Large operation in area, not served by FR Co. directly
A member of the WHR e-group, Tony Smedley, was involved with the Government operation at Manod at one point. Here he recollects some of that time
At the beginning of the 1939-1945 war the National Gallery was worried about the possible loss of valuable pictures by bombing and they were all moved to a location in the Home Counties (Westwood quarry near Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire?). When it turned out that the Home Counties were as liable to suffer from bombing as the London area a new location was chosen, Manod Quarry near Ffestiniog in North Wales, was requisitioned.
Manod was a typical Welsh slate quarry. High up the slopes of Manod Mawr a horizontal tunnel led into the mountain, intercepting the alternating layers of slate and hard rock. The slate was excavated, leaving enormous caverns separated by pillars of harder rock penetrated by the access tunnel. In a number of these caverns, chambers were constructed to house the gallery pictures. To counteract the damp air in the chambers a crude air conditioning system was devised. Electric fans circulated air into the chambers over trays of dehydrated silica gel,which absorbs moisture. When the silica gel was saturated and would not absorb any more water, the trays were taken to a room near the entrance, where they were dried in a row of domestic electric ovens. The humidity was checked every day, and the number of trays changed to get the right result. This system worked so well in practice, that when the pictures went back to London, most of them were in better condition than before, and air conditioning was installed in the National Gallery
After the conclusion of hostilities and the pictures had all gone, Manod was left unoccupied whilst it was decided what to do with it. A small part was opened up for renewed commercial exploitation of slate with a few workers, mostly producing slate slabs for industrial use.
The quarry was still in this condition when relationships between the USSR and the West took a turn for the worse and the so-called Cold War began. It was then decided to put Manod back into a standby condition for possible use once more and this was the situation when I found myself responsible for the engineering services there.
The Government part of the quarry was not much different from when it was abandoned, except that everything had deteriorated. The electricity supply still depended on an ancient slow speed 2 cylinder diesel engine recovered from a disused brick works at the start of the war, driving a similarly old electrical generator,the two being coupled together by a made up shaft. This assembly sat on a concrete slab on top of a pile of slate waste in one of the caverns. Although a power supply had been brought in from the public mains, this was very unreliable, depending on a very exposed overhead line up the mountainside. When the shaft on the generating set broke I tried to get a more efficient and much smaller modern unit, but the official attitude to Manod was a bit difficult. Whilst they wanted it to be available it was not thought desirable to spend any more than the minimum on it in case it was never needed – as indeed it never was.
During my time, however, the Gallery decided to have a live rehearsal of getting their irreplaceable pictures back into Manod - just in case. The whole affair was intended to be TOP SECRET as there was a great fear of causing public panic over the worsening situation with the USSR.
The exercise was carried out over a weekend and required me to be there. It was planned in great detail. A selected number of pictures, the actual ones, not copies, were crated up and taken to a railway goods depot in London where they were loaded into a special train. This included some unusual vehicles, bicycle vans and an elephant van. These had been used in the original 1940s evacuation and were chosen because they were the only vehicles capable of easily taking the biggest pictures; the largest of which, was the portrait of King Charles I on his horse, a huge affair.
Arriving at Blaenau Ffestiniog station** the pictures were conveyed by road to Manod in a convoy of lorries. The vehicles included a lorry loaded with cylinders of compressed air. This came into its own at the point where the very rough and steep track up to Manod left the main road, because the track passed beneath the Ffestiniog to Bala railway line through a low brick arch. King Charles on his charger, in a crate on a lorry was too tall to get through the opening, so that all the tyres on the lorry were deflated allowing the vehicle to creep through with the barest minimum clearance. Once through, the tyres were re-inflated from the compressed air cylinders.
The entrance to Manod had been enlarged when the site was taken over as the original entrance tunnel was very, narrow designed to allow for the passage of small narrow gauge slate wagons. The enlarged tunnel was just big enough to allow a lorry to squeeze through, but it had to reverse out which was much harder. It was not as if the tunnel was straight and smooth lined. It had kinks in it and projecting rocks, the only good point was that it was more or less level.
There were electric lights in the tunnel but they were very inefficient; I had wanted to replace them with better units but the finance had been refused. We had a narrow gauge rail track into the chambers and some small hand propelled wagons, but it was considered far too slow to use these, so that the lorries with their priceless cargoes had to be driven up the access tunnel.
For this difficult task they had brought back from retirement the driver who had carried out the job some 20 years earlier. But it was still a long drive with many stops and shunts. It was finally all over and the task of taking everything back to London began. For me it was a relief to see the back of the National Gallery staff for they had been highly stressed, irritable and argumentative.
The big joke of course was the TOP SECRET aspect. An operation of this kind could not take place in a small Welsh community, particularly on a Sunday, without it attracting a lot of attention, and many people in the area were convinced that war was about to be declared despite discrete official propaganda to the opposite effect.
One side effect of my connection with Manod was that I was able to see the quarrying operations in the adjacent chambers. This was like going back in time. The only lighting was from the foreman's acetylene lamp and the quarrymen's candles. Going in to the chamber you could hear falling rocks and the knocking of hammers and the only lights were little pinpoints which seemed to be miles away. As your eyes became accustomed you could just make out that there were men up high, on ladders or hanging from ropes, working at the rock face cutting out huge slabs of slate. This was highly dangerous work.
In our part of Manod, one of the most essential tasks was constant attention to the stability of the rock. Pieces of rock were always coming adrift and sometimes these were large pieces. During the war time occupation there had been a major roof fall in one of the chambers and although the picture stores had concrete roofs a chamber had been demolished with the loss of a number of pictures. The wreckage was still there. The caverns were vast and of great height; checking the safety of the roof required the services of a skilled safety man. Such people were in very short supply.
It was impressive and frightening to watch the safety man. Often he would be at the top of a long extended ladder held vertically or at angle by ropes from men on the floor, while he tapped the rock with his hammer. He could tell from the sound if an area was unsafe. Potentially loose rock might be deliberately dislodged and felled or it might be pinned back to firmer rock behind. Pinning rock involved drilling holes through and into the firm rock; steel bars with a split end were then driven with a wedge in the split. At the bottom of the hole the wedge forced the bar to expand, gripping the firm rock. The exposed end would then be wedged into the loose rock to hold it on place. Often there would be a number of these pins inserted into a single area of the roof. All this was done without the aid of modern scaffolding by men perched precariously on long ladders in poorly lit caverns. Even with modern equipment, it would be difficult to meet Health and Safety requirements!.
The owners of Rhosydd quarry, in near by Blaenau Ffestiniog, persuaded Ministry headquarters that it was suitable for use as an additional safe haven for goods or people. It had been used during 1939-1945 for storing high explosives.
We met the quarry people who gave us a tour around the caverns. Rhosydd was like Manod, a series of huge chambers intersected at various levels by tunnels which had been exposed as the height of the chambers had been steadily increased by the removal of rock so that they break through into a higher working level. In many cases the higher tunnel sections were linked by wooden bridges spanning the width of the cavern, sometimes at a considerable height above the base floor level; we crossed a number of these bridges, a scary experience. We only had portable lights and much of the timber was rotten with missing flooring sections!
But the final revelation was at a lower level. We crossed a bridge at the first level above one of the caverns which had been used for high explosive storage; this cavern had electric lighting. There had been a major roof fall,burying tons of high explosive some crates of which could be seen under huge rock slabs. We were told that it had been considered too dangerous to try to remove it, but it was safe where it was. We decided not to accept the offer of the quarry. On a brighter note, as part of the sales ploy we were given an excellent meal in a posh hotel also owned by the group.
- Note. Tony was asked which Blaenau station, LMS or GWR. Unfortunately, he was unable to recall. - it was 60 years ago!
For some picture, see David Sallery's excellent site at