Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS


During the first quarter of the nineteenth century the margin between the costs of roofing with local clay tiles and Welsh slates respectively in the London market was very small owing to the crippling effect of high freight rates and the burdensome tax levied on all slates carried coastwise. The victorious termination of the Napoleonic War brought with it a pronounced reduction in freight rates and a reduction in the slate duty, with the result that there was a very marked expansion in the demand for slate. The margin between the cost of slating and tiling in London increased from less than 1 per cent. in 1805 to 10 per cent. in 1825 and as early as 1822 it is remarked in one Government report that "The great durability, lightness and cheapness of a covering of good slates, compared with London tiles, has of late years been operating towards gradually diminishing the demand for tiles in London and its vicinity."

The heavy slate tax, as was pointed out pungently at the time in the Edinburgh Review, militated strongly against the extended use of slate and discriminated in favour of locally produced roofing materials ; this was particularly so (until 1823 when the duty was levied by weight or tale instead of upon the former ad valorem basis) in the case of districts which were far from the slate‑producing areas. But even in the distant London market slates were gradually superseding tiles during the first quarter of the century and this process of substitution was taking place much more rapidly in the Cheshire, Lancashire and Midland markets where the incidence of the tax was lighter and to which freight rates  had not increased to anything like the same extent during the war period as to the London market. Slating had become a skilled craft and slaters were numerically strong enough to form one of the seven sections of the great Operative Builders' Union in 1831. In the 'twenties, however, the "standard" English house was roofed with thatch or tiles, whereas the majority of the villas constructed to house the flourishing middle‑classes, and the greater part of industrial buildings, were roofed with slates.

The distribution of roofing‑tile manufacture in 1832 ‑ the last year for which data is available ‑ is shown in Figure 1, which is based upon statistics of tile production in the various centres into which the country was divided for the purpose of collecting the tax on tiles ; some of these centres included parts of several counties and as the exact boundaries of the area corresponding to each centre is unknown, the output within each local centre has been allocated to the county to which that centre belonged; such a procedure, although arbitrary, locates production with a fair degree of accuracy. The distribution of roofing‑tile manufacture in Scotland and Wales cannot be shown as the blue‑books merely give statistics for those countries as a whole.

A significant fact, which Figure 1 brings out, is that tile manufacture was very widely distributed; practically every English county produced a certain quantity of roofing‑tiles Cornwall, Lancashire and Cumberland produced quantities too small to be shown on the map, and some of the Midland counties, such as Leicester, where no production is shown, did produce tiles but lacked a tax‑collecting centre within their own boundaries. This Figure also shows that production was greatest in the thickly populated Midlands and in the South-eastern counties, whereas the output of roofing‑tiles was negligible in the western counties where the slate producing areas were situated. So long as the costs of inland carriage remained prohibitive for distances exceeding fifteen to twenty miles, the market for slate was confined to the sparsely populated areas immediately adjacent to the producing districts and to those coastal areas which could be reached by cheap water carriage on the other hand it was possible to produce tiles in most of the regions where population was growing, so that the tile manufacturers had enjoyed a natural monopoly in catering for the expanding demand for roofing materials in the inland markets, but with the development of canal transport, and, later, of railway transport, the competition of the lighter, more durable, and cheaper roofing slate ousted the tile from many of the local markets which the latter had successfully monopolised for centuries.

Figure 1 provides a rough indication of the extent to which roofing tiles were used in various parts of the country in the years immediately preceding the Early Railway Age and may be compared with Figure 11 which shows the distribution of thatchers, and hence the distribution of thatch consumption, in 1851, when the number of thatchers stood at a maximum. There were only 141 thatchers in the whole of Wales in 1851 and practically all the English thatchers were located south of a line drawn from the Wash to the Bristol Channel‑an area tar removed from the major slate producing districts. The revolution in transport enabled slate to penetrate into the most distant markets and although this did not lead to a contraction in the total output of tiles in Great Britain, it was otherwise in the case of thatch; the decline in the roofing‑thatch industry was absolute as well as relative and the number of thatchers in England and Wales fell steadily from 5,946 in 1851 to 3,719 in 1881, a fall of nearly 40 per cent.

The repeal of the slate duty had ushered in an era of accelerated growth in the history of the industry. In the 'thirties slate began to be used on a large scale for other than roofing purposes and this helped to augment the scale of production. The great boom in railway construction directly stimulated slate production, and the numerous towns and villages which sprang up along these new lines of communications utilised slate for roofing purposes. In inland towns slate superseded tiles, except for decorative architecture, and in many rural areas low‑pitched slate roofs replaced the more picturesque roofs of thatch or tiles. By the late 'sixties, slate was already the premier roofing material and, as Dr. Clapham tells us in his book, "Free Trade and Steel," "Slate, distributed easily from Wales or Westmoreland by rail, had become the symbol of progress" in residential construction.

There remains another important factor which contributed to the rapid development of the slate industry during the first three‑quarters of the nineteenth century‑this was the expansion of the foreign market. The volume of the slate export trade remained inconsiderable until the period of unprecedented growth which began in 1867. Slate exports increased from 12,670 tons, valued at £56,681 in 1867 to 68,490 tons valued at £271,986 in 1873. The magnitude of domestic demand during the next three years brought the quantity exported down to 58,140 tons in 1876, whereas the value increased to £31I,932‑a level which has never been exceeded.

This sudden unparalleled growth in the export trade after 1866 was not due to expansion in the Australian and American markets, which had hitherto been of preponderating importance. It was brought about almost wholly by the growth in the German market. In Germany the absence of tariff barriers together with extensive railway developments led to the large-scale utilisation of Welsh slate, which was cheaper and of better quality than either the home product or the slate which had hitherto been imported in small quantities from France and Switzerland. Welsh slate was sent inland by rail and water from Hamburg and Stettin to the new markets which were being opened out in Central and Southern Europe. In 1876 exports to Germany were valued at £226,000 out of a total value of £311,932.

The fundamental factor underlying the remarkable progress of the slate industry up to 1876 was the expansion in the domestic and foreign market brought about by a revolution in transport and a tremendous growth in the volume of residential and industrial construction. The economic forces which enlarged the potential market for slate, brought in their train certain important external and internal economies within the industry itself ; the structure of the industry became more capitalistic and there were progressive improvements in methods of production and marketing ‑ developments which will receive attention in our next article.


Aspects of the Slate Industry 14: The Expansionist Period 4

Quarry Managers' Journal June 1944



Fig 1 The Distribution of Tile Production in 1832. (Each dot represents 100,000 roofing tiles)

Fig. 2 The Distribution of Thatchers In 1851. (Each dot represents 10 thatchers).