For most of us, our working lives can seem hard ….. long commutes, long hours, challenging deadlines, ever increasing targets, all in all, stress, and that’s before we get home! Well, a brief look at the working conditions of our Victorian ancestors should persuade us that our jobs are, relatively speaking, a stroll in the park.
Take the slate industry, you know, those grey, boring roof tiles that keep the rain out of most houses built around one hundred years ago. Millions of those tiles were shaped from huge chunks of rock cut by men in Welsh mines and quarries. The first of today’s slides shows a worker in one of the slate caverns at Blaenau FFestiniog. It is from a series of photographic slides from my archive, produced in the 1890s, which show how the humble roof slate that everyone was then familiar with, got from the earth to their roofs.
My guess is that even Victorian audiences who attended this lantern lecture would have been shocked by the working conditions. The slide shows a miner at the top of an enormous ladder (with no safety equipment) attached to the roof of the cave by ropes. This is how they worked the huge slate caverns and it would take many decades of injuries, deaths, the formation of trade unions, disputes and strikes, not just in mining but across all industries, to improve the health and safety of the working man. We now take such laws for granted but they came from the need to address working conditions such as these.
The famous Ffestiniog narrow gauge railway was built to transport the slate from Blaneau Ffestiniog to the port of Porthmadog, to be transported to destinations around the UK and to the rest of the world. The second image shows rows of slates ready to be loaded onto a sailing ship. A reader has contacted me to say that these photos were taken by John Charles Burrow of Camborne in Cornwall, a Victorian photographer better known for his images of Cornish tin mines.
You can still visit the slate mines in Blaenau and ride the Ffestiniog railway and both are fascinating. The vast waste tips from the slate industry are still evident in Blaenau and on a cold, rainy day, it’s possibly the bleakest location in Britain and yet it has a certain grandeur. It is surrounded by the glorious Snowdonia National Park ….. the contrast couldn’t be greater.