Friday, February 24, 2012


All my internal doors went off today, to a place near Chester to be dipped 'n' stripped,  so I'm preparing the wooden frames for painting while I can get a proper unimpeded brush to them. I hate prepping - the noise of the sander, the boredom of scouring out every bit of old  gloss paint,  the fine white dust that gets everywhere, even into your eyelashes, so that you end up looking ninety before your time, to say nothing of breathing in the crap. I don't want to think about it, let alone do it, so to take a break from all that I want to write something about an absolutely unique part of  this house, the Quarrymen's Library.

My great-grandmother's two brothers lived in the village of Bontnewydd, just down the road, and worked in Dinorwig, one of the huge slate quarries that provided most of the work for the people of this part of Wales, back in the late 19th Century. 

The old way of dividing work up in the quarries was called the 'bargain' system, where a group of quarrymen would negotiate with the (usually English) foreman for the right to work a particular seam. If the seam yielded no useable slate, they got no money at all  (in fact I'm pretty sure they used to have to pay the foreman anyway, whatever money they made,  for the right to work the slate). One summer day in 1886, Owen and William Pritchard bargained for a place to try their luck and went to work on it. What happened next was described in the Welsh language newspaper of the time, the Herald Cymraeg : the rock upon which the two brothers were working became detached from the side of the hill and fell some hundreds of feet to the bottom of the shaft. Witnesses saw the two workmen crouching on the piece of rock as it fell, seemingly frozen in those attitudes, after which their crushed bodies had to be recovered from underneath several tons of rock. They were pronounced dead at the scene of the tragedy.

   I know a little of my family history. Owen and William had a younger sister, Mary Pritchard, my great grandmother, who had become Mary Williams through marriage the previous year. Their parents lived on a farm just outside Bontnewydd called Maesmyrddin (Merlin's Field, in English): their mother was called  Margaret. It is easy to imagine on that day in 1886 some quarry officials, or perhaps some workmates of the two brothers, climbing down from a horse-drawn cart in the unaccustomed middle of the day in the farmyard; Margaret coming to the door with a greeting on her lips; turning white on seeing the expressions on their faces; framing the questions, Which one? How bad? - and the answers : Both. Dead. Margaret died within a year, although her husband lived on into the new century, and all the family have of these two young men (who died childless) is their library.

   Another big part of life in this area was the religious revival that happened at the end of the nineteenth century - the fiery Welsh oratory, the Temperance (abstaining from the demon liquor), the huge open air Methodist meetings, the chapels built in every remote and sparsely populated valley in North Wales. Owen and William must have been part of this, for they spent what I guess was a great part of their earnings on volumes of sermons, in Welsh, from famous visiting or local preachers. They paid to have these books bound in black or brown leather with their initials in gilt lettering on the spine. So as I sit writing this, in what is itself an old quarryman's cottage, I look across the room and see an old oak bookcase full of sermons and religious tracts, written in a language which I cannot understand; a language  more and more incomprehensible even to the local people here, as the old written Welsh recedes into time and becomes a matter for scholars and historians.

   The tragedy, the religious fervour have all faded into history, the two brothers are in a grave in an overgrown churchyard down the road, and the Dinorwig Quarry closed in 1969.  But the books are still here, in their original bookcase in the corner of my living room, which I call the parlour. The faded gilt lettering on their spines is  lit up, sometimes, by the setting sun in this west-facing room, and I think, Owen and William, may you rest in peace.


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