Historical aspects of the Welsh slate industry

D Dylan Pritchard MA FSS

  1. One of the topics that cannot fail to exercise the minds of British slate producers, in contemplating their prospects in the post-war period, is that complex of problems which may aptly be termed the "Foreign Relations" of the industry. What will be the position of the British slate export trade? What of foreign competition in our home market? Should there be protection for the British industry in the post war era or would it be better to stick to our traditional policy of free  trade, as qualified by the existing low import duty? Are the interests of slate producers and quarrymen on the one hand and of the general public clamouring for cheap houses on the other, incompatible over this issue of Protection v. Free Trade? Do the old well-worn arguments in favour of Free Trade still ring the bell under modern conditions? It is proposed to go thoroughly into these problems and we start off in this issue by giving part of the historical  background; a fairly detailed account is given of the foreign trade in slate during the first ninety years of the last  century.

  2. Merchant Adventurers

  3. Prior to the Napoleonic Wars all the Welsh slate that did not enter the domestic market was shipped to Ireland, but the imposition in 1793 of a duty on all slate carried coastwise provided an incentive for the opening of foreign markets and by 1831 cargoes of slate were occasionally being exported to Ostend, Hamburg and certain Danish ports. In the 'twenties and 'thirties Merchant Adventurers sallied forth now and again as far as the ports of the New World, which became the  most important foreign market for Welsh slate, 17,782 tons being exported to the United States in 1831. The American trade was highly speculative and frequently ended ruinously for the merchants, some of whom, believing that discretion was the better part of valorem, did not return to face their angry creditors. During the first half of the nineteenth century the export trade in slate was small and the growth of the trade was very gradual. After a destructive fire at Hamburg in 1842 Welsh slate acquired a firm foothold in the German market, but there was no large or general demand for slate on the Continent. The United States remained the most important foreign market  throughout the first half of the century, but the general trend in the volume of slate exports to America barely maintained its level from 1831 to 1861, and with the outbreak of the Civil War in the later year the trade was brought  to a complete standstill for several years. The Great Exhibition of 1851, in which Festiniog slates won most of the prizes, gave a slight fillip to the foreign demand. After the discovery of gold in Australia in the same year considerable quantities of slate were sent to that country, which soon surpassed the American market in importance. The total computed weight of exported slate remained fairly small and fluctuated violently from year to year; the slump in the American market brought exports down from 28,070 tons in 1860 to 10,200 tons in 1861 and the foreign demand remained slack throughout the early 'sixties.

  4. Rapid Growth of Export Trade In 1867 a period of unprecedented  growth began in the history of the export trade; except for a set back in  1870 owing to the Franco-Prussian War the quantity exported increased  steadily from 12,670 tons, valued at £56,681 in 1866 to 68,490 tons, valued  at £271,986 in 1873. Within eight years the volume of exports had increased nearly six-fold. The magnitude of domestic, demand during the next three years, because of the great building boom in the ,seventies, brought the quantity exported down to 58,140 tons in 1876, whereas the value increased to £311,932_a level which has never been exceeded, and which must seem fantastic to our slate producers to-day. Exports felt greatly in the following two years but demand responded quickly to a progressive lowering of prices so that 46,7go tons  were exported in l880. This sudden unparalleled growth in the export trade after 1866 was not due to expansion in the Australian and American markers, which had hitherto been of preponderating in importance. Shipments to the Antipodes showed little change between 1866-l880, whereas the American trade, although it revived upon the conclusion" of the Civil War, was so heavily handicapped  by the increase in the import duty from 25 per cent to 35 per cent. ad valorem which took place in l862 that exports to the United States never recovered their pre-war level and dwindled almost to vanishing point after 1874, as the productive capacity of the American slate industry had by that  time caught up with the volume of  domestic consumption.

  5. Causes of Growth in Exports

  6. The growth in the export trade was attributable to the expansion in the  European market. The value of  exports to Western Europe increased from some £5,000 in 1866 to £55,000 in 1880, and the proportion of the total value of slate exports for which an outlet was found in that market from rose from 9 per cent to 81 per cent during  this period. This expansion was the result of the scaling down abolition of tariff barriers and of the virtual completion of the continental railway system by 1870. When Europe broke into revolution in 1848 only Belgium had a complete railway system, thought, Prussia and France had some detached uncoordinated lines. The twenty  years, 1850 to 1870, saw Western Europe provided with a fairly complete railway system, and this is the primary cause of the prodigious growth in the slate export trade in the decade ending in 1876.

  7. The Cobden Treaty with France in 1860 substituted a low for a high tariff  on slates, and in the ‘sixties the almost prohibitive duties in force in Norway, Sweden and Denmark were repealed together with the more moderate duties in Austria and the Netherlands the moderate Belgian tariff  was lowered in the 'sixties and abolished in the 'seventies. Tariff reform stimulated exportation to certain countries, particularly in the case of Denmark, but as late as 1880 only 18 per cent of the total value of slates shipped to Europe  was apportioned to the countries where tariff barriers had been lowered or removed, whereas export to Germany, where importation was free until the late 'seventies represented 82 per cent of the total value. It was the phenomenal increase in shipments to Germany which accounted for practically all of growth in  foreign trade in slate after 1866. 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. From Hamburg and  Stettin - the great emporiums of the slate import trade - Welsh slate was sent inland by rail and water to the new  markets which were being opened in Central and Southern Europe. Exports to Germany in 1876 were valued at £226,000; the rapid expansion in the  trade led to the imposition of a moderate import duty of 5/- per ton. This tariff, together with a slump. in the German building industry, brought  about a temporary decline in the volume of exports. Table A shows the value of slates  exported from the United Kingdom to different parts of the globe in the years 1858, 1868 and 1878 respectively,

  8. Table A

  9. Foreign Competition

  10. During the great boom in the 'seventies the prices of slate had been raised to such a level that foreign producers, for the first time during the course of the century, found it profitable to ship roofing slates to this country. The chief source of the imported slate was the United States. No records were kept at this time of  the quantity of slate imported into this country, and there are no complete American returns of the exports from that country, but statistics are available of the total value of roofing slates exported from the Port of New York, whence some 90 per cent. of the total American exports were shipped. The total value of roofing slate exported from New York was as high as 646,272 dollars in 1877, and most of this slate  was sent to this country. With the  collapse of the building boom in Great Britain the value of exports from New York fell to 166,220 dollars in 1879, and during the three following years the value of the exports fluctuated around that level; in those four years American slate continued to be imported on a small scale, despite the stagnant state of the British market and the fall in Welsh slate prices, because  the American industry was itself severely depressed at the time. It happened that the trans-Atlantic service was very slack during these years and it is reliably reported that some American slates were shipped as  ballast to Liverpool by the Guion Line  at a nominal freight charge of 5/- per ton. In 1883, however, the total value  of roofing slate exported from New  York fell to 54,060 dollars and from that time until 1895 Great Britain only  imported a very minute quantity of the  American product. During the boom years 1876-1877 our slate producers had not felt the effects of foreign  competition in the home market, but  the existence of such competition even on a much reduced scale, between 1879 and 1882, was a factor which profoundly affected the psychology of the market and intensified cut-throat competition.

  11. High-Water Mark of Export Trade

  12. The volume of British slate exports fell from 68,490 tons in 1873 to 36,400 in 1878, but rose rapidly during the expansion in the German slate market. This increased exportation of Welsh slate to Hamburg and Stetin induced the German producers o make a concerted effort in 1882 to persuade the Reichstag to raise the existing low import duty on slate, but in this they were unsuccessful because of counter-petitions organized by master builders from all over Germany. The total volume of slate exports fluctuated greatly throughout the ‘eighties but the trend was upwards until 1889 when the high-water mark of the trade was reached with a record exportation of 79,900 tons. It is interesting to note that in that year the average value per mille of exported slate was £5/4/8 whereas in 1876, when the greatest value of slates had been exported the average value per mille was £8/0/11.

  13. Table B gives the number and value of slate exported in 1889 to different parts of the globe.

  14. Table B

  15. In 1889, 78 per cent of the total number of exported slates and 70 per cent of the total value were sent to Germany; the corresponding percentages for Australia’s were 10 and 12, for Denmark 5 and 12 and for all other countries 7 and 6 respectively. These figures bring out the predominant importance of the German market in the export trade during the year, where the record quantity of British slate was exported.


Aspects of the Slate Industry 5: Foreign Relations:

part 1

Quarry Managers' Journal September 1943




Blondin at Poultney Vermont 1922