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The Penrhyn Lockout, 1900-1903

Casglu'r Tlysau...

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The crippling three-year strike which precipitated the decline of the slate industry in Wales during the twentieth century.

Long-held grievances

On 22 November 1900 began what was to become the longest-lasting dispute in the industrial history of Britain – the three-year strike by the men of the Penrhyn Quarry, Bethesda.  On that day in November, some 2800 men walked out of the quarry.  Most would not return for three years, by which time they had been crippled by the wealth and might of the owner, Lord Penrhyn.

Though it is customary to describe the dispute as a strike, it was essentially a lock-out as, after walking out en masse, the men were refused entry to the quarry.

The dispute was the culmination of several years of dissatisfaction and unrest in the quarrying industry.  Chief among concerns was the issue of the ‘bargain’.  The bargain system protected the quarrymen’s earnings against the difficulties of working with rock of variable quality; the system allowed the quarrymen to regard themselves as contractors rather than employees.  Disputes had centred on the bargain in 1874, leading to the formation of the North Wales Quarrymen’s Union (NWQU), and again in 1896.  Unionism was relatively weak in the industry; the NWQU often struggled to recruit more than a third of the workforce to their ranks.  However, the Union’s leader, W. J. Parry, was well-respected and an important leader of men.

Bitter differences

The quarry owner, Lord Penrhyn, and his agent E. A. Young, had been fighting against the unionisation of their workforce for several years.  They were determined upon breaking the tradition of ‘bargain’ because of the autonomy it afforded the workers.  The pair vehemently opposed union strength and it was this right to an effective union that became the main bone of contention during the strike.  It was a bitter dispute, with the differences between Penrhyn and his workforce coming to the fore; the wealthy, Anglican, English-speaking landlord versus the working, Nonconformist, predominantly monoglot Welsh quarrymen.

'There is no traitor in this house'

It was against this background that the men of the Penrhyn quarry walked out in November 1900.  By 1902, 700 had returned to work, with some 1300 had left the area in search of work, most to the south Wales coalfield. Tensions between the community and strike-breakers were high and the houses of striking men displayed cards with the words ‘Nid oes Bradwr yn y Tŷ Hwn’ (There is no traitor in this house) in the window.  Slowly but surely, however, the quarrymen were forced back to work in order to feed their families and pay their rents.  Despite the large funds collected by sympathetic workforces across Britain, the pressure of being out of work told on the quarrymen and the cards were removed from windows. This exacerbated tensions within the community and the atmosphere became increasingly severe during the last months as it became increasingly obvious that Lord Penrhyn would not be defeated.

The strike was a terrible blow to the slate industry.  Penrhyn’s labour force had decreased to 1800 by 1907 and a depression in the building industry meant the further contraction of the slate industry.

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