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The industrial remains of Gwynedd shed light on local people's nonconformist spirit, writes David Gwyn
North-West Wales is today a peripheral area in the British economy, dependent on tourism for its bread and butter. Yet the most casual visitor can hardly fail to notice the numerous copper and lead mines and quarries, in particular the slate quarries, which formed the basis of the area's 18th and 19th century prosperity.
Mining and quarrying in Gwynedd in fact long predate the Victorian era. Copper was being won from underground galleries at Llandudno and at Parys Mountain on Anglesey in the Bronze Age and the Roman period (see Seeking the origins of bronze tools). There are also hints of mining in the medieval period, and there is archaeological evidence for some Roman and medieval quarrying.
However, it was the discovery of a low grade copper ore near the surface at Parys Mountain in 1768, later to become the world's biggest opencast copper mine, which revitalised the region's industrial fortunes. During the 19th century, the copper mining industry went into decline, while the slate quarrying industry expanded and Gwynedd came to produce half the world's output of slate from some 400 quarries.
Today only a handful of mines and quarries are still in operation. The majority have been long abandoned, surviving with their scattering of derelict buildings as scars on the hillside, ignored by visitors who drive past on their way to the next tourist attraction.
Still regarded by many as blots on the landscape, the mines and quarries are now being re-evaluated by historians and archaeologists as vital forces in shaping the modern Gwynedd - as the workplaces which sustained its towns and villages, its abundance of nonconformist chapels, brooding or flamboyant, and a Welsh-language culture marked by individualism and self-reliance.
Serious attempts to study the industrial archaeology of the region began in the 1970s, when a number of individual sites were recorded. In 1993, Cadw grant-aided the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust to begin the first of several projects which broadened the scope of existing work - to identify and assess the most significant slate quarry landscapes, including not only the quarries themselves but the social infrastructure which went with them.
One result was to identify the dual economy of the quarries and farms. The scattered cottages and smallholdings of a settlement such as Mynydd Cilgwyn reflect the fact that quarry-work was largely a part-time enterprise for men who continued also to farm the land. But new towns also arose, such as Blaenau Ffestiniog and Bethesda.
Unlike the coal-miners of South Wales, the quarry-workers of the North were typically not full-time employees of a large organisation but in effect worked for themselves. A small group of men and boys, often members of the same family, would agree a `bargain' with the quarry manager for the right to work one area of the quarry, and their primary loyalty was to the group, not to the wider workforce. Day-labourers who moved the rubble were discriminated against and excluded from bargains. The primacy of the bargain system is reflected archaeologically in the individual slate splitters' shelters, and in the barrack blocks which prove on close examination often to be set out for families. Though managers slowly enforced a factory-style uniform discipline, attitudes were slow to change.
In the new towns also an independent spirit prevailed. Bethesda, built in the early 19th century to serve the Penrhyn quarry, was deliberately located on land not owned by the quarry's owner, Lord Penrhyn, to preserve some degree of freedom. This spirit was sustained by the traditions of the chapels, which claimed the allegiance of some 80 per cent of the people of Wales, where individuals had their own say in the running of their places of worship and could make up their minds on matters of doctrine. The strand of Welsh historiography which regards them essentially as victims of an exploitative system represents only a very partial truth. These were self-confident and literate communities.
Their material culture improved radically in this period. Whereas at the start of the century the traditional single-storey, two-room crog-lofft cottage was universal, by the 1860s the two-up two-down single-fronted terraced house had become widespread. Surplus income went into the construction of chapels.
The slate industry was technically remarkably self-contained - one reason why its communities remain strongholds of the Welsh language. Because of the remoteness of the region, in the early days local blacksmiths and carpenters were called on to devise pumps, lifts, railways and other items of equipment, and they established foundries and workshops to produce them. Distinctive aerial rope-ways were evolved, and a Caernarfon ironworks turned out a type of shunting locomotive based on a marine launch engine. The circular stone saw was first devised in the area in 1811.
In an area where coal was expensive, and rainfall heavy, skilful use was made of hydraulic power, and water-wheels were being installed well into the 20th century to power mills and workshops, as well as machinery to lift slate from the pits.
Once the finished slates left the quarry, they were transported by narrow gauge railway, a form of transport technology developed locally in the late 18th century and imitated worldwide. The small waggons could be loaded and pushed by hand, and could penetrate the remote corners of the quarries, whilst railways could be built to the sea-ports at a minimum of expense in a relatively poor area.
Once the slates reached the ports, they were exported to Europe or America on distinctive sailing vessels evolved locally from vernacular shipwrighting techniques. The two-masted `western ocean yachts' were both small enough to enter tiny creeks and sturdy enough to cross the Atlantic.
The quarries also pioneered more modern forms of technology, in particular water-generated electrical power. At Cwm Dyli at the foot of Snowdon an early alternating-current generating station was established to supply the slate industry; while at Pen yr Orsedd quarry, south of Caernarfon, the original 1906 electric motors and the ropeways they powered survive as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
More recently, all the major metalliferous mine sites of Gwynedd have also been assessed. Aside from the boom town of Amlwch, near the Parys Mountain mines, the lead, copper and gold mines did not, by and large, give rise to new settlements. They employed a small and mobile labour force whose technology tended to reflect common practice throughout Britain and beyond.
Above all, and particularly in the copper mines, they made use of Cornish skills, a fact reflected in surviving street names like `Cornish Row'. There was also some transfer of skills between them and the slate industry. When miners were being turned off Parys Mountain in the 1850s and 1860s, they found a ready market for their skills in Blaenau Ffestiniog, where slate is won from underground levels.
The spectacular success of Parys Mountain had, however, already prompted established Cornish copper mines to increase their output in competition, by extending shafts and tunnels ever deeper into the ground. To do this, they had to invest in steam pumping equipment at the end of the 18th century, providing a fillip to the development of steam power, with incalculable consequences for industrialisation worldwide.
Although even within the last year there has been much destruction to the industrial archaeology of the area, much has been conserved, and much more recorded. As a result, it has been possible to begin to understand the diversity of technical and social change implied by the phrase `the industrial revolution'.
Dr David Gwyn is a Project Officer at the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
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