Bob’s article #8
We are all familiar with the exceptional quality and tradition of slate from North Wales. It was, if you will, the birth place of the slate industry, though not the birth place of slate. There were other locations and other traditions that predated the famous quarries of the region.
The Delabole quarry of Cornwall, South West of England produced good quality slate for over a hundred years; the Lake District, North of Liverpool, had a similar history producing the famed Westmoreland “Peggies”. These were crude slate that were attached with wooden pegs through a hole in the top and center of the slate.
In Scotland, the Ballachulish quarries produced a very rustic slate. In fact, “produced” is an exaggeration. The slate was extracted from the ground for sure, but splitting, trimming and punching were occasional afterthoughts to the process. In Scotland it was a combination of gravity and a dour reluctance to move that kept slate on the roof. Moss was planted on the slate, until the low-pitched roof resembled a large cow-pat, or a sporran. Regardless, it was not a skilled event.
In Ireland, various quarries competed with the Scottish for the “rusticity” award. Irish slate was a lot like peat, dug up in slabs and used for roofs and hovel construction. The Ormonde, Killaloe and Valentia quarries all enjoyed distinction at one point or another. Slate quarrying in Ireland was included in the litany of penances offered by local priests. Hail Marys and acts of self-abasement were substituted with digging, splitting and trimming slate.
South Wales was a very different story. They were perpetually at odds with the English and embittered towards the North Welsh (a 13th century event was at the heart of it: finally united to fight Edward the first, the North Walians, on the night before battle, accepted a trifling sum from the English monarch in return for leaving the battlefield. They did so and left the South Walians to be slaughtered by the over whelming forces of Norman, Saxon and other pathological assassins who were in the employ of Edward Longshanks). But I digress.
South Wales had nothing much in the way of slate. The first quarrying was recorded in 1603 in the Rosebush quarry. A new hole was dug and the slate immediately buried.
They were a little jealous of the nearby Cornish Delabole crowd and pissed jealous of the North Walians. But truth be told their own slate was no better than overburden. It looked more like apple crumble than slate, with the exception of some igneous slate found in the Cleddau (pronounced cleth-eye) Valley; a green iridescent slate, that like the South Walians had a charm of its own.
South Walian slate was “torched” into place (laid on a bed of mortar), on the wooden sleepers. Additional precautions were taken and often the topside of the slate roof was “torched”. A slurry of mortar was applied to prevent instant disintegration.
But while the slate was third rate or less, the men of the industry were not.
Most famous of all was John Daivies who dabbled in the quarrying business for a while and like most found it much harder work than he’d had in mind. He drifted to London, where 19th century commerce was booming and innumerable newly-wealthy business men were eager to invest their money. John Daivies saw the light and became as eager to unburden them. The routine was simple: once a promising site had been located in South Wales, Daivies would purchase a lease from the land-owner and appoint a Manager and crew to begin quarrying. Back in London a letter would arrive from his Manager giving glowing accounts of the progress and prospects of the new quarry. The contents of the letter were inadvertently alluded to in the clubs and barrooms of the wealthy, the letter itself produced at the appropriate moment to validate the claims and wallets opened wide to receive both grasping hands of Mr. Daivies!
But he played his part, too. He formed a company, appointed the investors members of the board and sold them the land lease (at an extortionate profit to himself). The companies so formed rarely progressed past this point. They owned a land-lease, a name and paid a few slack-jawed quarriers in rural South Wales to reluctantly pick away at low-grade slate deposits. Slate was quarried but sold mostly to supply occasional local needs and never with the conviction and industry of the North.
John Daivies, lacking any vestige of self-doubt, moved on. More land-leases were obtained, letters written (with increasingly outlandish claims), more gullible investors found, companies formed and rural South Walians continued to pick away at anything resembling slate.
In time, Mr. Daivies got bored. He fired his quarry Manager, took over the letter-writing himself and soon dropped any pretension of quarrying. He bought leases from farmers in South Wales and sold them to the weak-minded in London. You would have thought he would have been exposed by jilted investors, if not sued, tried and hung, but Mr. Daivies was placed in this world for a bigger purpose, bigger than he could have imagined, bigger than us all.
The stars aligned, the tides turned, the pluck and balls (read criminality if you have to) of a South Walian were to be rewarded once and for all. To hell with the North Walians, the Fighting Irish and Lenny the Bruce; this was all about South Wales. The Southern Princes Owain Glyndwr and Llewellyn Ap Gruffydd were to roll over, happily, in their graves and give a final single-finger salute to the Colonial English power.
The unemployed Manager of John Daivies did find a promising quarry. No word on the quality, but he wrote a real letter, asking for his job back and describing an igneous slate deposit (metamorphosed volcanic ash) with an iridescent green color. The Glogue quarry was in the Cleddau valley of South West Wales (it even had an address) and the slate was immediately named Whitland Abbey after a nearby religious edifice, the rabbit-foot in the sequence of events. But better yet and incredibly well-timed, word came from the English parliament, the very bastion of the colonial overlords, that Westminster (the building housing Parliament) needed a new slate roof.
The whole land of Wales held its collective breath. Three million sheep stopped their bleating. The pounding coastal waves calmed themselves to a hush. In a London apartment, John Daivies rose from the divan for the greatest moment of his life.
He presented, to the marble-mouthed English architects, a glittering green slate sample from the Cleddau valley. They were dumbstruck. North Welsh slate they knew (they had been stealing it for two hundred years), but their thieving magpie instincts were titivated beyond belief by this beautiful slate. John Daivies followed his best instincts and priced the Whitland Abbey slate at one and a half times greater than the offerings of North Wales.
The North Walians were apoplectic!
What had they ever done to deserve such sand-bagging? (?)
What coal-digging, clod-hopping South Walian would dare challenge their proven and revered product? The great Dinorwic, Pen Rhyn and Betws-y Coed quarries of the North bristled in tandem, offended beyond belief.
The decision, however, was made.
North Wales smelled bad that day. South Wales blossomed. The crimes of the centuries were raised from the dead and paid in full. The sweet smell of money rose from the Cleddau valley, between whose hillsides the rub of love had reduced to simpering greed the whinnying blue-blooded priggery of England.
We got the job!
John Daivies got the job! Prince John Daivies!
Acres of low-grade South Walian slate covered the Westminster roofs, suffocating within the elected thieves and ethnic cleansers of our history. Who says Slate is not politics and politics not slate? It was a moment in time that relieved one half a nation of its beaten psyche, the other half to get a whipping and the second nation to take the first blow towards its ultimate demise.