Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS


In the 'forties of the last century, building and its ancillary trades experienced extremes of both boom and slump. There was a pronounced slackening of building activity from the peak of 1840 to 1842, and after an exceptional recovery between 1844 and I847‑the "Railway Years" another slump set in. From 1841 to 1843 the slate industry was extremely depressed, with prices and wages falling and most of the quarries working short‑time. There was a spasmodic outburst of activity during the boom in railway construction, but demand once more became stagnant in 1848 and 1849. In 1850 trade generally was slack but there was a sharp rise in slate production which was probably due to the continuation of expenditure on railways which had been promoted in the year 1845‑47, the actual construction of which had been suspended following the acute commercial crisis of 1847. Despite these swift alternations of boom and depression, the trend of slate production was distinctly upwards but the rate of expansion was not comparable with that in the thriving 'thirties when the output of slate had actually been more than doubled.

The early 'fifties were years of marked recovery in trade and industry and they ushered in a long period of expansion for the slate industry. Building on a considerable scale all over the country brought prosperity to the industry. Throughout most of the period demand was greatly in excess of supply. In i86o nearly all the quarries had orders on hand which anticipated production by four months; in 1861 orders for Penrhyn slates were booked which anticipated production by eighteen months, and three years later quarry managers testified that demand was more than three times in excess of the supply. Building activity reached its peak in 1865‑66 and during the following years it gradually slackened but insufficiently to affect the brisk state of the, slate industry as the fall in the home demand for slate was more than compensated for by the rapid growth in exports, which rose ' from 12,700 tons in 1866 to 51,500 tons in 1869. The minor depression in building reached its lowest point in 187o and this, together with a decline in the export trade as a result of the Franco Prussian War, had adverse repercussions on the slate industry and output fell in 1870 for the first time in fourteen years.

Recovery in the building industry was hesitant in 1871 but became marked in the following year. The economic crisis Of 1873, despite its detrimental effect upon industry and trade generally, seemed only to give added impetus to the building boom and until the beginning Of 1878 the industry experienced a period of feverish activity which brought about a major boom in the slate industry.

In 1873 the demand for slate once again outstripped the available supply. The scarcity of slate was accentuated by a contraction during the early ‘seventies in the productive capacity of the Penrhyn and Dinorwic Quarries owing to arrears of development work which had been allowed to accumulate during the prosperous 'sixties. This scarcity was further aggravated in 1874 by the prolonged labour disputes which occurred at both the above mentioned concerns. The foreign demand was also very brisk during the 'seventies. The comparative inertness of supply in the face of an insistent domestic demand and a brisk foreign demand helped to send prices soaring and quarries made immense profits. Orders had frequently to be booked eighteen months in advance of delivery ; customers sent orders for truckloads of slate without specifying sizes or qualities in the hope of quicker delivery ; merchants were contracting for the whole output of the smaller quarries. This boom reached its grand climax in 1876‑77 and then came a terrific slump and the expansionist phase in the history of the slate industry drew to a close. In 1877 the output of the British slate industry amounted to 504,000 tons of roofing slates ‑ a level never since exceeded.

Over most of the period 1793 to 1877 the slate industry displayed to a marked degree the spasmodic alternations of activity and stagnation which characterise all constructional industries, but the trend in slate production was steeply upwards throughout the period. The underlying causes of this, upward trend in slate production remain to be discussed. These factors fall into two main categories : firstly, those social factors arising from the progressive nature of our industrial economy and, secondly, those external and internal economies which were partly cause and partly effect of the expansion of the slate industry itself.

The basic factor was the phenomenal increase in population and its movement from the agricultural to the industrial areas resulting in the development of new centres of economic life and the unprecedented growth of many old‑established commercial cities. The population of England and Wales increased from 8,893,000 in 1801 to 25,974,000 in 1881. In the same period the number of houses increased from 1,633,000 to 5,218,000. It is not to be surprised that as early as the 'thirties building formed the largest group of trades in the country, excepting agriculture. There was clearly a tremendous demand for roofing materials to roof all the new houses, factories, etc., which were built during this period and we will analyse the factors which enabled the slate industry to capture a progressively increasing proportion of the market for roofing materials.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the prohibitive cost of transporting a bulky, heavy, and comparatively fragile commodity like slate to distant markets had confined production within very narrow limits. Most of the quarries were situated on the slopes of inland mountains and the cost of bringing the state to a convenient shipping place was prohibitive in many cases. Arthur Aikin, who published in 1797 an account of his tour through North Wales, describes the extremely dangerous method then employed for getting slates down from the Llangynog quarries to the valley below. Three or four cwts. of slates were loaded on a sledge; a man laid down on his belly upon the sledge and lifting his legs up let the sledge slide down the precipitous slope and his task was to regulate the velocity of the sledge and keep it on a winding path by judiciously striking the ground with his feet; "The least inattention or want of dexterity, is certain destruction ; and yet does this man every day hazard his life four or five times, for the trifling pittance of about twopence a journey." The slates were then carted a distance of twenty miles to reach the Severn, the Vyrnwy, or later the Montgomeryshire canal. Primitive and costly transport facilities retarded the growth of the industry. The Industrial Revolution brought with it great improvements in transport facilities and the slate industry benefited greatly. The old pack‑horses and panniers gave way to carts and wagons as roads were built, and these in turn were superseded by iron tramways.

Lord Penrhyn was a vigorous road constructor but his great achievement was the double tramway from his quarries down to Port Penrhyn in 18oi. A contemporary author informs us that this tramway soon paid for itself by "the diminution in breakage among the slates, the prodigious extension of their sale, and above all (in a public point of view) by the reduced number of horses; an animal, which, like the sheep in the time of Sir Thomas More, has become more oppressively consuming than a wolf. Heretofore the slates were carried first in panniers and subsequently in carts, which 140 in number, took an equal number of men and no less than 0o horses from the pursuit~ of agriculture. The business is now done upon its very extended scale by sixteen horses and twelve men and boys.

It was not until 1824 that a tramway was built to connect the Dinorwic Quarries with Port Dinorwic. Four years later a tramway was built connecting the quarries in the Nantlle district with the port of Caernarvon, and in 1836 a tramway connected the Festiniog quarries with Portmadoc. The transport of slates in carts from quarry to place of shipment had been a decided improvement upon the older system of carrying slates in panniers on pack‑horses. The standard pannier‑load was 64 slates, whereas the carts plying between Nantlle and Caernarvon carried on the average 18 cwts. and the larger wagons in the Bethesda district usually carried two and a half tons. Transport by means of carts had several grave disadvantages. It was slow and inelastic; transport facilities were inadequate to cope with the peak periods of demand because the supply of carts could not readily be increased, and as a result the cost of carriage showed a marked tendency to rise in brisk periods owing to the efforts of each quarry to attract to itself as many carriers as possible ; each company tried to monopolise the service of slate carriers by offering special inducements such as paying their bills at the turnpike gates, or not deducting the customary contribution from their earnings towards repairing the roads leading down from the quarries to the turnpike roads. Transport by carts was vexatiously unreliable; in the spring when the demand for slate was most active the farmers were often too busy with the ploughing and sowing of their land to carry slates. A writer in 1820 shows how this factor of unreliability in transport affected adversely the demand for Nantlle slates: "The average annual amount of exports from the Port of Caernarvon is at present about £50,000, but there is every reason to suppose that, were railroads formed from the several Slate Quarries in the neighbourhood, the Export Trade would he very much increased; as then the supply of slates might always be secured on the Quays; whereas now, from the uncertainty of such supply, and the consequent delay. proprietors and masters of vessels are unwilling to expose themselves to the risque of incurring a heavy expense, in waiting their turn to load ; this operates more particularly on large vessels, their expenses being heavy in proportion to their size; and it is certain that many Americans and other Foreigners, are deterred by these circumstances from coming to the Port for slate."

The main objection to the cartage of slate was its expensiveness. In 1788 the cost of transporting Dinorwic slates to their place of shipment a few miles away was slightly greater than their costs of production, so that at Moelydon (later known as Port Dinorwic) Dinorwic slates cost twice as much as upon the quarry bank. In that year it cost more to bring a ton of slates from the Dinorwic Quarries to Moelydon, than it cost to take that ton of slate all the way by water from Moelydon to Liverpool. The cost of bringing Nantlle slates to place of shipment was almost as great, and was even more expensive in the case of Festiniog slates. The Penrhyn Quarries were more fortunate in this respect and in 1788 the cost of transporting Penrhyn slates to the port was only two‑thirds as great as the costs of production. The cost per ton of conveying slate to Port Penrhyn declined from 5s. 3d. in 1788 to 4s. in 1796, and it remained at that level until 1801 when the tramways to the Port were completed. The tramway reduced the cost of transport to less than a is. per ton which was only a fraction of the costs which had to be paid by other concerns and, in view of this overwhelming differential advantage, it is not surprising that the output of the Penrhyn Quarries grew by leaps and bounds whereas progress was slow in all the other state producing areas prior to the construction of tramways.

Improvements in the methods of carrying slate from quarry bank to place of shipment made it possible for the industry to cater for a wider market. The dawning of the Industrial Age saw a revolution in transport facilities and not the least important of these were the widespread network of canals which were built. Canal transport was several times cheaper than land transport. The cost of sending slate along the Grand Junction Canal in the closing decade of the eighteenth century was ½d. per ton mile; the contemporaneous cost of transporting slate in wagons from Bethesda to Port Penrhyn was 8d. per ton‑mile. The canal system enabled the slate industry to send its product to inland towns for the first time and this considerably extended the market for slate.

The inland waterways attained the zenith of their prosperity about 1830 when the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway ushered in the "Early Railway Age." The volume of railway construction was not very great until the boom period between 1844‑47, but during !he following thirty years construction proceeded apace. The total open mileage of British railways at different dates was

1848     4,606

1857     8,023

1877   14,874

This extensive and rapid development of railway communications brought slate within reach of those industrial and agricultural areas where cheap canal transport was lacking and where slates had hitherto been virtually unobtainable on account of the cost of carriage.



Aspects of the Slate Industry 12: The Expansionist Period 2

Quarry Managers' Journal April 1944





Greaves quarry section 1930