The North Wales Quarrymens’ Union is remembered for the Great Strike at Penrhyn Quarry, Bethesda 1900-1903, one of the longest strikes ever.
A hundred years ago slate quarrying was the main industry in north-west Wales, and employed thousands of workers at low levels of pay, doing extremely hard and dangerous work.
The quarries were owned by aristocratic families like the Asheron Smiths of Faenol Hall – owners of the Llanberis Quarries and Lord Penrhyn of Penrhyn Castle, owner of the Bethesda Quarry. The Penrhyns had perviously owned thousands of slaves on their sugar plantations in Jamaica. During the 18th century the then Lord Penrhyn had been one of the leading opponent of the abolition of slavery and won huge compensation for supposed ‘loss of income’ when slavery eventually came to an end in the British Colonies. The Penrhyns later invested the sugar profits and and capital from slavery compensation into developing the slate quarries and building their Castle.
A living wage
The Quarrymens Union was established in 1874 as a result of growing discontent amongst the quarrymen, particularly the Penrhyn and Dinorwic workers. By May 1874 it had 8,368 members and was one of the few organisations of the time in Wales that ran its administration in the Welsh language.
The owners were unwilling to recognise the union. 2,200 quarrymen were locked out of Dinorwic Quarry in June of that year, after five weeks the managers agreed to allow the union. This was followed by a dispute at the Penrhyn Quarry, which resulted in a great victory for the workers and their new union.
The Penrhyn Strike
In 1900 the Penrhyn workers were locked out by the owners until they agreed to accept less favourable terms. The long and bitter dispute than followed even resulted in soldiers being sent to the area. The Union did not have enough funds for sufficient strike pay and there was great suffering amongst the 2,800 workers.
No Traitor in this house
Some of the strikers were persuaded to break the strike by Lord Penrhyn when he offered £1 each to go back. £1 would have been a large sum at the time, and a fortune for a striker with a starving family. Those who returned to work were considered traitors by the majority of the people of Bethesda. Cards with the wording “Nid Oes Bradwr yn y Ty Hwn” (There is no traitor in this house) were put in the windows of the strikers houses. Lord Penrhyn built new houses for the strike breakers away from the centre of the village in the hope that the tratars would not be intimidated. The houses are still known as “Tai Bradwyr” (Traitor’s Houses) today.
After three years of being locked out, the suffering was too much for the strikers and they were forced to return to work on Lord Penrhyn’s terms. Penrhyn refused to take back may of the strike leaders and many workers were left the area permanently. Some went to work in the coal mines of south Wales and to join the workers struggle there, others emigrated to Australia or America.
In 2003 a huge festival was held in Bethesda to commemorate the strike with local band Super Furry Animals as the headline act. During the festival, money was collected for workers atl the Friction Dynamics a few miles down the road. They had been sacked for seeking better conditions and had been picketing their factory for 3 years. Although they won a court case saying the were sacked unfairly, they never got their jobs back or compensation.
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