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From death to character assassination
The history of a Welsh village has been besmirched by bogus links to the slave trade, argues David Martin Jones.
Photo by John Firth licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
You’ve probably never heard of Abergynolwyn. This small village in the Dysynni valley in Merioneth, sits at the southern end of Lake Talyllyn, in the foothills of the Snowdon massif and beneath Wales’ second largest peak, Cadair Idris. Now home to just 400 people, Abergynolwyn was established in the nineteenth century to house workers at the nearby Bryn Eglwys slate quarry. It ‘stands close to the narrow-gauge Talyllyn Railway, which served both the quarry and the village’, in ‘the slate landscape of Northwest Wales’ - a region designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2021.
Abergynolwyn falls within the jurisdiction of Gwynedd Council, or Cyngor Gwynedd as it is known in Welsh, and the council manages ‘the slate landscape’ on behalf of UNESCO. In April, Gwynedd council announced that this tiny village must publicly acknowledge its relationship to the slave trade. As part of what Plaid Cymru council leader Dyfrig Siencyn describes as his party’s ‘broader mission’ to expose the North Wales slate industry’s association with slavery, a plaque advertising the somewhat tenuous link will henceforth adorn the village hall. ‘Slavery and colonisation form part of the slate story,’ a council spokesperson explained.
This news will no doubt come as a surprise to the small number of local inhabitants of the village. It also came as a surprise to me. As a child I spent summer holidays with my father’s relatives who formed a kin network of small tenant farmers across Meirionnydd (aka Merioneth). This news would also have shocked my grandmother, Ellen Pugh, who lived in Abergynolwyn. Ellen married my grandfather, Daffyd Jones, in 1917 at the Horeb congregationalist chapel, Dolgellau. They farmed a remote sheep farm near Dinas Mawddwy until Daffyd died in 1952 and Ellen retired to 6 Heol Llanegryn, Abergynolwyn (a council cottage, originally built by the Abergynolwyn Slate Company which was established in 1864 to house workers). This is where she died, a century later, in 1964. Ellen profited little from whatever connections the village had to the slave trade. In her will, she left only a Welsh dresser and, as a devoted member of the congregation of the Cwrt chapel, a Welsh bible, Y Beibl, which I still have among my possessions.
So what exactly is the association between this small industrial village and slavery? Significantly, in its application for World Heritage Status, Gwynedd council and the Snowdonia National Park Authority made no mention of any slavery links. Instead, in 2017 they commissioned the historian and urban archaeologist, Richard Hayman, to write an ‘urban character study of Abergynolwyn’ which was submitted to UNESCO ‘in support of the Wales Slate World Heritage Nomination’. In this well-researched analysis, Hayman finds that ‘Abergynolwyn retains a strong and distinctive nineteenth-century character based on its unique combination of topography, economic and social history, and the local natural resources with which its buildings were constructed’. ‘Historic character’, Hayman continues, ‘confers identity, creates a sense of belonging and contributes to the quality of the places where we live, work and visit. It can also be an asset for economic vitality and regeneration.
Photo by Peter Glyn published under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
Hayman discloses that John Pugh, a native of the area, initially took a fifty-year lease for quarrying at Bryn Eglwys in 1844. However, ‘the scale of early operations was inhibited by the problem of transportation’. It was only in 1864, when William McConnel (1809-1902) and his brother Thomas bought the quarry, that the landscape was transformed into its current state. Over the course of two generations, the McConnels had established themselves in Lancashire cloth manufacturing as owners of a cotton-spinning mill in Ancoats, Manchester. The American Civil War (1861-1865) disrupted their supplies of raw cotton and so to offset these losses, the brothers shrewdly diversified their business holdings. They bought the Bryn Eglwys quarry in 1864, established the Abergynolwyn Slate Company, and formed The Talyllyn Railway Company in 1865 to transport the slate for export. The line to the quarry passed above Abergynolwyn village, it was built from the coast at Tywyn and opened in 1866. It was the first of the slate railways in North Wales specifically designed for steam locomotives and from December 1866 was the first of the narrow-gauge railways in North Wales to run passenger services.
William McConnel built the village at Abergynolwyn to house his workers. He employed the Manchester architect James Stevens, who drew up plans in 1864. The attractive details which characterise the buildings include wedge lintels and overhanging eaves can still be seen in houses throughout the village. The first houses to be built by the company, between 1865-68, were two terraces of single-storey houses on Heol Llanegryn, where my grandmother later lived.
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William McConnel was an outstanding example of the principled Victorian entrepreneurs who forged modern Britain. He developed slate quarrying on an industrial scale to the benefit of both his family, his employees and the nation as a whole, or as Hayman puts it, he demonstrated ‘how the influence of capitalist owners extended from the workplace to the home in the nineteenth century’.
Gwynedd council’s proposal to UNESCO promoted Abergynolwyn as ‘a well-preserved nineteenth-century industrial village with a unique history and strong regional character of special architectural and historical interest’. It was on these grounds that UNESCO accorded the landscape World Heritage Status. Indeed, UNESCO is even more generous in its praise for the landscape, than Hayman was in his report. UNESCO considers the site ‘internationally significant not only for the export of slates, but also for the export of technology and skilled workers’. It ‘constituted a model for other slate quarries in different parts of the world’, offering a remarkable example of the ‘interchange of materials, technology and human values’.
By the late nineteenth century, the area around Abergynolwyn produced about a third of the world output of roofing slates and architectural slabs. Its use in terraced houses, factories, warehouses and architecture contributed to rapid global urbanization. It influenced building styles: ‘Technologies that were innovated, adopted and adapted in the quarries included the ingenious application of waterpower and the first known application of the circular saw for cutting stone’. These were diffused by specialists and by the emigration of skilled Welsh quarrymen to the developing slate industries of the United States, continental Europe and Ireland. Narrow-gauge railway systems like the Talyllyn railway McConnel designed gained global influence and were adopted from Asia and America to Africa and Australasia.
It was McConnel’s achievements in pioneering the modern slate industry whilse preserving the natural beauty of the local landscape that earned the area its World Heritage Status. How then does an industry that used local materials and local labour come to be associated with slavery? Here we have to explore the perverse reasoning, economic illiteracy, historically challenged and duplicitous behaviour of Cyngor Gwynedd. In its behaviour it crystalizes all the cultural self-loathing that now pervades both the Welsh Labour party and Plaid Cymru.
McConnel is English and a capitalist to boot. Such a background is anathema to the cultural Maoists who currently run Wales and micro-manage the Welsh version of the cultural revolution. From this perspective, McConnel’s achievements must be re-defined to fit an ideology that reduces history to melodrama, where brutal and rapacious English capitalists despoil the Welsh landscape and immiserate its people.
McConnel invested in the slate industry during the American Civil War and the cotton famine that caused the temporary closure of many cloth manufacturing factories across Lancashire. Like all Lancastrian mill owners, McConnel used raw cotton from the plantations of the American South to weave his cloth. The McConnel family owned no slaves, and - as good liberals - supported the struggle for emancipation. Like other manufacturers, he did not attempt to break the naval blockade preventing the export of cotton from the American South and suffered financially as a consequence. According to Cyngor Gwynedd, the mere fact that the major source of the raw material that fed into McConnel’s mills derived from this tainted source (before the empire developed India and Australia as alternative sources of raw cotton) makes McConnel, the Welsh slate industry and the industrial revolution more generally, guilty by association.
This, of course, is tendentious and a deliberate distortion of the historical record. This is not history but ideological posturing that does a disservice to Abergynolwyn and its fascinating past which needs to be understood in its own terms not through some anachronistic ideological projection. Whilst such distortion is now firmly entrenched in the Welsh political and educational establishment, the Abergynolwyn case stands out for the thinness of its connection to slavery and the fact that Gwynedd council made no mention of it in its application to UNESCO. It made the application on the grounds that McConnel’s endeavours transformed the locality positively, but after the iconic status had been granted proceeded to rewrite history to suit its own questionable agenda. This is self-serving and mendacious, but sadly such mendacity is now meat and drink to the cultural enforcers of woke Wales.