'It's not a house that makes a home — not walls and doors and windows and hearth — but the things in the house, the cloth on the table, the flower pot with its fern in the window… the coat hanging behind the door.'
(T. Rowland Hughes, O Law i Law ['From Hand to Hand'])
In 1998 work began on an exciting and ambitious project: moving a row of four houses from Fron Haul in Tanygrisiau near Blaenau Ffestiniog to the National Slate Museum. This row had been condemned by Gwynedd County Council because of its poor condition. The houses themselves are typical of the cramped terrace housing to be seen all over the quarrying areas. Amgueddfa Cymru — National Museum Wales realised that this offered the perfect opportunity to bring the history of these areas to life again, and it was decided very early on that the houses should reflect three historical periods and three areas of paramount importance to the history of the slate industry.
No. 3: The Golden Age of Slate
(Tanygrisiau near Blaenau Ffestiniog, 1861)
At this period the slate industry was rapidly becoming one of the most important industries in Wales, and the main employer in Gwynedd. As demand for slates grew, workers moved from the surrounding rural parishes to work in an industry which was demanding, dirty and dangerous, but paid a better wage than labouring on local farms. Between 1831 and 1881 the population of Ffestiniog parish grew from 1,648 to 11,274. Housing could not keep up with this explosion and two families would often share the one house, or a friend or relation would lodge with them. In 1861 the inhabitants of the house were a married couple: William Williams, a quarryman who hailed from Trawsfynydd in Meirionethshire and Elen Williams from Llanbedr, also in Meirionethshire. William's brother and a lodger from Anglesey lived there too. Any children in a family would share a room with their parents, sometimes sharing the same bed, or sleep in a makeshift bed on the floor. Dampness, the water supply and sewerage was also a problem, and typhoid and tuberculosis were constant threats because of this.
No. 2: The Penrhyn Strike
Penrhyn Quarry, the other side of the mountain to Dinorwig, was its only rival in size, productivity and importance throughout most of the nineteenth century. In November 1900 2,800 quarrymen walked out of the quarry. This was the beginning of an exceptionally bitter and long-running dispute — one of the worst in British industrial history. The strike itself lasted through three years of grinding poverty and despair, but in June 1901 55 men went back to work at the quarry and from then on there were very strong feelings in the Bethesda area about the Bradwyr or 'Traitors'.
In this house the husband is a striking quarryman, and his wife is struggling to make ends meet. They have a seventeen year old daughter in service — the family is dependent on her wages; a school-aged son and a baby. The observant visitor will note a printed card with the words Nid oes Bradwr yn y t? hwn' ('There is no Traitor in this house') in the window; these were placed in the strikers' windows, evidence of the split in the community. Most of these cards remained in the window for over two years — when a card was taken from the window it was a sign that another quarryman had broken the strike. In the parents' bedroom the husband has packed his gear, ready to try his luck in Tumble*, Carmarthenshire. It is estimated that between 1,400 and 1,600 Bethesda quarrymen migrated to the coalfields of south Wales during the Great Strike to earn bread for their families.
There was industrial unrest at Dinorwig, too, especially during the 'Lock Out' of 1885-6, when the strikers were away from work for five months — but nothing on the same scale as the historic Great Strike.
Number 1: Dinorwig Closes
You can see at once how different this house looks to the others, with its rendered yellow frontage and blue paintwork. This is Llanberis in 1969. In July of this year, Prince Charles was invested Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle, on a dais of Dinorwig slate. In August, Dinorwig Quarry closed: 350 men lost their work during their annual holiday. They little thought, as they left the quarry and workshops at the beginning of the holidays, that they would never return. In No. 1 Fron Haul, as in the previous house, we decided to present a typical family. The husband has just been told that he is out of a job, in an area where unemployment already runs high. He may get a job in one of the few factories in the Caernarfon area or within the tourist industry. The mother works in a local clothes factory, 'the women's quarry' — and the home is no longer women's only domain. Their son is at school, a focus for new themes and issues — for example the strong feelings of some of the local people against the Investiture. The fashion of the day is plainly seen in this house in the kitchen units, lighting equipment, the colourful carpets and curtains, the single records and the clothes.
No. 4 is used as an education house for group visits: a good place to hear a story, draw a picture, or find out more about the people who lived in Fron Haul.
How did we move Fron Haul?
St Fagans National Museum of History has over fifty years' experience of moving and re-erecting historic buildings, including a row of ironworkers' houses from Rhyd-y-car near Merthyr Tydfil. During 1998 all the bricks and stones of Fron Haul were individually numbered, like a giant jigsaw, and carefully transported to Llanberis. The first record of the house is in the Census of 1861: thanks to a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund the row was formally opened in its new home in July 1999.