Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS


The wage system of the slate industry merits detailed consideration on account of its profound influence upon the internal organisation and productive efficiency of quarries, and also upon labour organisation within the industry. The growth and development of this unique wage system will be traced in detail also because this will be the first detailed account to appear in print. 

One of the main characteristics of the wage system is that quarrymen work in small crews or gangs, each crew working a small section of the quarry, the section being generally called a "Bargain." That this method of working goes back to the early days of the industry is proved by the following extracts from the Penrhyn Quarry Rules for 1768 :‑ 

“Rules to be observed in the working and management of the slate quarry belonging to Hon'ble Hugh Warburton and John Pennant, Esq., in the County of Caernarvon.  "That the workmen employed in the said Quarry do form themselves into sets of Companies to consist o 5, 63 7 or more men according as the places where the slates are to be raised will admit of a convenient number to work. 

"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.  "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. 

"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. 

"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." 

Another custom that has persisted since the very earliest days of the industry is the system of reckoning 1,260 tally slates to a "Thousand" or "Mille," and of reckoning twenty‑one hundredweights of "Rags" or "Ton" slates to the ton. This vexatious and cumbersome method of reckoning' has persisted because of the intense conservatism which has always characterised the industry. 

In going through old quarry records it is fascinating to trace the many interesting attempts which were made to evolve a wage system suited to the peculiar needs of the industry. It was imperative that it should be on a piece‑work basis in order to provide the worker with an incentive to work hard, and it is interesting to note that the earliest extant records prove that employers of labour in the industry always strived to apply the piece-work method of paying wages despite the extreme difficulty of. so doing. In every quarry there are considerable variations in the quality of the slate rock; intruding "dykes" of igneous rocks, faults, hardened strata, and a host of other factors have to be 'taken into consideration in extracting rock from the rock face. The cumulative effect of these factors is such that it is often easier to make a 1.000 slate in one part of a quarry than to make a 100 in another part, so that a flat piece‑rate proportional to the output of slate could hardly be expected to work satisfactorily. It was by a slow and painful series of experiments that an almost unique method of remuneration was evolved. 

In 1788 the quarrymen in the Penrhyn and Dinorwic quarries were divided into the customary "crews"   the number of men in a crew varied between two and twelve, but the usual number was four; each crew worked together as partners in a "bargain," as the particular section of the quarry which had been allocated to them was known. The remuneration of each crew of workmen depended upon the number of slates produced, for which they were paid according to a graduated series of 'list prices." The table below gives the "standard" list prices operative in these two quarries in 1788. 

In May, 1788, when the Dinorwic Slate Company began operations,  there were nine bargains employing 42 men in the quarries five out of these nine bargains got the standard list prices as quoted in Table I in the remaining four, the list prices paid were slightly above or below the standard rate. It had become apparent that a standard list of prices for making slates would not function equitably, and it was soon grasped that list prices should vary according to the nature, productivity, and accessibility of the slate rock changed. In July, 1788, all the bargains in the Dinorwic Quarry had different price lists but the variations were very small   for example, the maximum price allowed for making a mille of Duchesses was 16/3 and the minimum was 13/6.

In every bargain a considerable amount of dead work had to be done, unproductive rock had to be pulled down and carried away   rubbish and topsoil had to be cleared. It is therefore not to be wondered at that this un-remunerative work occupied so much of the quarrymen's time that little or no slates were produced and so no wages were earned. When a great deal of super-incumbent rock or top‑soil had to be cleared the list prices were raised above the standard rate, but the increase was too small to compensate the men for the dead work done, so that they failed to make even a subsistence wage. The result was that as early as 1788 we find crews of men in the Dinorwic Quarry getting not only a varied list of prices for making slates but also a lump sum of in money, varying from 1½ to 3 guineas, for removing top‑soil and clearing the rubbish of former workings. This system lasted without any radical innovations until the beginning of the nineteenth century; the contractors got list prices which gradually showed greater and greater variations to suit the exigencies of the case, and also, in exceptional cases, they got a lump sum or ‑ as the men called it ‑ some money in the "pocket" of the bargain as a compensation for dead work.

The records of the Hafodlas Quarry, Nantlle, for the period 1809 to 1819 show that in many bargains the quarrymen merely got the list prices, there is no evidence that money was ever given in the pocket of the bargains in this quarry, but we find that list prices varied from bargain to bargain, and in the majority of cases the quarrymen were paid threepence for every bucket‑full of rubbish they raised from their bargain by means of man‑operated whimseys. Table II below gives particulars of the total wages bill earned by a crew of quarrymen in a bargain at the Hafodlas Quarry during 1814. This bargain was let every two months.

Table II brings out clearly the very the great fluctuations in total earnings from one period to another the contractors often made twice as much in one period as in the following or the previous one. It is apparent therefore that the wage system was not functioning in a satisfactory and equitable manner. With the existing price‑wage system it was impracticable to eliminate frequent and violent oscillations in wages from one letting period to another. This was mainly due to three factors: there was always the difficulty of forecasting correctly how a bargain was going to turn out, and, secondly, the ability of the contractors and the bargain‑setter to gauge correctly the future productivity of any section of a quarry was the more severely taxed because the contract period was usually eight weeks, and often longer. The last and most important factor was insufficient elasticity in the price‑rates. 

It was possible in 1788 to speak of "standard" list prices for making slates, but gradually variations from the standard rate had become greater and greater so that by 1815 it was impossible to speak of standard list prices in most quarries   in 1788 the greatest variations from the standard list prices was less than ten per cent., but in 1815 the maximum variation from the average list prices was over twenty‑five per cent. Despite this fact, the deviations from the average list prices were much too small to compensate for the inevitable inequality in the productivity of different bargains in the same quarry, and of the same bargains at different periods, so that attempts to equate wages between one crew of contractors and another, and to smooth out the fluctuations from one period to another were more often than not unsuccessful. 

In the 'twenties of the last century we find a new development in the wage system. Records appertaining to Lord Newborough's Glynrhonwy Quarry show that there was a marked tendency in 'the early 'twenties to revert to the old practice of having a standard list price for making slates in all bargains in the quarry. Contemporaneous documents for the Cilgwyn Quarry confirm the same tendency. It followed as a natural corollary from the standardisation of list prices, that it was essential to introduce additional methods whereby the inequality in the productivity of bargains could be compensated for. We find that the Cilgwyn quarrymen in the 'twenties, in addition to standard list prices, sometimes got a lump sum in the pocket of the bargain; they were often paid for clearing useless rock at so much per score of buckets they raised with the whimsey; in the majority of cases. they were granted a certain sum per yard for clearing unproductive rock, for removing top‑soil or for sinking levels. When the bargain turned out worse than had been anticipated the quarrymen were employed as day labourers whilst engaged upon the dead work   there a few instances of crews of men engaged in opening out their bargain being employed at time‑rates for over a month. The following is a typical example of the method of letting a bargain to a crew of quarrymen during this period. 

"Hugh Lewis and partners from May 26 to Sept. 13, 1823. 

The quarrymen contractors in this bargain got list prices for making slates, 2/‑ for every dozen buckets of  rubbish they cleared with the whimsey from their working place, 5/‑ for every yard of unproductive rock they removed in opening out their bargain and they worked fifteen days as day labourers at 1/8 per day. Almost a quarter of their total wages bill was derived from methods of remuneration other than the list prices. The earnings derived from these additional methods of payment ranged from nothing to over half the wages bill in the various bargains. The 1/20th which was deducted from the list prices in the above account was for the use of ropes, cables, whimseys, wagons and other tools and machinery supplied by the Company. This deduction was in most cases five per cent. upon the wages bill   sometimes it was charged at five shillings per man employed in the bargain, or at a shilling upon every pound's worth of slates produced by the contractors.

The records of the Cilgwyn Quarry give us glimpses of the ingenious methods tried out in an endeavour to adapt the wage system to the needs of the industry. When there was a deal of dead work to be done the contractors were granted all kinds of concessions. The most significant of these manifold variations in the method of setting bargains was the granting of an "advance" upon every pound's worth of slates produced, the slates being valued at the standard list prices given for making; this "advance" was very low in the 'twenties at the Cilgwyn Quarry, generally 2/6 in the pound. Suppose the total value of slates produced, according to the list prices was £20, the total "advance" at 2/6 in the pound would be £2 10s. 0d. and the total wages bill would amount to £22 10s. 0d. This "advance" soon came to be known as "poundage," and it gradually superseded all the other devices employed to compensate for the divergencies in the productivity of slate bargains, and remains the most characteristic feature of the present wage system in the industry.

The first record we have of the use of this "poundage" allowance is in the account books of the Glynrhonwy Quarry, Llanberis, for June, 1823. In that quarry all bargains had the same standard list prices for making slates and most of them had in addition various kinds of allowances. quarrymen in one particular bargain had £3 for clearing top‑rock and also an "Allowance to bad Rock 51‑ per pound." This "poundage' allowance method was slow in being adopted and we find that five years later only about half a dozen bargains out of forty‑one at the Glynrhonwy Quarry were getting this allowance. In the early thirties, however, the "poundage" method of supplementing standard list prices became general.



Aspects of the Slate Industry 18: The Expansionist Period 8

Quarry Managers' Journal October 1944