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Exhibition: SLATE TO THE SEA

National Slate Museum
23 July–31 December 2018
Cost Free
Suitability All

Penrhyn Port, Bangor   ©Gwynedd  Archive Service

Slate to the Sea Poster

Slate boats by David Huntington

A series of photographs from the archives showing slate ready for export from some of the ports of north Wales.                           

As part of the 2018 celebration of Wales’s Year of the Sea, the exhibition – with photos from the museum’s own collections as well as a selection from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales as well as Gwynedd and Conwy Archives Service - recalls some of the ports which were important to the slate industry in Wales - in particular to the exportation of slate around the world including Porth Penrhyn[DR1] , Bangor, Slate Quay, Caernarfon, Porthmadog, Y Felinheli (Port Dinorwic)  and Aberdyfi.

There had been some coastal export of Welsh slate from the Middle Ages onwards, with some of these slates finding their way to the eastern coast of Ireland. By 1738, Dublin was becoming a good customer for Nantlle slate, and we know that about 26,000 tons of Welsh slate was exported in 1793. The worldwide use of slate in the late 18th century followed the trade routes of the major British shipping lines complementing the import of cotton from America and Wool from Australia when roofing slates were used as ballast in the ships - because unlike other roofing materials it was unaffected by the salt water in the holds and was perfectly usable when it arrived!

In 1842, a fire that consumed much of the port of Hamburg led to Ffestiniog slate becoming the roofing material of choice in Germany from the 1860’s onwards. [DR5] Worldwide slate exports from Welsh ports were enormous and included the West Indies 114 Tonnes, Argentina 404 Tonnes, Channel Islands 580 Tonnes, British South Arica 290 Tonnes, Belgium 431 Tonnes, Germany 41,000 Tonnes, Denmark 3,500tonnes and Australia 5,500 tonnes

The busy ports serving the slate industry included Porthmadog where a series of wharves were built along the shore as far as Borth-y-Gest. Initially, slate was carted from Ffestiniog down to the quays along the Afon Dwyryd, then boated to Porthmadog for transfer to seagoing vessels. The rapidly expanding cities of England needed high quality roofing slate, which gave rise to railways to transport them to the new port by tramway from the quarries around Ffestiniog and  district. The Ffestiniog Railway opened in 1836, followed by the Croesor Tramway in 1864 and the Gorseddau Tramway in 1856, and by 1873 over 116,000 tons (117,800 t) were exported through Porthmadog in more than a thousand ships.

Another port which features in the exhibition is Y Felinheli  –  transformed by slate quarrying when the Assheton Smiths – the owners of Dinorwic quarry and the Vaynol Estate, built the harbour to export slate transported to the quay by the Dinorwic Railway, a narrow gauge railway (now the Llanberis Lake Railway) They also decided to give Y Felinheli the alternative name of Port Dinorwic at that time!

The slate quay at Caernarfon served the development of the Nantlle quarries when new wharves were constructed along the Seiont to cater for the growing output of slate, mostly to be transported to customers by ships. The arrival of the Nantlle Railway in 1826 boosted slate exports from Caernarfon. By 1840 the slate quay become the main focus of Caernarfon’s shipping activity.

Another thriving slate port was Porth Penrhyn in Bangor which served the Penrhyn Quarry at Bethesda. Although today slate production and exports are not at 19th century levels it continues to be a key part of the business of slate. Exports of crushed slate (aggregate) by Penrhyn Quarry, through Porth Penrhyn  currently to Rotterdam, or ports along the south coast of England, have[DR9]  grown to become a significant  proportion of Welsh Slate sales in addition to several containers  of roofing slates being shipped every month to Australia alone (taking approximately 45 days) Welsh slate is now covering the roofs of buildings as prestigious as the New South Wales Supreme Court and historic as Unwin’s Stores, both in Sydney Australia, as well as the Arts Centre in earthquake-hit Christchurch, New Zealand 2012. Europe also is a prime destination for Welsh slate with shipments of slate and decorative aggregate within Europe continuing to grow and evolve in particular.

In 2017 a total of seven shipments totalling almost 14000 tonnes of slate aggregate were made from Port Penrhyn in Bangor*. (welshslate.com: http://www.welshslate.com/welsh-slate-shipments-clock-up-the-miles/ )

Also featuring in the exhibition are 4 small ships made of slate - built of slate with sails made from copies of some of the archive photographs and OS maps of the area. They have been made by David Huntington of Anglesey.

The exhibition can be seen until 31.12.2018  and admission is FREE.

For more information visit www.amgueddfa.cymru  | www.museum.wales        @amgueddfalechi     #yearofthesea


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