A powerful part of a proud industrial heritage
It was a tough, skilled and dangerous life being a quarryman in the 19th century. Working in all weathers, living in workmen’s dormitories away from home, and using heavy tools and explosives while hanging from ropes on the slippery quarry face, was just the start.
Exploited by wealthy quarry owners, the workers were paid only for the amount of quality slates they produced and all their equipment and explosives were charged against their wages.
Their apprenticeship was a full five years. But even so, at the peak of the Welsh slate industry in 1898, it provided jobs for 17,000 men and produced half a million tonnes of finished (dressed) slate a year.
Welsh slate was known and used by the Romans and in the construction of some of the great Welsh castles, long before the Industrial Revolution. But it was the huge demand for slate to roof mills and houses in the rapidly growing cities of the 18th and 19th centuries that kick-started the industry.
Like the coal industry, slate came to be a major force in the Welsh economy before falling prey to alternative and cheaper goods. Durable, traditional and unmistakeable, slate is still used on a number of prestigious buildings today and in conservation works. The largest surviving quarry is the Penrhyn Quarry at Bethesda (near Bangor).
350 million years ago
Welsh slate is a rock that started its life as layers of muds and clays deposited on the ocean floor. It was then baked at very high temperatures, compressed and folded, deep in the Earth’s crust.
This ‘metamorphosis’ happened during the formation of a massive mountain chain that once existed across Wales, some 350 million years ago. The slates naturally split along the original layers in the muds, and traces of their marine origin are found in small fossil imprints.
Splitting the slates is a highly skilled job, and one that is still done almost entirely by hand using a hammer and a wide sharp chisel. The percussion mark leaves a radiating pattern in the slate surface - a sure sign it is the real thing.