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The Slate Quarries of Wales
Slate Quarry, Bangor, Wales
Extract from “Hansard” the official publication of the United Kingdom House of Commons (Report on Parliamentary proceedings)
HC Deb 28 March 1939 vol 345 cc1881-2 1881
Mr. J. Griffiths asked the Secretary for Mines whether his attention has been called to the reference to the incidence of silicosis and tuberculosis among the slate quarrymen in North Wales in the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Anti-Tuberculosis Service in Wales; and whether he can make a statement indicating what steps are being taken to deal with the problem?
"I have been asked to reply. As was stated by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for the Home Department in reply to the hon. Member on 15th December last, an expert medical inquiry has revealed no evidence of silicosis among slate workers in open quarries. My right hon. and gallant Friend informs me that about a year ago his attention was called by the chairman of the committee to statements which had been made about conditions in the slate mines. Special investigations were at once undertaken, and as a result considerable improvements in the methods of dust suppression have been effected. The matter continues to have the close attention of His Majesty's Inspectors of Mines."
The Streets of Bethesda. The last line, translated, is "Don't worry Grandpa, I'll wear the dust mask."
When Slate was King
The earliest recorded evidence of slate quarrying in Wales dates from the roman period when slate was used to roof their fort at Segontium, now known as Caernarfon.
As time passed slate began to be popular for flooring. To prevent slipping when the slate floor got wet, loose straw "Thresh" was placed on top of the tiles. A small barrier was placed at the door to prevent the thresh from spilling out. Thus the "Thresh-hold"
Slate began to find many uses. Slate tablets were given to children in schools as a teaching aid. The children were given chalk to write on the tablets, Thicker slabs were used for headstones at burial sites.
The slate industry grew slowly through the middle ages until a rapid expansion took
place from the 18th century to the end of the 19th century. Up until the mid 19th century slate was being exported from Wales to England, Ireland and France. In 1842 a fire destroyed a large part of Hamburg and slate from North Wales came in high demand. From then on for the latter half of that century Germany became an important customer. By the end of the 1860’s production in Wales was over 350,000 tons per year By 1882, 92% of British slate came from Wales.
Welsh slate workers
Working the Slate
The slate workers worked in “Bargain Gangs” A typical gang would be four men comprising of two “Rockmen” who would blast the rock, though in older times it was done with picks, to produce blocks. A “Splitter”, would split the blocks with a hammer and chisel. A “Dresser” would then finish the slate and make it ready for use. Other groups removed unworkable rock from the quarry. These rubbish tips can still be seen in large areas of North West Wales.
Work was hard and dangerous. Though profitable for the landowners the revenue failed to reach the workers. In 1874 the North Wales Quarrymens Union was formed. One of the founders of the union, Morgan Richards, described the conditions in the quarry when he started work in 1835;
“I well remember the time when I was myself a child of bondage; when my father and neighbours, as well as myself, had to rise early, to walk five miles before six in the morning, and the same distance home after six in the evening; to work hard from six to six; to dine on cold coffee, or a cup of buttermilk, and a slice of bread and butter; and to support (as some of them had to do) a family of perhaps five, eight or ten children on wages averaging from 12s to 16s a week”
The spoiled Earth
Living and dying with the slate
Slate is slippery when wet. Falls were frequent and fatal. As well as the explosions and the falling blocks cuts were common in the splitting sheds and on the gallery floor. Slate splits to a very fine edge and can cut deeply if it slips while being loaded. Also fine splinters or shards were lying about everywhere. Cuts easily became septic and usually fatal.Other health problems showed themselves. Tuberculosis was common and the high incidence of silicosis among the male population of North Wales was a high concern. Association between slate dust and Silicosis was suspected in the early 1800’s but it was decided not to form any conclusions.
It wasn’t until 1979 after a long and bitter struggle, notably led by the Plaid Cymru member of Parliament for Caernarfon, Dafydd Wigley, that the government finally recognized Silicosis as an industrial disease that merited compensation. Strides have been made in health and safety but the slate industry has been in decline since the First World War. Today the Llechwedd slate caverns near Blaenau Ffestiniog have been converted into a tourist attraction. The BraichGoch slate mines near Corris have become “King Arthur’s Labyrinth” visitors are taken by boat along an underground river then walk through caverns where they view scenes from Arthurian legend and the Mabinogi. Some mines and quarries still produce slate but the glory days are gone.
The people of North Wales can breathe now.