Slate and The Festiniog Railway

From Festipedia, hosted by the FR Heritage Group

At first slow to establish, by 1801, slate was being worked in each of the four main slate areas of Snowdonia. The impact of slate working on the landscape of Snowdonia came late but by the start of the nineteenth century the presence of the slate quarries was noticeable and the environmental impact of this quickly-growing industry soon became enormous. Granite quarrying came to Snowdonia even later. More extensive than any other industrial activity in Snowdonia, the impact of quarrying is clear for all to see. Once it became established as a major industry, slate was to dominate in one form or another the Snowdonian labour market for over 150 years. This resulted in the establishment of new towns and villages, which in themselves were a factor in the evolution of the landscape. A good transport system was vital to the success of the quarries and most quarries were linked by narrow gauge railways and tramways to nearby ports and/or to standard gauge wharves for distribution throughout the country.

The establishment of the quarries led to the establishment of service industries especially iron foundries such as the Britannia Foundry by the Cob at Porthmadog (demolished and replaced by the local Tax Office, then by the Premier Inn) and the firm of De Winton at Caernarfon (this historic listed foundry in St. Helen's Road survives as a plumber's showroom). Both these companies served the ship building industry as well as quarrying, mining and railways. De Winton & Co. also built a small steam engine for quarry use with a distinctive vertical boiler adapted from that firm's marine experience. These engines were hand built to order and it is believed no two were identical although all were similar. Iron beams cast by De Winton & Co. survive in the roof of the former railway tunnel, now a little-used road tunnel, under the centre of Caernarfon.

Most of the extensive deposits of roofing slate in England and Wales are to be found in Snowdonia and principally in the four major quarrying areas of Bethesda, Llanberis, Nantlle and Ffestiniog. Of these, the first three are comprised of the oldest slate in the world, the Cambrian. It is hard and brittle and is principally used for roofing. The fourth is the relatively softer and slightly younger Ordovician slate mined in the Ffestiniog district. The ‘Golden Age’ for Welsh Slate Production was the 19th century when quarry owners made great fortunes. The 20th century saw the slate trade decline as rapidly as it had developed.

The Ffestiniog "grey" volcanic mudstone slate mined deep inside the mountains in the Ffestiniog area is the odd one out. It is a relatively soft Ordovician slate, easy to work and to carve and can even be turned successfully on a lathe. It possesses excellent cleavage and produces some of the thinnest high quality roofing slates in the world. After the early 19th century fire of Hamburg (following which the use of wooden shingles was forbidden there) these slates were exported from Portmadoc to Germany in large quantities.

From 1684 or earlier, in the Ffestiniog area, men called slaters had undertaken building and repair work using slate that they had extracted from the hillsides on common land. However, the first recorded organised slate quarrying at Ffestiniog appears to have been (c1755-65) by Methusalem Jones, a quarryman from Cilgwyn, Nantlle, who was aware of the vast slate deposits that existed at Ffestiniog. He opened a small open quarry at Diphwys/Duffws on Lord Newborough's Peniarth estate and this quarry was subsequently worked by partnerships of men mainly from Cilgwyn. Many more quarrymen moved from Cilgwyn to Ffestiniog during the second half of the eighteenth century. The Diphwys quarry was sold in 1799 for £14,000 to William Turner (from the English Lake District) who was financed by the Casson brothers. Later, c1790, Lord Newborough opened Bowydd (later Votty And Bowydd) quarry to the west-southwest of Diphwys. These were the first significant workings of Ffestiniog Slate. Other names would quickly follow as the landowners began to cash in on the roofing material beneath their feet. In 1810, landowner Evan Owen with 17 men began production at Rhiwbach quarry four miles east of Diphwys and high in the mountains at about 1,300 feet. It is in Penmachno parish and had already been worked spasmodically by slaters, including those who had re-roofed Ysbyty Ifan church in 1774.

The quarry at Rhiwbryfdir Farm, on the Dinas estate owned by W.G. Oakeley of Plas Tan-y-bwlch and first worked around 1814, was leased to Samuel Holland, who was to become one of the promoters of the Ffestiniog Railway. Holland soon sold his original lease to the Welsh Slate Company and opened a second quarry on the Oakeley estate at Allt Fawr (Cesail) higher up the mountain. The third Oakeley quarry lay between the two and was opened up by the Rhiwbryfdir Slate Company. These three Dinas quarries were destined to become the largest slate producers in the Blaenau Ffestiniog area. In 1883, the Welsh Slate Company suffered a disastrous roof fall owing to their bad working practices, and 6¼ million tons of overburden collapsed into their workings. Following a long and acrimonious legal battle, title to the Welsh Slate Company assets passed to Oakeley in compensation for losses to the upper quarries, which had previously reverted to Oakeley.

By 1830, the slates from the three main Ffestiniog quarries (Diphwys, Bowydd and Rhiwbryfdir) were being carried for two miles in panniers on the backs of ponies or mules to Congl y Wal (mid-way between Duffws and Ffestiniog village) and then on carts hired out by local farmers, through Ffestiniog and down 700 feet over rough and muddy roads to small quays on the Traeth Bach along the shores of the of the Afon Dwyryd below Maentwrog. Small boats, each carrying 6 tons, and operated by boatmen known locally as Philistines and who came from Llanfiangel y Traethau or Llandecwyn, took the slates to the exposed anchorage of Ynyscyngar for a third trans-shipment to sea going vessels bound for Liverpool. Cost of transporting one ton of slate to this stage was 15s 6d, it having cost around £1 to quarry and dress. Ffestiniog quarries were therefore at a serious disadvantage with the other major slate producing areas of North Wales (Penrhyn, Dinorwic and Nantlle), which, by 1828, were all served by tramways to the sea. The year 1831 was to see the repeal of the duty on slate, and an explosion of demand.

First proposed in 1824 by Wm Madocks who died in 1828, then by several others, the Festiniog Railway Company was promoted by Samuel and Wm. Holland, and Henry Archer. Archer raised the original capital in Dublin, and the company (after much local opposition) was finally incorporated by Act of Parliament in 1832 and the railway opened in 1836. The railway initially cost £42,000 to build and subsequent improvements (including, in 1844, a 730-yard tunnel under the Moelwyn range and the later introduction of steam engines) added a further £100,000 to the capital costs. The Festiniog Railway Company, incorporated in 1832, is now, as it has been for many years, the oldest railway company in the world still operating under its original charter of incorporation. This unique distinction, if once lost, could never be regained. It is a responsibility of which the present Trustees are very conscious.

Despite the obvious advantages, the Ffestiniog slate producers were strangely reluctant to use the railway. Notwithstanding incentives such as grants to meet the costs of connection (building inclines) and the provision by the company of free slate wagons for the journey to Portmadoc, and even though the charge was 6/- per ton compared with over 15/- per ton by packhorse, road and river, some quarries were not connected to the railway until 1843 (seven years after it had opened) by which time the railway charges had dropped to 4/3d per ton and slate production had risen quickly to 44,000 tons per annum. By 1862, the population of Portmadoc had risen to 3,059 and slate traffic on railway had grown to 54,343 tons.

About 1845, John Greaves bought land at Llechwedd (across the valley from Oakeley Quarries) and this new site subsequently became one of Blaenau Ffestiniog'’s more profitable quarries (second only to Oakeley) and it is one of the last producers. Since 1972 it has also been the site of an impressive tourist facility. Although usually called quarries, most Ffestiniog slate is mined underground. At Quarry Tours Llechwedd, in addition to the ever-popular demonstrations of slate splitting and the usual display of ancient artefacts, tourists are taken underground in two different tours designed to show something of the methods formerly used. Firstly they are driven slowly in an electrically-propelled train through a series of underground caverns on a fairly level route. Secondly they are taken deep into the bowels of the quarry riding down an inclined plane, from the bottom of which they take a walking tour.

Today, a private road connects Llechwedd, Maenofferen and Cwt y Bugail and the remaining production is transported by road. Formerly, Maenofferen, Cwt y Bugail, Blaen y Cwm, and Rhiwbach quarries were served by the Ffestiniog Slate Company'’s Railway (sometimes called the Rhiwbach Tramway), which ran from the summit of the second incline (of the three inclines rising from the FR Duffws station) along the shore of Llyn Bowydd (altitude of over 1,500 feet) and for a total of about four miles to Bwlch y Slaters (Manod) quarry. Other slate quarries served by connections to the Ffestiniog Railway included Moelwyn Mawr, Moelwyn Bach, Wrysgan, Conglog, Glanypwll, Tal y Waenydd, and Hafoddty. The FR also served the Moelwyn zinc-mine and the Moelwyn Granite Quarry.

Tonnage for the year 1863 carried by train 64,093 (individual quarry tonnage totals to 66,657) as follows:

Slate Tonnage 1863
Quarry Annual Tonnage
Welsh Slate Co. (lower Oakeley) 20,607
Rhiwbryfdir (middle Oakeley) 11,179
Cesail (upper Oakeley) 9,169
Llechwedd 7,620
Votty (including Bowydd) 7,089
Diphwys (Duffws – Turner & Casson) 4,999
Festiniog Slate Co. (Rhiwbach) 3,964
Rhosydd (carried by pack horse) 1,121
Cwm Orthin 728
Maenofferen 181

See Quarries served by the Festiniog Railway.

By 1871, there were 33 quarry inclines and 14 miles of quarry track connected to the FR. Thus the internal quarry mileage surpassed, very slightly, the main line mileage of the FR. By 1873, the railway slate tonnage for the year had reached 144,091 tons; 116,576 tons for onward transit from Portmadoc by sea, 19,088 tons for onward transit by rail from Portmadoc and 8,427 tons for transit by rail from Minffordd. This was about the highest tonnage carried in any one year.

Following the introduction of steam engines, it became possible to operate passenger services and the FR introduced in 1865 three classes of passenger traffic, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd plus in February 1867 special quarrymen’'s trains and fares. At first quarrymen’'s trains operated only on Monday mornings from Portmadoc at 6 am to Blaenau and returning on Saturday afternoon at 4 pm. Quarrymen travelled in primitive 4 wheel coaches originally unroofed. In 1875, quarrymen’s coaches were fitted with roofs. A later version of these has survived, and there is a replica of the intermediate type. By popular demand in February 1881 the quarrymen's train ran daily.

The Ffestiniog Quarries were not slow in the introduction of mechanisation and developed the use of hydraulic rock-drilling machines. They were also early users of electricity for lighting, water pumping and for haulage on those inclined planes where counter-balanced gravity could not be used. Llechwedd Quarries introduced DC supplies in 1904 and its power station was still in use in the 1980s. The Vale Power Co. of Tanygrisiau supplied the Votty quarry and the local townships. Oakeley Quarries installed an AC supply in 1906 in a joint venture with the North Wales Power & Traction Co. whose Cwm Dyli Hydro-electric power station in Nant Gwynant still supplies electricity to the National Grid.

The Croesor group of quarries also exploit the Ffestiniog slate deposits. These quarries were linked to Portmadoc in 1864 by the 1ft 11½ ins. gauge horse-drawn Croesor Tramway built by Mr H.B. Roberts. It continued to operate by horse traction under various ownerships until, in 1921; about half the line was incorporated in the Welsh Highland Railway. The Croesor line served Park, Fron-boeth, Pant-mawr, Croesor, and the New Rhosydd and Rhosydd Quarries. All these quarries relied on underground mining to an even greater extent than the Ffestiniog quarries. Such is the location of Rhosydd quarry high above Cwm Orthin, that prior to 1864, its slate was transported by pannier ponies along bridleways to the Ffestiniog Railway at Tanygrisiau. With the construction of the Croesor Tramway, the way was open for a massive expansion at Rhosydd and a 700ft incline was built down to the valley floor and connected to the tramway.

In the hey-day of production, the Croesor quarry, under its progressive Engineer and Manager, Moses Kellow, employed the latest available methods, including the installation of its own hydro-electricity generating plant in 1902 (alternating current). He even used electric locomotives fed from overhead power lines within the mines. He had the reputation of being a fine engineer, but he was less effective as a businessman, and by 1930 slate extraction at Croesor had ceased never to be resumed.

Horse traction on the Croesor Tramway, at least for part of the way, between the quarries and Croesor Junction, continued until the end. The line remained available for use throughout the war in the hope of revival of slate production. The tracks were lifted in 1949. During the war, Croesor underground workings were leased by ICI for use as warehousing for the high explosives produced at Penrhyndeudraeth. After the war, surplus and potentially unstable stocks appeared to have been retained in store at Croesor, unknown to the engineers and planners who built the Tanygrisiau power station. An explosion would have been disastrous and the power station was closed with reduced water levels until the explosives had been removed and transported elsewhere.

By 1882, both the LNWR and the GWR had built their branches to Blaenau Ffestiniog and were providing competition for the FR Co. The LNWR had a competitive advantage as far as traffic to Northern England was concerned and even attempted to compete with the FR sea-borne traffic by offering port facilities at Deganwy. The GWR in fact carried little slate from Blaenau but actually, with the decline of the sea-borne traffic, increased its tonnage from Minffordd and Portmadoc.

Even down to 1939 when passenger trains ceased in September, the FR had managed to retain market share, as they say, of a much reduced and reducing slate market. The FR continued throughout the war with slate traffic mainly to Minffordd, and such freight traffic as presented itself until 1st August 1946, when the railway ceased operations (except in Blaenau Ffestiniog itself). The last known consignment of slate by sea was taken from Portmadoc in June 1946. Until the early 1960's, the slate wharves at the Minffordd exchange sidings continued to receive slate from Blaenau Ffestiniog for onward distribution by British Rail, but it was delivered to Minffordd by road.

Slate trains using FR Co. owned wagons continued to operate over the FR Co. line from 1946 onwards through the centre of Blaenau Ffestiniog between Duffws and the LMS slate transhipment yard until the late 1960's and produced a small income for the FR Co.

The Collapse of the Slate Market[edit]

From a peak in the latter half of the 19th century, the market for British slate has progressively declined. There were many contributing factors:

1. Development in the late 19th century of slate quarrying overseas, especially in USA, together with high transport costs led to the fall of the overseas market.

2. Two world wars destroyed the overseas markets almost totally. Exceptions being specific orders to carry out restoration work, as in the case of Charleston USA, where in 1970’s, following massive hurricane damage, the civic authorities decreed that restoration should be carried out with matching Ffestiniog slate.

3. The switch of the domestic market to earthenware tiles and similar cheaper and lighter materials for most new building work reduced the market for slate to that needed for repair work and for use in conservation areas.

4. To a large extent the industry failed because costs rocketed owing to the inability of the industry to maintain, let alone increase production. Production had plummeted during the war and never recovered. The quarries were unable to absorb the overheads of an infrastructure far larger than the current much reduced levels of production and demand could justify. The industry was labour-intensive, highly skilled and impossible to mechanise. A minimum of ten tons of waste to every ton of dressed slate was proving increasingly difficult to manage.

5. At Blaenau Ffestiniog in particular there was a dearth of skilled miners and rockmen (Blaenau quarries need both skills). Some quarries closed simply because their last rockman had retired and could not be replaced. Large quarries that in the hey-day had employed perhaps a thousand men were reduced to less than a hundred and were unable to employ more, despite full order books, owing to the lack of skilled rockmen or miners. One skilled rockman could ensure work for 30 to 50 others including many who were themselves skilled in the finishing trades. Men with these finishing skills were also in short supply.

6. In the mid 1970’s, the Ffestiniog Railway employed three Cornish mining engineers, graduates of the Camborne School of Metalliferous Mining (University of Exeter). Men accustomed to working all over the world, they came on an 18 month contract to dig a new tunnel through the Moelwyn range. – They were assisted by 12 locally engaged labourers and a number of FR staff and volunteers. There was criticism in some circles because local skilled labour was not being used. That had in fact been the original plan – until the railway learned that were it, at that time, successfully to recruit such highly skilled men locally, it would effectively close the Ffestiniog slate industry completely with the loss of several hundred jobs.

7. All the quarries produced slate waste of over ten times the volume of the dressed slate produced. Major proposals of the 21st century include the imposition of a government levy of £1.60 per ton on aggregates, but with full exemption for the slate industry in order to finance the clearance of slate tips (by sale of slate waste for re-use). In the rebuilding of the Welsh Highland Railway from Caernarfon to Porthmadog, the FR Co. is pioneering the use of slate waste as a foundation material (below the normal granite track ballast) in places where the track height needs to be raised above the natural drainage level. Many highway engineers are now looking at schemes for the use of slate waste and this is cause for concern at Penmaenmawr. It is difficult to see how the slate tips can be removed so completely that the effect on the landscape will be beneficial.

Two simple lists of qualities and uses are sufficient to show why, given cheap transport, and an improved quality of life, in the kingdom as well as in the locality, the slate industry blossomed and flourished within two decades.

Ultimately the high waste factor and the high levels of manual skill and effort needed to produce roofing slates, with no possibility of the mechanisation of the core skills, led to the quick demise of slate once mass production methods were introduced to the making of ceramic tiles.

Among the many qualities of slate are the following:

  • Slate is impervious to water
  • Slate is chemically inert and impervious to chemical action
  • Slate possesses coldness
  • Slate is fire proof
  • Slate has almost no electrical conductivity
  • Slate surfaces are flat and can be polished
  • Slate can be carved and even turned on a lathe.
  • Slate possesses attractive natural colour-fast colours.

Among its many recorded uses are the following:

  • Roofing slates and walling material
  • Roman Aqueducts at Segontium
  • Tanks for liquids, be it water or beer or chemicals
  • Laboratory bench tops
  • Blackboards and writing tablets.
  • Dairy and bakery work surfaces
  • Billiard table beds and tombstones
  • Electrical Control Panels.


Further information, and extensive pictures, can be found on David Sallery's Penmorfa site here
Graham Isherwood's Map from Slate - From Blaenau Ffestiniog, showing these locations can be found here

See also[edit]