Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS

  1. Perhaps the most interesting an illuminating section of the Memorandum on the Slate Industry presented to the Welsh Reconstruction Advisory Council by the North Wales Quarrymen's Union, is that part which explains why, "in the persistent tug of war between the various types of roofing materials for supremacy in the market as influenced by economic, aesthetic, and technical factors, the slate industry has been decisively challenged by the roofing tile industries."

  2. This section starts off with a statistical table which brings together for comparative purposes the out put of slates, clay roofing tiles, and the number of houses built during certain years since 1912. This data is reproduced in Table A below and is also shown graphically.

  3. Table A

  4. "In interpreting the above Table it has also to be remembered that in 1924 hardly any roofing tiles were made of concrete or cement, whereas in 1935, according to the Preliminary Reports of the Census of Production of that year, 229,000 tons of concrete and cement tiles valued at £497,000, and similar roofing tiles (quantity not specified) to the value of an additional £292,000 were manufactured. The output of all kinds of roofing tiles in 1935 may be reliably estimated to be in the region Of 1,200,000 tons, which is six times greater than the volume of production in 1912. Since 1912 the growth in the roofing tile industry has kept pace with the expansion in building, whereas the production of slate has fallen in the same period. It is, therefore, abundantly clear that in the post war period   more especially since 1929 - various kinds of roofing tiles became vastly more popular than slates, and this new development has placed the slate industry in a very precarious economic position. The great increase in the demand for roofing material after 1924 was met almost wholly through increasing the output of various descriptions of tiles, and that no substantial reduction took place in slate production after 1924 was attributable merely to the abnormal and unprecedented boom in residential construction."

  5. "Owing to rapid expansion in building, quarry proprietors never fully realised the full significance for them and the industry of the phenomenal growth of the roofing tile industry. The slate industry has never hitherto felt the full impact of the competition of the tile industry because the expansion in residential construction acted as an effective shock absorber. Neither has it been felt during the present period of stagnation in building because the virtual cessation of house building has affected all roofing materials equally, and the fact that the vast majority of the houses which are being repaired, after being damaged by enemy action, were roofed with slates, has meant that the slate industry has been able, in view of the abnormal circumstances, to retain an unusual high proportion of the very limited existing demand for residential roofing material."

  6. GRAPH A.1 The output of Tiles and Slates respectively, and the number of Houses built in 1912, 1924, 1930 and 1935.

  7. Factors affecting the demand for slate and competitive Roofing Materials.

  8. "The chief factor which hindered expansion in the slate industry in the inter war period was the rapidly increasing popularity of tiles. Aesthetic, economic and technical factors have together brought about a new alignment in the relative importance of roofing materials."

  9. A. Aesthetic Factor.

  10. "After the last War there arose a definite aesthetic objection to the purple and blue grey slates of Wales, and it is not difficult to explain how this arose. Throughout the nineteenth century urban areas were developed haphazardly and intensively, and houses were huddled together in narrow streets and rarely had gardens attached to them, with the result that roofs could seldom be seen from street level. Under such conditions the outward appearance of a roof was of purely secondary importance, and all the emphasis was laid upon cheapness, durability and reliability, so that flat pitched roofs of purple Welsh slates were the order of the day. Since the last War Urban development has proceeded along more extensive lines   wider streets, more spacious pavements, more gardens, lower houses, more detached and semi detached houses   the roof has now become the most conspicuous part of a house and with the growth of roof consciousness we have a definite demand for smart, colourful roofing materials, and the efficient, but less flashy, slate has become unfashionable. Tiles can be produced in a wide range of colour to satisfy the ostensibly aesthetic tastes of customers and so have an advantage over slate. This is by far the most important single factor which has made slate less popular."

  11. B. Economic Factors.

  12. "Prior to the last War it was cheaper to use slates than tiles for roofing, but the reverse was true after the War. In 1913 in London it cost 42/-  to roof a hundred square feet with tiles and 38/  with slates; in 1939 it cost 56/-  with tiles and 8o/- with slates, so that at the latter date it was much cheaper to use tiles. Cement tiles were much cheaper again."

  13. "The fact that has to be faced is that slate can never compete on a price basis with substitutes such as clay, cement or asbestos tiles. Costs of production are likely to rise rather than fall in the slate industry. Practically all the mines and quarries in active operation have been worked for more than a century. The Penrhyn Quarries have been worked on a large scale ever since 1782 and the Dinorwic Quarries since 1788. The fact that the quarries have been worked for so long means that costs are always tending to rise. For every ton of finished slate an average of twenty tons of rubble has to be moved, and this rubble has to be raised and moved longer distances as time goes on."

  14. "As Table D. below shows, per capita output is tending to fall in the slate mines of Merioneth.

  15. Table D. Per capita output of slate at Welsh Mines and Quarries respectively for certain years since 1875.

  16. "The per capita output in quarries has been well maintained. The nature of the industry is such that it does not admit of mass production methods and no machinery can ever supplant the quarryman's craft skill. This means that wages form about 70% of the total cost of production, so that no substantial reduction in costs is possible without lowering wages, and that is out of the question because the present standard of life of the quarrymen is such that the wage rates should be scaled upwards and not downwards."

  17. "There is scope for technical improvements in the industry and costs of production could be reduced in most concerns were more capital invested in modern machinery, etc. On the other hand it is possible that the margin between the prices of slate and its substitutes will, in future, become gradually wider because the latter are being mass produced by machinery and their cost of production progressively reduced."

  18. C. Technical Factors.

  19. "The elasticity of supply of slate, especially for an increase, is much less than that of competitive materials, and this places slate at a great disadvantage. From 1934 to 1937 the demand for slate was in excess of the supply, and yet, in the latter year the output was slightly lower than in 1934, the reason being that the general conditions of the quarry workings were such that an increase in output could not take place. There is an inevitable time lag between an increase in demand and an increase in supply, and this inelasticity has been much more marked of late years because of economy of capital expenditure and the cutting down of non-productive work (i.e., non productive in the short term) to a minimum. The supply of tiles, on the other hand, can be increased very rapidly in response to an upward swing in demand. By working two shifts tile manufacturers can double their output, whereas such a thing is inconceivable in the slate industry."

  20. "Another complicating factor in the marketing of slate is that the output is split up into several qualities, for each of which there are nearly thirty sizes. This division into qualities is unavoidable because of the varying nature of the rock, and the production of numerous sizes of slate is inevitable if valuable slate rock is not to be wasted. Any reduction in the number of sizes would increase the already high proportion of waste and would reduce the per capita output. This means that in most quarries the output of any particular size of any particular quality is comparatively small, so that both merchants and builders find it difficult to 'place any very large order, especially if trade is brisk, unless they are willing to accept several different sizes of slate. This difficulty is not so great in the case of the Penrhyn and Dinorwic quarries as in the smaller concerns although the former have, of course, to divide their output among a much larger number of customers, many of whom are old established customers and can claim some priority on that ground."

  21. "This difficulty does not arise in the tile industry because standardisation is possible and only a few sizes are produced. Furthermore, if the demand for any particular kind of tile increases, the manufacturers can reduce the production of other sizes and qualities and concentrate on the production of the tile which is in demand. Slate producers cannot do that because the supply of one particular size of slate can only be increased by increasing the supply of other sizes at the same time (except, of course at a loss which in some cases would be very substantial and uneconomical).

  22. The author of the memorandum quite rightly regards the competition of the roofing tile industries as much the most important cause of the unsatisfactory state of the Welsh slate industry in the inter war period. Due regard is, however, paid to other contributory factors   the changes in building technique, particularly in industrial and commercial construction; the almost complete disappearance of the once flourishing slate export trade, which has especially hit very hard the Festiniog group of slate mines; the persistence of very acute foreign competition in the home market; the contraction in the demand for slate for other than roofing purposes; the expansion in the relative importance of the English slate producing areas because of the growing popularity of "architectural," "rustic," and green slates   and this section of the memorandum was reproduced in our last article. The concrete proposals put forward for the reorganisation of the industry were outlined in the first article of this series, and were commented on in the editorial column.

  23. The memorandum concludes with a short section on the health of the quarrymen and this is quoted below. 

  24. The Health of the Quarrymen.

  25. "The quarryman's work is arduous and strenuous. He works all the year round at high altitudes in very exposed places, or in the dust laden atmosphere of the dressing sheds or the underground mines. There is evidence that exposure over a long period to slate dust affects injuriously the men's health especially in the Festiniog mines where all operations underground have recently been brought under the Silicosis Scheme. Slate quarrymen suffer excessively from Tuberculosis, Respiratory Diseases and from Diseases of the Heart and the Circulatory System."

  26. "One of the most important conditions which predispose to the development of active disease is a low standard of life, especially when the low standard is associated with the special circumstances prevalent in the slate industry, such as excessive fatigue, exposure to dust, etc. The quarryman, though he is a skilled craftsman, has always been paid the wage of a semi skilled labourer. At the present time wages are not inordinately low, but a rise in the standard of life of the quarryman is essential if the ravages of poverty diseases, such as Tuberculosis, are to be reduced."

  27. "Unfortunately there are no other industries in the slate producing areas so that a contraction in the slate industry creates chronic unemployment, compelling the young and enterprising to migrate to other areas in search of work, and the population of the slate valleys falls. If this tragic sequence of events, which occurred in all the slate districts between 1901 and 1921, is not to be repeated again, the slate quarry proprietors must abandon their outworn traditional individualism and embark on a bold policy of reorganisation so that the future property of the industry, and of all concerned with it, may be assured."


Aspects of the Slate Industry 3: Slates v. Tiles

Quarry Managers' Journal July 1943