Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS


Our survey of the expansionist period in the history of the slate industry would be incomplete without some account of labour conditions and industrial relations in the industry.

Vagabond Quarrymen

For a generation following 1790 there was friction in certain areas between the old farmer‑quarrymen and the new industrial entrepreneurs. In all the Welsh slate areas. more especially in the Nantlle and Llanberis districts, scores of men had worked quarries on the wastes; the new industrial entrepreneur took over these numerous minute workings and the men felt that they had been expropriated, and robbed of their customary right to work slates on the commons. This embittered relations for nearly a quarter of a century. The Dinorwic Company in the first six months of its existence had to pay over £70 "on purpose to keep the men quiet and prevent them going to the common to open and work quarries for themselves and encroach on Mr. Smith's right thereto"; bailiffs were paid for ejecting men from the quarries. The workmen in the quarry were often unruly and in September, 1788, William Bridge, the acting manager, told his partners that unless the balance of £120 which was due to the workmen as wages was paid soon he would have to take flight to avoid being murdered. As late as 1809 strong parties of "vagabond quarrymen" were in possession of small quarries adjoining the Dinorwic Quarries.

It was the Cilgwyn Company which met with the most determined and persistent opposition from the so‑called 'trespassers." In 1802 there were over a hundred on Cefndu common; they were so numerous and determined that it was deemed impossible to turn them out by taking legal action. In 1804 the trespassers were working ten small quarries on the common; most of these workings had been started during the previous fifteen years but the largest quarry had been opened before 1775; this quarry had been worked on a fairly large scale and its possession had passed through a number of hands by verbal sale; other quarries had been claimed by a son on the death of the father and the "intruders" based their claim to the quarries upon their possession for nearly twenty years and upon transference from father to son. In 1804 whenever the Cilgwyn Company served them with notices to quit or attempted to take possession of the workings, the men sounded a horn and more than a hundred of them gathered together and declared in the most uncompromising manner that they would rather die than quit their quarries.

There were also "intruders" upon the Cilgwyn common, and in 1900 thirty‑two of these refused to contribute one‑tenth of their produce as a royalty payment to the Cilgwyn Company; in the following year they became riotous and assaulted the Company's employees and obstructed the working of the main quarries by the Company. In 1804 they tipped the waste rock from their own workings into the Company's quarries and destroyed part of a road which had been specially constructed to facilitate the removal of rubbish, and so in 1805 an action was brought in the King’s Bench against eleven trespassers; before such action could be tried most of the men gave up possession and proceedings were stayed.

After that year the opposition of the quarrymen seems to have been crushed ` although in 1810 we once more learn of quarrymen throwing twenty wagons belonging to the Company over some precipice, because rubbish had been tipped into the Veingoch Quarry which was still worked by a few recalcitrant quarrymen. Many of them refused to become employees, and the Cilgwyn Company were forced to lease the Ddol Quarry on Cefndu common to small groups of workmen who worked various parts of the quarry for their own private profit subject to a royalty payment of one ninth the value of all slate produced. Groups of quarrymen persisted for many years to work slate in these districts, but in the course of time workmen from the wastes and commons were absorbed into the larger slate quarries. They still laboured, however, under a profound sense of injustice, and felt that they had been robbed. by ‑ unscrupulous lawyers and rapacious landowners.

A Hunting We Will Go

During these early years a disciplinary element was for the first time introduced into the industry. The old quarries had been worked in a desultory manner, the men coming and going as they pleased; they often abandoned their work to look after their farms, to quaff beer in the village inn, to watch surreptitiously a cock‑fight, or to play tennis, a game which seems to have been very popular among the quarrymen working on the Cilgwyn common. Even with the coming of production on a comparatively large scale during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, no strict surveillance was kept over the movements of the workmen. They always attended fairs and could stay away a whole day without exciting comment or censure from the management. When Samuel Holland went up to his quarry on one fine morning in April, 1824, he found that all the quarrymen had gone fox-hunting, and in less than a fortnight he records in his diary that they had again deserted their work in pursuit of the same pleasurable sport. This was not felt to be a great hardship to the quarry proprietors as the workmen were paid on a piece‑work basis, and so the less work they put in the smaller were their earnings. By about 1830, however, there was a marked tightening of discipline in this respect and codes, regulating hours and conditions of work, had been introduced into the larger quarries. These regulations seem to us to‑day to be unduly oppressive; in 1812 the Cilgwyn quarry agent warned the quarrymen that if they made any slates "too thin, under size, or otherwise improper and unmarketable, you will be fined sixpence for every improper slate so made and be turned out of your bargain without further notice": in the Rhiw quarry, Festiniog, the quarrymen were fined 2s. 6d., or more than a day's wages, for every undersized slate they produced. The quarrymen soon found out that working for an industrial entrepreneur was radically different from working for their own profit, but as a class, however, they benefited from the change and enjoyed a higher standard of life than under the old system of working quarries.

Perpetuum Mobile

In the last two decades of the eighteenth century there was a continual movement of quarrymen between Penrhyn, Dinorwic, Cefndu and Cilgwyn Quarries and the mobility of labour was remarkable. When the state bargains were set to sixty quarrymen in the Dinorwic Quarry in February, 1789, we learn that there were five new workmen from the Penrhyn and Cefndu quarries, whereas five of the Dinorwic quarrymen had gone to work in the Penrhyn Quarries and two others had deserted their bargains and gone to work quarries of their own on Cefndu common. In March, 1793, the Dinorwic agent wrote to one of his employers as follows : "I hear there are several more of our quarrymen intending to go for Lord Penrhyn’s quarry at the end of this quarter. It is my opinion that if you or Mr. Wright wrote to Mr. Wyatt on the subject it would save many £100 to both quarries in the year and bring the men to order which is impossible at present owing to the great encouragement they receive at Lord Penrhyn's quarry." In February, 1795, thirty-seven unemployed Penrhyn quarrymen who had become burdensome to the parish were examined before being sent back to their place of origin; thirty‑three came from seventeen different Caernarvonshire parishes; three came from Anglesey and one from Denbighshire. This pronounced mobility of labour was chiefly the result of the low wages paid in North Wales, where the standard of life was so low (much lower than in England), that any slight downward movement in wages reduced the working class to a state of semi‑starvation. With the rise in the standard of living the incentive to move in search of slightly higher wages was weakened and the movement of workmen from one district to another became less frequent. The supply of quarrymen was always sufficient to meet the demand, and even in a bleak unsheltered spot like the Manod Quarry, Merioneth, there was no difficulty in obtaining an adequate supply of cheap labour. Movement of quarrymen from one slate producing district to another was accelerated in years of depression in the industry, but the movement of unskilled labourers from the surrounding rural districts to the slate areas was greatest in years of prosperity.

Wages were low and fluctuated greatly during this early period. The average wage of a quarryman in 1788 was 10d. per working day. Wages advanced with the increased prosperity of the industry and skilled quarrymen got Is. 4d. per day in 1794. The acute depression which began in 1795 caused many to dread "the danger of disturbances and riot from so many idle people being let loose‑the country having no manufactory or any other staple article to give them employ." There were corn riots at Caernarvon in 1800 and 1801 in which the necessitous quarrymen played a prominent part.

In the summer of 1801 Bingley visited the Bethesda district and wrote that the white‑washed cottages of the quarrymen presented from a distance an air of neatness and comfort, but "from the broken windows, and the ragged and filthy appearance of the children of two or three into which I ventured to put my head, nothing but the extreme of wretchedness and poverty could be supposed to reign within." Edmund Hall, who visited the same district ten years later, had a different story to relate,‑ the houses were "well‑furnished," the quarrymen's clothes were "clean, whole and abundant; and with food they are equally well supplied." In the intervening period from 1801 to 1811 the quarrymen's average daily wage had risen from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. Wages remained stable between 1811 and 1813 and then declined to the minimum point of 1s. 4d. in 1817; it rose to 2s. 0d. in 1821, and 2s. 2d. in 1826, and then fell to 1s. 8d. in 1829. One marked feature of the industry during these years was that the rise and fall in wages coincided perfectly with the cycles of activity in the industry. This was only to be expected in an industry where there was no strong organisation among the workers which might give rigidity to wages; the piece‑work system also facilitated the adjustment of the rates of remuneration to the state of the demand for slates.

Industrial Unrest.

The six years, 1823 to 1828, were very eventful ones in the history of the industry. They were years of extravagant speculation in quarries., of frequent prolonged lawsuits between landowners and lessees. and of widespread unrest among the quarrymen. Many small slate enterprises proved disastrous for the investors and the workers were frequently compelled to await months for their wages. There were sporadic and ineffectual strikes in many quarries. The most important strike took place at the Penrhyn Quarry in March, 1825, when a small number of the men ‑ some 150 of them - struck work; they complained of inadequate and unequal earnings and of lack of confidence in the management, and demanded a minimum wage of 3s. 0d. per day for skilled quarrymen. The Penrhyn estate agent interviewed the men on behalf of the proprietor; he offered to do away completely with the piece‑work system, but the quarrymen stood out firmly for the existing wage system on condition that it should be administered on a more equitable basis. A tactless reference to Mr. Greenfield, the late chief overseer of the quarry, who had drowned himself the previous month, was interpreted as a threat and all peaceful negotiations were immediately terminated. The quarry proprietor announced in the local press that all who desired work would have to return to the quarry on the status quo ante bellum, and that fall reasonable complaints would be investigated by the estate agent. This effectively broke the strike and the men returned to work but their leaders were victimised. There was a revolt in the Dinorwic Quarries in the same year A code of rules for the quarries had been drawn up by Mr. Turner, the general manager, and this provided among other things that the men were to remain at work until 4 p.m. on Saturdays instead of until 1 p.m. as formerly. The men decided to oppose this new arrangement; on the first Saturday after the code came into effect Mr. Turner and the head overseer posted themselves at the exits from the quarries, but at one o'clock the men rose as one body and at a brisk trot ran past the two impotent sentinels with good‑humoured contempt. The men gained their point. All combinations among the workmen were ephemeral and there is no evidence that any attempts were made to form a permanent organisation such as a trade union.

The Tommy Shop

The quarrymen had many grievances during this period; they worked on the average more than sixty hours per week; their work was laborious and dangerous; in most quarries, which were often situated high up on bleak mountain sides, there were no sheds where the quarrymen could split and dress slates, nor suitable places to take their meals or shelter during stormy weather. Wages were frequently miserably low and very little above the general agricultural wage of the district. The truck system was a fruitful cause of unrest in some quarries. When the Cilgwyn quarrymen wanted some "sist" between the long periodical wage settlements, the quarry agent, instead of advancing money, often signed tickets authorising them to receive so much corn, potatoes or other commodities from a local shop. This shop was kept by a brother of one of the Cilgwyn partners and was virtually a "tommy" shop. The Cilgwyn Company owned mills at Llwynygwalch. and Llanllyfni and they sold corn to the shop‑keeper, who resold it to the quarrymen and slate carriers. Between April and October, 1814, the quarrymen paid over £110 (a sum equivalent to some £1,000 today) at this shop for corn, potatoes and other articles. They invariably paid "top‑prices" and in 1822 the men petitioned the Company either to pay them their wages in cash or to sell them these commodities at the market price. William Turner was in the habit of importing rye, wheat, beans, malt and other goods from London for his Diphwys quarrymen. The Welsh Slate Company opened a shop which retailed consumable goods to its quarrymen at Festiniog. The truck system, although a source of discontent in a few quarries, was not prevalent in any virulent form in the industry. In the Penrhyn Quarry the proprietor contented himself with erecting a granary to store grain against times of emergency; the proprietor of the Dinorwic Quarry conferred a real boon upon his employees when in 1812 he imported a large cargo of barley when it was scarce and sold it to them at cost price; his example was followed by other quarry proprietors.

Wage Grievances

The most important grievances were the irregularity of wage payments and the great divergences in earnings. The usual wage settlement in the Cilgwyn Quarry took place every sixteen weeks, but the men had often to wait six and eight months for a final settlement. The other Nantlle quarries were little better and in 1826 there were some workmen in the Talysarn Quarry whose accounts had not been settled for over a year.. Things had improved in this respect by 1828 and Cilgwyn was the only quarry in the district which did not pay, monthly. In the Penrhyn Quarry the wage settlement usually took place at monthly intervals; sometimes the interval between settlements was as short as three weeks but at other times it was extended to six weeks; in this quarry wages were paid fully at each settlement, subject to the usual deductions for any materials such as powder supplied to them by the management, and any "sist" which may have been advanced. The Welsh Slate Company of Festiniog was for many years notorious for the irregular manner in which it paid its workmen; when Lord Palmerston, one of the shareholders, visited the quarry in 1825 the quarrymen petitioned him for more regular payment of wages; they had on that occasion been without wages for eighteen weeks.

Even more serious than the uncertainty of wage‑payments, was the general complaint about excessive inequality in wages. In 1825 in the Penrhyn Quarry the men complained that some of the ablest quarrymen earned only 17s. 0d. in a month, while other men received as much in five or six months. These marked divergencies in wages can only be understood in the light of the methods of remuneration ruling in the industry. The wage system merits detailed treatment on account of its profound influence upon labour conditions and upon the internal organisation and productive efficiency of state quarries, and will be dealt with in our next contribution.



Aspects of the Slate Industry 17: The Expansionist Period 7

Quarry Managers' Journal September 1944