The Slate Industry of North and Mid Wales

Michael Faraday's tour of Wales - 1819

Friday the 30th of July, 1819.

It was our intention to see the slate quarries about 6 miles from Bangor and supposing they were some little distance from the road we, upon crossing a rail way which led from them to the sea shore debated the propriety of following it as a sure guide to the quarry.

Our walk along the railway was very pleasant sometimes being through corn fields and others within woods and on the whole as we afterwards found giving finer scenery than the road itself. A railway differs from a tramway in being formed of bars of iron laid down on blocks of wood similar to the tram irons and in order to agree with it wheels of the wagons are either grooved or have a flange on the inner side to keep them on the rails. The superiority of the railway over the tramway if it has any, is in the smaller quantity of friction occasioned and in the clean line of the roads all dirt immediately failing off from its rounded narrow surface.

We soon met lines of wagons on the railway proceeding down to the sea laden with slate slabs. One of these lines consisted of 25 wagons each heavily laden, hooked together and they were drawn apparently with the greatest ease by three horses. It was extremely curious to see this broad and heavy line moving along the way and bending round its slight contortions like an immense snake and the half dozen of men and boys that were sitting here and there on the wagons looked as if they were thinly scattered over the moving mass.

We stopped some time in our walk to observe a man employed in letting the laden wagons down an inclined part of the railway. The process was precisely like that I had mentioned as used at Dowlais but on the whole things were neater. The road was not so dirty, the cylinder was under cover and had a little house at its side. Its tackle was neater and the friction apparatus to retard the velocity of a too rapid descent was of a superior kind. The man was very quick in his motions. He let 3 wagons down at once and for each full one raised an empty one with sometimes a workman or two. The length of this plane was I should think fully 300 ft. We saw several others afterwards on the road and all of them equally neat and pretty.

We now began to see the quarries at intervals from amongst the trees like a number of hills of rubbish on the side of the mountain before us and their appearance increased our eagerness to be at them. We soon reached some saw mills belonging to them where the thick slabs of slate are cut into convenient sizes. We easily got admittance to their interior but there was nothing remarkable. A number of large frames are connected each with a crank and united by one common axle. This is put in motion by a water wheel and the revolutions of the cranks force the frames backwards and forwards. Saws are attached at each end of the frames by a hinge joint and consequently move with it and cut anything placed beneath them. When the saws are not in use they are raised and held up by a string and then on the slab beneath the men arrange blocks of slate with the part which is to be cut in the line of the saws motion. One, two, three or more pieces are put down at once according to their size and the extent of the saw and then it is let down and commences cutting. Water is made to drip by small pipes on to the saws as they work and the part by which they are attached to the large frame is furnished with a long screw which being made gradually to turn round preserves the saw as it sinks in cutting the slate always in a horizontal direction. Here slabs for tombstones, mantle pieces, tables etc., are cut and in another mill furnished in a similar way. Their surfaces are ground smooth and polished if required.

We had to make our way round and between several high hills of refuse slate before we got fairly into the works, but when there we were charmed with the novel and strange appearance of things. The splintering character of all about us, the sharp rocky projections above us, the peculiar, but here general, colour of the rock together made up an appearance unlike anything we had seen before. We pushed on boldly by men and offices and made up inclined ways and along railways towards the explosion we heard a little way off. After having seen two or three very curious places we tempted a man to leave his work and show us the road to the most interesting parts of the quarry and he took us among the cliffs where we almost repented we had asked to go. Smooth perpendicular planes of slate many many feet in height, depth and width, appeared above and below in all directions, chasms yawned, precipices frowned, and the path which conducted amongst and through these strange places was sometimes on the edge of a slate splinter not many inches wide though raised from the cliffs beneath into mid air. We then mounted and at last gained a kind of slate promontory which had been left projecting across the quarry. It was narrow but walled on both edges. From hence we had a kind of birds-eye view of the excavations and workings and saw the men like pygmies below pursuing their various objects. It was certainly a very singular scene and is like nothing else I know of. Natural precipices do not convey the idea existed here because they are in part rounded by the weather and their smaller parts are generally somewhat nodular or blunt and besides they are modified in colour by the soil that lodges on and the vegetation that covers them. But here every fracture whether large or small presented sharp angles, the fine sober colour was of the utmost freshness and in opposition to usual arrangement. The sides were the smooth and flat places, the bottoms being the rough, irregular parts for the strata here are normally perpendicular. All over the place were scattered men sometimes sitting across a little projection starting from the sharp edge or clinging to a half loosened splinter of the slate and employed in making holes, tamping and blasting the rock. Railways wound in every direction into the works and wagons were continually moving about in the lively scene. just before us they were going to blast and they motioned us away from the place to be out of danger. The explosion did not however scatter the fragments far but it made a noble roar.

Our guide took pains to show us what they called good and bad rock, that is rock which would split into plates with facility and such as did so with difficulty or was irregular in its fracture. He also showed us his own working place. As in the Anglesea (sic) mines so the men here entered into engagements to work part of the quarry and render their work in finished slates and they are paid so much per thousand according to the quality of the rock which they have to work. We followed him to his shed for he and his companions had quarried some masses and were now engaged in another place separating them into laminae and dressing them. The first operation was that of splitting. This was done with long and wide but very thin chisels more indeed like pointers knives than chisels. One of these being placed at the edge of a block and gently tapped with a hammer soon causes the mass to split then the other being introduced. They are worked to and fro in the cleft which is forced open and the block divided. This is repeated again and again until the stone is reduced into those thin plates used for roofing houses. The dresser then takes them and cuts them square by placing the part he wishes to divide on a blunt edge of iron fixed in a block before him and with an instrument like a large heavy kitchen knife striking on the upper surface in the same direction, the slate gives way instantly and is cut with a very neat edge. The size is arranged according to certain gauge marks so that the produce is very uniform. The men work with astonishing rapidity cutting the slate as if it were a wafer. They offered us two or three small squares out of the waste as remembrances of the place.

Having seen all we could see we set off to regain the Capel Curig road. We had to pass a little way through some fine grounds and cross the bridge over the River close to a very beautiful cascade. Being very hungry and thirsty we were tempted by a very clean looking inn to rest and refresh ourselves, and were soon heartily engaged with nice bread and butter and cheese accompanied with good cwrw.   Later, we rambled on in fine spirits among lakes and mountains and delightful scenery until we reached Capel Curig an only house in which gives name to or takes name from the place. It has so many doors I was obliged to ask a person standing by which I was to go in at.  Here we took tea and the coach for Llangollen coming up in about an hour we mounted it for a ride to that place.

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