Penrhyn Castle and the Great Penrhyn Quarry Strike, 1900-03
The 1900-03 strike, or lock out, was a culmination of several years of dissatisfaction and unrest in the quarrying industry in the Ogwen Valley. Centered on Union rights, pay and working conditions the Great Strike was a bitter battle between Lord Penrhyn and the quarry workers which ripped apart a community and changed this part of North Wales forever.
It was the after effects of shorter disputes in 1874 and 1896 that led to the formation of the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union. These disputes came about following discussions with regards to the rights of workers to attend a Labour Day festival and the issue of the ‘bargain’. The 'bargain' was a system that protected the quarrymen’s earnings against the difficulties of working with rock of variable quality and allowed them to regard themselves as contractors rather than employees.
Lord Penrhyn and his agent E. A. Young had been fighting against the unionisation of their workforce and the tradition of the ‘bargain’ for several years. They had been trying everything they could to eliminate the North Wales Quarrymen's Union's influence within the quarry.
In April 1900 quarry manager Mr Emilieus Young announced trade union contributions would not be collected at the quarry.
Tensions turn to violence
Tensions between owner and workers finally boiled over on 26 October 1900, in violence against a number of contractors who had struck a bargain.
Lord Penrhyn pressed assault charges against 26 quarrymen and they were dismissed from the quarry, even before their case was heard before the Magistrates Court.
When the matter came to court, the Penrhyn quarrymen, in what became an iconic show of solidarity, marched to Bangor to show their support to the accused men and were all suspended from their work for two weeks. It was reported that as they marched past the gates of the castle, they turned their heads to face the other way.
At the hearing only 6 of the 26 of the accused men were found guilty of the charges and fined. In response to the growing tension the Chief Constable of the County called in military forces and was condemned by various public bodies as well as his own County Council.The suspended quarrymen returned to work on November 19, 1900 but eight banks (or ponciau as they were known locally) were not let out to be worked, leaving 800 men without a bargain.
Three days later, on 22 November, 2,000 quarrymen arrived as usual at the quarry but refused to work until the other 800 had struck a bargain. That morning Young gave them an ultimatum - “Go on working or leave the quarry quietly”. They walked out and the Great Strike of 1900-03 had started. Things would never be the same again.
A month later Young offered new terms to the quarrymen, but they were accepted by just 77 workers and refused by 1,707. By mid-January, the closure was complete with workers from Porth Penrhyn being dismissed.
Re-opening the quarry and rifts in the community
On 20 May, Young release a poster stating that the quarry would re-open on 11 June to all employees who had applied to the office and been accepted. On 11 June 1901 as stated on the poster, the Penrhyn Quarry was re-opened and an invitation was extended to quarrymen approved by the quarry office to return to work.
Four hundred men returned, receiving a sovereign each from Lord Penrhyn and the promise of a 5% pay increase. This would be known as the infamous ‘Punt y gynffon’ (The tail pound).
The local community was divided in two: strikers and ‘cynffonwyr’ (the ones who had accepted the ‘Tail pound’). In a turbulent meeting of the strikers that same evening, it was decided that posters bearing the words: Nid Oes Bradwr yn y Ty Hwn (There is no traitor in this house) be printed and shown in a window of every striker's home.
These cards were displayed for two years, until the end of the strike. Taking a card from the window was a sign that a worker had broken the strike.
This caused heightened tensions in the area that turned to violence. Local pubs and the houses of the men that had returned to work were smashed. The names of those who had broken the strike were published in the Y Werin and Eco newspapers.
In response to the violence and tension, soon afterwards the Chief Constable of Caernarfonshire sent troops into the village and a Justice of the Peace arrived to read the Riot Act to the striking men formally warning the protesters to disperse and authorising the use of force if necessary.
By the end of 1901, Bethesda was desolate. Devoid of work, money and food; poverty grew and fever struck the schools.
By 1902, 700 men had begrudgingly returned to the quarry and another 2,000 had moved from the area. Most went to work in the coalfields of South Wales – and the community of Bethesda had changed forever.
" In the end it was not hearts or minds which decided the issue, but the empty stomachs of the strikers’ families. The men went back to work in November 1903, their union still unrecognised."
The effects of the strike are still felt today in Bethesda and the surrounding community. Rows of houses are still named for the traitors to the cause that lived within them (’Tai Bradwyr’) and after a century has passed, many in the local community will still not visit Penrhyn Castle because of what it represents.