French visitors to Welsh slate quarries

DSC05522 photo by Elenor Nicholas

The north Wales slate industry of course led the world in the nineteenth century, and so it should come as no surprise that the quarries around Llanberis attracted international attention. A quick search of the European Travellers to Wales database reveals a handy list of travel accounts to the area by travellers from mainland Europe. One that stands out is a book-length study by L. Smyers, entitled Essai sur l’état actuel de l’industrie ardoisière en France et en Angleterre : suivi de quelques observations pratiques sur la formation du schiste ardoisier (Paris : 1858), who records conversations that he had with people at Penrhyn Quarry.

There is nothing else like Penrhyn in the world, he enthuses : ‘Quand on a vu Penrhyn, on se demande si on n’a pas tout vu, et s’il est utile d’aller ailleurs’ (t. 28) [Once you have seen Penrhyn, you wonder whether you haven’t seen everything, and whether there is any point in going elsewhere]. Keen to understand how this awe-inspiring quarry functions, he speaks to various foremen, making a careful note of their answers for future use. He hates to admit that the English [sic.] are ahead of the French in inustrial matters, and it pains him to report that Penrhyn quarry actually exports to France. However there is something else that he discovers during his stay that he thinks France would do well to imitate: when he is invited into the home of a foreman, Smyers is given bread, butter, cheese and milk, and is surprised to be offered only water when he asks for a different drink. Seeing his surprise the forman explains the temperance movement to him.

My favourite episode is his description of a ride on a gravity train carrying a load from Ffestiniog to Porthmadog. During his terrifyingly rapid descent through mile-long tunnels, his hat hits the roof and he is almost knocked off: ‘mon chapeau heurta le plafond, je faillis être renversé’.


Llyn Gwynant. Photo Steffan Nicholas

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2 Responses to French visitors to Welsh slate quarries

  1. I love the quote that you translated. It has really inspired my sense of place for the evening! Thank you for sharing and I’m happy I found your blog!


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