Dinorwig Slate Quarry was the second largest slate quarry in Wales, indeed in the world, after the neighbouring Penrhyn Quarry. It covered more than 700 acres (2.8 km2) consisting of two main quarry sections. At its peak in the late 19th century, “when it was producing an annual outcome of 100,000 tonnes”, Dinorwig employed over 3,000 men and was the second largest open-cast slate producer in the country. By 1930 its working employment had dropped to 2,000 and it kept a steady production rate until 1969, when the quarry closed.
However, the Victorian workshops remain open to tell the story of the Welsh slate industry. Built in 1870, the workshops are patterned in a similar style to a British Empire Fort with a central courtyard, clock tower and marvellously detailed windows.
Now a Museum the Workshops and Buildings give us a window into the lives of the quarrymen and engineers who, seemingly, just put down their tools and left the workshops for home.
Lets start with the Chief Engineers House. Responsible for all of the engineering work in the quarry the Engineer lived in a house which was part of the courtyard.
Right up until the closure of the quarry in 1969 Engineers and their families lived here. As we see it today it is furnished as it would have been around 1911, with red velvet curtains and the organ in the parlour reflecting a higher standard of living than the houses of the ordinary quarrymen.
The kitchen was more basic but even still it was far better than what the quarrymen and their families had.
In the 1800’s demand for slate grew which meant the slate industry was rapidly becoming the most important in Wales and subsequently the main employer in Gwynedd. Workers started to move from the rural areas to the slate quarrying areas where the work was demanding, dirty and dangerous. But the pay was better than labouring in the farms. With the influx of workers the population of Ffestiniog parish grew from 1,648 to 11,274 between 831 and 1881. Unfortunately available housing did not grow as fast and often two families would share the one house. In situations like this children shared a room with their parents, either sleeping on the floor or sometimes sharing the same bed as their parents. Always a problem, the houses suffered from dampness, poor water supplies and blocked sewerage. Consequently typhoid and tuberculosis were constant threats.
Towards the rear of the museum stands a row of 4 terraced houses, which originally stood near Blaenau Ffestiniog at Fron Haul in Tanygrisiau. Condemned by Gwynedd County Council because of their poor condition they were moved In 1998 to the National Slate Museum. Cramped and not very luxurious the houses are typical of the terraced housing to be seen all over the quarrying areas.
When you visit the workshops there is a large variety of machinery on display. The quarry and workshops were, in the main, self-sufficient due to the technical abilities of the staff. In the repair workshops you can see a riveted boiler for a narrow gauge engine which was built in the company’s boiler workshops at Port Dinorwic.
In the machine shop there is a lathe dating from 1900, used for turning all sorts of things — from the incline drum’s wheels to turntables. There is also another lathe, 6.4 metres long, used to turn the transmission and propeller shafts for the company’s fleet of steam ships.
The slotting machine, on the other hand, was used to cut keyways in gear and pinion wheels, sprockets and drive pulleys.
Most of the machines to be seen in these workshops could still do a good day’s work, and indeed some of them are still used from time to time.
An area that really fascinated me was the Pattern Loft where patterns for metal objects were carved first using softwood. Although much was done by hand sometimes the pattern makers used mechanical equipment, pillar drill, fretsaw, lathe and whetstone.
The pattern makers carved cogs, parts for steam engines, even the bell for the clock above the gateway. Although some mechanical tools were used the detailed delicate patterns were all carved by hand. Other workers were not allowed in the Pattern Loft in case they distracted the pattern makers attention and, if his hand slipped he ruined the pattern.
Today you can still see some of the 2000 different, fantastically intricate, patterns in the pattern loft all of which were carved by candlelight:
Administration of the quarry and workshops was carried out from the Clerks Office and Stores. In the office was a telephone which connected various parts of the quarry to the workshops.
In the Clerks Office, just inside the door, hung a Tally Board. Every one who worked at the workshops had their own tally, which had to be presented at the end of the day. Today you can see the Tally Board hanging in the window as you enter the Slate Museum.
This weeks challenge was about windows and hopefully this short article has given you an insight, or should I say window, into the support services for the quarrymen who worked in the dangerous and difficult environment of the quarry. Their life was hard, especially in the 1800’s and early 1900’s but the skills of the craftsmen in the quarry workshops produced machinery which helped the quarrymen work the slate from the mountain.