Part 2: Ancestral Voices

Chapter 2. Cwmystradllyn 1854-57

The industrial revolution was in full swing. The population of Britain doubled in fifty years. The railways spread tentacles of iron across the land. Mining, textile and engineering communities expanded, almost exploded, into sprawls of factories and houses. New buildings need roofs, and the slate industry of North Wales had never had it so good. Many a new quarry was opened, and in 1854 a typical syndicate of Englishmen jumped on the bandwagon and formed a company to work Gorseddau quarry. No more than trial scratchings had taken place there before, but the speculators were persuaded by the glowing report of a German mining engineer of dubious expertise that riches awaited them.

Their authorised capital was £125,000, an enormous sum for such a purpose at such a date. Over the next three years the necessary land was leased or bought, and work began on opening up the quarry. Ambitions ran high. To carry the expected produce out, an eight-mile tramway was engineered down to the harbour of Portmadoc. For sawing blocks of raw slate into slabs, the massive mill of Ty Mawr was erected beside the tramway at Ynysypandy, a couple of miles below the quarry at the nearest point where decent water power was available. And, to accommodate the workforce, not only were barracks built in the quarry itself but, on a bleak and wind-swept hillside nearby, the brand-new village of Treforys. A small school was put up which also doubled for worship until a proper chapel should be built.

The valley, before all this upheaval began, had been an isolated backwater with seven impoverished tenant farms and a population of forty-six. But by 1856 nearly three hundred extra inhabitants had swarmed in. Very few were local, for the population was far too small to meet the demand. Most, lured by the prospect of above-average wages, came from established slate quarrying areas to the north, and even from as far as Anglesey.

As it turned out, few men brought their families, and the village was never fully occupied. Most of those who did have families left them back at home, wherever that might be. During the week they lived in the barracks or in empty houses in the village, and when work ended at midday on Saturday walked maybe twenty miles home, returning first thing on Monday morning. Those who did not have families anywhere — and there were many — spent the week in barracks and the weekends in the fleshpots of Portmadoc. The Gorseddau workforce included more disreputable and footloose characters than was usual.

The quarry lay at the centre of the amphitheatre which forms the head of Cwmystradllyn, a terrain of rock and heather on the mountain and of rushes and sour grazing on the flatter ground. It faced down the length of the valley and across a sizeable lake — dammed to supply water to the mill — towards the slightly lusher pastures beyond. The slate vein lay awkwardly. Its strata lacked the natural joints which in a good quarry allow the rock to be freed in reasonably small blocks. It merged imperceptibly into the bastard or useless slate, it was covered by much overburden, and it was criss-crossed by dykes of igneous rock of no use to anyone. The only way to attack it was from a series of galleries stepping up the hillside. Preparing the site for productive working — making it ready for the rockmen who extracted the slate itself — was a tedious job, difficult, expensive and dangerous. It was done by men who, though no underground burrowing was needed here, were called miners.

A little roofing slate had already been sent out from the quarry by cart, but in May 1857 the slab mill and the tramway were completed, and the whole concern moved into more serious production. To mark the occasion a ceremony was held at the quarry, attended by some of the directors, by the engineer, by Edwyn Dixon the English over-manager, by Thomas Evans the Welsh under-manager or foreman, and by all the workmen. Florid speeches were made in English and in Welsh. To christen the tramway, off went the first train of laden wagons, rolling down by gravity while the horse to pull the empties back trailed along behind.

A rock cannon, the traditional home-made firework of the industry, had been prepared on a large flat rock halfway up the quarry. Thirty-seven holes, six inches deep, had been drilled into it in a zigzag pattern, all linked by a shallow groove. Each hole was charged with gunpowder and stemmed with slate dust. A fuse led through the stemming, and along the groove between the holes was poured a trail of powder. The trail was lit at one end, the fire fizzed its way from hole to hole, igniting each charge in turn in a deafening bang-bang-bang. This was the signal to broach the barrels of ale brought up from Porthmadog by tram. The real fun began, and not a few got tight.

The quarry was in business. The directors and the manager, in their innocence, waxed full of optimism. Most of the men, Thomas Evans included, who knew their slate far better, were well aware that the rock was crap and that the quarry could never pay. But they kept the knowledge under their hats, for it gave them work.