Blushing Minerals

Whilst visiting the Church of St Eleth’s Church in Amlwch, Anglesey to look at its construction and building materials, my eye was caught by an interesting grave slab in Cambrian slate from the Welsh mainland. It commemorates an early mine ‘geologist’, Jonathan Roose who worked at the copper mines at Parys Mountain nearby.

Jonathan Roose died in the 6thFebruary 1815, aged a venerable 85 years. He was buried in the churchyard of St Eleth’s in Amwch. He is one of the reputed discoverers of the copper ores at Parys Mountain in north Anglesey. These deposits of chalcopyrite-rich ore were huge in the 18thand 19thCenturies where they were exploited and used in the ship-building industry for ‘copper-bottomed boats. According to historical sources, the ore was discovered in 1768 by a Rowland Pugh (who was subsequently awarded a bottle of whisky). The Parys Mine Company was founded in 1774 when Jonathan Roose was employed as the ‘technical consultant’. Almost certainly he was responsible for the discovery or numerous further deposits, as his eulogy suggests. The operation of copper extraction and smelting at Porth Amlwch was huge; 3 million tonnes of ore was converted into 130 thousand tonnes of copper between 1788 and 1805.

From the graves of the Roose family in St Eleth’s churchyard, there was clearly a tradition for poetic eulogies to be inscribed onto gravestones, though Jonathan gets the longest poem. Perhaps a family member fancied themselves as a poet (probably to the horror of the memorial mason’s letter cutter). Do not expect great art here!

Among this throng of congregated dead,
Of kindred men whose spirits hence are fled,
Here lieth one whose mind had long to bear,
A toilsome task of industry and care.
He first yon Mountain’s wondrous riches found,
First drew its minerals blushing from the ground,
He heard the miners’ first exciting shout,
Then toil’d near Fifty Years to guide its treasures out.

The course of time will soon this stone decay,
His name, his memory will pass away,
Yet shall be left some monuments behind,
The mighty products of his master-mind,
Those labour’d levels which he formed to draw,
The teemful waters to the vale below,
And pillar’d caverns whence he drew the ores,
Will long his genius shew – when known his name no more.

Pugh’s and Roose’s discoveries were in fact rediscoveries. Archaeological excavations at Parys Mountain have revealed Bronze Age hammer stones suggesting copper was mined here as early as 2000 BCE, perhaps one of the first copper mines in the British Isles. The Romans also worked copper here, leaving copper cakes with stamped inscriptions. The ore itself is a kuroko-type deposit volcanic massive sulphides.

Further Reading
Barrett, T. J., MacLean, W. H. & Tennant, S. C., 2001, Volcanic Sequence and Alteration at the Parys Mountain Volcanic-Hosted Massive Sulfide Deposit, Wales, United Kingdom: Applications of Immobile Element Lithogeochemistry., Economic Geology, 96, 1279-1305.

Jenkins, D.A. 1995. Mynydd Parys Copper Mines. Archaeology in Wales 35: 35–37.

Timberlake, S. & Marshall, P., 2018, Chapter 29. Copper mining and smelting in the British Bronze Age: new evidence of mine sites including some re-analysis of dates and ore sources., in: Ben-Yosef, E. (Ed)., Mining for Ancient Copper Essays in Memory of Beno Rothenberg., Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, Indiana and Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology: Tel Aviv University, 418-431.

Parys Mountain, Amlwch; Casgliad y Werin Cymru/People’s Collection Wales

Lives in Slate Quarry Landscapes: Acadian Slate

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.


RobertsLeft, 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.

IMG_6664The photo shows different colours of Slate from both the northern and southern North Wales slate belt at the National Slate Museum in Llanberis.

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.

To be continued …

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.,

©Ruth Siddall 2015