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The National Slate Museum - forty years and counting

The National Slate Museum, Llanberis.
The National Slate Museum, Llanberis.

On 22 August 1969 silence came to Dinorwig Quarry. After almost 200 years of hard toil, the quarry was closed and the men were sent home for the last time. Three years later life was breathed back into the Gilfach Ddu quarry workshops again, as they opened their doors as a museum. Today, over 40 years later, the Museum continues to go from strength to strength.

Why was a museum established here in 1972?

The answer to this lies in the economic history of the Welsh slate industry. From its peak years towards the end of the nineteenth century, when slate quarrying in Wales employed well over fifteen thousand men, the industry entered a long period of decline, interspersed by years when recovery seemed a real possibility. But, by the 1960s, the industry seemed to be moving towards an inexorable end.

World-famous quarries such Dinorwig Quarry, Llanberis, had closed in 1969; Oakeley Quarry, at Blaenau Ffestiniog, followed in 1970. Those that survived, such as Penrhyn at Bethesda, or Llechwedd at Blaenau Ffestiniog, turned away from traditional methods of working to modern machinery. There was a feeling that something had to be done to save what we would now call the physical "heritage" of the industry.

The rescuing of the Dinorwig Quarry's engineering workshops at Gilfach Ddu in 1969/1970, along with their remarkable contents, marked an important step in this process. Significantly, it also represented a readiness by several public bodies to co-operate in order to save what was here. The former Caernarfonshire County Council, the Ministry of Works (Cadw's predecessors) and the National Museum of Wales all worked together effectively — an early example of public sector partnership.

This period was also characterised by attempts elsewhere to establish industrial museums, in various shapes and forms. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, established in 1967, is one of the best-known UK examples. Here, also, the link between attracting visitors to explore the industrial past, and the economic regeneration that could ensue, began to be understood. That linkage was to prove equally as attractive in Wales and was certainly understood at Blaenau Ffestiniog, where part of the renowned Llechwedd Quarry was opened to the public — also in 1972 — as the Llechwedd Slate Caverns. Visitors joined a tramway tour into the vast subterranean chambers, guided by former quarrymen.

What happened here, although special, is not unique by any means. Interpreting and presenting the industrial past is after all something which we in Amgueddfa Cymru do very thoroughly, at a range of award-winning museums.

Article by: Dafydd Roberts, Keeper, National Slate Museum

Images from the Archive
Dinorwic Quarry, Llanberis: buildings and workforce, 1896.

Article Date: 20 February 2013

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