The National Slate Museum (previously known as the Welsh Slate Museum and the North Wales Quarrying Museum) is located at Gilfach Ddu in the 19th-century workshops of the now disused Dinorwic slate quarry, within the Padarn Country Park, Llanberis, Gwynedd. The museum is an Anchor Point of ERIH, The European Route of Industrial Heritage and part of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. The workshops which served the needs of the quarry and its locomotives, were built in 1870 on land created from the continuous tipping of spoil from the adjacent Vivian Quarry, and as a replacement for the store sheds which were previously sited there. Rail access to the works was by both 1 ft 11 1⁄2 in narrow gauge (the quarry gauge) and 4 ft narrow gauge (that of the Padarn Railway which carried the slate from the quarry to Port Dinorwic). Rails also entered the main yard through the main entrance. The quarry closed in 1969 and the site was opened in 1972 as the North Wales Quarrying Museum. The museum is now connected to the nearby village of Llanberis by the Llanberis Lake Railway, which uses part of the building as its workshops.
The virtues of slate as a building and roofing material have been recognized since the Roman period. The Roman fort at Segontium, Caernarfon, was originally roofed with tiles, but the later levels contain numerous slates, used for both roofing and flooring. The nearest deposits are about five miles (8 km) away in the Cilgwyn area, indicating that the slates were not used merely because they were available on-site. During the mediaeval period, there was small-scale quarrying of slate in several areas. The Cilgwyn quarry in the Nantlle Valley dates from the 12th century, and is thought to be the oldest in Wales. The first record of slate quarrying in the neighbourhood of the later Penrhyn Quarry was in 1413, when a rent-roll of Gwilym ap Griffith records that several of his tenants were paid 10 pence each for working 5,000 slates. Aberllefenni Slate Quarry may have started operating as a slate mine as early as the 14th century. The earliest confirmed date of operating dates from the early 16th century when the local house Plas Aberllefenni was roofed in slates from this quarry.
Transport problems meant that the slate was usually used fairly close to the quarries. There was some transport by sea. A poem by the 15th century poet Guto'r Glyn asks the Dean of Bangor to send him a shipload of slates from Aberogwen, near Bangor, to Rhuddlan to roof a house at Henllan, near Denbigh. The wreck of a wooden ship carrying finished slates was discovered in the Menai Strait and is thought to date from the 16th century. By the second half of the 16th century, there was a small export trade of slates to Ireland from ports such as Beaumaris and Caernarfon. Slate exports from the Penrhyn estate are recorded from 1713 when 14 shipments totalling 415,000 slates were sent to Dublin. The slates were carried to the ports by pack-horses, and later by carts. This was sometimes done by women, the only female involvement in what was otherwise an exclusively male industry. Until the late 18th century, slate was extracted from many small pits by small partnerships of local men, who did not own the capital to expand further. The quarrymen usually had to pay a rent or royalty to the landlord, though the quarrymen at Cilgwyn did not. A letter from the agent of the Penrhyn estate, John Paynter, in 1738 complains that competition from Cilgwyn was affecting the sales of Penrhyn slates. The Cilgwyn slates could be extracted more cheaply and sold at a higher price. Penrhyn introduced larger sizes of slate between 1730 and 1740, and gave these sizes the names which became standard. These ranged from "Duchesses", the largest at 24 inches by 12 inches, through "Countesses", "Ladies" and "Doubles" to the smallest "Singles".
Largest working waterwheel in mainland Britain
Methusalem Jones, previously a quarryman at Cilgwyn, began to work the Diffwys quarry at Blaenau Ffestiniog in the 1760s, which became the first large quarry in the area. The large landowners were initially content to issue "take notes", allowing individuals to quarry slates on their lands for a yearly rent of a few shillings and a royalty on the slates produced. The first landowner to take over the working of slates on his land was the owner of the Penrhyn estate, Richard Pennant, later Baron Penrhyn. In 1782, the men working quarries on the estate were bought out or ejected, and Pennant appointed James Greenfield as agent. The same year, Lord Penrhyn opened a new quarry at Caebraichycafn near Bethesda, which as Penrhyn Quarry would become the largest slate quarry in the world. By 1792, this quarry was employing 500 men and producing 15,000 tons of slate per year. At Dinorwig, a single large partnership took over in 1787, and in 1809 the landowner, Thomas Assheton Smith of Vaynol, took the management of the quarry into his own hands. The Cilgwyn quarries were taken over by a company in 1800, and the scattered workings at all three locations were amalgamated into a single quarry. The first steam engine to be used in the slate industry was a pump installed at the Hafodlas quarry in the Nantlle Valley in 1807, but most quarries relied on hydropower to drive machinery
Wales was by now producing more than half the United Kingdom's output of slate, 26,000 tons out of a total UK production of 45,000 tons in 1793. In July 1794, the government imposed a 20% tax on all slate carried coastwise, which put the Welsh producers at a disadvantage compared to inland producers who could use the canal network to distribute their product. There was no tax on slates sent overseas, and exports to the United States gradually increased. The Penrhyn Quarry continued to grow, and in 1799 Greenfield introduced the system of "galleries", huge terraces from 9 metres to 21 metres in depth. In 1798, Lord Penrhyn constructed the horse-drawn Llandegai Tramway to transport slates from Penrhyn Quarry, and in 1801 this was replaced by the narrow gauge Penrhyn Quarry Railway, one of the earliest railway lines. The slates were transported to the sea at Port Penrhyn which had been constructed in the 1790s. The Padarn Railway was opened in 1824 as a tramway for the Dinorwig Quarry, and converted to a railway in 1843. It ran from Gilfach Ddu near Llanberis to Port Dinorwic at Y Felinheli. The Nantlle Railway was built in 1828 and was operated using horse-power to carry slate from several slate quarries in the Nantlle Valley to the harbour at Caernarfon.
In 1831 slate duty was abolished, and this helped to produce a rapid expansion in the industry, particularly since the duty on tiles was not abolished until 1833. The Ffestiniog Railway line was constructed between 1833 and 1836 to transport slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the coastal town of Porthmadog, where it was loaded onto ships. The railway was graded so that loaded slate waggons could be run by gravity downhill all the way from Blaenau Ffestiniog to the port. The empty waggons were hauled back up by horses, which travelled down in 'dandy' waggons. This helped expansion at the Blaenau Ffestiniog quarries, which had previously had to cart the slate to Maentwrog to be loaded onto small boats and taken down the River Dwyryd to the estuary, where it was transferred to larger vessels. There was further expansion at Blaenau when John Whitehead Greaves, who had been running the Votty quarry since 1833, took a lease on the land between this quarry and the main Ffestiniog to Betws-y-Coed road. After years of digging he struck the famous Old Vein in 1846 in what became the Llechwedd quarry. A fire which destroyed a large part of Hamburg in 1842 led to a demand for slate for rebuilding, and Germany became an important market, particularly for Ffestiniog slate.
In 1843, the Padarn Railway become the first quarry railway to use steam locomotives, and the transport of slate by train rather than by ship was made easier when the London and North Western Railway built branches to connect Port Penrhyn and Port Dinorwic to the main line in 1852. The Corris Railway opened as the horse-worked Corris, Machynlleth & River Dovey Tramroad in 1859, connecting the slate quarries around Corris and Aberllefenni with wharves on the estuary of the River Dyfi. The Ffestiniog Railway converted to steam in 1863, and the Talyllyn Railway was opened in 1866 to serve the Bryn Eglwys quarry above the village of Abergynolwyn. Bryn Eglwys grew to be one of the largest quarries in mid Wales, employing 300 men and producing 30% of the total output of the Corris district. The Cardigan Railway was opened in 1873, partly to carry slate traffic, and enabled the Glogue quarry in Pembrokeshire to grow to employ 80 men. Mechanization was gradually introduced to make most aspects of the industry more efficient, particularly at Blaenau Ffestiniog where the Ordovician slate was less brittle than the Cambrian slate further north, and therefore easier to work by machine. The slate mill evolved between 1840 and 1860, powered by a single line shaft running along the building and bringing together operations such as sawing, planing and dressing. In 1859, John Whitehead Greaves invented the Greaves sawing table to produce blocks for the splitter, then in 1856 introduced a rotary machine to dress the split slate. The splitting of the blocks to produce roofing slates proved resistant to mechanization, and continued to be done with a mallet and chisel. An extra source of income from the 1860s was the production of "slab", thicker pieces of slate which were planed and used for many purposes, for example flooring, tombstones and billiard tables.
The larger quarries could be highly profitable. The Mining Journal estimated in 1859 that the Penrhyn quarries produced an annual net profit of GB£100,000, and the Dinorwig Quarry £70,000 a year. From 1860 onwards slate prices rose steadily. Quarries expanded and the population of the quarrying districts increased, for example the population of Ffestiniog parish increased from 732 in 1801 to 11,274 in 1881. Total Welsh production reached 350,000 tons a year by the end of the 1860s. Of this total, over 100,000 tons came from the Bethesda area, mainly from the Penrhyn Quarry. Blaenau Ffestiniog produced almost as much, and the Dinorwig Quarry alone produced 80,000 tons per year. The Nantlle Valley quarries produced 40,000 tons, while the remainder of Wales outside these areas produced only about 20,000 tons per year. By the late 1870s, Wales was producing 450,000 tons of slate per year, compared with just over 50,000 tons for the rest of the United Kingdom. In 1882, 92% of the United Kingdom's production was from Wales with the quarries at Penrhyn and Dinorwig producing half of this between them. Alun Richards comments on the importance of the slate industry: “ It dominated the economy of the north-west of Wales, where, by the middle of the 19thC. it accounted for almost half the total revenues from trade, industry and the professions, and in Wales as a whole, its output value compared with that of coal.” The prosperity of the slate industry led to the growth of a number of other associated industries. Shipbuilding increased at a number of coastal locations, particularly at Porthmadog, where 201 ships were built between 1836 and 1880. Engineering companies were set up to supply the quarries, notably De Winton at Caernarfon. In 1870, De Winton built and equipped an entire workshop for the Dinorwig Quarry, with machinery powered by overhead shafting that in its turn was driven by the largest water-wheel in the United Kingdom, over 50 feet in diameter.
There were several different categories of worker in the quarries. The quarrymen proper, who made up just over 50% of the workforce, worked the slate in partnerships of three, four, six or eight, known as "bargain gangs". A gang of four typically consisted of two "rockmen" who would blast the rock to produce blocks, a splitter, who would split the blocks with hammer and chisel, and a dresser. A rybelwr would usually be a boy learning his trade, who would wander around the galleries offering assistance to the gangs. Sometimes a gang would give him a block of slate to split. Other groups were the "bad rockmen" who usually worked in crews of three, removing unworkable rock from the face, and the "rubbish men" who cleared the waste rock from the galleries and built the tips of waste which surrounded the quarry. One ton of saleable slate could produce up to 30 tons of waste. At Dinorwig Quarry, workers from Anglesey were housed at the Anglesey barracks during the week. They would get up at 3 a.m. on Monday morning to walk to the ferry, and return home on Saturday afternoon. The bad rockmen and rubbish men were usually paid by the ton of material removed, but the quarrymen were paid according to a more complicated system. Part of the payment was determined by the number of slates the gang produced, but this could vary greatly according to the nature of the rock in the section allocated to them. The men would therefore be paid an extra sum of "poundage" per pound's worth of slate produced.
"Bargains" were let by the setting steward, who would agree a price for a certain area of rock. If the rock in the bargain allocated to a gang was poor, they would be paid a higher poundage, while good rock meant a lower poundage. The first Monday of every month was "bargain letting day" when these agreements were made between men and management. The men had to pay for their ropes and chains, for tools and for services such as sharpening and repairing. Subs (advances) were paid every week, everything being settled up on the "day of the big pay". If conditions had not been good, the men could end up owing the management money. This system was not finally abolished until after the Second World War. Because of this arrangement, the men tended to see themselves as independent contractors rather than employees on a wage, and trade unions were slow to develop. There were grievances however, including unfairness in setting bargains and disputes over days off. The North Wales Quarrymen's Union (NWQMU) was formed in 1874, and the same year there were disputes at Dinorwig and then at Penrhyn. Both these disputes ended in victory for the workers, and by May 1878, the union had 8,368 members. One of the founders of the union, Morgan Richards, described in 1876 the conditions when he started work in the quarries forty years before: “ 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."
There are designated disabled parking bays located in Padarn Country Park. This is a pay and display car park therefore blue badges should be displayed. There is free parking for buses. From the car park there are flat paved routes into the museum which can easily be used by all visitors. Entrance to the museum for wheelchair users and those with pushchairs is via the shop. A wheelchair is available on request in the shop. The chair is allocated on a first come first served basis and cannot be pre-booked, although any advanced requests will be considered. Seating is available at various locations throughout the museum – in the first instance near the film theatre and thereafter by the cafe. Please ask any member of staff if you require seating at any other location. There is wheelchair access, suitable for unaccompanied wheelchair users to most parts of the museum, along slate paving and shingle paths. This includes the waterwheel to the rear of the museum which can be accessed by lift and also the V2 incline in Padarn Country Park, which can be reached via an easily graded Gwynedd Council prepared route. This route starts from behind the Lake Railway terminus. However, due to the nature of the museum buildings some areas may require extra assistance:- Railway tracks run throughout the site and may cause difficulty if visitors leave the official pathways. Please ask for assistance. Unfortunately the only access to the Pattern Loft at the moment is via a steep stairway therefore wheelchair users cannot access it. The pathway narrows slightly in the Smithy making it impossible for a wheelchair to use the normal pathway. Please ask a member of staff to assist with opening the barriers to allow access. Fron Haul – Quarrymen's Houses - The houses can be reached by following the pathway via the cafe and Play and Discovery area. There is a slight gradient to this path and unaccompanied wheelchair users may need staff assistance. The nature and historical correctness of these houses makes access by most wheelchairs difficult. Please contact a member of staff if you have any problems.
For the visually impaired, one of the great joys of visiting an industrial site such as the National Slate Museum is the experience of the noises and smells of the exhibits and demonstrations. Few objects are in glass cases. Museum Assistants and craftsmen are happy to allow visitors the opportunity to touch and handle the exhibits to give a full explanation of their role. Handling sessions which include museum artefacts are available by arrangement with the Education Officer. Large print guide books are available free on loan. Please ask at the entrance. Hearing Impaired: Video presentations can be seen throughout the museum. Induction loops are available and headsets can be worn in the film theatre. Both the shop and the cafe are accessible to wheelchair users. Toilets for the disabled are available in the cafe building. Baby changing facilities are provided in both the ladies and gents toilets, located in the cafe building. Please ask if assistance is required with the doors. Dogs are allowed on site provided they are kept on a lead. Guide dogs for both visually and hearing impaired visitors are welcomed and are allowed into the Quarrymen's House and the Chief Engineer's House. Water bowls are provided at the museum entrance and by the cafe. All dogs must leave the premises to relieve themselves. Staff will advise on request. The Ffowntan café serves a variety of refreshments from sandwiches and home-made soup to cakes, treats and hot meals. The Llanberis Lake Railway is close by and well worth a trip.
Location : National Slate Museum, Llanberis, Gwynedd LL55 4TY
Transport : Bangor (National Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 85, 86, 88, S1 and S2 stop near by (8 minutes).
Opening Times : Daily 10:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Free
Tel : 029 2057 3700