The Great Penrhyn Strike at the Penrhyn Quarry in the town of Bethesda, Wales lasted three years from 22 November, 1900, with a new tour retelling the story of what occurred.
The “Slate and Strikes” trail starts at Penrhyn Quarry, which is still in operation today. It then takes tourists and sightseers through the town of Bethesda itself, where 19 points are marked with plaques bearing QR codes which can be scanned by mobile phones. The codes link to online information and stories about each location , and how they fit into the turbulent history of the strike.
One plaque is on the site of a tenant evicted by the quarry’s owner – George Sholto Gordon Douglas-Penant (aka Lord Penrhyn) – for displaying an infamous notice: “There is no traitor in this house.”
Another plaque marks the home of Elizabeth Williams, an early suffragette who demonstrated in support of the quarrymen. She was brought before the local court as “an example” of dissent, to indirectly quote her prosecutor at the time.
The Great Strike
In the early 20th century, Penrhyn Quarry was regarded as the largest slate quarry worldwide and employed 2800 workers at its peak.
The quarry served as a landmark to the village, which drew visitors from across Britain, including Queen Victoria.
According to historian Hazel Pierce, the “Slate and Strikes” project’s advisor, Lord Penrhyn had deep-seated grievances with his workers and their unions after losing his seat in Parliament in 1880. This was despite earning £133,000 (or the equivalent of $AUD24.5 million by modern day standards) from the quarrying operation.
Lord Penryn asked the quarry’s manager Emelius Alexander Young to spy on his workers to report what was said at union meetings.
To dampen the influence of the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union, Lord Penrhyn then removed the “bargen” system at the quarry, which involved worker’s negotiating their pay depending on the rock quality worked.
This resulted in a strike which created divisions between people and their families that continued to work and others that refused.
The three-year strike spilled into violence, which included the smashing of pub windows for serving workers who returned to the quarry. The strike was so inflammatory that police and soldiers were posted to Bethesda to keep the peace and the strike was widely reported in national newspapers and raised in despatches in the British Parliament.
By 14 November, 1903, Lord Penrhyn’s intransigence had bankrupted the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union, forced hundreds of residents to seek employment in other parts of South Wales and overseas, and closed many local businesses that relied on their custom.
The strike also contributed to the demise of the Welsh slate industry, as other sources of slate were sought elsewhere. With some strikers and their families beyond the point of starvation, the workers that remained had little choice but to return to work.
According to the BBC, the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union financial secretary William Hugh Williams said: “There was not enough wealth in the whole quarry to repay to them that which they had lost, for they had sold their own selves.”
The divisions of the strike are still felt today. The descendants of some of Bethesda’s strikers will, on principle, not step foot inside Penrhyn Castle.