Oakeley Slate Empire
The Oakeley family’s vast fortune derived mainly from their slate quarry in the Ffestiniog area.
The slate industry began in Wales during the C18 to fulfil the high demand for roofing materials as a result of the industrial revolution. By the end of the C19, Wales dominated production.
How it all began
The Oakeley slate quarry was on Rhiwbryfdir land near Blaenau Ffestiniog. The first William Oakeley began to develop the business and in 1811 the estate was inherited by his son William Griffith.
Samuel Holland, a slate dealer from Liverpool, agreed to lease the Rhiwbryfdir land from William Griffith in 1819 for 3 years, paying rent and one tenth royalty. However, realising Rhiwbryfdir’s potential for slate mining, he decided to take out a full lease on the land in 1821.
His son, Samuel Holland, arrived to run the quarry shortly afterwards. Over the next half a century it was transformed from a hole with ‘three men working on it’ to the largest subterranean quarry in the world producing first class slate.
From bad to worse…
Royalties increased as the quarry expanded allowing extravagant spending on the estate and the family lifestyle. Between1824 and 1825, he received £25,000 in royalties alone, equivalent to around a million and a half today!
By the time Louisa Jane inherited the estate upon her husband’s death, the slate industry had increased considerably. Three quarries had emerged from the original one at Rhiwbryfdir, each being run separately and producing substantial revenues. The opening of the Ffestiniog Railway in 1836 had improved the transport of slate dramatically.
The growing industry generated employment for thousands and led to the creation of the slate town, Blaenau Ffestiniog and the economic development of the whole valley.
Following Louisa Jane’s death in 1879, the estate was inherited by William Edward Oakeley.
Oakeley Quarry had at least 29 levels or floors, each about 12 metres (40 feet) deep, with about 70km (43 miles) of connecting tunnels.
Money, Money, Money…
William Edward Oakeley's period coincided with the end of the leases on the three quarries. In a desperate attempt to maintain the royalties at an all time high the three tenants, Holland, Rhiwbryfdir Slate Company and the Welsh Slate Company risked safety by trimming structural pillars and enlarging caverns. Their negligence resulted in the collapse of a roof.
Only the Welsh Slate Company renewed their lease due to William Edward’s demand for higher royalties. As the Welsh Slate Company continued to neglect safety issues in the quarry, rock falls became more frequent with some pillars showing signs of total collapse.
Meanwhile, William Edward had formed the Oakeley Slate Company as a result of his failure to obtain leases. Becoming directly involved in quarry management cost him dearly however, as he had to borrow approximately £6 million in today’s terms to run the quarries. This move resulted in large debts for the family.
While the Oakeleys were experiencing serious financial problems because of the downturn in the slate industry, it has been said that Teddy (Edward de Clifford), the heir, was still spending money like water on betting.
The slate revival
The situation worsened with The Great Fall, which started in the quarry in December 1882 and continued until a major rock collapse in February 1883. Approximately 6 million tons of rock fell during this period and it was expected to take 20 years to clear the site.
A claim was made against the Welsh Slate Company but only resulted in them surrendering the lease as they could not afford to pay the compensation. The Oakeley Slate Quarry Co. Ltd was forced to take over the bottom quarry as well and William Edward ultimately faced financial ruin as the quarries struggled to generate enough income to pay off his substantial loans.
The industry went into decline. Despite a small revival after the Second World War, the Oakeley Slate Company never recovered and finally closed in 1971.
What had once given the Oakeley family power and wealth beyond their wildest dreams had almost led to their destruction.
Trouble at the quarry
Slate quarrying has revived in the Ffestiniog Area following the downturn in the industry during the early C20.
The Oakeley Quarry became a tourist attraction for a number of years and the site was acquired by Alfred McAlpine Slate in 1998. Vigorous extraction has recommenced. It is still known as the Oakeley Quarry.
Tourism has been generated in Ffestiniog as a direct result of the slate industry. One of the old quarries, Llechwedd, has been turned into a major tourist attraction.
Visitors come to explore the way the industry has transformed the society, economy and the landscape of this corner of Snowdonia.