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Dinorwic Quarry, North Wales

Photomechanical print giving a general view of Llanberis at the end of the Victorian period (c.1890-c.1900). Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue, reproduction number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-07428.

The historic photograph above shows the old Dinorwic slate works at the south-east end of Llyn Padarn, with the extensive workings all too visible on the slopes above them. Slate quarrying was the main industry of North Wales, as coal-mining was in the south: it employed as many as 14,000 workers by 1881 (Gareth Jones 167), and this was one of the two biggest quarries there, the other being a little further north at Penrhyn. In the second half of the nineteenth century these two were, in fact, the biggest slate quarries in the world (Gareth Jones 168). The complex at Dinorwic is particularly impressive as industrial architecture. But, as one guide to the area said long ago, unlike the railways, the quarries really "ruined the natural attractions of the immediate locality in which they are hewn" (Baddeley and Ward 166). They were also injurious to the health of the quarrymen.

Dinorwic as Industrial Architecture

Dinorwic Quarry, North Wales

Detail of the photograph above, showing the building complex.

Dinorwic Quarry dates from the late eighteenth century, when it took over even earlier workings in the area, but the workshop complex itself dates from 1871 and is now a Grade 1 listed building. Constructed mainly of "high-quality tightly jointed snecked slatestone" on a "[v]ast quadrangular plan" round a courtyard, the complex is described in the lengthy listing text as being fundamentally classical in style, but with Gothick detailing ... for the cast-iron windows, purpose-made for the structure in the foundry" and many unique touches indicating the different purposes of individual buildings. Included in the complex and expressed in different ways in its external appearance are "saw-sheds, patternmaking shops, a foundry with cupola, a hand-operated crane dated 1872, blacksmiths' shops, fitting shops, stores, engine sheds, a canteen and chief engineer's house." With good reason, the text concludes that the complex is remarkably complete and "both distinctive and unique" in character.

In addition to the buildings, there are the workings themselves. Technology greatly increased production: tramways were being used by the 1830s, with steam locomotives arriving in the 1870s. When electricity came along, that obviated the use of coal, producing big savings; but that was later (see Mining and Scientific Press, 191). Still, remaining to be seen at Dinorwic now are "rails, sleepers and drumhouses, a weighbridge house, locomotive sheds, water tanks and an office and caban [kiosk]. There is also a blondin [ropeway] with winding house and an electric compressor house. There is a large slate mill with two integral engine houses and saws, catslide extension and smithing hearth" ("Dinorwic Slate Quarry"). The quarry was still doing well in the late 1890s. Indeed, by then it was producing almost a quarter of Wales's slate. As a result, says the listing text, the buildings stand as "a fine monument to a major Welsh industry and represent a pinnacle of industrial architecture." It was a brilliant idea to use the disused complex to house the Welsh Slate Museum, which opened there in 1972.

The Quarrymen's Lives

Underground quarry Quarry and tools

Left: "An old underground quarry broken into during opencast digging. Topleft is a piece of wood wedged between the wall and roof of the tunnel to warn of any movement." Photograph and caption by courtesy of John Burt and the Wellcome Library. Right: "A slate-quarry: quarrymen ... and the instruments used." Etching by Robert Bénard after de la Croix. This eighteenth-century etching, also by courtesy of the Wellcome Library, gives an idea of the skills involved.

Welsh slate was highly prized, and highly important to the Welsh economy. A good quarryman was a skilled worker:

The quarryman-proper needed years of experience with the slate rock of his own quarry to be able to judge precisely how the rock should be quarried and there was much skill, too, in being able to split the slate and dress it to size. [Gareth Jones 168]

But what was it like to work at the quarry in its heyday? When George Borrow visited Wales at the beginning of the 1860s, he passed in sight of some slateworks at Ruthin in Denbighshire, about fifty miles to the east. "There is a great deal of work going on there, sir," his guide told him. A moment later, Borrow reported hearing "a blast, and then a thundering sound," at which his guide commented, "the voice of the rock in falling, sir ... blasting is dangerous and awful work" (77).

For outsiders, there was a strange fascination here. Even in 1886 or so, some money was earned by taking visitor round the quarries, so we have a first-hand view of the conditions there:

The shaft we went down was pitch dark, and the air was most disagreeable to breathe. A miner lad went before us with a lantern; our guide held me by the arm and my sister followed us closely, carrying a bit of lighted candle, set in a lump of clay, in her hand. We came upon bridges across shafts letting air down to the chambers beneath, where we saw, dimly burning, ever so far down, the lights of the poor miners. The quality of the slate in this quarry is very good, and the mine has already been worked 80 years. Our guide showed us the water-works which pump the water out of the mine, and the slate just as it is after it has been blasted, huge blocks worth about £4 each, which are conveyed to the pit's mouth on trucks, part of the way drawn by horses and then by machinery with wire ropes up the steep incline to where the narrow-gauge line takes it on to the finishing sheds where it is split, cut in squares, and then sent off to the railroad, to be forwarded to all parts of the world. We took a look at the great engine which sets all the different machinery in motion in the finishing shed, where nothing is done by hand now-a-days except the actual splitting of the blocks of slate, which is an easy task when once the two wedges are driven in. The guide has a fixed charge of 5s. for taking people over the mine, and we were glad to give it to him — he was so civil and so careful over us. [Baddeley and Ward 179]

Quarrymen's houses

Modern photograph of quarryworkers' cottages by Bob Morgan.

If working conditions were hard and fraught with risks, living conditions were primitive too, as we know from the surviving quarrymen's cottages. Families slept crowded together, with the most rudimentary sanitary facilities, and subsisted on meagre rations. Accidents in the course of work, ingesting slate dust, toiling in extremes of temperature underground, having poor diets as well as hygiene, and living in such conditions, all told on the quarryworkers, so that (for instance) the average age of death of such workers in nearby Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1875 was 37.78 years, as against 67.12 for men in other (principally agricultural) occupations (see Richard Jones 30). Fifteen years later, in 1890, a certain Dr John Williams was still complaining of the hardships the workers endured, maintaining that these hardships promoted "premature decay and old age — very frequently affecting particular tissues, often causing a general withering" (qtd. in Richard Jones 27). Thomas Assheton Smith (1776-1858), who owned the Dinorwic works, had been more popular with the men than his successor, George William Duff Assheton Smith (1848-1904). But anyway, in general, paternalism had worked only to "lay a heavy restraining hand upon any move for changing the relationship between men and master" (Richard Jones 120), and the gulf between them had widened over the years.

For a while, the works continued to boom: "In 1882 the county's quarries produced over 280,000 tons of finished roofing slates, and in 1898 the slate trade in Wales as a whole reached its peak with 17,000 men producing 485,000 tons of slate" ("Story of Slate"). After this, however, demand began to slow down, and the Welsh slate industry ceased to dominate the market. Eventually it was crushed by the damaging industrial disputes of the early twentieth century, and the First World War. There are still some working quarries in North Wales, but they contribute much less to the economy. Dinorwic itself kept going for several more decades, but finally closed down in 1969. It is now a place of memories, transformed into a popular tourist attraction which no longer seems a blot on the landscape or on the social conscience.

Related Material

Sources

Baddeley, M. J. B., and C. S. Ward. North Wales: Part I. 3rd ed. London: Dulau & Co., 1889. Internet Archive. Web. 12 April 2014.

Borrow, George. Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery. 1862. London and Glasgow: Collins, 1955. "Dinorwic Slate Quarry." Coflein (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales). Web. 12 April 2014.

"Dinorwic Slate Quarry Workshops (Welsh Slate Museum Buildings), Llanddeiniolen." British Listed Buildings. Web. 12 April 2014.

Jones, Gareth Elwyn. Modern Wales: A Concise History. 2d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Jones, Richard Merfyn, The Trade Union and Political Activities of the North Wales Slate Quarrymen in Relation to Their Special and Working Conditions. 1870-1905. December 1975 Ph.D. thesis for the University of Warwick. Web. 12 April 2014.

Mining and Scientific Press. Vol. 96 (Jan-June, 1908). Internet Archive. Web. 12 April 2014.

"Story of Slate." National Slate Museum. Web. 12 April 2014.


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Last modified 15 April 2014