by R.S. Thomas
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of spilled blood
That went to the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is a language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange for the ear.
There are the cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields' corners
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcass of an old song.
The following text details two "dream" provings with Welsh slate. The sample, considered to of the best quality, came from a working quarry near Blaenau Ffestiniog in Gwynedd, North Wales. It was selected by Mr. Owen Glyn Roberts of the Welsh Slate Museum, Llanberis. The sample was "squared off" using a diamond-toothed saw before being made into the actual remedy by Helios Pharmacy.
Two provings were carried out independently of each other, although using the same source of slate. The first was in Czechoslovakia (31/7/96): a large group of people participated during a case conference. The second was in North Wales (17/8/96); a much smaller group of people was involved.
Not all symptoms have been included in an attempt to cut down on the volume of text.
The idea for the original proving came from the observation that powdered slate is used to treat New Forest's disease in sheep by farmers in North Wales. This is an (infection?) of the eyes that results in blindness.
This text prepared by Andy Brachi and Jenny Hill
Slate: from the French 'esclater', to split.
Slate is found all over the world, but the best geological conditions for its formation were in Britain. All British slate falls under the Palaeozoic Era: Scottish is the oldest, being pre-Cambrian (>500my's), while in North Wales the Penrhyn and Ffestiniog deposits are in the Cambrian and Ordovician periods respectively. The sample for the proving came from the latter.
Formation usually starts as a deposit of fine sediments of clay minerals, flaky in character, forming a mudstone. Under pressure, the minerals align themselves in the direction that the rock lies in in relation to the horizontal (this is the bedding plane); the mudstone has now become shale. Further pressure and heat transforms the clay particles into new minerals such as micas and feldspars; these new minerals reform perpendicularly to the bedding plane and is known as the plane of cleavage: the resulting rock is slate.
Industrial extraction of the slate is achieved by using this natural weakness. The angle of the cleavage also dictates the method of extraction (open, pit, or mine). In the late 1700's black powder was introduced into the extraction process; it's slow-burning quality was favoured as it was less likely to shatter the stone - instead, it would be dislodged along the line of least resistance. The aim was always to break away as large a block as possible from the quarry face as this provided greater flexibility in breakdown - in the Shire booklet is a picture of a 2000 t block. Breakdown of such massive pieces of slate has gradually become mechanised over the years, although most of the final splitting into tiles is done by hand.
The widest and most well-known use of slate is for roofing, although by 1990 it accounted for only 5% of roofing material in Britain. Until the end of the 1700's slate tiles could be any size or shape; it was General Warburton of Penrhyn Quarry who introduced standardisation: in his scheme different sizes of tile were named after female aristocratic titles - eg the 'queen' (the largest - 30" in length); and the 'countess' (see the poem appendix 1). By contrast Cumbrian slate, being coarser, was less easy to fashion, and tiles were sold by weight in batches of random size.
When the slate's cleavage is not very pronounced, thick slabs can be produced which have a great variety of uses such as gravestones, snooker tables, mortuary slabs, and to keep food cool in kitchens. Pulverising the slate gives rise to a dust (fullerite) that can be transported by tanker. This is used to strengthen felt roofing and submarine cables, as an ingredient in reconstituted roofing tiles as well as a base by the cosmetics industry.
Locally to North Wales, slate chips are used as a base for paths and lawns (for example it has been used to provide a base for a local bowling green). Another use is in the treatment of a disease in sheep called New Forest's disease, in which the eye is affected - it results in blindness. A peculiar use given in the Shire booklet is as a remedy for an "inward bruise" sustained by someone after a riding accident.
Slate mining in North Wales began with the opening of the Cae Braich y Cafn quarry, later to become the great Penrhyn Quarry near Bethesda in the Ogwen Valley in 1782; prior to this there had been slate-mining activity, but it was mostly for local markets. Nationally, Welsh output was far ahead of other areas and by 1882 92% of Britain's production was from Wales (= 451,000t), half of this from the combined output of the Penrhyn and Dinorwig (at the site of the Welsh Slate Museum) quarries.
It was Baron Penrhyn of County Louth that inherited Penrhyn Estates in 1782 and started to develop the local slate reserves. "These early promoters of the industry were faced with a tremendous challenge because they were taking on workers who were steeped in rural traditions and did not readily submit to organisation - indeed the men felt they were independent of the management" (Shire) - this attitude was reflected in, for example, working arrangements and payment methods. The men worked the slate in partnerships of four, six or eight and these were known as 'Bargain Gangs'. 'Bargains' were let' by the 'Bargain Letter' when a price for a certain area of rock was agreed. Adjustments were made according to the quality of the slate and the proportion of 'bad' rock. The first Monday of every month was 'Bargain Letting Day' when these agreements were made between men and management. Half the partners worked the quarry face and the others were in the dressing sheds producing the finished slates. Slate splitting is an art and it took many years to acquire the necessary skills. Those who did not manage to remained as labourers or 'rubblers' for the rest of their working days. Rubblers helped to keep the galleries free from waste (one ton of saleable slate produced 30 tons of waste) and it is the mountainous heaps of this very same waste that is perhaps the first thing to strike someone visiting the old quarries nowadays. The men had to pay for their ropes and chains, for tools and for services such as sharpening and repairing. Subs (advances) were paid every week, everything being settled up on the 'Day of the Big Pay'. If conditions had not been good, the men could end up owing the management money. This system was not finally abolished until after the Second World War.
Work in the quarries was dangerous. A Government inquiry found that the underground workers in Penrhyn Quarry had a death rate of 3.23 per 1000, a rate higher than coal mining. Accidents were frequent. Fractures, contusions and ruptures of varying causes and degrees of severity were regular occurrences.... slate is very slippery when wet, and when combined with the leather sole of the men's footwear the results were frequently lethal. Apart from the explosive 'winning' of the slate, danger also lurked in other areas of its production. Cuts were common in the splitting sheds and on the floor of the galleries. Slate splits to a very fine edge and would cut deeply if a slab slipped while being loaded. More insidious were the needle-like splinters lying about all over the working sites. Septicaemia was common and usually proved fatal.
On top of the physical dangers of the quarries other health problems were present. The slate was quarried throughout the year in an area not renowned (pre-global warming!) for its sunshine. The climate, unsuitable and overcrowded housing, inadequate diet together with the hazards of work, all combined to ensure the state of health of both the quarrymen and their families was poor. Tuberculosis was common among the people and the men often suffered from silicosis. A link between the inhalation of slate dust and silicosis was suspected in the late 1800's but no conclusions could be made. A report, in November 1893 by Dr Mills Roberts, surgeon at Dinorwig Hospital, to the Dinorwig quarry manager W.W.Vivian, concluded that a visit to Caernarfon to investigate the matter "was not of much service". A comparison of respiratory diseases among the local peoples showed "women being 449, males not quarrymen 395 and 506 for quarrymen". Dr. Roberts decided that the matter was best left alone.
Thus health in general was always an important issue and the quarry owners went to considerable lengths to take care of their finite work force: health-care facilities, especially the provision of hospitals was an important feature of the industry from the 1840's onwards. Dinorwig was one such quarry to have its own fully equipped hospital; it is now a museum and can still be seen perched on the hillside. During its operation the hospital was extremely busy, with a constant stream of patients passing through its four wards. In addition to the wards, the hospital had its own operating theatre, a post-mortem room, mortuary and chapel. Dr. Mills Roberts' skill as a surgeon was well known and he paid great attention to the health and comfort of his patients. One example of his and a local blacksmith's efforts is given: "there was a serious accident at the quarry and a man from Bethel called Edward Jones was in it. Both his arms had to be amputated, one at the shoulder and the other at the wrist. Thomas Hughes (the blacksmith), with the co-operation of Dr. Roberts made a contraption by which the man could hold a spoon and knife to eat with and could take his hat off when going to chapel. It was a great boon to the unfortunate man. Thomas Hughes made a clever job of it" (GCC).
The ability to show respect, 'parch', to the chapel minister was very important to the communities; they were a very devout people with life revolving around religious practice. All may not, however, have been completely puritan. Of interest are comments made by an elderly doctor who visited the Dinorwig hospital museum. She informed staff that the implements exhibited as being for the detection of kidney stones were in fact used to open the urethra in males suffering from gonorrhoea. She also mentioned it was rife in these small closed communities at that time. A recent article on slate in the climbing magazine "On the Edge" may shed some light on this: ..... "Workers would trek 30 or 40 miles for a six day shift, working in total squalor and with absolutely no rights, for pennies. Pennies which the quarry owners would take back in payment for lost tools, medical aid and through the camps full of ale houses and prostitutes which were conveniently located between pay day and home".
Despite, or perhaps because, of the difficult conditions, the men were an enterprising group with a strong inclination towards self-help. Friendly societies and benefit clubs were set up to encourage saving and to protect their families against times of sickness; the University of Wales at Bangor owes its existence to the quarrymen of the Ogwen Valley. In the quarries themselves, the men "developed their own institution called the Caban. Within it the men elected their own chairman, treasurer and policeman. The Caban had strict rules of behaviour and the policeman could impose fines for offences such as swearing and smoking at the wrong times" (Shire). Formal debates on current affairs or cultural activities such as singing would also take place in the Caban.
In 1874 the North Wales Quarrymen's Union was established, lasting until 1922. Bitter clashes occurred between management and the Union. "The longest and most bitter dispute was the 'Penrhyn lockout' (1900-1903) - this became a landmark in British labour history. It was from this background that radical politicians began to emerge, such as David Lloyd George".
(sources: Shire album 268 "The Slate Industry" and Gwynedd County Council)
The mine from which the slate was taken for the proving remains a working mine. Dinorwig quarry has long since closed. The surrounding woodland and spoil heaps are now tame and accessible to visitors... the old industry replaced by the new... Dinorwig quarry is now Padarn Country Park.
To wander around its walks and pathways is to see, smell, and feel the now gentle echo of the Dinorwig Quarries, as Nature slowly reclaims what is left of this once great industry. It is difficult to feel sad... about the mining that produced such scars in the landscape or the forces presently employed in this process of reclamation; as those around me argue about preservation and heritage, tourism, carrying capacities and charges, to me it is the very act of change that feels right... part of the continuum of life - organic, fluid and vibrant. Trying to stop this change, to preserve it, will mark an end, and the echo of a vibrant landscape will become its final breath... something very much part of the Welsh consciousness.
With reference to the uses section on tile size: an extract from Ward Lock's tourist guide to North Wales (date?? page 186) is given:
"In former times the different sizes of slates were know as 'duchess,' countesses,' 'ladies,' 'empresses,' 'queens,' and 'princesses.'
These high sounding names were bestowed by General Warburton about the year 1765 and were embodied by an old Welsh judge, named Leycester, in the following humorous lines, forming part of an account of a visit to the quarries:
It has truly been
said, as we all must deplore,
That Grenville and Pitt have made peers by the score,
But now,'tis asserted, unless I have blundered,
There's a man that makes peeresses here by the hundred.
He regards neither Portland, nor Brenvill, nor Pitt,
But creates them at once without patent or writ;
By the stroke of a hammer, without the King's aid
A lady, a countess, or duchess is made.
Yet high is the station from which they are sent,
And all their great titles are got by descent;
And wher're they're seen, in a palace or shop,
Their rank they preserve, and are still at the top.
Yet no merit they claim for their birth or connection,
But derive their chief worth from their native complexion,
And all the best judges prefer, it is said,
A countess in blue to a duchess in red.
This countess or lady though crowds may be present,
Submits to be dressed by the hands of a peasant,
And you'll see, when her grace is but once in his clutches,
With how little respect he will handle a duchess.
Close united they seem, and yet all who have tried'em
Soon discover how easy it is to divide'em.
No spirit have they - they're as thin as a rat;
The countess wants life and the duchess is flat;
No passion or warmth to the countess is known,
And her grace is as cold and as hard as a stone;
Yet I fear you will find, if you watch them a little,
That the countess is fail, and the duchess is brittle.
Too high for a trade, yet without any joke,
Though they never are bankrupts, they often are broke,
And though not a soul ever pilfers or cozens,
They're daily shipped off and transported by dozens.
The list of themes given below were gathered from all the proving symptoms. It is not intended to exhaustive, rather it should be seen as an initial review.
Unity, wholeness: 1(?),32,41,58(?)
The skin: 43,45,46 & skin symptoms
Balance; harmony: 38,49,73
Things in two's: 1,6,7,11,20,21,24,25,33,35,38,40,58 and splitting apart, dividing: 15,25,26,33
Empathy and protection from danger (especially children?): 5,9,30,32,75,83
Open lovely landscapes: 1,27,30
Enclosed places; small rooms; darkness and underground: 8,21,27,28,29,33,44,48
Colour; cloth; dresses: 10,20,22,31 also yellow dust/fog/haze: 8
Regulations, punishment: 11,29,37,38(?) and being forced against one's will: 21,28
Conflict; harmony turning to conflict: 12,13,40
Violence, danger: 47,48,59,60,61
Dirt; waste (inside - squalor): 4,8,16,44; (outside)47; also poverty: 5
Injury; hospitalisation; hospitals: 17,33,43,52