The Industrial Revolution may have been founded on textiles nd powered by steam; it was roofed with slates skilfully wrenched from the Welsh hills. . . . It was officially judged in 1882 that ‘after coal and iron slate is the most valuable mineral raised in the UK’ — Merfyn Jones

[The following material comes from the author’s chapter in Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers (1977) — George P. Landow.]

Major Slate Quarries in North Wales

The Penrhyn Quarry, Dinorwic Quarry at Llanberis, and the Oakeley at Blaenau Ffestiniog, the largest slate mine in the world. Between them these three concerns employed half of the slate workers of North Wales. The remainder laboured in counties of Caernarvonshire and Merioneth. Circa 1875 13-15,000 people were employed in the quarries.

Slate Workers

The quarrymen proper, making up just over 50 per cent of the workforce, organized themselves into crews consisting normally of three or four men, each crew coming to a separate working agreement or ‘bargain’ with the management. A crew usually consisted of two men ‘yn y twll,” rockmen working on the rock face, and two men working in the sheds or slate mills dressing and splitting the slates.

The other main occupational groups in the quarry were bad-rockmen and rubbish men. The bad-rockman worked usually in a crew of three taking a bargain which, unlike that of the quarrymen proper, would be of bad-rock, that is, rock from which no slates could be worked. The agreement worked out with the management would give him so much per ton for removing the bad-rock.

The rubbish men were divided into two groups, those who cleared the rubbish (waste rock) from the galleries where the quarrymen’s bargains lay, and those who were responsible for building the giant tips of waste rock around the quarry. They were paid by the ton or by the yard of materials removed.

Also at work in the quarry were the ‘rybelwrs’, boys who were in the first stage of learning the craft; their job was to wander along the galleries offering assistance whenever there was need for an extra hand. Sometimes they would be given an extra slab of rock to split for which they would be paid by the crew. From this stage the rybelwr could hope to become a journeyman and then a quarryman proper. The quarry also employed a number of time-workers such as weighers, hauliers, brakesmen, stationary enginemen, locomotive engine drivers, engineers, blacksmiths, saw-sharpeners, carpenters, platelayers, storekeepers, timekeepers and general labourers — but their total number was small.

The quarrymen proper were the elite group of the quarry and though they did not earn much more than the bad-rockmen their status was always treated with some awe. There was no real apprenticeship in slate-quarrying, and a man became a quarryman proper through his skill and his connections in a fairly informal way. But a quarryman was conscious of his superior skill and status, and relations with other workers could be strained, sometimes exacerbated by the fact that the quarrymen usually lived together in the quarry village while lower grades often came from outside the immediate area. [102-03]

The Bargain System

The bargain stem was central to the method of working and to the consciousness of the quarryman. . . . The problem which the system was supposed to deal with was the one posed by the tremendous unevenness in the nature of the rock worked, from one part of a quarry to another. Thus one crew’s stretch of rock might be buckled or the slate imperfect while another’s would be finely grained and easily worked; as it was quarried, moreover, the nature of the rock was constantly changing. Any wages system which merely remunerated men for the number of slates produced was therefore clearly inoperable. The bargaining system meant that each crew of four or five quarrymen would negotiate a monthly contract with the management, the terms of which contract depended on the assessed ease or difficulty of extracting slates from the face in question; on the basis of the monthly bargain the men were paid a sum of ‘poundage’ per pound’s worth of slates produced. Men working on inhospitable rock would be paid a high poundage, compensating for the low yield or poor quality of the slates produced, those quarrying good rock received a low poundage.

Theoretically, therefore, the bargaining system recognized each crew of quarrymen as independent contractors who could argue about the terms of the contract before coming to an agreement. The traditional independence of the quarrymen was thus formalized into a wages system. In practice it need not — and usually did not — work but it maintained and indeed encouraged the feeling among quarrymen that they were equals in some sense with the quarry owners. In practice, of course, the bargain was rarely equal; it could not be. [104]

The bargaining system was defended not merely for the good wages it could bring with effective organization, though that was not to be overlooked, but also, and more important, because of the style of working for which it allowed; for the very organization of their work allowed to quarrymen a considerable degree of independence and control over their labour. Once a bargain had been settled the crew could work it as it saw best. As Robert Parry, one of the leaders of the Penrhyn men in 1874, explained, ‘contracts should be let according to the nature of the work, and after that is done no further meddling with the industry of the contractors should be tolerated in any way’. And twenty years later a Ffestiniog rockman was adamant that ‘when they let me a bargain I do not want them to interfere with me in my work until I have finished my contract’. So strong was this feeling that it was generally considered that a bargain, the actual place in the quarry not the settlement, was in a sense the property of those who worked it, not just for the month of any agreement’s life, but for good [108]

Religion, Class, and Conflict

Politics and religion sharpened and soured industrial relations in the quarries; every squabble was defined as a clash of cultures and traditions, of allegiances and values. The battle line was clear; on the one hand the quarrymen consciously upheld their brand of Radical Liberalism, their Nonconformity and their Welshness; on the other side the masters not only jealously guarded their profits, but also defended the ideology and institutions of an English squirearchy’s Toryism and Anglicanism Politics coloured every wage negotiation, every struggle; and religion provided that massive sense of self-righteousness which characterized both quarryman and master. When they went into battle slate-quarrymen fought not only as workers but as Radicals and as Nonconformists, they carried with them the whole cultural apparatus of the communities they had created. [129]

Related material


Jones, Merfyn. “Y chtvareltvyr: the Slate Quarrymen of North Wales.” Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers. Ed. Raphael Samuel. History Workshop Series. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. pp. 101-35.

Last modified 27 May 2018