A branch of my family comes from the village of Ysbyty Ifan in North Wales. It is strange how one can piece together a person’s life story from brief facts and statements contained in documents such as birth certificates and census records and yet put little flesh on those bones, few glimpses, if any of a person’s thoughts, beliefs, friendships and experiences. But we can find out where they lived and what they did for a living. Many of the men in my family worked in the slate quarries and mines of Penmachno and Dolwyddelen, part of what was, during the 19th Century, one of the major economies of the British Isles. Welsh slate roofed the world, but very little of the wealth generated trickled down to the quarrymen.
Ysbyty Ifan sits on the border of what were once the counties of Denbighshire and Carnarvonshire, this border being defined by the River Conwy. Ysbyty Ifan remains remote today, the name translates as (St) John’s Hospital, after the Knights of St John who set up a hospice here in the late 12th Century. The village and its surrounding estate are now owned by the National Trust. It was also the home for several generations of my family, going back to at least the 18th Century, probably much earlier. My GGGG Grandfather David Jones was born there in 1796. David’s granddaughter Jane married the widowed miller in the village, Evan Williams in about 1878. Evan had four sons from his first marriage, Wiiliam, Robert, Jeremiah Evan and Thomas. These men seem to disappear from the family records after their father died in 1887 and I have had difficulty in tracking them down and finding out more about their lives. Recently I have been able to trace the history of Jeremiah Evan Williams. His is the story of many men from the North Wales slate mining areas, a tale of hard life and hard knocks and a search for new opportunities.
Jeremiah was born in about 1866 in Ysbyty Ifan and his parents, Evan and Alice Williams were living at Bryn Hyfryd and Evan was the village’s miller. Sadly Alice died young, probably in around 1877 and Evan remarried my great great grandmother, Jane Roberts. So Jeremiah and his brothers grew up with his step-mother and step-sisters, Annie and Leah. The miller’s family must have been relatively well off, comparatively, in the village, however Ysbyty Ifan is not good arable farming country. Corn was probably farmed at near subsistence quantities; the main income in the area, for the landowners at least, was sheep and slate quarrying. Jeremiah’s father, Evan died in 1887 and Jane remarried in 1890. By this time, Jeremiah had left home and was working as a farm labourer for his maternal uncle, Robert Roberts of Ochr Cefn Canol in Eidda, Ysbyty Ifan. Ten years later in 1901, Jeremiah is living with his paternal uncle, also named Jeremiah Williams, at Bodygroes Farm, Dolwyddelen. It was probably at this time Jeremiah started signing his name ‘Jeremiah E.’ to distinguish himself from his uncle. Now in his early thirties, Jeremiah was a bachelor worked in the slate quarries. Presumably Jeremiah was working in the Dolwyddelen quarries which were clustered around the town on the flanks of the hills Moel Siabod and Yr Ro-Wen (however, he may have also taken the train daily to the big quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog). Dolwiddelen is situated in the valley of the River Lledr, just a mile or so north of Ysbyty Ifan. The main quarries were the Prince Llywelyn and Ty’n-y-Bryn.
Left, The Mill at Ysbyty Ifan This faded photograph (below left) is on display inside the mill at Ysbyty Ifan is labelled as being the Roberts Family. The origin of this photo is unknown. Almost certainly Jane Roberts is the woman in the centre. It is possible that Jermiah is the man standing on the right hand side.
Two bands of slate run broadly NE-SW across Snowdonia. The oldest, of Cambrian age, is a band of multi-coloured slates; red, purple, grey-green, blue often with well-defined reduction spots. This slate belt ran from Nantlle, through Llanberis to Penrhyn Quarries near Bethesda. More or less parallel to this, but to the south, is an Ordovician-age Slate Belt which runs through Blaenau Ffestiniog and Penmachno. Dark grey, banded and pyrite-rich slates were quarried and mined along the strike of the latter. Finally a much smaller series of black slates occur around Dolwyddelen. These slates were formerly muddy sediments deposited in successively younger ocean basins. They were transformed into slate, a low-grade metamorphic rock, during a major mountain building episode, or ‘orogeny’, called the Caledonides. The actual slate forming event was a very late event of the Caledonian phase called the Acadian Orogeny. This occurred in the Late Silurian – Early Devonian and was a final oblique or transpressive, collision of continental plates, this sheared and deformed the Earth’s crust, forming the slaty cleavage.
The slate won at Dolwyddelen comes from strata distinct from that of the Blaenau Ffestiniog – Penmachno and Nantlle – Llanberis slate belts. The Dolwyddelen Slates are from the Cwm Eigiau Formation which is of Caradoc, Ordovician age and is thus the youngest strata quarried for slate in North Wales. The slate from Dolwyddelen was intensely black, but of poorer quality to that from the Blaenau-Ffestiniog District. It was extracted from narrow, steeply dipping veins, within the ENE-WSW trending beds of the Cwm Eigiau Formation. ‘…here managers and men were chasing narrow and faulted veins of indifferent slate’ (Gwyn & Davidson, 1995). Times must have been hard, the Dolwyddelen Quarries were never employers of a large number of men and were in decline by the turn of the Century. The Prince Llywellyn Slate Company operated the eponymous quarry and produced 624 tonnes of slate in 1889, compare this with the 3799 tonnes produced by the Penmachno Slate Co. in the same year (Le Neve Foster, 1900). At this time around 50 men were being employed in this quarry. Strikes brought about by appalling conditions of work and pay, and economic depression led to a major decline in the slate industry in 1903. Slate historian R. Merfyn Jones (1981) wrote “The effects of this depression on the quarrying districts were deep and painful. Unemployment and emigration became constant features of the slate communities; distress was widespread. In the quarries there was short-time working, closures and reductions in earnings. Between 1906 and 1913 the number of men at work in the quarries of the Ffestiniog district shrank by 28 per cent, in Dyffryn Nantlle the number at work fell even more dramatically by 38 per cent.” This recession must also have hit the workers of the lower quality black slate at Dolwyddelen too. It seems that Jeremiah managed to hang on until 1906. But enough was enough.
References & Further Reading
Davidson, A., Jones, G. P. & Gwyn, D. Rh., 1994, Gwynedd Quarrying Landscapes: Slate Quarries (G1107)., Gwynedd Archaeological Trust Report No. 129., 37 pp + Appendices.
Gwyn, D. Rh. & Davidson, A., 1995, Gwynedd Slate Quarries: an archaeological survey 1994-5., Gwynedd Archaeological Trust report No. 152., 51 pp + Appendices & Plates.
Howells, M. F. & Smith, M., 1997, The geology of the country around Snowdon. Memoir of the British Geological Survey, Sheet 119 (England and Wales)., HMSO for the British Geological Survey., 104 pp.
Jones, R. Merfyn., 1981. The North Wales Quarrymen, 1874–1922; Studies in Welsh history; 4., University of Wales Press.
Le Neve Foster, C., 1900, General Report and Statistics of Mines and Quarries, 1899 (Part III.)., p.257., http://bit.ly/1Fd1MiZ
©Ruth Siddall 2015