National Slate Museum: Window on the past

The National Slate Museum, Llanberis.
The National Slate Museum, Llanberis.

In 1999 Amgueddfa Cymru interviewed three former crafts-men from Gilfach Ddu slate quarry workshops. The workshops later became home to the National Slate Museum. The Museum holds a rich archive from the lives of the quarrymen, but the accounts from the craftsmen who crafted and worked the mined slate are also a fascinating window on the past.

Hugh Richards Jones

Born in Bethel, near Caernarfon, in 1911, Hugh first came to "the Yard" as the workshops were known locally as an apprentice fitter in 1926:

"Gilfach Ddu was the heart of Dinorwic. There were 3,700 [men] working in the quarry when I began there. So it took a pretty big heart to supply all that with everything... I started in 1926, and as I went through the gateway I could see the clock above the gateway there, you know. I went through and who should be waiting for me in the office portico there but the engi-neer - the chief engineer. My father was with me, and he said I was starting work there. 'Well if you're coming here my lad,' he said, 'you'll have to roll up your sleeves!'

Mr Hugh Richard Jones
Mr Hugh Richard Jones

In those days, young boys had to pay for the privilege of learning a craft:

"We didn't get a penny. No money at all for the first half-year. Then in those days we got sixpence a day for the second half-year. At the end of the year we got a year's rise - by day. And so it went until you'd finished your apprentice-ship. And it often happened that if you couldn't do your work properly and weren't conscientious with your work, you wouldn't get your full pay either. It was up to the chief engineer, really, to tell you, 'Well, you deserve a bit of pay. I'll give you full pay.' ... That was the way of it in those days.

Later on, Hugh Richard Jones became chief engineer of the quarry, and after it closed in 1969 Amgueddfa Cymru employed him as the first manager of the National Slate Museum.

Gwilym Davies

Some of the Gilfach Ddu workers, 1896
Some of the Gilfach Ddu workers, 1896

Born in the village of Dinorwig in 1920, Gwilym came to the yard in 1936 as an apprentice carpenter. His childhood was not easy, as his father had been killed in an accident at the quarry when Gwilym was very young:

"My father came from Deiniolen. He was unlucky - he was killed in one of the sinks in the quarry in 1923, when I was only two and a half. He was crushed to death during the night ...he was pumping water from the bottom of the sink, and he was crushed. The accident happened before the Compensation Act came in, so it depended on what the quarry wanted to give. That left £250, in those days, to bring up the three of us. But Mam took in washing and so on - she'd go out to scrub Capel Mawr in Dinorwig, for 50p you see."

He remembers being sent by his mother to ask the parish for financial assistance to keep the family going:

"The parish was what you'd call Social Security nowadays. I went to ask on Mam's behalf to get help to live. I got permission from Mr Williams the schoolmaster to run from the primary school on Wednesday afternoon, all the way to the Post Office in Llanddeiniolen. There was only a quarter-hour of playtime in the afternoon. I ran all the way down there and asked Mr Williams from Bethel, 'Mam asks, if you please, if she could have a little bit of help to live.' 'I've nothing for you!'. I ran back every step of the way. That wasn't a problem. I could run fast enough in those days. Having to go home and tell Mam there was nothing to be had - now that hurt."

When he was 16, Gwilym Davies was fortunate enough to be accepted as an apprentice carpenter at Gilfach Ddu. He had to buy all the right clothes and tools for the job:

"I got up very early. New overalls and everything. Overalls and a jacket made out of a material like denim, and my eldest brother had bought me a saw in Gruffydd Jones's shop in Caernarfon. A Henry Diston USA saw. And I remember perfectly the man in the shop saying, `Open the box,' it had three saws in it, two going one way and one the other, 'Always choose the one in the middle. It's finer,' he said. They made three saws out of one sheet, and that was how they were packed."

The social centre of the Yard was the caban, the shed where the workers ate, and where young apprentices learnt that nothing went to waste in Gilfach Ddu:

"Everyone had his place. Everyone had his own cup. And there'd always be nuts on the table... a big nut about an inch and a quarter on the table. Some people would bring an egg with them, you see, and boil it in an empty tin, they had no saucepan or anything. In the tin and that was it. Then they'd stick them in the nuts, you see. That was their eggcup. Nothing went to waste there!"

Alwyn Owen

The National Slate Museum, Llanberis.
The National Slate Museum, Llanberis.

Alwyn Owen first came to the yard soon after the end of the Second World War, and specialised in maintaining steam and diesel engines. Mr Owen emphasised, as did the other two interviewees, that the yard workers had all the skills necessary to meet every aspect of the quarry's maintenance requirements:

"I'm sure there must have been about sixty of us altogether. There were fitters, carpenters, smiths, moulders, all sorts. We were completely self-sufficient. We had everything we needed. Whenever they got a new machine, they made patterns of every bit. Then when they needed to buy a part, they made it themselves. Oh, yes! It was excellent for that sort of thing."

The closure of the quarry in 1969 was a heavy blow to the workers, and although they are proud to see Gilfach Ddu live on as a museum, they still hanker for the community spirit and bustle of days gone by:

"Oh, it breaks my heart when I go there now. Remembering everyone who used to be around - they've all gone now, you know. There are very few left. Something will come to mind, you'll remember someone who worked at that bench over there, or that bench over here, or that machine. You remember everybody. I feel really sad about it, when you see the place now compared with how it used to be ... there was noise everywhere. And terrible leg-pulling. Everyone there pulled your leg something terrible. The one thing I'd say about the place is, everybody was happy there. I never saw anybody fight or fall out with anyone else. Never."

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