* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Slatesite * * * Gwynedd Archives Service The AGOR Consortium The Welsh Site *
* *
The Slatesite Home Page * Industry * * Communities * Slate * Art * Gallery * Site Map * External Site * About Us *
* *

Slate production had dramatically increased in both Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire between 1786 and 1831.

Area 1786 1831
Caernarfonshire 20,000 tons 90,000 tons
Merionethshire 500 tons 12,000 tons
Total 20,500 tons 102,000 tons

Rates of pay varied from quarry to quarry, but at Penrhyn, they were as follows during the first quarter more or less of the nineteenth century.


Year Daily Pay
circa 1800
circa 1806
1/- (5p ) per day
1/6 (7½p) per day
2/- (10p) per day
(7½c) per day
(12½c) per day
1/8 (8½p) per day

During the same time the wages of agricultural workers varied from 8d (3½p) to 1/- (5p) per day whilst the copper miners at Mynydd Parys earned from 1/- to 1/8 per day.

The list prices of slate did not vary much from year to year, but there were variations in wages. A bargen [bargain] might turn out to be good or bad. The skilled quarrymen were paid piece-rates, whilst the rybelwr or labrwr [labourer] was paid by the day.

A one-armed quarryman with his horse at a slate quarry. (c) National Library of Wales.
However, it must be remembered that most quarry workers were either cottagers, living on the stone strewn slopes, as at Cilgwyn, or living in terraced houses, such as those in Bethesda or Blaenau Ffestiniog. Those fortunate enough to have gardens, would look after them meticulously. Many long gardens had a pigsty at the far end from the house.

Barrack life

Many men travelled long distances to work.  The quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog drew labour from as far away as Dyffryn Ardudwy, Cricieth, Beddgelert, Trawsfynydd and Llanrwst. Dinorwig Quarry at Llanberis employed men from over sixty villages and hamlets in Caernarfonshire and Anglesey. Anglesey witnessed a veritable exodus of men every week heading for the quarries on the mainland carrying their rations to the barracks where they lived during the week. Many worked for fifty years under this system only seeing their families for a few hours on the weekend. Some living as far away as Llangefni or Llannerch-y-medd would have to leave home around three o'clock on Monday morning to walk the ten miles to Moel y Don ferry. After crossing the Strait, they then walked to Felinheli to catch the quarry train from Penscoins. After reaching the quarry there was the climb up to their respective barracks.

Announcement of an increase of 3% for bargainworkers and 2.5% for the remainder at Dinorwig quarry, Llanberis, 1903.

Living conditions at the barracks did vary from quarry to quarry. Inside plumbing was unheard of. A standpipe served for some, whilst the only fresh water available for others was from a nearby brook. There was one row at Dinorwig situated 2,000 feet above sea level, facing Anglesey and nicknamed Ireland View! Each barrack had two rooms, a living room and a bedroom. Four people could live there two grown ups and two youngsters. Quite often they would be members of the same family. Each would have his own chores to do: fetching firewood; filling the coal bucket; fetching fresh water; and fetching buttermilk. One would have the responsibility of waking the others up every morning.

Two double beds would be separated from each other by a slab of slate, whilst a piece of sacking served as a rug. Furniture in the living room was sparse and crude and usually roughly constructed by the men themselves. The only light would be from a candle or paraffin lamp. Even when electricity reached the quarry it was never installed in any of the barracks. Newspapers were used as tablecloths, and thick brown paper as curtains, which also kept out draughts at wintertime. Recreation consisted of card games, draughts, dominoes, snakes and ladders, ludo or reading magazines and local newspapers. Every barrack also had a Bible and Hymnal, and many of the men would attend weeknight services at the various chapels in Llanberis, wearing their 'second best clothes'.


Ernest Neale, General Manager Dinorwig Quarry, 1903

To put it simply, the conditions were appalling and for these comforts every man paid between 1½d (1p) and 3d (1½p) per week. On the other hand, living accommodation at the Oakeley Quarry appears to have been of a much higher standard, with each man having his own sleeping room.

Each barrack had a kettle, teapot, saucepan and frying pan, all of which would be black from soot and smoke. Tea would be drunk from either large mugs or white jam jars. Lobscouse [stew] would be the staple meal with stewed tea and bread and butter.


There would be deductions from the weekly wage of course like 8d (3½p) for gunpowder, for fuse and for candles (in a slate mine.) A Benefit Club was founded at Penrhyn as early as 1787, and was re founded in 1825. A quarryman paying 7d (3p) per month could claim sickness or accident benefit of 3/6 (17½p) per week. The owner would appoint the quarry doctor, whilst the agent and a manager would run the Benefit Club.

Due to the isolation of their quarries some owners supplied corn to their workers, and both Penrhyn and Dinorwig Quarries frequently did do at a loss. Other quarrying companies, such as at Cilgwyn, operated the truck system in its worst form. For instance, in 1823 £13-1-10 (£13.09) was spent on buying corn for the men, and the cost deducted from their wages. It was a system that lent itself to abuse by charging exorbitant prices.  All in all, the system was not operated in its most objectionable form in the North Wales Quarrying industry, unlike at the copper mining industry at Amlwch.

The average wage of a quarryman in 1845 was still only 15/- (75p) per week. Consequently, emigrating to the U.S.A. on ships sailing from Caernarfon and Porthaethwy was a regular occurrence, especially with the growth of the American Slate industry. Following the increased demand for slates during 1856-70, wages increased dramatically. By the 1860's a quarryman's wage was 4/3 (21p) per day. Indeed by 1870, a quarryman could earn as much as 5/6 (27½p) per day.

The quality of life enjoyed by a quarryman and his family in 1873 was described as simply wretched. At that time a four-week budget for two adults and five children was given as follows:


Payments £ s d Decimal Currency
Rent 2/6 (12½p) per week 10 0 (50p)
Bread 2 0 0
Coal 12 0 (60p)
Meat 8 0 (40p)
Potatoes 7 0 (35p)
Clothing 12 0 (60p)
Butter 3 lbs @ 1/6 (7½p) per week 1 0 0
Milk 2 0 (10p)
Sugar 3 lbs @ 4d(2p) per week 4 0 (20p)
Tea 1½ lbs 4 6 (22½p)
Candles 1½ lbs @ 4d (2p) per week 1 4 (7p)

Total 6 0 10


This was quoted as the least a family could live acceptably on, though many quarrymen existed on less than £3.00 per month. In 1865, an exceptional worker could only earn around £4.20 a month but the average wage by 1888 had increased to around £6.00 a month.

Work clothes

The clothes a quarryman wore were if anything more distinctive than his diet.  Corduroy trousers, hob-nailed boots and flat cap became his distinguishing dress in the twentieth century.  In the nineteenth century his normal dress was of white fustian [a course cloth made of cotton and flax]  with a thick flannel vest, a flannel shirt that was also lined, and flannel trousers which was usually of double thickness around his waist. He also wore a flannel or leather belt and, invariably, a bowler hat and carried an umbrella.

Health and death

Ill health also was a constant companion to them, mainly stomach disorders, hernias, haemorrhoids and respiratory diseases. Accidents occurred, but not as often as in coal mining. First aid was crude. Medical assistance often distant, whilst in most quarries the only ambulance was a stretcher. However, large quarries like Penrhyn, Dinorwig, Llechwedd and the Oakeley ran their own hospitals. The Oakeley hospital dated from 1848 and the Dinorwig Hospital opened in 1876, even though no doctor was appointed there until 1893.

The average age of death in 1893 at Blaenau Ffestiniog for those employed at the dressing sheds, where the slate dust was most heavy, was 47.9 years. The average age of death for engine drivers and plate layers in the quarry who were least exposed to dust was 60.3 years.  Labourers could expect to live till they were 45.3 years of age, while slate miners could only look forward to 48.1 years. In 1905, a widow was paid £200 on the death of her husband by accident at Penrhyn quarry.

The quarrymen were fully aware of how slate dust was killing them, and so did some doctors. However, Dr. R.H. Mills Roberts (1862-1935), who was quarry doctor at Dinorwig from 1893-1914, considered this occupation to be very healthy, and that slate dust did not exist at the Dinorwig Quarries to an injurious extent. Dr J. Bradley Hughes, doctor at the Penrhyn Quarry Hospital in 1922, went so far as to state:

We have no case of Silicosis in this quarry of which I am aware, and I became convinced after four years' experience here that Slate dust is not merely harmless but beneficial and I would challenge anyone to prove otherwise.

The quarrymen of north Wales, unlike the miners in the coal industry, had to wait until 1979 for any compensation from the London government. It was only granted then because a general election was imminent. It was too late for the vast majority.

Pay, Strikes and Living Conditions - Report of the Departmental Committee Upon Merionethshire Slate Mines - Promotion of Health, 1895
Gwynedd Council
Welsh Slate Museum, Llanberis
Cynefin Consultants
Enrich UK - Lottery Funded New Opportunities Fund
© Copyright Gwynedd Council 2003