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BLAENAU FFESTINIOG

Site Details

© Copyright and database right 2019. All rights reserved. Ordnance Survey licence number 0100022206

NPRN 305760

Map Reference SH74NW

Grid Reference SH70094574

Unitary (Local) Authority Gwynedd

Old County Merioneth

Community Ffestiniog

Type of Site TOWN

Broad Class CIVIL

Period General

Site Description Blaenau Ffestiniog was one of the main areas for slate production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the late eighteenth century slate mining was small scale, but from the early 1800's new quarries were developed as markets for slate were realized. Slate in large quantities was shipped to Europe and beyond, carried by cart and sledge to quays on the Dwyryd estuary and, from the opening of the Ffestiniog Railway in 1836, from the nearby sea port of Porthmadog.

As the slate industry flourished, so did the railway and the town. The earliest cottages were built in terraces, ribbon development along the roads, tracks and the railway; Dolgarreg Ddu terrace (NPRN 410598, SH7016745943) was built in the 1820s. From c1860 better quality housing was laid out in a grid plan with some urban squares (eg, The Square, NPRN 411886, SH6985345821). With the decline of the industry after the second world war (the last shipload of slate to leave Porthmadog sailed in 1946), Blaenau Ffestiniog's population decreased and many slate workers houses were abandoned. In more recent years the town, railway and surrounding quarries have become major tourist attractions.

Associated sites:
Tai uncorn (NPRN 28880) - a complex of four quarryman's dwellings built around a shared central stack in circa1810. Probably the earliest surviving domestic building relating to Ffestiniog slate industry.
Llechwedd Slate Quarry (NPRN 400426)
Maen Offeren Slate Quarry (NPRN 400427)

Source: David Gwyn & Merfyn Williams (1996) ‘A Guide to the Industrial Archaeology of North West Wales’. Association for Industrial Archaeology.

RCAHMW, 8 December 2011.

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The origins of Blaenau Ffestiniog are deeply rooted in the expansion of industrial slate quarrying in the first half of the nineteenth century. Before then, this upland area was only sparsely populated with a few farmsteads scattered across the mountainsides.

Small-scale quarrying of slate began in the 1760s, but the first industrial quarrying started in three locations on Allt-fawr. Taking place under a number of different companies, the surface slate was exhausted by the 1840s and so underground mining started. In 1878, the landowner of Allt-fawr, W. E. Oakley amalgamated the quarries into a single business, Oakeley Quarry, the largest underground slate mine worldwide. From then onwards, slate mines and quarries sprang up in rapid progression across the landscape, with major quarries at Llechwedd, Maenofferen and Votty & Bowydd.

With the boom of the 1860s and 1870s, which increased the demand for safe transport of the finished slates to the distribution harbours as well as bringing in the required workforce, new roads were built to the quarries. The focus moved from the small mining settlements in the valley to expanding the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. The town plan still shows a distinct grid structure which harks back to the strategic development of the town with its squares and terraces, and the first school, church and chapels were also constructed. Whereas just under 3,500 people lived in Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1850, by 1881, this number had increased to over 11,000.

When the German adventurer and world traveller Sophie Döhner visited in the early 1900s, the sight of the town came as a great surprise to her as she found almost every item of use made of slate: houses, roofs, stairs, fences and even the pavement. At that time, the production of slate in Blaenau Ffestiniog was just starting its drawn-out industrial decline as cheaper materials became available elsewhere. With the closing of the slate quarries after the Second World War, the quarry workers moved away again and today the population of Blaenau Ffestiniog is roughly the same as in the late 1850s. The tourism industry is now the largest employer as the old, disused quarries and mines are redeveloped into museums and adventure sites, such as the world’s largest underground trampoline experience.

Record updated as part of the AHRC-funded project 'Journey to the Past: Wales in historic travel writing from France and Germany'.
R. Singer (Bangor University) and S. Fielding (RCAHMW), 2017.

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