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The Great Strike of Penrhyn Quarry

The Great Strike at the Penrhyn Quarry, from 1900 until 1903, was one of the largest disputes in the industrial history of Britain. Although there had been strikes before at the quarry, there had never been one on such a large scale and the local society would be changed forever.
At the end of the 19th century, Penrhyn Quarry was the world’s largest slate quarry and worked by nearly 3000 quarrymen. It has since been superseded in size by slate quarries in China and Spain. It is still Britain’s largest slate quarry but its workforce is now about 200.
Tensions were high at the quarry, which was owned by Lord Penrhyn and there had been an 11 month dispute from 1896 to 1897 over minimum payments to quarrymen. Lord Penrhyn had been trying to eliminate the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union’s influence within the quarry. In April 1900, quarry manager Emilieus Young announced trade union contributions would not be collected at the quarry.
It led to assaults on contractors who had struck a bargain to work the Ponc Ffridd bank. This was a practice of offering to work a section of quarry and produce slates for a set price. Lord Penrhyn pressed assault charges against 26 quarrymen and they were dismissed from the quarry, even before their case was heard before the Magistrates Court.
When the matter came to court, Penrhyn quarrymen marched to Bangor to show support for the accused men. They were all suspended from work for two weeks. At the hearing, 20 of the accused men were found not guilty of the charges.
The Great Strike begins
The suspended quarrymen returned to work on November 19, 1900 but eight banks (or ponciau as they were known locally) had been closed, leaving 800 men without a bargain. Three days later, on 22 November, 1900, quarrymen refused to work until the other 800 had struck a bargain. That morning Young gave them an ultimatum: ?Go on working or leave the quarry quietly?. They walked out, marking the beginning of the Great Strike of Penrhyn.
A month later, Young offered new terms to the quarrymen, but just 77 workers accepted them. On 11 June, 1901, the Penrhyn Quarry was reopened and an invitation was extended to quarrymen approved by the quarry office to return to work. Four hundred men returned to work, receiving a sovereign each and the promise of a five per cent pay increase. This caused trouble in the area, and violence when pub windows and those of the men that had returned to work, were smashed.
The names of those who had broken the strike were published in the Y Werin and Eco newspapers. Around the same time, a card appeared in windows in the Bethesda area, with the words ?Nid oes Bradwr yn y ty hwn? (?There is no traitor in this house?) printed on it. 
The cards were displayed at strikers? homes, dividing the local community into strikers and cynffonwyr (collaborators). The cards were displayed for two years, until the end of the strike. Taking a card from the window was a sign that a worker had broken the strike.
Hunger prevails
By 1902, 700 men had returned to the quarry and another 2000 had moved from the area.
In the end, though, it was not hearts or minds that decided the issue but the empty stomachs of the strikers? families. The men went back to work in November 1903, their union still unrecognised.
In 2003, a series of events were held in Bethesda, in north west Wales, to commemorate the strike that made the community a place of pilgrimage for trade unionists.
Source: North Wales Weekly News


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