We look towards the Welsh Valleys when we think of Wales Trade Union history but in the heart of Snowdonia a significant event in Trades Union history took place.
Slate was king in the 19th century and North Wales quarry owners had grown rich through supplying roofing slate to the rapidly-growing urban communities in the UK and abroad at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, this was at the expense of the quarrymen who endured poor wages and appallingly dangerous working conditions. !n a situation where the quarry owners ruled absolutely, there was no provision for the workers to register their dissatisfaction over their working conditions. In the face of continued victimisation, the only course open to workers was collective action. The impetus for founding a Union came not from Penrhyn, Bethesda, despite many disputes and an earlier attempt to form a union in 1865, nor from Dinorwig in Llanberis. the other large quarry in the area, but from the nearby smaller Glyn Rhonwy quarry.
In the early 1870’s 110 quarrymen from the Glyn Rhonwy quarry declared themselves to be union members and were promptly locked out by the quarry owner. He soon realised he was losing money and within three weeks the workers returned and were recognised as union members.
However, the owners of the other quarries were alarmed by this development and attempted to stop the spread of the trade unions by refusing permission for any meetings within the quarries or on any of the extensive lands belonging to the large connected with the quarries.
This is where the story takes a strange twist. Lord Newborough, owner of the Glynllifon estate west of Caernarfon owned some land near Llanberis on the shores of Llyn Padarn. He allowed the men to use a rocky outcrop (providing natural shelter) which became known as Craig Yr Undeb (Union Rock) to plan secretly the formation of a trade union. It’s fascinating to speculate his motives – perhaps he was in dispute with his aristocratic neighbours. Whatever his motives were, these secret meetings led to the creation of the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union.
However, Dinorwig’s owners were unwilling to recognise the union. As a resut, 2,200 quarrymen were locked out of Dinorwic Quarry in June of that year, but after five weeks the managers agreed to recognise 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.
Conditions at Dinorwig were rapidly getting worse and in 1885. 53 men were suspended from working because ten men had broken a local rule. A mass meeting was held at Craig yr Undeb where strikers passed votes of no confidence in the manager, John Davies, as well as the chief manager, Walter Warwick Vivian.Neither had experience of the quarrying industry, having spent their training in the hard world of business. They were not in the least knowledgeable about how to improve inefficient customs and practices and had no interest in improving the working conditions of its employees. At that meeting, the striking quarrymen were led in a march to Craig yr Undeb (Union Rock) by the Llanrug Band whose patron was the owner of the Dinorwig quarry, G.W.D. Assheton Smith. He had presented them with new uniforms, a practice room at Gilfach Ddu in the quarry itself, as well as a new set of silver instruments worth £400. They were ordered to return their instruments forthwith to the band room at Gilfach Ddu and to leave them there until further notice. Marching back, they were persuaded by some of the onlookers to play a couple of marches. They obliged, and in so doing gave Assheton Smith the excuse to confiscate their instruments permanently. He then took the opportunity of presenting them to a newly formed band in Llanberis and employed a conductor and tutor from England in 1886.
The North Wales Quarrymen’s Union was initially not led by miners but by radical Liberals who later became supporters of David Lloyd George‘s Cymru Fydd. It merged with the Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1923. One hundred years after its formation, a plaque was unveiled by Jack Jones, the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union to commemorate the centenary of the formation of the quarrymen’s union.
If you look carefully on the rock which is the end of the outcrop, you will see that somebody has painted ‘Cymru am Byth’ (Wales for ever!) on the rock. This has now almost faded away and every time I walk past I am sad because if ever there was a place such graffiti was appropriate, it is here. The Welsh Government have preserved the graffiti near Aberystwyth which says “Cofiwch Dreweryn” (Remember Treweryn!) – a reference to the valley that was flooded to provide water for Liverpool despite universal opposition in Wales. Should I go out with a pot of paint and a brush early one morning and renew the graffiti?