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North Wales: a history in slate

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 26 October 2018
Related property: Henllys
North Wales: a history in slate

Why do discerning holidaymakers choose to spend time at Henllys? Well, there’s the beauty of the place itself, obviously – a ‘baronial’ old hall, stuffed full of history. There’s the isle of Anglesey, on which the site sits: 125 miles of coastline, liberally punctuated with soft, sandy beaches; glorious countryside; and for those so inclined, lots of ancient monuments replete with spine-tingling myths. There’s the site’s own 18-hole county-standard golf course, overlooking the sparkling Menai Strait. And beyond, there’s Snowdonia – a massive National Park, all green hills and valleys: the sort of countryside for which North Wales is justly famous.

But the region also offers a different kind of beauty. More jagged. Harsher, in a way. But a beauty that’s the legacy of social change, of fluctuating fortunes, but above all of backbreakingly hard work.

Though there is evidence of earthworks dating from Roman times, North Wales’s slate industry started small; and, for the most of its existence, stayed that way. Until the end of the 1700s, slate was dug by groups of quarrymen who paid a royalty to the landowners, transported the slabs to port, and then shipped them to England, Ireland and occasionally France. Towards the close of the century, however, the landowners began to operate the quarries themselves, on a larger scale. Demand for slate, primarily for roof tiles, was on the rise.

Two events then sent a bolt of lightning through the industry. First, in 1831 the government abolished slate duty, a 20% tax which had hitherto put Welsh producers at a disadvantage. Second, and more or less simultaneously, narrow-gauge railways were built to take slate to the ports. With these two seismic shifts (the phrase seems apposite), plus increased mechanisation of quarrying and cutting processes, production went through the roof. (Sorry.) In 1793 – the industry by now in the hands of the landowners – Wales produced 26,000 tons of slate. By the late 1870s – less than 100 years later – the principality was shipping 450,000 tons per year.

This golden age for Welsh slate was brief. A fierce industrial dispute at the Penrhyn Quarry between 1900 and 1903 heralded the beginning of the industry’s decline, and the Great War saw a huge fall in the number of men working in the quarries. The Great Depression and WWII led to the closure of many smaller quarries, and competition from other roofing materials, particularly terracotta, forced most of the larger quarries to throw in the towel in the 1960s and 1970s. Production today, for billiard tables, tombstones and, yes, the odd roof tile, continues; but on a much reduced scale.

But what remains – a region where economic imperatives and (arguably) capitalist excesses have more than left their mark – is historically important. Important enough for the UK government to put the shattered landscape of North Wales forward to be considered for World Heritage status.

On Tuesday 23rd October 2018 heritage minister Michael Ellis announced that it would be Gwynedd’s slate landscape that would be the UK’s 2019 Unesco nomination.

The area is described as having “roofed the 19th-Century world”, with vast quantities of slate being sent around the UK and far beyond.

 “[The nomination] is a crucial milestone on the road to becoming a World Heritage site and the global recognition that brings,” Ellis said. “While the Unesco nomination process is very thorough, I believe this unique landscape would be a worthy addition to the list.”

“An accolade such as this... highlights the immense beauty and history that Wales has to offer,” added Minister for Wales Mims Davies.

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Jonathan Broom

Jonathan Broom

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