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The History of Quarrying - The Long Decline

pre industrial revolution the industrial revolution
in decline

Quarrymen splitting slate into blocks.It was a severe depression in the building trade in the 1880’s that led to a reduced demand for slates. The 1880’s were a period of trade depression that affected all walks of life. Commodity prices fell, and did not rise again until the Great War. Coupled to this severe depression were industrial disputes. Cut-throat competition as well as the depressed state of trade subsequently led to the closing of many of the smaller quarries, while some were taken over by the larger ones. Added to all this were the imposition of duties on foreign slates by some countries like France and Switzerland. A downturn in sales to Germany hit the Ffestiniog area especially. 39,000 tons were exported from Porthmadog to Germany in 1894, 21,000 tons in 1901 and only 11,000 in 1910. Between 1889 and 1918 the quantity of exported slates in general fell from 79,912 tons to 1,592 tons.

The home market did not decline so dramatically.  With slum clearance policies being undertaken in Scottish and English cities in the 1890’s, demand for slates for new building increased. However, Irish exports declined especially after the Home Rule Agitation in 1893. Contributing to the slow decline were the imports of cheap slate into Scotland, England, and even Wales from such countries as Holland, Turkey, Canada, Norway, Portugal, Belgium, France and the USA.

Another blow to the industry was the discouragement given by the English Board of Education to the use of writing slates in schools.

By 1906-08, Welsh slate was piling up at the quaysides at Porthmadog, Caernarfon and Felinheli and more and more families in the slate producing areas were driven into debt.

War, Depression & Another War

Llechwedd Quarry: Notice giving procedures in the event of an accident.The Great War saw the closure of quarries, others going on a three-day week and unemployment soaring.  In 1917, slate quarrying was declared a non-essential industry.

Following the cessation of hostilities, there was an urgent demand for houses to provide ‘homes for heroes to live in.’

The trend towards amalgamation accelerated. Dividends had fallen before 1914 and many quarries continued to make loss into the 1920’s and 1930’s. Roofing tiles were used more and more by the building industry after 1924, and where slates were used, they would tend to be the cheap foreign variety. The 1930’s saw a period of building expansion, but saw no comparable increase in slate production. Quarries in north Wales produced 364,000 tons of slate in 1912 compared to 271,000 tons in 1935. The production of roofing tiles in 1935 was estimated at 1,200,000 tons.

With the outbreak of war yet again in 1939 and the strict control on new building, the demand for slate fell yet again. By 1940, around 4,600 men had left the industry, with around half of them joining the forces. True, the bombing of towns and cities created an urgent demand for roofing slates, but labour was short and the reserves of readily useable slate had all been used up. Furthermore, the number of apprenticeships declined from 735 in 1939 to 183 in 1946. The slate industry could not meet the challenge and many quarries were forced to close, some for good.

An unissued share certificate of the Dorothea Slate Quarry Co., 1950sThe number of workers reflects the speed of this decline. In 1939, that number was 7,589. By 1945, this number had fallen to 3,520, and in 1972 it was less than 1,000. A five day week was introduced for the first time in the industry in 1947, with the work hours at most quarries from 7am to 5pm, while at Penrhyn a 40 hour week was introduced. Even though an order was given that all the slate produced could go to the repair of war-damaged houses, there was a severe shortage of skilled labour, especially rock men and miners. This also meant that the average age of the workers increased. Nationalisation was considered in 1949 and this undermined the confidence of some proprietors.

But the main problem was that the price of slate was so high compared to asbestos, clay or tiles, especially concrete tiles. The imports of poorer quality foreign slates declined. Modern machinery was put in to increase output and become more cost efficient. But the decline of the whole Welsh Slate Industry could not be halted.

Year Tons
1958 54,000
1959 46,000
1960 52,000
1961 45,000
1962 40,000
1963 33,000
1964 35,000
1965 37,000
1966 35,000
1967 39,000
1968 32,000
1969 24,000
1970 22,000

The opening of a new quarry at Marchlyn, Llanberis despite the huge sums invested also proved a failure.

Graph of Employment and Productivity in the UK Slate Industry 1990-1996

Gwynedd Council
Welsh Slate Museum, Llanberis
Cynefin Consultants
Enrich UK - Lottery Funded New Opportunities Fund
© Copyright Gwynedd Council 2003