The Moel Tryfan area, descending over the ridge into Dyffryn Nantlle, is thought to be the oldest slate quarrying district in north Wales. It was probably the source of the slate used by the Romans in their fort of Segontium, the remains of which are visible today in Caernarfon. Slate was extracted in the area on a small scale by individual local quarrymen until the late 18th century, when the rapid growth of towns and cities, brought about by the Industrial Revolution, led to a growing demand for roofing material and the consequent emergence of large scale slate extraction.
By the middle of the 19th century, the industry dominated the economy of north west Wales. In this 'age of slate', 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. By 1877, there were an estimated 96 slate quarries in the area, ranging in size from the huge enterprises of the landed families like Penrhyn, which employed 3,000 men, to smaller scale operations which were nearly all limited companies, with a workforce of just 100-200 men.
The Moel Tryfan slate quarry was opened at the turn of the 19th century by Mesach Roberts under a Crown Lease to the company John Evans & Partners. It was worked on a small scale for the next seventy years, which included several periods of closure due to difficulties in the rock. In 1876, the quarry was purchased by the Moel Tryfan Slate & Slab Quarry Company Ltd, a local company from Caernarfon. In contrast with the majority of slate companies at the time, the shareholders of the company were Welsh businessmen not English, part of the emerging new indigenous middle classes, from Caernarfon and Bangor.
The north Wales slate industry reached its peak in the 1890s, when half a million tons of dressed slate was produced and nearly 17,000 men were directly employed. By 1890, Moel Tryfan employed a workforce of some 150 men, a high percentage of whom were smallholders, or 'Tyddynwyr' as they were known locally. It was a small scale enterprise in comparison to the giants of Penrhyn and Dinorwig - at the time the two largest slate quarries in the world. Nevertheless, it was considered to be an important quarry because it was surprisingly profitable for its size. This was due to the opening of the north Wales narrow gauge railway in 1877, which slashed transport costs, and large scale improvements to slate extraction earlier in the century resulting in low operating overheads.
From 1898 onwards, the north Wales slate industry entered a period of steady decline. In 1918, Moel Tryfan was acquired by the Amalgamated Slate Company and merged with four other quarries. Then, in 1932, Caernavonshire Crown Slate Quarries Ltd took over ownership. In 1972, with only 12 men on the workforce, Moel Tryfan closed for a period of 35 years. Quarrying resumed on a small scale at the end of 2007.
Anybody visiting the Italianate village of Portmeirion in north Wales cannot fail to remember the ...
Phil Carradice, 24 May 2011
Take a look at all the different aspects that go into recreating the period.
Find out more about the history of Wales, including clips from our archive.