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The Great Penrhyn Quarry Strike

PENRHYN SLATE QUARRY by Henry Hawkins (1822-80) from Penrhyn.  (Accepted in lieu of tax by HM Treasury and allocated to The National Trust in 1951)
PENRHYN SLATE QUARRY by Henry Hawkins (1822-80) from Penrhyn. (Accepted in lieu of tax by HM Treasury and allocated to The National Trust in 1951) | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Great Penrhyn slate quarry strike 1900 to 1903, was a culmination of several years of dissatisfaction and unrest in the quarrying industry in the Ogwen Valley. The dispute centred on Union rights, pay and working conditions. It was a bitter battle between Lord Penrhyn and the slate quarry workers, which ripped apart a community and changed this part of North Wales forever.

Welsh slate that roofed the world

By the 1890s, the Welsh slate industry employed approximately 17,000 workers and produced almost 500,000 tonnes of slate a year, around a third of all roofing slate used in the world in the late 19th century.

The industry had a huge impact on global architecture with Welsh slate used on many buildings, terraces and palaces across the globe including Westminster Hall in London’s Houses of Parliament, the Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia and Copenhagen City Hall, Denmark. In 1830, half the buildings in New York had roofs made of Welsh slate.

A fight for the rights of quarry workers

Following earlier disputes in 1874 and 1896 the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union was formed. These shorter 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’s opposition to unionisation

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 influence of the North Wales Quarrymen's Union within the quarry.

In April 1900 quarry manager Mr Emilieus Young announced that 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.

Quarrymen dismissed

Lord Penrhyn pressed assault charges against 26 quarrymen. These men were dismissed from the quarry, even before their case was heard before the Magistrates Court.

Marching to Bangor

When the matter came to court, all Penrhyn quarrymen marched to Bangor to show their support to the accused men. This resulted in all quarry workers being suspended from their duties for two weeks. It was reported that as thousands marched past the gates of the castle, they turned their heads to face the other way.

Military forces called

At the hearing only 6 of the 26 of the accused men were found guilty of the charges and were 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 called by the Welsh-speaking quarrymen) were not let out to be worked, leaving 800 men without a bargain.

The 1900 strike begins

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.

The quarry closes

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 quarry was closed and workers from Porth Penrhyn, from where the slate was shipped, were dismissed.

The exterior of Penrhyn Castle on a sunny day
Penrhyn Castle in summer | © National Trust Images/Gwenno Parry

Re-opening the quarry and rifts in the community

On 20 May, Young released a poster stating that the quarry would re-open on 11 June to all employees. These men needed to apply to the office and be accepted for work. On 11 June 1901, as stated on the poster, the Penrhyn Quarry was re-opened and an invitation was extended to quarrymen who were approved by the quarry office to return to work.

‘Punt y gynffon’

400 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).

A community divided

The local community was divided into two parts: 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.

Heightened tensions

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.

Troops on the streets

In response to the violence and tension, the Chief Constable of Caernarfonshire sent troops into the village. A Justice of the Peace arrived to read the Riot Act to the striking men and formally warning the protesters to disperse. The authorisation of the use of force was granted if necessary.

Desolate Bethesda

By the end of 1901, Bethesda village was desolate. Families were devoid of work, money and food. Poverty grew and fever spread through the schools and surrounding communities.

A village torn apart

By 1902, 700 men had begrudgingly returned to the quarry and another 2,000 had moved away from the area. Most men went to work in the coalfields of South Wales. The community of Bethesda had been 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.'

- John Davies, Welsh Historian

Remembering the Great Strike

The effects of the strike are still felt today in Bethesda and the surrounding community. Rows of houses are still named for the strikebreakers who lived within them (’Tai Bradwyr’) and after a century has passed, some in the local community will still not visit Penrhyn Castle because of what it represents.

PENRHYN SLATE QUARRY by Henry Hawkins (1822-80) from Penrhyn.  (Accepted in lieu of tax by HM Treasury and allocated to The National Trust in 1951)

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