Inside Museums : The Story of Slate

BBC Four |

Huw Stephens tells the story of the Welsh slate industry with a visit to the National Slate Museum in Llanberis.

It’s an extraordinary story of ruthless landlords exploiting whole mountains to make vast profits, in what is now the Snowdonia National Park.

Quarrying slate was a brutal business...

Quarrying slate was a brutal business and working conditions were often dangerous and the men poorly paid. The industry saw the longest industrial dispute in British history with the Great Penrhyn Strike at the quarry in Bethesda – at the time the biggest quarry in the world. But despite the hardships and the environmental damage to the landscape – that can still be seen to this day – the slate industry created a unique Welsh-language culture of poetry, music and song.

The museum is housed within the old Gilfach Ddu workshops in Llanberis, that once provided all the tools and maintenance for the huge Dinorwig Quarry, just above the village. The whole museum is a living artefact – it looks and feels as if the workers have just downed tools and left for the day.

Huw meets Andrew ‘Jonjo’, a sixth-generation quarryman, who himself worked for thirty-two years at the Penrhyn Quarry in Bethesda. He now works as a demonstrator, showing visitors the fine craft of splitting slate. He tells Huw that although life as a quarryman was tough, he is proud of his heritage and that there was a real camaraderie among the men. At its height in the late 19th Century, the Welsh Slate industry employed 14,000 men and produced nearly half a million tons of slate a year. Welsh slate is considered some of the best in the world and was exported across the British Empire and beyond.

Elen Roberts, Head of the Museum, shows Huw some of the industrial artefacts. The huge water wheel, the biggest in mainland Britain, powered the workshops, using water from the Afon Hwch, that flows off Eryri (Snowdon) just up the valley. The workshops were almost self-sufficient – everything you’d need for the profitable extraction of slate could be manufactured here, from wagons to railway sleepers to hammers and chisels.

Elen shows Huw the impressive foundry, where complex metal components were cast from molten iron. And in the pattern loft, Huw sees the thousands of wooden patterns that were carved by hand to create the moulds into which the iron was poured. Elen tells Huw that all this priceless heritage would have been lost were it not for the actions of the former Chief Engineer, Huw Richards Jones, who stopped the ‘vultures’ circling and started a campaign to preserve the workshops and the artefacts.

One of the museum’s most poignant exhibits is Fron Haul, a row of traditional terraced cottages, that was moved stone by stone from nearby Tan Y Grisiau and re-built at Gilfach Ddu. The houses have been furnished to represent life at three different quarries in three different times – 1861, the height of the industry, at Tan Y Grisiau, Blaenau Ffestiniog; 1969, Llanberis, the year the Dinorwig Quarry closed; and 1901, Bethesda, the middle of the Great Penrhyn Strike.

Cadi Iolen, the museum’s chief curator, shows Huw around the 1901 house. In the window there is a sign that reads ‘Nid yw bradwr yn y ty hon’, which translates as ‘There is no traitor in this house’.

During the strike, quarrymen would put these signs in the window to show that they were still out. The strike lasted three long years and tore the community apart. Inside, Cadi shows Huw a conch shell, that strikers’ wives would blow like a trumpet to shame the strike-breakers as they returned from work. And upstairs in the tiny bedroom, Huw finds a suitcase with a luggage label for Tumble, in the South Wales coalfields, a sign that the man of the house was leaving to look for work.

Life was hard for the quarrymen of North Wales, but the communities that grew up around the industry were resilient too and created a unique culture. At the heart of this was Y Caban, or The Cabin, a kind of hut out on the quarry face where the men would gather to eat their lunch, drink tea and discuss the important matters of the day. These meeting places have come to take on an almost mythical status in the culture of the quarry now, seen as centre of learning and political debate, where working men could find respite from the hardship of their working life.

Lowri Ifor, the museum’s Learning Manager, shows Huw the Caban at the Gilfach Ddu Workshops, compete with an Eisteddfod Chair, awarded to the best poet at a quarry eisteddfod in 1938. She tells Huw that although the slate industry left a legacy of environmental destruction and economic hardship, it also created a unique Welsh-speaking culture in the industrial villages in the mountains, that nurtured writers, poets, and politicians as well as brass bands and male voice choirs that still thrive to this day.

The slate landscapes of Gwynedd and the culture that they created, have just been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, putting them on a level with the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids