A Way Of Life
(by Gareth Parry)
We are as guilty as anyone else of promoting life on the railway or quarries as some sort of romantic nostalgic way of life.
Life as a quarry man at Penrhyn was absolute hell and as far as the quarryman was concerned the railways and locomotives at the time were a machine in which slate was transported. My great uncle left school at 14 years of age at Bethesda and left for South Wales to work in the coal mines, this was during the great depression. His father worked at Penrhyn Quarry and fell ill, at the age of 17 my uncle returned to Bethesda to attend his fathers funeral and decided to stay and work at Penrhyn so that he could support his mother and sisters. Whilst on a rope on the rock face, he lost his grip and his foot became tangled in the rope and remained suspended upside down all night. He was discovered the following morning barely alive all his blood having rushed to his head and his hands raw from all the struggling he had done. He was rushed to the quarry hospital and died shortly afterwards from an overdose of morphine!
Life was cheap, plentiful and short, graveyards in the area contain very few graves of people over the age of 40 from this period. Anyone who climbs up Dinorwic Quarry today from the Llanberis level to the mills level will be left totally exhausted, it is difficult to imagine having to do it in all weathers and then carry out a hard days work!
It really annoys me today when immigrants or visitors to the area condemn the quarries as blots on the landscape, in my opinion they are works of art and amazing monuments to the quarrymen. Lord Penrhyn did not create the quarry, railway or for that matter the estate, all these were created by the local people. There was indeed a hatred for the Lord but there was probably a greater hatred for certain quarry stewards or managers who would make the life of quarrymen unbearable. Religion was also a great influence, a great divide between church and chapel goers existed. The Penrhyn family were church and many local people also, however some chapel goers would switch to church under the impression that it would increase their chances of promotion within the quarry. Often church and chapel goers would walk on the opposite side of the road and totally ignore each other.
One or two unsavoury characters also worked as engine drivers, my grandfather would tell me tales of an old quarry engine driver with a very bitter attitude. A young lad would usually hook and unhook wagons whilst the driver gently moved the loco, however, this particular driver would deliberately jerk the loco in an attempt to trap the boys hands between the buffers!
Quarrymen learnt to tolerate the conditions with resilience. Different galleries or levels within the quarry would have their own choirs and they would compete against each other with pride. The quarry also had its own choir, The Penrhyn Male Voice Choir which was world renowned and still exists today. There was also great competition between Penrhyn and Dinorwic Quarries. It was always believed by local people that Penrhyn produced the best blue slate and that it was the largest slate quarry in the world, however, the people of Llanberis would always say the same thing of Dinorwic! Today's conditions at Penrhyn Quarry are far removed from the bad old days, whilst still producing the best slate in the world, it is still possible to come across one or two old quarrymen locally who insist that quarrymen today have no idea how to extract slate or where to find it!
I suppose old ways die hard.