Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS


In our last contribution we gave an account of the ingenious attempts which were made in the early days of the slate industry to find a wage system suited to the peculiar needs of the industry. In the 'twenties of the last century most concerns had a standard list price for making slates in the quarry, and the inequality in the productivity of slate bargains was compensated for by supplementing the list price in various ways. The most significant of these various ways of supplementing the standard list price was the granting of an "advance" upon every pound's worth of slates produced, the slates being valued at the fist prices given for making; this "advance" soon came to be known as "poundage," and it gradually superseded all the other devices employed to compensate for the divergencies in the productivity of slate bargains, and remains one of the most characteristic features of the present wage system. 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, and it was not until the late 'thirties that it was universally adopted throughout the industry in North Wales.

In the 'forties we find that the quarrymen in each quarry got the same standard list prices for making slates, and to compensate for the varying productivity of the slate bargains they got different poundage rates. Theoretically the worse bargains in each quarry should receive the maximum rates of poundage; in practice this was not the case because the loss involved in working the poorest bargain was borne partly by the workmen and partly by the employer, so that the lowest paid quarrymen were more often than not engaged in the most un-remunerative slate bargains and the best paid quarrymen were employed in the most profitable sections of the quarry ; in many quarries the quarryman's earnings depended far more upon the productivity of his bargain than upon his skill and application.

Fluctuations in wages were frequent and great as the particulars given in Table I, of two typical bargains in the Cwmorthin Quarry, Festiniog, for three months in 1844 show.

These marked fluctuations in wages in the same bargains from month to month were not due to changes in list prices (which never changed and were identical for all bargains), or to changes in the rates given per yard for clearing rubbish or blasting rock, or to change., in the rates of poundage, but were almost entirely due to changes in the productivity of the bargain. The attempts to equate the advantages of working various bargains and to reduce the amplitudes of movements in wages were half‑hearted, mainly because the bargain setters felt that the skilled quarryman in an unprofitable bargain should not receive as high a wage as a skilled quarryman in a more profitable bargain. In the Cwmorthin Quarry in 1844 the poundage was seldom changed and varied between a minimum of 9s. 0d. and a maximum of 17s. 6d;. while the poundage rate remained so low it was impossible to prevent drastic fluctuations in wages, and this remained a general complaint among the quarrymen during the 'forties and 'fifties of the last century.

By the 'seventies the poundage rates had increased greatly and by careful manipulation it was possible to reduce fluctuations in wages. Table II gives the average wage per working day of three crews of quarrymen in the Croesor Quarry for three consecutive months in 1873.

The table below shows that although fluctuations did take place, they were substantially less than at the beginning (if the period. The Croesor Quarry records show how the wage system functioned under intelligent and enlightened management. In the quarry ledgers two different accounts were kept for each bargain, the first giving the manager’s estimate of what each crew of quarrymen should earn and the second account set down their actual earnings. Table III gives the manager's private account for a typical bargain for June, 1873.

At the end of each letting period the manager knew how many days each man had worked ; he also knew the skill and application of each workman and allotted to each a standard wage; he knew how much the expenses for the month amounted to‑in this case £3 12s. 4d.‑and so he was able to calculate that in order to obtain the wages they deserved the quarrymen must make a total gross wages bill of £32 2s. 10d. during the letting period under consideration. Another account in the quarry ledgers shows that the actual wages bill for the month for this crew of quarrymen amounted to £33 19s. 0d., and so they earned a little more than the wages the manager believed they deserved. The actual wages bill was made up as follows:

In this way, by keeping two different accounts, the manager could check whether his terms of letting were too easy or too hard and whether the men made more or less than they deserved in his estimation. If actual wages were very much below what the manager considered was their due wages the terms for the following month were easier than they would be otherwise, and vice versa. In this manner not only the changing nature of the bargain was taken into account in letting it, but also the standard wage which each member of the crew deserved according to his skill and application.

It will be noted that the crew of quarrymen mentioned above earned £9 in a month by clearing rubbish at 6d. a ton. In letting this type of bargain great care had to be taken not to make the terms of the letting such as to offer a strong inducement for the quarrymen to send good slate rock over the tip as rubbish instead of making it into slates. During the Penrhyn dispute of 1874 the quarrymen accused the quarry managers of inefficiency and substantiated their accusation by submitting in writing the terms upon which eighteen bargains in the Quarry had been let. Lord Penrhyn referred the matter to his estate manager. Mr. Arthur Wyatt, who conducted a thorough enquiry into the whole question. He found in favour of the quarrymen in all cases except one, and the quarry managers were dismissed. The men had succeeded in establishing beyond question their contention that in letting many bargains the managers were giving such low rates of poundage and such high rates per ton for clearing rubbish, that the men were compelled to send good slate rock over the tips in order to make wages. That this unprofitable method of letting bargains was not confined to the Penrhyn Quarry is clear from a study of extant quarry records of the period and from contemporary publications such as Mr. Morgan Richards' book on "Slate Quarrying and How to Make it Profitable."

The wage system has had a profound effect upon the internal organisation and productive efficiency of slate quarries, and also upon labour organisation within the industry. We will first of all study its effect upon labour organisation. In 1865 a quarry manager wrote in the Mining Journal: "There has never been a strike among workmen in slate quarries, and it seems improbable (nay, even impossible) that there ever should be, because all quarrymen have a fresh contract each month at the time of taking their several bargains." There had been, of course, a strike at the Penrhyn Quarry in 1825, but the almost complete absence of strikes in the slate industry up to 1865 is a very remarkable fact. The reason for this freedom from industrial disputes is partly as stated in the above quotation, which contains an important element of truth. The slate bargains were re‑let, usually to the same crew of men, every four weeks or quarry month. On the letting day the manager discussed terms with the workmen under which the latter would work the bargain for the ensuing month; the workmen pessimistically pointed out the great amount of rubbish and unproductive rock in their working place and the bargain‑letter chose to he more optimistic and maintained that prospects were much brighter than painted by the quarrymen. Only in a few of the smaller quarries did the workmen have any real voice in determining the rates under which they were to work the bargains. They had no bargaining power; to refuse the terms of the bargain‑letter was automatically to dismiss oneself from the quarry. Ability to earn a good wage depended wholly upon the terms granted by the bargain‑letter ; everything depended upon the integrity and practical ability of the latter. What was more natural than that the quarrymen should be servile to the bargain‑letter and endeavour to curry his favour ; in many quarries men who were radical in their politics or showed an inclination to form a trade union, found that the term at which bargains were let to them becoming harder and harder, so that it was impossible for them to gain a living wage. After 1865 bribery and corruption were rife in the larger quarries and local managers were prepared to give more generous letting terms in return for gifts of money and in kind. The poundage system made it possible for favouritism, bribery, and discrimination to creep into the quarries and placed the workmen in an unduly subservient position by putting him at the complete mercy of the bargain‑letter.

Under this piece‑rate system it was practically impossible for the quarrymen to find out what was the average wage in a quarry. Some workmen earned good wages consistently, others earned meagre wages consistently, and the majority earned moderate wages which fluctuated from month to month. In every quarry there was a section of the quarrymen who earned good wages and these were naturally satisfied with their earnings and were therefore unwilling to co‑operate with the other workmen in the risky undertaking of seeking a general rise in wages. The crews of men in each bargain were either members of the same family or very close friends, and each crew tended to put its selfish interests above that of others in the quarry. The bargain system of working to all practical purposes divided the quarry up into numerous small and distinct productive units each operated by a handful of workmen who each month came to terms independently with the management, and these terms differed for each crew of men. The nature of the wage system was not the sole explanation for the absence of strikes and any form of trade union among the quarrymen during the first three‑quarters of the last century. Other factors were the geographic isolation of many quarries, the quarrymen's intense local patriotism, their religion, their lack of political consciousness, their conditions of life and labour, and the great hostility shown by the quarry proprietors towards any signs of labour combination.

The unique wage system which we have described was far from being perfect. A simple piece‑work system could not be applied to the slate industry and the complex wage system which came to be generally used in the industry was liable to be abused by both employer and workman. The wage system tended to put a premium on ca'canny and it was most difficult to check malingering on the part of the quarrymen because of the nature of the work involved.

The most serious criticism of the wage system is that. as stated above, the bargain method of working the quarry really amounted to the division of each quarry into a mosaic of little quarries. During the early days of the industry it was inevitable that quarrymen should be split up into small crews, each crew working small shallow pits. As the shallow pits merged into one large quarry, the crews of workmen still worked separate sections of "bargains," and during the early days each crew tended to think that it "owned" its bargain. We can illustrate this by referring to Samuel Holland's diary for the year 1823 ; he relates that on 21st August of that year he had "a deal of trouble with some of the men; discharged some, but John Pritchard No. 2 and Thomas Pritchard No. 3 were very saucy and would not go." Holland was greatly embarrassed because the quarrymen regarded the bargains as their property and did not think that he had a right to discharge them. This sense of proprietorship of their bargains by the crews of quarrymen died hard and it helped to perpetuate a system whereby each quarry was split up to as many small quarries as there were bargains. This method of working proved a great hindrance to the adoption of new methods of production and to the mechanisation of the industry, and it is only during the present century that the slate industry has burst the bonds thus placed on it and has started to gear up its productive methods to meet modern requirements.



Aspects of the Slate Industry 19: The Expansionist Period 9

Quarry Managers' Journal November 1944