A brief history of the slate industry in North Wales
North Wales has been supplying the world with slate for hundreds of years. It is an industry that changed the landscape of North Wales forever – as well as the lives of generations of Welsh men and women.
The story of slate starts as long as 500 million years ago when very fine mud was laid down on an ancient seabed. Over time, and during various continental shifts, it was compacted at high temperature to form the slate we know today.
The quality of slate is dictated by its specific content and age as well as the pressures to which it was exposed. The seams around Blaenau Ffestiniog in North Wales are regarded as being of the highest quality in the world – their unique strength and structure allows the rock to be split into exceptionally fine uniform layers.
First quarried by the Romans, slate was also used extensively by Edward I when he built his Iron Ring of fortresses around Wales. In the 19th and 20th century it provided much of the roofing in Britain, as well as being exported to Europe and beyond. By the 1870s, slate was amongst Wales’s most important industries and Blaenau Ffestiniog had grown from being a small farming settlement into a thriving and prosperous industrial town.
Initially slate was dug out by hand, using rudimentary tools and gun powder. It was perilous work which saw men suspended by a chain wrapped around one leg and working high above the cavern walls for hours at a time. Boys started their apprenticeship from as young as eight years old and generally worked in a crew with other members of their family. Miners worked by candlelight and would never see the vast caverns their years of work produced – it was simply too dark.
As the industrial age progressed, infrastructure was developed to cater for the industry and facilitate its transportation around the world. The narrow-gauge railway which ran from Llechwedd at Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port of Porthmadog was one such advance - it was built to transport slates to the sea. The steam railway is now a world-famous tourist attraction and still operates a regular service today.
“Greaves initially operated in Llanberis in partnership with a wealthy entrepreneur called Edwin Shelton, before beginning mining explorations at Llechwedd in 1846.”
JW Greaves has been quarrying in Snowdonia since 1836 – that’s 180 years. The company was founded by a 29-year old John Whitehead Greaves after he failed to take a transatlantic passage from Caernarfon to start a new life in Canada. A handful of generations later, it is still owned and operated by his descendants.
Greaves initially operated in Llanberis in partnership with a wealthy entrepreneur called Edwin Shelton, before beginning partnership with a wealthy entrepreneur called Edwin Shelton, before beginning mining explorations at Llechwedd in 1846.
Disheartened by a lack of progress (they couldn’t find the slate seams) Greaves’ business partner left the partnership in 1848, just months before Greaves, on the brink of bankruptcy, finally discovered the deep slate beds which are still being worked today. His courage and tenacity paid huge dividends. The family subsequently won – and later lost – a great fortune and saw the rise of an amazing town at Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Industrial decline set in with the First World War and it was only when the first underground tours started, inspired by the great-uncle of our current chairman in the 1970s, that the magnificent hand dug caverns came to be rediscovered and properly explored again.
Although underground mining operations at Llechwedd ceased in the 1980s, open cast quarrying is still ongoing. Llechwedd Slate Caverns still produces a variety of quality slate products from roof tiles, walling and flooring, to cheese boards and slate signs.