Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS


The expansionist period witnessed many outstanding developments in the marketing of slate. It is important to bear in mind that for the last fifty years of this period the demand for slate normally greatly exceeded the supply, so that little attention was paid to improving the marketing organisation of the industry and some of the developments that took place were to have a detrimental effect upon the industry when the expansionist period was followed by a period of contraction and stagnation in the eighties. Sad to relate, as we shall see in later articles, slate producers did not correct these defects in marketing organisation and it is not until our own times, as the result of bitter experiences during the inter‑war. period, that quarry owners have grasped the vital importance of the marketing side of the industry.

It was clearly desirable that the industry should standardise its product so far as was practicable. The first move in that direction was the adoption of General Warburton's ingenious and quaint system of nomenclature for the various sizes of slates. When the industry was in its infancy only two sizes of slates were manufactured ; these were called "singles" and "doubles" and were very small and very thick. As the market for slate expanded and the quarryman's skill improved, larger sizes called double doubles, double double doubles and so forth were produced. This system of nomenclature was intricate and confusing, and in 1738 General Warburton, owner of the Penrhyn estate, suggested a new mode of classification; double doubles were to be called Ladies, double double doubles to be called Countesses, and the next size to be called Duchesses, etc. This suggestion caught the imagination of the slate quarrymen and quarry owners of that time and its use became general throughout the slate industry in Wales. This apparently innocuous system of nomenclature has done great harm to the industry because by giving amusing and homely labels to individual sizes of slates it has been one of the factors which has contributed to make both slate producers and slate merchants think in terms of individual sizes of slates instead of in terms of so many square yards of roof to be covered.

In 1788 there were only five sizes of tally slates (so called because they were of standard size and sold by the mille), and two kinds of ton slates (which were very large slates of random lengths and widths and were sold by weight). By 1830 there were ten sizes of tally slates and three kinds of ton slates. Twenty years later there was only one more size of tally slate and three additional kinds of ton slates. New sizes were continually being introduced during the prosperous seventies, the small quarries in the Nantlle district taking the lead in introducing larger sizes, so that by i88o there were thirty‑two sizes of tally slates on the market as well as six kinds of ton slates. Apart from ton slates, the sizes of Welsh slate were all standardised. Slate producers and slate merchants thought in terms of slates of a certain length and breadth, whereas it would have been better for the industry if the length but not the width of slates had been standardised, and if slate merchants, architects and builders had been encouraged to think in terms of thickness, quality and colour, and not in terms of standardised sizes for individual slates.

Another development in marketing was the division of roofing slate into ill‑defined categories, called best, seconds, etc. The division into best and seconds appeared very early in the nineteenth century and by the 'forties the distinction had been generally adopted throughout the Welsh slate districts.

In the early 'sixties slates were divided into three classes – bests, seconds, and thirds, and in the 'seventies another class was introduced. All the quarries which shipped their slates from Caernarvon classified their make of slate into best, second-best, seconds and thirds, The Festiniog slate mines divided their slates into best, medium, seconds and thirds. In the Dinorwic Quarry only two qualities of slate were distinguished – first and second qualities but each was divided into four classes, viz., Old Quarry, New Quarry, Red, and Green and Wrinkled. Each of the main slate areas had its own special classification of slates, and many of the larger quarries within these areas had somewhat different systems of classifying their make of slates. While some standardisation on these lines was clearly essential, the standards adopted in the industry were extremely crude and varied from quarry to quarry and from district to district, This haphazard and wholly unscientific system of classification reflects on the one hand the ultra‑individualistic character of the Welsh quarry entrepreneurs and on the other hand it reflects a state of affairs in which marketing presented no difficulty and where supply was chronically short of demand.

Another undesirable feature on the marketing side was the absurd practice which was universally adopted, of selling tally slates at so much per mille, each mille amounting to either 1,260 or 1,280 slates. Still another unfortunate development was the great disparity between the so‑called "computed' weight of slates and their 'actual weight; what made matters still worse was the fact that the disparity between the computed and actual weight varied from quarry to quarry, and that in some cases the disparity was so great as to be quite ridiculous. While one appreciates fully the historical reason, for all these idiosyncrasies on the marketing side of the industry, all of which appeared during the expansionist period. their cumulative effect was to prove calamitous in the long run.

During the early days the difficulties of marketing slate were very real, The owners of the Diphwys Quarry used to send one of the quarrymen with each cargo to act as broker, and when the cargo was sold he trudged back over-land to Festiniog with the money. By 1788 bills had become negotiable instruments of credit in North Wales. Credit was usually given for two months, but when demand was slack six months credit had to be granted. Merchants were often dilatory in their payments and any crisis, such as the outbreak of war with Napoleonic France, resulted in a rich harvest of dishonoured bills.

Marketing agencies displayed all variety of forms. On rare occasions the quarry proprietors themselves took an active part in selling the slates directly to the consumer. In December 1803, the Cilgwyn Company authorised one of the partners, who was a slate merchant, to open a depot in London for the sale of Cilgwyn slate; this arrangement, however, proved short‑lived. The Cilgwyn Company frequently shipped cargoes of slate, to London and other places at their own responsibility, and at other times the slates were sent at the joint responsibility of themselves and the master of the vessel in which they were shipped. Only a minute and diminishing proportion of the slate output was shipped out of the Welsh slate ports at the quarry owners risk and practically all the output was disposed of to slate merchants.

There were two classes of slate merchants the respectable" merchants and the "speculative" merchants, and the antagonism between them, was intense. The greater portion of production was sold to reputable merchants in the London, Lancashire and Cheshire districts; these had regular standing accounts with the quarries and they periodically forwarded remittances to settle these accounts. Each quarry sought to establish permanent connection with regular slate merchants in various large towns. In 1804 the Cilgwyn Company was "desirous of forming connections with respectable houses in order to send them slates in vessels freighted, to avoid the impositions of Captains of small sloops that purchase slates and require extravagant profits above a fair freight which is very detrimental to the trade." Many agreements were concluded with merchants, that the Company would nor supply any other merchants in their particular town so long as the merchants took a regular supply of slates and promised not to buy from other quarries. This was the policy followed by all the larger quarries in the industry. It was not unusual for English merchants to enter into partnership with Banger or Caernarvon merchants. The latter bought the slates and examined them thoroughly before they were shipped to the English partners who found customers and guaranteed payment. With the progress made towards the standardisation of slates these partnerships became less frequent.

Lord Penrhyn in the depressed period following the outbreak of war with France found some difficulty in it selling his slates. In 1803 a Liverpool firm, of which Samuel Holland was a prominent member, undertook to sell and ship the total output of the Penrhyn Quarry, and to guarantee all payments, for which service they got an allowance of 6 per cent. on the sales. This firm had extensive pottery works and they took over from Lord Penrhyn the manufacture of powdered chert for the potteries, and also the manufacture of writing slates and chimney pieces. Samuel Worthington was placed in charge and he periodically visited the chief merchants in the country in order to push the sales of Penrhyn slates; within a few years the agreement with the Liverpool firm expired, but Mr. Worthington still carried on the work on his own responsibility for almost another generation. This was the only agreement of the kind in the industry.

The "speculative" merchants were very varied in character, but they can be sub‑divided into two main categories‑the slate merchants who were Masters of Vessels and the merchants who chartered vessels to carry their slates. Their methods were much the same . they took cargoes of slate upon three or four months' credit, in the hope that by hawking them in the seaports of England and Wales they would sell them at a profit and so take up their bills on maturity. When demand was brisk they made large profits. When trade was slack they were forced to sell at low prices they had to go from port to port in an unsuccessful search for customers, and the longer they were in finding a customer the heavier were their costs and they frequently had to dump the slates in the yard or wharf of a "respectable" merchant with instructions to sell them for the best price possible, paying the merchant a rent for the use of his yard and a small commission upon the sale of the slates. It was a highly speculative business and many became insolvent and involved the quarry proprietors in financial loss. The following extract from the Balance Sheet for four months in 1827 of a Caernarvon merchant who became insolvent owing large sums of money to the Dinorwic, Glynrhonwy and Cilgwyn concerns, is typical:

"To a quantity of slates which I left under the care of  Mr. James Colson, Coal Merchant, at Southampton, being unable to sell the same myself after much trouble and expense

£280 3 0

By a quantity of slate left for sale under the care of Mr. James, Woolten Wharf, Brecon

£65 14 0

By travelling expenses in endeavouring to sell slates in different parts of England and Wales for two months on an average of £4 0 0 per week

£36 0 0

These small merchants were anathema to the "respectable" merchants and in 1824 the merchants along the South East Coast decided to withdraw their dealings from any quarry who sent out these "little merchants who ran about the country underselling regular merchants." The quarry entrepreneurs naturally preferred to deal with the "respectable" merchants, and the part played by the “speculative" merchants in the marketing of slates became increasingly less important, particularly when demand outstripped supply in the 'thirties.

In the 'sixties and 'seventies the quarry proprietors were in a position to dictate terms to the merchants. The Dinorwic and Penrhyn concerns added 5 per cent. to prices for all quantities less than 30 tons sent by rail and no orders for less than fifteen tons were executed; needless to say, this rule did not apply to the smaller Caernarvonshire quarries. A banker's reference had to be supplied by every new customer and many of the quarries were subscribers to Trade Benefit Societies whose function was to supply information as to standing of parties. It was the ambition of every slate merchant to be recognised as a regular customer of the Dinorwic and Penrhyn quarries; a contemporary wrote that the merchant acquired social status and credit by it, and to keep it there he was willing to submit to anything. Merchants came, cap in hand, and booked their orders in advance for the year, hoping to get at least two‑thirds of what they did order; took, often without grumbling, slates they had never ordered at all, and which were unsuitable for their localities, anything sooner than facing the possibility of having their names removed from the books of the quarries." The benefits derived from dealing with the larger quarries were many and varied; the reputation of Bangor (i.e. Penrhyn) and Velinheli (i.e. Dinorwic) slates in the market "was unassailable" ; the large quarries were not so impetuous in raising their prices as the smaller concerns ; the large quarries could execute huge orders for the same sizes, whereas the smaller quarries produced only a very limited quantity of each size of slate and so had always been in the habit of buying slates from each other in order to make up orders. The larger concerns were able to pick and choose their customers from among the biggest and most respectable merchants in the country so that any risk involved in marketing their product was practically eliminated ; for instance between 1877 and 1882 (when, incidentally, there was an acute depression in building) the Welsh Slate Company sold slates to the value of nearly a million pounds and the bad debts incurred amounted to only £59. The smaller quarries were not quite so fortunate and were more liable to suffer losses through the failure of  speculative merchants, but it is true to say that the risks involved in marketing slates during the thirty years ending in 1877 were so small as to be quite negligible.

It was customary for each quarry to issue new price lists each January. The prices of slates in North Wales were determined by the Penrhyn and Dinorwic concerns, who consulted each other in the matter and issued similar price lists. The Portmadoc and Caernarvon price lists were issued shortly after those of the two large quarries, and although not identical with the price lists of the latter, any changes in prices were dependent upon movements in the prices of the Bangor and Velinheli slates. If the two major concerns lowered their prices, the rest of the quarries had to follow suit, frequently very reluctantly ; if Penrhyn and Dinorwic raised their prices, the rest of the Welsh quarries immediately did likewise.

In 1872 all the quarries shipping their slate from Caernarvon, with the exception of the Dorothea Quarry, combined to form the Caernarvon Slate Club for the sole purpose of determining the prices of slates and the rates of discounts to be allowed by the Caernarvon quarries. Three years later a similar Association was formed among the Merionethshire slate mines; this Association again was concerned with the establishment of uniform price and discount policies among its constituent members and in March, 1875, it was successful in persuading the Dinorwic and Penrhyn entrepreneurs not to increase prices further as it would fan "the flame of disquietude raging among the men" and encourage them to stand out for higher wages. The Caernarvon Slate Club was more inclined to run the risk of fanning the flames of industrial unrest and of making hay while the sun shone, and its members, during the extremely brisk period between 1873 and 1876, charged monopoly prices which were 2o per cent. higher than those charged by the Penrhyn and Dinorwic concerns. When depression set in after 1877 these district Associations failed utterly to regulate prices and discounts and the quarries all resorted to a policy of cut‑throat competition.

The great developments which took place on the marketing side of the industry did contribute in a small way towards the expansion of the industry during the century terminating in 1877. In the 'seventies the marketing organisation bore the hall‑mark of the rugged and extreme individualism which characterised the industry, and it reflected a state of affairs in which little thought had been paid to perfecting the marketing side of the industry, for the simple reason that no difficulty had been experienced in disposing of the product.



Aspects of the Slate Industry 16: The Expansionist Period 6

Quarry Managers' Journal August 1944





Penrhyn quarry section 1979