Amgueddfa Blog: National Slate Museum

I can’t believe that 21 years have passed since Fron Haul was officially opened at the National Slate Museum. This was my first project at the Museum, and as someone who grew up in the area, I feel extremely lucky to be associated with Fron Haul. The following is a piece I wrote back in 1999.

Why Fron Haul?

Originally located on the edge of the road in Tanygrisiau; the buildings were chosen because they are typical of the cramped terraces characteristic of the quarrying towns and villages.

When it came to re-erecting and interpreting these houses, we decided to take the lead from the popular and successful Rhyd-y-car terrace. But rather than limit the story to Tanygrisiau, each house not only illustrates different periods, but also depicts different quarrying areas.

‘Golden Age’

The houses are first recorded in the 1861 Census - with the slate industry well on its way to becoming one of the most important industries in Wales and the main employer in Gwynedd. As demand for slate increased, men moved from neighbouring agricultural areas to work in the quarries. In a number of cases quarrymen would stay the working week in the barracks, built near the quarries, returning to their homes for the weekend. With the building of houses near the quarries, many of the families moved to join the breadwinner, forming new and unique communities. As would be expected, Fron Haul’s first inhabitants were quarrymen born in parishes outside Ffestiniog.

However, there weren’t enough houses to meet the demands of the growing workforce. According to the 1871 Census, seven people lived in one of the Fron Haul houses.  As well as the father and mother, there lived a 13 year old daughter, two sons, six and one year old, a 27 year old servant and a 29 year old lodger. Considering the houses originally only had one bedroom, it’s hard to imagine how they managed. In addition to overcrowding, damp was a problem, the water was impure and the sewage system primitive.  It is no wonder that diseases such as typhoid and tuberculosis were rife.

The Penrhyn Lockout

Although the quarryman received a reasonably fair wage, there was nothing to protect them from losing their jobs or receiving wage cuts in times of recession. There were periodical strikes and lock-outs, the most prominent being the Penrhyn Lockout - one of the longest running disputes in the industrial history of Britain, extended from November 1900 until November 1903.

Furnishing the house to reflect the poverty and hardship of a family on strike was quite a challenge, especially as the visitor’s eyes are naturally drawn to the oak dresser with its Willow Pattern plates and the lustre jugs; the ornaments on the mantelpiece and pictures on the walls. But there are a few clues – the sign 'Nid oes Bradwr yn y tŷ hwn’(There is no traitor in this house), that was displayed in the windows of everyone still on strike, showing clearly which side they were on. The wives and children would have used the conch-shell on the windowsill as a trumpet to shame the ‘traitors’ as they returned home from the quarry. Upstairs, in the main bedroom the father’s trunk is in the process of being packed as heads to The Tumble, Carmarthenshire. It’s estimated that between 1,400 and 1,600 quarrymen moved to south Wales to work in the coal mines and support their families during the Strike.

End of an Era

The Strike failed in its aim, and the industry declined soon after. The closure of such an influential quarry as Penrhyn for three whole years starved the market of its supply of slate, and merchants turned their sights towards foreign markets for roofing materials.

Quarries gradually closed, with the process reaching its peak between 1969 and 1971 when work came to an end at three of the previous mainstays: Dinorwig, Dorothea and Oakeley.

In less than a century, the slate industry developed, grew, then declined.  The houses have been furnished to reflect this change within the slate industry.

Lleucu Gwenllian is a freelance artist from Ffestiniog who was commissioned to create a series of drawings to document the 21st birthday of the Fron Haul houses at the National Slate Museum. Here she discusses the experience and her process. You can see more of Lleucu’s work on her instagram account @lleucu_illustration.

At the start of July I had the pleasure of working with the National Slate Museum team to create illustrations of the Fron Haul houses, to celebrate 21 years since moving the houses from Tanygrisiau, near Blaenau Ffestiniog, to the museum in Llanberis.

My favourite part of any project is the opportunity to research and learn more about the subject of the illustration – and this project was particularly close to my heart, as the houses came from the Ffestiniog area. I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know much about the history of the houses before this project, as I was only a year old when they were moved. The empty hole near the bus stop in Tanygrisiau never struck me as anything more than an integral part of the village.

As part of my research I went over to the site a few times and stood on the bridge which crosses the railway, looking down at where the houses used to be, imagining the lives of the people who used to live there. There’s something quite odd about seeing a small part of your local area in a completely new light.

I was particularly struck by the small objects in the houses in the museum. There was something about them that really caught my imagination, and I found myself picturing their previous owners choosing their trinkets, dusting them, organising and reorganising and so on. I found them similar to a few things from my grandparents’ houses – the ceramic dog reminded me of ones that my grandmother has on her dresser, and the old clock is incredibly similar to my great grandfather’s clock.

As we discussed the project, Cadi mentioned that some of these objects – in particular the Russian dolls and the ‘Gaudy Welsh’ eggcups – tend to disappear each season, as visitors take a fancy to them. I’m sure they must be spellbound by the glimpse they give us into another way of life.

The work itself was quite a challenge – not only because the houses themselves were quite different to what I’m used to drawing, but also because I felt a duty-bound to my area to do my best work. I’m aware that Blaenau sometimes has a bad reputation (unfairly so, in my opinion), but the area is exceptionally beautiful, and I wanted to show that.

Many thanks to the National Slate Museum for this opportunity, particularly to Lowri, Julie and Cadi.

Youth-led projects across the museum are part of the Hands on Heritage initiative, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund's Kick the Dust Grant. Diolch yn fawr to The Fund and all our National Lottery Players - keeping our fingers crossed for you!

Heritage Fund Logo

Imagine cleaning a house that’s visited by 140,000 people every year. That’s the task facing the cleaning team at the National Slate Museum as they look after Fron Haul, the quarrymen’s houses.

Cleaning in a museum is different to cleaning your home. At home, we clean so that things can look their best. We want things to look clean and shiny, using quick and easy techniques. We want things to look good in the museum too, of course, but there are other considerations when it comes to cleaning, in order to preserve the objects in the long term. This is called preventative conservation.

With so many visitors, coupled with a very dusty site, intensive cleaning – like a kind of spring clean – is needed four times a year. This means closing every house in turn for a whole week, so we can concentrate on the work without being disturbed. We work in a systematic way, one room at a time. It’s important to take pictures before starting the work so we can put everything back in the right place at the end.

We have to be very careful not to damage anything, so we use specialist tools and techniques for different objects.

Floors

For slate and wooden floors, we use a vacuum cleaner and brush. Occasionally we mop slate floors with water, but we don’t use modern chemicals. It’s important not to brush the mop against any furniture as the water could cause damage.

Furniture

Large furniture with flat, smooth surfaces are cleaned using a lint free duster. We use this kind of duster as it doesn’t contain any particles that could scratch the furniture. More ornamental furniture with mouldings are cleaned using a vacuum cleaner and brush. We use a technique called shadow vacuuming – holding the vacuum cleaner close to the brush so that dust is sucked from the air, without touching the object with the nozzle, which could scratch the surface.

Ceramic objects

Ceramic objects such as plates and saucers require more attention. Four times a year we clean them using cotton wool, cotton buds, a tiny amount of water and cleaning liquid. We use a specialist cleaning liquid rather than normal washing up liquid, and we wipe the cotton wool lightly over the ceramic.

Brasses and copper

Brasso may be your best friend when it comes to cleaning at home, but it’s no good for cleaning brasses in a museum! Cleaning means getting rid of dirt and dust, while polishing removes tarnish and creates a shiny surface. Polishing requires using abrasives, so every time you polish, a thin layer of the original surface is lost. Regular polishing can eventually lead to markings and ornamental details being lost.

So, in a museum, a hogs hair brush and vacuum cleaner is the way to go, with a special cloth used to give the objects some shine.

Plastic, frames, and books

We use a soft brush for these objects – a pony hair brush. Once again, we use the shadow vacuuming technique. The covers, front and last pages of books need to be cleaned – this takes time!

Clocks

Once a year the clocks get to visit St Fagans National Museum of History for a rest. In St Fagans, the inner mechanisms are treated by Amgueddfa Cymru’s conservators.

Textiles

The process of cleaning and washing textiles can be very damaging. Every time a textile such as a curtain, tablecloth or item of clothing is washed, it is damaged slightly as loose fibres are washed away. To protect textiles, we must avoid washing them if possible, so the best way of cleaning is with a vacuum cleaner. We place a piece of muslin between the textile and the nozzle.

Tin and cast-iron objects

To clean tin and cast-iron objects, we use an old faithful from the garage or workshop – 3 in 1 oil. Rub a thin layer into the object with a lint free duster, and it will look brand new.

Grates and chimney

Yes, the fireplace, or the ‘range’, also needs attention, in the form of a good coat of black lead polish. Two cloths are used, one for rubbing the polish into the range and the other to get the shine. The chimney also needs to be cleaned, once a year. This is necessary from a safety point of view of course, but chimneys are also good breeding grounds for insects which can damage objects. Sometimes birds will nest in chimneys, and nests are perfect homes for insects. The cleaning is done by a local chimney sweep, using a traditional brush and a giant vacuum cleaner.

After the cleaning is done, everything must be put back in place using the photographs taken at the beginning of the work as a reference.

 

 

Gwelodd Eryri oes aur y llechi.
Trawsnewid y werin o gaib i gŷn.
Yn nyffryn ‘Stradau, rhesi o feini,
Ymlusga’r rhimyn â‘r graig gyferbyn.
Enfawr fu’r chwyldro, ergyd fu’r chwalfa,
Dirywiad diwydiant, mwy na’i dyfiant.
Tawelwch. Y baracs fu’n segura.
Difrod gan ddwylo diarth, llechfeddiant.
Cyflawni lladrad absen fel llwynog,
Sleifio’n llechwraidd a dwyn o’r Gorlan.
A glaw fu’n llifo o’r llechwedd creigiog,
Trueni mai hyn fu tranc y drigfan.
Rhaid gwarchod ein treftadaeth, mae’n drysor,
Neu diflannu wna, fel llong heb angor.

Daw cyfnod du i darfu – gwêl golau.
Geiriau gobeithiol gŵr gwydn; Elfyn.
Parhau i drigo’r tai mae eneidiau.
Drws llonydd ddaw a cartref i’w derfyn.
Datgymalwyd hwy, cymerwyd sawl dydd
A’u gweddnewid nes nad oedd hoel o draul.
Er yr ail-gartrefwyd yr aelwydydd,
Disgleiriau edefyn ar dîr Fron Haul.
Wrth feddwl am y teuluoedd hynny,
Mae cysylltiad wrth gyffwrdd y meini.
A nghefn at y drws, edrychaf fyny
Ar olygfa gyfarwydd o lechi.
Er fod pellter i gyrraedd Llyn Padarn,
Mi wn y saif y pedwar yn gadarn.

 

When I was in primary school, I remember going on a trip to the National Slate Museum. I remember a guide taking us around the site and visiting a row of old quarrymen’s houses. Mam or Nain had mentioned before that Taid’s old house had been moved to a museum – I had assumed that it must have been moved to St Fagans. It is only this year that I learnt that I had already been to Taid’s house, on that trip to the Slate Museum.

Gwenlli from BROcast Ffestiniog, a new community venture, contacted me to mention that the Slate Museum was holding an online event, ‘Fron Haul 21’, to celebrate 21 years since moving the houses. I was very keen to be part of the celebration, but struggling to think what I could offer in the middle of a pandemic as my normal field of work is theatre!

During a phonecall in June with Lowri, the events officer at the Slate Museum, we reached a decision that I would write a poem. Lowri had a copy of a poem written by Reverend T. R. Jones about Abel Lloyd (formerly of 1 Fron Haul) in 1998, when the relocation project had started. Writing a poem was a challenge for me as I did not know the people who had lived there like the Reverend did, but I had a real interest in learning more about the development of Tanygrisiau as a quarrying village.

Soon after we had a zoom meeting with museum staff – Lowri, Cadi and Julie. Lleucu, who had been commissioned to create a drawing of Fron Haul, also joined. During this conversation, I learned from Cadi that Taid had lived at no 3 Fron Haul from 1927 to 1933! Nobody lived in the houses for long at that time because usually, the residents were newlywed couples who had not yet started raising children.

I also learnt about another poet local to Tanygrisiau, Elfyn. I have referred to a line he wrote whilst ill and confined to his home, “Hyderaf y caf fel cynt, weld yr haul wedi’r helynt”. For me, this line in the context of my poem means this: although the slate industry is unlikely to be as prosperous as it was for the last two centuries, I am confident of Wales’ potential to overcome obstacles and succeed as a small nation. Following the meeting, I received several documents over email that were full of information, such as research about Tanygrisiau when the houses were built, census lists, a blog about the conservation work on the houses, and transcriptions of interviews with former residents.

The sonnet measure is familiar to me, and the iambic pentameter which mimics the rhythm of a heartbeat is pleasant to hear out loud. Having finished one sonnet, I realised that it could not stand alone, and I felt that it should follow another sonnet due to its hopeful content. The feel of the first sonnet is darker than the second as I discuss the closure of the quarries and the consequent destruction of related buildings by the environment, and, unfortunately, by people.

In the 70s it was discovered that slates had been stolen from the roof of Capel Gorlan in Cwmorthin, close to Tanygrisiau. In 1997 the tourist centre at Gloddfa Ganol was closed when the quarry was sold. One part of the attraction at Gloddfa Ganol was a row of original cottages built for the quarrymen. 1-4 Tai Gloddfa is a sorry sight by today. At the start of this year, a local woman posted a picture on the internet page for Blaenau Ffestiniog’s community group. She had been walking in Cwmorthin an noticed a group of young children who were visiting the area standing near Tai’r Llyn. They were pushing the remains of the walls over.

I understand that it is not possible to protect everything, but education is incredibly important so that we understand and respect our history, and this means educating the children of Wales and beyond. Our industrial history is no less important than our castles and grand manor houses.

I am very proud to have been part of this celebration. Myself and the people of Ffestiniog are very thankful that the Fron Haul houses were saved from demolition. Here we have a successful attempt to protect and document an important chapter in Welsh history. Cadi the curator mentioned that over a million people have visited Fron Haul since 1999. I wish the museum well as they welcome the next million over the threshold.

Youth-led projects across the museum are part of the Hands on Heritage initiative, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund's Kick the Dust Grant. Diolch yn fawr to The Fund and all our National Lottery Players - keeping our fingers crossed for you!

Heritage Fund Logo

 

As work to dismantle the houses begun – marketing officer Julie Williams realised that a film was needed to document the process and which could later be shown to visitors of the museum to tell their history and reveal the stories in the stones.

The company that undertook the film project was Llun Y Felin, run by Angela and Dyfan Roberts who lived nearby in Llanrug. Together they created the loveliest film entitled Stories in the Stones – a film which  - like the houses - has stood the test of time and is still shown daily at the museum – and now, for the first time, online! 

Here Angela Roberts looks back at some of her memories of the process of putting the film together.

What makes a home? Is it bricks and mortar, or is it people? When the National Slate Museum chose our small ‘husband and wife’ television company to record the moving of four slate quarrymen’s houses from Tanygrisiau to the museum – it was the stories of those who had lived in them that I was particularly excited to unearth from the rubble.

Unusually, the names and occupations of all families and lodgers had been carefully documented – going right the way back to the houses’ very first residents 150 years prior. Slate, of course, was their raison d’être. ‘The Slate Quarries of North Wales’, published in 1873, describes Blaenau and district as a ‘City of Slates’ with parapets, kerb stones, chimneys and roofs hewn out of slate, and larders, kitchen tables and mantlepieces fashioned out of slate. Letters by an unknown author of that time read:

I had gone to the Welsh Slate Company’s quarry and, in returning by the rubble heaps, I came across a smart looking boy pulling out slabs from amongst the waste. I entered into conversation with him.

“For what purpose are you gathering stones?”

“To make slates, sir.”

“Are they not too small to make slates?”

“Not to make small slates, sir!”

The boy knew what he was talking about. All slate was useful. Hadn’t he been working in the slate quarries since the age of six?! The writer continues:

“I reached the quarry at noon, and was allowed the privilege of steaming my clothes before the peat-fire in the weigh-taker’s hut. The men soon came filing in, each man taking a can from the fireplace. I entered a conversation and soon found that in politics they were eminently radical, in sympathies generally warm-hearted, and as impulsive as Celts in general.”

A little condescending? Perhaps. But radical, warm-hearted and impulsive – of course they were! And I was soon to find out that nothing much in that respect had changed down all those long years.

Trips with Julie and Dyfan to meet former residents of 1-4 Fron Haul and their relations were an out and out joy. And it was such a privilege to sit and listen to their stories over biscuits and home-made cake and endless cups of tea.

Aneurin Davies was in his nineties at the time, still running his own farm and still as mischievous as he must have been as a child. He couldn’t help chuckling telling us about the tricks he and his friends used to get up to – placing a halfpenny on the train track for a passing train to squash it to the size of a penny, and then straight off to the shop to try and exchange it for sweets (unsuccessfully as it turned out)!

Marian Jones was another who spoke lovingly of a special childhood - with memories of bikes, hulahoops and hay fields, of collecting tadpoles and binging on sweet stolen sugar peas.

Robin Lloyd Jones recalled visiting his grandfather in number 3 - the portrait of Italian revolutionary Garibaldi at the top of the stairs, the Bible and pipe on the table, the taking turns to bathe in front of the fire in an old tin bath.

While Doreen Davies thought back with a smile to her mam cooking up feasts in the cast iron range.  “How on earth she did it, but we always had plenty to eat… oh, she was especially good at making apple tart and cacan gri – you know, Welsh cake.”

Abel Lloyd had lived in Fron Haul the longest - for over 76 years, indeed, since his birth. He remembered sheets being pinned to the ceilings to make the home warmer and talked of collecting water from the downpipe and the well to make tea – as the water from the tap had a really bad taste. But, rather than the hard times, most of all he remembered the good times and the joy of living in a close community.

Like Marian and Aneurin and Robin and Doreen, he talked of carnivals and get-togethers and kindnesses and a village of Aunty this and Uncle that – even if neighbours weren’t actually related by blood at all. Like the others, he had a lifetime of stories to tell us about 1-4 Fron Haul.

And, as Robin himself so eloquently answered me,

“What makes a home? Not, in the end, the cushions, the wallpaper, the colour of the paint – but the stories of the people who lived there, the stories in the stones.