth, near Llandudno. This was owned by the Bishop of Bangor, and which was roofed in the thirteenth century.  All in all, the picture we have is of slates being used on the better kind of house in North Wales at this time, a time which saw a great deal of building activity. Slates from the Glyn Ceiriog area were available in 1675. However, it must be kept in mind that apart from castles and cathedrals, it was not uncommon in Wales to use slates for roofing at this time. Any transportation involved the use of ships. Indeed, the chief export of the area by Tudor times was slate, as up to 1603, there are references of slate being exported from Aberogwen(Bangor), to Dublin and Carlingford in Ireland as well as the Foryd (Rhyl), St. Asaph and Chester. Slates from Pembrokeshire were exported to the south east coast of Ireland as well as Bristol. It is also interesting to note that slates from Antwerp were imported into London in 1567 to re-roof the Royal Exchange at London. More recently, Welsh slate was used to roof the Palace of Westminster in the nineteenth century, for the electricity panels of the Cunard liners, Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth in the 1930's, as a damp course for the new cathedral at Guildford in 1960 as well as re-roofing the whole of Downing Street in 1962-63. 

Map: Slate Quarrying in Wales before 1944

By comparison with the Welsh iron, coal, copper and lead industries, the slate industry was indeed very primitive as late as 1750, even though two million slates appear to have been exported from Caernarfon in the 1730's. By 1790, slates were exported not only to various Welsh ports, but to at least eighteen English ports, ten Irish ports and two Scottish ports, apart from Boulogne, Dunkirk and Rotterdam on mainland Europe. Substantial development was very slow. By 1832, the annual output of slates from the north Wales quarries was 100,000 tons. By 1882 it was over 450,000 tons, only to decline by 1972 to about 22,000 tons. The Slate industry reached its dramatic zenith in a very short period of time. Its decline was also just as dramatic. Up to around 1750 all the Welsh slate quarries were very small and shallow excavations and were worked by local people for their own individual needs or for sale. This had been happening for centuries. In 1413, Gwilym ap Griffith of Penrhyn paid a number of his tenants 10d each for working 5,000 slates. A burgess of Beaumaris leased land to raise slates on the Penrhyn estate in Llandygai in 1544. By 1568-69, when he died at Bangor, it was noted that a William Spen of Denbigh owed him for 13,000 slates. All in all, the landowners did not show much interest in exploiting their rights.

Alliterative Welsh poem

The Quarryman at Work A Rock Driller at a Slate Quarry Quarrymen preparing explosives
The Bugler at a Quarry Reducing the rock Inside a Slate Dressing Shed at Penrhyn.
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