Looking back at the Great Strike at Penrhyn Quarry
Three year strike was one of the great industrial disputes Britain has seen.
The Penrhyn Quarrymen
The Great Strike at the Penrhyn Quarry, from 1900 until 1903, was one of the largest disputes ever seen in the industrial history of Britain. Although there had been strikes before at the quarry there had never been one on such a large scale and local society would be changed forever.
The Penrhyn Slate Quarry is a slate quarry located near Bethesda. At the end of the nineteenth century it was the world's largest slate quarry and worked by nearly 3,000 quarrymen.
Although it has since been superseded in size by slate quarries in China and Spain, Penrhyn is still Britain's largest slate quarry but its workforce is now about 200.
At the turn of the last century tensions were high at the quarry, which was owned by Lord Penrhyn. There had been a lengthy 11-month long dispute in 1896-7 over minimum payments to quarrymen.
Lord Penrhyn had been trying everything he 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.
This led to assaults on contractors who had struck a bargain – the practice of offering the quarry owner to work a section of quarry and produce slates for a set price – to work the Ponc Ffridd bank. 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 marched to Bangor to show their support to the accused men. They were all suspended from their work for two weeks. At the hearing 20 of the accused men were found not guilty of the charges.
The suspended quarrymen returned to work on November 19, 1900 but eight banks (or ponciau as they were known locally) had been closed, leaving 800 men without a bargain.
Three days later, on November 22, 2,000 quarrymen 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 marking the beginning of the Great Strike of Penrhyn. A month later Young offered new terms to the quarrymen, but they were accepted by just 77 workers.
The strikers received generous support, including a huge Christmas pudding, weighing two and a half tonnes from a company in Ashton-under-Lyme. Bethesda children sang a song about the pudding years after the end of the strike.
On June 11, 1901, 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 to work, receiving a sovereign each and the promise of a 5% pay increase. This caused anxiety in the area and the bitterness turned to violence when pub windows and those 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.
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.
Around the same time, a card appeared in windows in the Bethesda area, with the words “Nid oes Bradwr yn y ty hwn” (there is no traitor in this house) printed on it. The cards were displayed in the windows of strikers’ homes, dividing the local community into two: strikers and cynffonwyr. The cards were displayed for two years, until the end of the strike and taking a card from the window was a sign that a worker had broken the strike.
By 1902, 700 men had returned to the quarry and another 2,000 had moved from the area. Most went to work in the coalfields of South Wales.
Historian John Davies said unlike the coal-mining areas of South Wales the slate quarrying areas did not attract labour from outside Wales to any great extent, but rather from the surrounding rural areas of North west Wales.
The result was a network of communities which were overwhelmingly Welsh-speaking, as they largely remain to this day. They were also nonconformist in religion and radical in politics. In those communities, peoples’ scanty spare money – counted in pennies - went to build chapels and to fund communal education, most notably helping establish the University of Wales.
Those values were in stark contrast to those of the quarry owners, who were largely conservative, English-speaking and Anglican. Their plentiful spare money – counted in millions – went on foreign investments or on personal projects such as Penrhyn Castle built near Bangor.
Lord Penrhyn’s equally lucrative Welsh slate and Caribbean sugar investments led him to nickname his daughters Emma and Juliana, “Sugar” and “Slate”.
"There were exceptions to the rule, of course. Plenty of quarrymen preferred to spend their money in the pub rather than on chapels, and not all quarry owners were devoid of philanthropic impulses.
“But the fault lines between the two parties were as deep as in any geological strata, and they only needed a small disturbance to crack them wide open.
“That was what happened in April 1900," he said.
In the end, though, 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.
Even though the Welsh slate industry itself has shrunk to a fraction of its former size, the memories and values of the industry, and the communities which were formed to serve it, still live on.
Ten years ago a series of events were held in Bethesda to commemorate the strike which made the community a place of pilgrimage for trade unionists.
The rock supergroup, Super Furry Animals, headlined the festival and money was collected for workers at the Friction Dynamics at Caernarfon. At the same time they were involved in another lengthy dispute. The 107 workers had been sacked for seeking better conditions and had then been picketing their factory for more than two years. Although they won a court case saying the were sacked unfairly, they never got their jobs back or compensation.