Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS

  1. In the year 1736 less than 2,000 tons of slate was produced in the small scattered quarries on the Penrhyn Estate, and the profit which should have accrued to the landowner amounted to £93 17s. 1d. (incidentally the profit made on the working of the quarries between 1736-43 was never accounted for by the agent); exactly a hundred years later the Penrhyn Quarries provided employment for 1,772 men, who produced 73,758 tons of slate which was sold for £124,667, bringing in a net profit of £62,144, indicating a very high rate of profit, especially when it is remembered that those were the halcyon days when income tax at a shilling in the pound was regarded as an appalling imposition. Within that hundred years, 1736 - 1836, occurred the so-called Industrial Revolution. In that period the whole face of the country and the whole structure of society was changed. Methods of production, transport and marketing were revolutionised. The industrial, as well as the human, birth-rate rose and the new industries expanded at wholly unprecedented rates. Old industries which for many centuries had been producing on a minute scale for highly localised markets were transformed within a generation and grew prodigiously. Such was the history of the slate industry; such also, was the case with the Penrhyn Quarries which had been worked on a very small scale since time immemorial.

  2. In those districts where there were easily accessible outcrops of slate rock it was custom for farmers to make slates to roof their farms and out-houses, and for masons to quarry slates to roof churches and to satisfy any local demand for roofing slates in the immediate vicinity of the quarries, usually without paying any rent to anyone. Early in the eighteenth century we find groups of quarrymen, often members of the same family and usually small farmers, joining together as partners to produce slates on a somewhat extended scale for markets further afield and it was at this stage, realising the potential importance of the industry, that Lords of the Manor and the Crown began to charge nominal rents for permission to work slate on the common land, as an acknowledgment of their title to the mineral rights of the wastes.

  3. The proprietors of the Penrhyn Estate had charged a nominal rent of this sort for several centuries and in an old rent book for 1582 there is reference to a payment of 13s. 4d. "for the custom of the quarries." But as is indicated by the following extract from a letter written in 1738 by John Paynter, the Penrhyn estate agent, to his employer, the latter was often lax in enforcing his manorial rights : "Sir, I should tell you that the very mountain in Llandegai Parish, which I always took to be the sole property of Penrhyn . . . until of late ; and now I find that the Bishop of Bangor claims a right there as also the inhabitants of Llanddeiniolen and that Mr. Doulben (Estate agent 1719-36) in all his time never interrupted them. This surprised me a good deal and put me on enquiring of all the ancient people, and most of them say that in Sir Robert Williams' time no man durst as much as turn a sheep on Llandegai mountain nor take any other liberty whatsoever without his consent and that he annually, when in the country, walked the boundaries himself. Upon this I gave notice to all the neighbouring parishes that on Whitsun Monday last I would walk the boundaries of Llandegai and accordingly I did with some hundreds of people of all ages, threw down all inclosures, impounded all strange cattle, and did everything I could think of to assert the reputed ancient right. 'Twas high time to stir for the neighbours began to think and to say that Penrhyn had no power to build cottages on the waste, nor to get slates any more than others except in their own land. But I have convinced them to the contrary." Later on there were several protracted legal disputes between the Crown and the Penrhyn Estate over mineral rights. In 1784 the evidence on the question was submitted to several noted counsel - Harrison, Hargreaves, Plomer, Dampier, and others whose considered opinions weighed heavily in favour of the proprietary rights and against the Crown claims, but the matter was raised again and again. The combined opinion of Gifford and Coppley, Attorney and Solicitor General respectively, delivered from Lincoln's Inn, 11 November, 1823, is typical: "We are of opinion that there is no sufficient evidence . . . to establish the rights of the Crown to the common in the parish of Llandegai and that the long possession and repeated acts of ownership exercised by the Penrhyn family render it, in our judgment, impossible to hope for success in any proceeding to be instituted by the Crown to obtain possession of this property."

  4. In the first half of the eighteenth century it is surprising to find how keen was the competition between the various slate-producing areas, especially between the numerous small quarries shipping their slate from Caernarvon and the quarries on the Penrhyn demesne. That the Penrhyn Quarries were finding it practically impossible to compete with the Caernarvon quarries is clearly brought out in the following quaint extracts from a remarkable letter, dated 25 May, 1738, addressed by Paynter to his employer, Sir William Young: "As the Caernarvon slates are, and always must be, a great hinderance to the sale of yours at Abercegin (where Port Penrhyn was started to be built in 1790) I beg leave to tell you how that trade is carried on, how it is hurtful to you, and how, in my opinion, you may possibly turn the whole into your advantage. The name of the mountain where they get the slate is Cilgwyn, which is an equal distance from Caernarvon to yours from Abercegin; the getters and carriers of these slates pay no farm, rent, or duty to anyone whatsoever, they get them much cheaper than they can yours, and when they are got they split them into any sizes they please, and make them much lighter, thinner, and broader than your quarrymen can possibly do; notwithstanding all these advantages in the getting part they sell them every thousand for ten shillings; your poor tenants have but seven, your farm being two shillings and eight pence per thousand, and nine and eightpence is the greatest price that ever was had for a thousand of slates at Abercegin; and to all these a vessel that will carry but 20 M. of yours (a Mille or Thousand amounted to 1,200 slates) will load 25 M. of theirs. Then as to the selling part, I must acquaint you that a large ship is constantly kept to carry them to the London market, and an old servant of Mr. Thomas Wynne's (later Lord Newborough) is the person to whom they are consigned at London, and one Mr. Lewis Nanneu, a topping tradesman, is the factor at Caernarvon. In like manner they have trade with Dublin for the small slate; and there is not a town in England or Wales that have (sic) ever seen theirs, but prefer them to yours, nor a vessel that can get a loading at Caernarvon that will come to Abercegin for they at Liverpool or Chester will very readily get 14s. per thousand when we can sell for no more than 13s. and indeed the boats have disused the place so long thro' Mr. Doulben's (the previous agent) peevishness that 'tis with great difficulty I get any home trade at all, for which reason I am forced to solicit a trade with places where the Caernarvon slates are not known.... All these things put together induced me to think of ingrossing the whole slatery of Caernarvon into my own hands if 'twas possible, by contracting with all persons concerned to take all the slates they could get for a certain number of years and so by that means to keep up the price of yours by sending the others to markets that should not interfere; this, could it have been done, would have added many hundreds to the Estate of Penrhyn, but all my endeavours have proved ineffectual and all 1 was able to do was to engage two substantial tradesmen of the town to buy for me upon commission every slate that they suspected would be otherwise carried to such and such market for this one summer. Mr. John Wynne, of Glynllifon seemed inclinable to serve me in this treaty that I was in with the quarrymen and recommended it to his own tenant (possibly this refers to the Glynrhonwy Quarry, Llanberis) to agree with me. . . But 'twas all in vain, they would not be bound for any consideration so now, Sir, I am to tell you which way I think you may still effectually do the business; if I think wrong I hope you'll excuse me, for I have nothing more in view than increasing the income of this estate (this statement by the man who never accounted for £550, being the profit on the quarries between 1736-43, is rather choice !) This Cilgwyn Mountain is no man's property whatsoever, nor does any person claim the least privilege from it, except the neighbouring freeholders who have a right of commoning, I mean a right to the herbage. Therefore, sir, would it not he easy for you to obtain a grant from the Crown of the mines and other royalties in that common?"

  5. At this juncture it might be as well to trace briefly the history of the Cilgwyn quarries, the produce of which was driving the Penrhyn slates off the market. Sir William. Young did not follow his agent's advice to lease the extensive Cilgwyn common from the Crown. A few years later, in 1745, a lease was granted by the Crown to John Wynne, afterwards Sir John Wynne Bart., of all the mines and quarries within an extensive tract of land, including Cilgwyn common. This lease was granted for a term of thirty-one years at a rent of 10s. per annum and a tenth part of the net profits. This lease expired in May, 1776 ; in January, 1773, Sir John tried to get the lease renewed in the name of his son, Thomas Wynne, later Lord Newborough, but the Surveyor General refused to renew it because no account of profit had been made to the Crown. Sir John died in April, 1774, and his son again unsuccessfully petitioned for a renewal of the lease. The lease accordingly lapsed but Lord Newborough continued to hold the quarries as tenant-at-will under the Crown and paid the rent of 10s. per annum to the Receiver of the Land Revenue. After December, 1790, the Receiver refused to accept this rent, having been notified of the appointment on 18th May, 1791, of Robert Roberts, Caernarvon, as "His Majesty's Agent and Superintendent of the Waste Lands and Slate Quarries in the parishes of Llandwrog, Llanwnda, Llanllyfni, Clynnog Fawr, Bettws, Beddgelert, Llanrug, Llanberis, Llanddeiniolen and Llanbeblig in the County of Caernarvon."

  6. Roberts was authorised to let quarries to the highest bidders, the minimum rent to be 5s. a year for each quarryman employed. As a reward for his services the Crown granted him 10 per cent. of all the rents he collected. In 1792 Roberts persuaded forty-four Cilgwyn quarrymen to pay him a rent of 10s. 6d. Mr. Samuel Price, Lord Newborough's estate agent, circulated a story that the Crown had no right to the quarries and so they refused to pay any more rent to the Crown agent, and in 1794, acting under Price's instructions, several of them brought actions against Roberts for recovery of the rent paid to him in 1792. Local opinion was strongly in favour of Lord Newborough and the quarrymen. Roberts was afraid that on this account the Crown would lose the case, and in his report to his superiors in London he writes: "Most of the land-holders have made incroachments on the waste lands and other rights of the Crown and the quarrymen naturally prefer holding under Lord Newborough, who had hitherto required from them an annual acknowledgment of only fourpence per man, which acknowledgment Mr. Price says has never exceeded 14s. in any one year, and that he says has uniformly been expended by Lord Newborough in an annual dinner to the quarrymen, thus making use of the property of the Crown for the sole purpose of increasing his own influence in the county; whereas the agent appointed by your lordships is not authorised to let any quarries for less than 5s. per man, and has let none hitherto under 10s. 6d., which is indeed the common price required by private owners. It will not, therefore, be surprising if the minds of a jury of that county be found not quite free from prejudice when the business comes before them." Despite his apprehensions the Crown agent won the case, the quarrymen being non-suited for not proceeding to trial in due time. The legal right of the Crown to these quarries was thus vindicated, although the quarrymen were still in possession when in 1800 the Cilgwyn and Cefnddu Slate Company began to work the quarries as lessees of the Crown.

  7. It is clear that the Cilgwyn Quarries enjoyed several important differential advantages over the Penrhyn Quarries. Their production costs were lower because, according to Paynter's testimony, the Penrhyn Quarries were "monstrous hard," "full of rubbish," and "much watered." The Caernarvon slates were more marketable, being larger and lighter, and fetched a better price. Moreover there were no heavy royalty charges to bear. Prior to 1745 Cilgwyn quarrymen had paid no rent at all and between 1745-91 they merely paid a nominal rent of fourpence per annum to the Glynllifon estate agent. On the other hand, the Penrhyn quarrymen had to pay 2s. 8d. royalty upon every mille of slates produced; in 1738 the royalty amounted to more than 25 per cent. of the selling price, which was 9s. 8d. per mille. Even in that year, which seems to have been the best for over a decade, Penrhyn slates were being driven off the market despite all Paynter's plans and exertions. In his letter he complains of the difficulty of getting men to work in the quarries, "for all the old workmen had in a manner left off, seeing that nobody took care to promote a trade, and betook themselves to cobbling, weaving, and other businesses to get bread; so that one half of the houses usually inhabited with quarrymen are now held by people that are quite strangers to the business."

  8. Things got progressively worse and in an attempt to retain a small share of the market the Penrhyn quarries had to cut their prices catastrophically. By 1746 Penrhyn prices had fallen by 50 per cent. to 4s. 10d. per mille ; output fell contemporaneously from 1,852 mille in 1738 to 482 mille in 1746. William Bridge, who succeeded Paynter, tells the same sorry tale in 1747 as the latter had told nine years earlier: "The Caernarvon slates (which take away our trade) are lighter than the Penrhyn slates and consequently more is got by the freight of them and as they are softer and easier worked the slaters recommend them tho' the Penrhyn slates are apparently better. Besides, the people that get the Caernarvon slates sell them as they can - sometimes higher and sometimes lower without paying any interest or profit to the owner of the quarry, whereas the Penrhyn slates are (now the price is lowered) charged with a profit of ten pence per thousand and the price is fixed and unalterable." The royalty had been reduced first to 1s. 4d. and then in 1746 to 10d. Bridge considered even the reduced royalty as excessive under the circumstances: "If the landlords would permit the tenants to sell the slates on their own account without demanding any interest or profit upon them, it would be a means to recover the trade which would enable the tenants to pay their rents, and by degrees, the cottages on the common, which are now let at eighteen pence, half-a-crown and five shillings might be raised to twenty shillings apiece by letting them to quarrymen. Besides some of the tenants that hold lands from three to ten pounds a year and deal in slates would be enabled to clear their arrears and by bringing money into the estate the landlords must in the end be gainers. But it is proposed that the tenants get and sell the slates (under proper regulations) on their own account at what prices then and proper, paying the landlords sixpence per thousand for all they sell and if, after three year's experience, this is not found to answer the end aimed at, then shall the tenants be at full liberty to get and sell slates on their own account and at what prices they think fit without paying anything to the landlords. . . . If by either the first or second proposal there should be a good demand upon the slates the estate must at all events be the gainer from it."

  9. No new method of letting the quarries was adopted until Samuel Wright was appointed estate agent in 1767. On 1 September, 1768, were signed leases, fifty-four in number, by General Warburton and John Pennant Esq., to sundry persons at various annual rents, and usually for 21 years, with a covenant that the lessee, for a further sum of 20 s. a year, should have liberty to work, or to find one labourer to work, in or about the Penrhyn slate quarry in Llandegai, according to the custom and rules of the quarry. These Quarry Rules are of great interest to the student of the history of the industry and are worth quoting at length:

  10. Rules to be observed in the working and management of the slate quarry belonging to Honourable. Hugh Warburton and John Pennant Esq., in the County of Caernarvon.

  11. That the workmen employed in the said Quarry do form themselves into Sets or Companies to consist of 5, 6, 7 or more men according as the places where the slates are to be raised will admit of a convenient number to work.

  12. That each set or company shall clear the several places wherein they shall work at their own expense so as to remove all rubbish and other obstructions that shall be in the way or prejudice the raising of slates.

  13. That if by the death or removal of any of the workmen there shall be a vacancy in any set such new workmen shall be added as shall be necessary, paying a proportionable part of the original expense in clearing the work.

  14. That if any person shall be inclined to work in the Quarry and there shall be no vacancy in any of the works then open such new workmen shall form into a set or company and open the quarry in a new place at their own expense without obstructing the works then open.

  15. That each set of workmen do raise and dress the slates in the most proper and beneficial manner according to such usual sizes and dimensions called Singles, Doubles, Ladies and Countesses as the several parts of the quarry will admit of.

  16. That each set or company do carry or pay for the carriage of the slates by them raised and dressed and lay them down near the seaside at Aber Cegin in proper order and manner for shipping.

  17. That such person as shall be appointed by the said Hugh Warburton and John Pennant to be the Slate Reeve shall keep an account of the slates delivered at Aber Cegin by each set or company from time to time and shall sell or dispose of such slates for the best prices that can be got for the same and at the time of loading any vessel shall take a particular account of the slates belonging to each company which shall be put on board such vessel, distinguishing the several kinds and quantities of such slates with the value thereof so sold.

  18. That the Slate Reeve shall on the 25th day of March, the 24th day of June, the 29th day of September, and the 25th day of December yearly or within ten days after those respective times draw up an account of all the slates sold and delivered the preceding quarter of the year and deliver such account to the agent of the said Hugh Warburton and John Pennant who shall thereupon pay to the said Slate Reeve the money for which such slates shall have been sold and delivered and that the said Slate Reeve shall immediately on the receipt thereof pay and divide the same amongst the workers according to the quantity and value of slates sold and delivered by each set or company.

  19. That the salary of the said Slate Reeve shall he paid by the said Hugh Warburton and John Pennant or their agent and placed to their account as usual.

  20. That if any differences or disputes shall arise between the workmen or between them and the Slate Reeve relative to the premises the same shall be determined by the agent of the said Hugh Warburton and John Pennant for the time being with a power for any of the parties to appeal to the said Hugh Warburton and John Pennant whose determination shall be final.

  21. The Slate Reeve idea was not new and had been in force throughout the century. In addition to keeping accounts of all slates delivered at Aber Cegin, the Reeve was responsible for marketing the states; all bad debts incurred were met out of royalties payable by the quarrymen. The innovations introduced by Wright were the new method of levying royalties and the granting of long-term leases. Royalties were no longer levied on output but became an annual charge varying according to the number of men employed. This was a great improvement from the point of view of the lessees. These Quarry Rules bring out the inherent weaknesses in this method of working the quarries. Each group of partners was supposed at its own expense to clear away all unproductive rock from its own part of the quarry, and so to carry on its work as not to obstruct other groups working other parts of the quarry. This system inevitably, sooner or later, led to chaos. The small groups of partners had not the capital resources at their disposal to do the unproductive work so essential for the proper development of the slate rock ; neither could they afford to buy other than the most primitive equipment. Consequently the rubbish from the quarries was tipped anywhere, frequently on the slate vein and so hampering further development. The granting of leases was an effort to counteract this sort of thing by giving the quarrymen a long term interest in their section of the quarry.

  22. The small Penrhyn Quarries continued for many years in a moribund state but in 1782, when the output was actually smaller than it had been in 1738, Lord Penrhyn bought out the lessees and took the working of the quarries into his own hands. In that year began a new epoch in the history of the Penrhyn Quarries and, indeed, in the history of the slate industry. For the next century and a quarter-until the disastrous Penrhyn Strike of 1900-03 the Penrhyn Quarries was to be the largest and most prosperous slate producing concern in the whole world.

  23. (Author's note : All the data, quotations, etc., given above have been gleaned from the Porth-yr-Aur Collection and the Penrhyn Papers at the University College of North Wales.)


New light on the history of Penrhyn Slate Quarries in the Eighteenth Century

Quarry Managers' Journal September 1942