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Blaenau Ffestiniog

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NPRN305760
Map ReferenceSH74NW
Grid ReferenceSH7009045740
Unitary (Local) AuthorityGwynedd
Old CountyMerioneth
CommunityFfestiniog
Type Of SiteTOWN
PeriodGeneral
Description

1.

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 seaport 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 (e.g., he 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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2.

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 Dohner 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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3.

The town of Blaenau Ffestiniog town is built on a natural shelf about 225 m above OD, between the Manod and Moelwyn Mountains on the southern fringes of Snowdonia. It is dominated by the waste tips formed by the slate quarries which were its raison d’être.  

Pre-industrial settlement is evident in sub-Medieval farmhouses such as Cwm Bowydd. Slate was quarried from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, but the industry only grew slowly.  

From the 1820s the point where the road from what is now Maenofferen Slate Quarry crossed the parish road at Four Crosses, where the natural shelf is particularly broad, began to evolve into one of the nuclei of the future town. The earliest rows were erected in the 1830s.  St David’s Church, built in 1841, provided another focus to the west. Noticeable features are the cottage ornée known as ‘Runcorn’, a dwelling that was formerly a water-powered slate-slab mill for Diffwys quarry at Pant yr Ynn, and some individual cottages. 

The early pattern of ribbon-development remains evident along the winding pre-industrial parish road, now High Street, and at Tan y Grisiau, Bethania and Manod at the extremities of the settlement. The opening of the Festiniog Railway (NPRN 34660) to the sea at Porthmadog in 1836 significantly reduced transport costs; much of the new settlement was built up alongside it, as well as along the other railways that came to serve the town from the 1860s onwards, just as earlier ribbon development had spread along the roads, but from the 1860s, with the rapid growth of the slate industry, controlled leasing of uniform terraces by the Oakeley and the Newborough estates became common. A distinctive form of domestic architecture, characterised by dormer windows in the top floor and by consistent details, such as the rendering of the returns on doors and windows, becomes evident. Later nineteenth century developments include the creation of planned squares in which substantial nonconformist chapels were erected.  

With the decline in the slate industry and the depopulation of the town, there has been little new build since 1900. 

 

Statement of Significance:

Blaenau Ffestiniog is a remarkably well-defined nineteenth-century industrial town. Over the course of that century the area was transformed by slate quarrying from upland grazing into a major town, but the rapid growth of the boom years was not sustained in the twentieth century, and the character laid down in just a few decades continues to this day. Perched on a natural shelf encircling the head of the Vale of Ffestiniog, and overshadowed by the raw beauty of the quarries, the town could hardly have a more distinctive topographical character. Essentially linear, the pattern of settlement is structured by networks of road and railway, created to serve the transport needs of the quarries. Underlying it are traces of a pre-industrial landscape that was never entirely effaced. These include a mesh of paths and tracks, as well as field patterns and farmsteads. In the abrupt transition from a rural to an urban landscape graphically rests the history of transformation, which is the essence of the industrial revolution. 

This site is part of the Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales World Heritage Site, Component Part 5: Ffestiniog: its slate mines and quarries, slate town and railway to Porthmadog. Inscribed July 2020. 

 

Sources:  

  • Louise Barker & Dr David Gwyn, March 2018. Slate Landscapes of North-West Wales World Heritage Bid Statements of Significance. (Unpublished Report: Project 401b for Gwynedd Archaeological Trust) 
  • Tirwedd Llechi Gogledd Orllewin Cymru / The Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales. Nomination as a World heritage Site (Nomination Document, January 2020) 
  • Wales Slate World Heritage Site https://www.llechi.cymru/

Hannah Genders Boyd, RCAHMW, January 2022 

Resources
DownloadTypeSourceDescription
application/pdfA470 - A470 Blaenau Ffestiniog Improvement ArchiveA470 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Cancoed improvement, archaeological watching brief and recording G1891. Report number: 717 revision 2.
application/pdfRCAHMW ExhibitionsBilingual exhibition panel entitled Worktown: Lluniadau Falcon Hildred; Worktown: The drawings of Falcon Hildred, produced by RCAHMW 2013.
application/pdfETW - European Travellers to Wales ProjectDescription of a visit to Blaenau-Ffestiniog by Sophie D?hner from 'Aus dem Berglande von Wales' (c. 1900). Text available in Welsh, English, French and German. Produced through the European Travellers to Wales project.
application/pdfA470 - A470 Blaenau Ffestiniog Improvement ArchiveA470 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Cancoed improvement, archaeological recording report G1874, report number 621: Part 1.
application/pdfA470 - A470 Blaenau Ffestiniog Improvement ArchiveA470 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Cancoed improvement, chronology of developments G1891, report number: 802.
application/pdfA470 - A470 Blaenau Ffestiniog Improvement ArchiveA470 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Cancoed improvement, archaeological recording report G1874, report number 621: Part 3.
application/pdfA470 - A470 Blaenau Ffestiniog Improvement ArchiveA470 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Cancoed improvement, archaeological recording report, report number 621: Part 2.