Posts Tagged ‘Construction’

A History of the Slate Industry in Wales

Comments Off

The Welsh slate industry has a long and storied history that dates back to Roman times. In today’s times, slate is not an enormous industry in Wales. Penrhyn Quarry still produces slate – and in fact accounts for almost half of UK’s slate production – and works in conjunction with Oakeley Quarry and Penyrorsedd Quarry. Oakeley Quarry recycles slate waste, a fairly new practice, and the Wales Millennium Centre utilizes many different colors of waste slate in its construction. But what of the boom slate industry of the past? Why, when people say slate, do so many people say Welsh slate?

During the height of the Holy Roman Empire, Rome held a fort at Segontium, Caernarfon in Wales. Many levels of this fort were both roofed and floored in slate. It was a local resource, and the Welsh builders who were at the mercy of the Romans used slate because they knew it would last, not just because it was readily available. There is some evidence to suggest that the Romans had to learn about slate first – as the original roof of the fort was tile, not slate. The tile might have leaked in the rainy Welsh climate, and the Romans might have had to have found a better way.

There are records of slate work going on as early as the 12th century, and records from Gwilyn ap Griffith suggest that his tenants were being paid to work with slate. The first commercial slate operation out of the Aberllefenni Slate Quarry occurred when the house Plas Aberllefenni acquired a slate roof out of slate from that quarry.

Slate is heavy, so transportation was a bit of a problem. 1713 saw the transportation of 415,000 slates from Caernafon to Dublin, and in 1760, the industry really took off. The industry was still very much under the control of the landowners. Even if a quarryman was entrepreneurial enough to start their own slate pit, most had to pay royalty to the landlord. This immediately saw a competition between two major quarries – Penrhyn, where quarryman had to pay the landlord, and Cilgwyn, where they did not.

The growth of the industry continued until 1830, after the Padam Railway was built and transportation became easier. By this time, Wales was producing more than 50% of the United Kingdom’s slate supply and export. The United Kingdom government imposed a 20% tax on slate that was transported inland, but there was no tax on the slates sent out by sea, so Welsh quarries began exporting to the United States around 1798.

Steam locomotives and other technological and mechanical advances grew the industry, which enjoyed its peak from 1831 to 1878. This improved the economy in Wales considerably, leading into shipbuilding and engineering companies that worked with the slate industry.
Because of labor disputes and political struggles, the slate industry saw a decline in the late 1800’s, well into the twentieth century. In addition, the tile industry managed to streamline its process, making tiles less expensive than slates and hurting the slate industry.

World War I saw Cilgwyn close for a time, and deeper blasting and the use of electronic saws (resulting in silicosis) saw slate workers becoming injured and even dying. World War II saw an even deeper drop in trade, and many workers went off to war. Slate was used to repair bombed out buildings, but was forbidden for use on new buildings until 1949, so the industry suffered irreparably, and the slate industry never saw a rise again.

August 30, 2010 |  by  |  Environmental  |  Comments Off