From Bulletin No. 72 - June 1997
© Alun J. Richards
SLATE QUARRYING AT FOREST - Alun John Richards
On the River Teifi, some miles upstream from Cardigan at what is now the Welsh Wildlife Centre, are some of the oldest yet least known of the larger Pembrokeshire slate quarries. They worked the same vein as the Cilgerran quarries and, like them, they are along the left bank of the river. Almost inaccessible from the land, they were totally river-dependent. Possibly operating in 1621, they were first intensively worked c1766 by Thomas Edwards, the tenant of Forest Farm. Output was carried in the small vessels which served the lime trade at Forest and Cilgerran and, for trans-shipment at Cardigan, by the lighters which served the tinplate works at Llechryd.
Edwards' success probably spurred Parrog slate-merchants, Thomas and John Davies, to take a disused warehouse at Cei Teifi, Cardigan (now the Cardigan Heritage Centre), to handle part of his trade. Their firm, now the Cardigan Mercantile Co., who are still in business elsewhere in the town, grew into a large import/export enterprise and made the Davies family dominant in the affairs of the town for several generations.
The Edwards family quarried at Forest until 1834 when their grandsons found themselves in financial trouble and work was taken over by their landlord, Thomas Lloyd of Coedmore. It is said of landowners of the time that they spent their time "drinking, betting and whoring". We do not know if Thomas Lloyd gambled, but prodigious quantities of wines and spirits were brought up the river to Coedmore House which, it was said, was staffed by his illegitimate children.
He developed the quarries which ultimately became generally identified as:
Some of the output was sold locally, but most went to places such as Swansea and Carmarthen and quite a substantial proportion to Waterford, shipped on Lloyd's smack, 'Ruby' which traded there from Cardigan and Milford.
Throughout the Edwards' time, their dumping of waste into the river was an ongoing source of trouble, and in fact their tips caused the river to change course, eventually rendered it almost unnavigable, and, indeed, contributed to the silting which hastened Cardigan's demise as a port. Although the practice was roundly condemned by their landlord, Thomas Lloyd, examination of his accounts shows that he was employing contractors to dump rubbish by night, suggesting that it was going into the river under cover of darkness! As landlords, the Lloyds must have enviously watched their tenants' lighters going down river with loads for eager buyers. As operators themselves, they discovered that those buyers were more eager to take slate than to pay for it. Also, the Irish economy was going into decline, not only robbing them of a major market, but also bringing some substantial bad debts. By 1843, with over £300 on their sales ledger, they ceased trading and set about trying to recover the numerous outstanding accounts, some of which were for as little as 1s 6d (7½p).
For the next thirty years the holding was split, part being held by the Mathias family and part by the Stephens, both of whom were connected with slate quarrying at nearby Cilgerran. It is thought that it was Stephens who installed the mill with water-turbine driven saw(s) and a planer, and he may have built additional cottages as well as rebuilding the wharf. He had three or four 10-ton lighters, said to be making a total of 20 voyages to Cardigan per month. If true, this indicates an output of 2,400 tons p.a., a surprisingly high figure.
By 1876 a Sambrook & Davies partnership was in occupation and in the next few years, in spite of difficult trading conditions, they appear to have prospered. Then Davies dropped out and a David Owens took his share. Sambrook & Owens repeatedly advertised in fulsome terms:
REOPENING OF FOREST QUARRIES
Messrs. Sambrook & Owens beg respectfully to announce that they have REOPENED the above QUARRIES so celebrated for the excellent quality of its Slabs and Slates, which they intend working under their personal supervision, trusting by attention to business and moderate charges to merit a share of the patronage of their friends and the public.
Messrs. Sambrook & Owens beg to call special attention tot he size of the slabs taken from the Quarry, being without joint or blemish of a.ny description and thoroughly suitable for any purpose including that of first class tombstones and cisterns &c.
They also beg to announce that they have had built expressly for them a new and commodious lighter by which all orders entrusted to their care will be forwarded to Cardigan most expeditiously.
In 1880, discouraged by the slump and the increasing difficulty of navigating the river, Sambrook dropped out and Owens continued in a small way.
In 1883, by which time Owens was a year and a half in arrears with his rent, a visitor from Dublin, W.D. Handcock, wrote, "In a dilapidated building the planer and cutting machines were out of order, with the turbine dry through neglect of the water course". It must be said that the fall of water was trifling so it is possible that the machinery was never successful: this is confirmed by the dearth of machine-sawn ends now on site.
In 1885 Owens, faced with the prospect of being forced to contribute to a proposed river dredging scheme, surrendered his lease and departed the scene, owing 4½ years rent.
There appear to have been intermittent lettings during the late 1880s and the 1890s and finally, for 1897 only, to David Owens again. From then, until the surviving rent rolls cease at Michaelmas 1909, there were no further lets. A photograph taken by Tom Mathias, dated "c1910" and captioned "Forest Farm Quarry", shows a steam crane hauling out of a small pit. It is possible to place this with some certainty at the extreme northern end of the Carnarvon quarry. Thus it would seem that there was one last, probably vain, attempt to win rock from these, by then substantially worked out, diggings.
Although by 1885 the Cardigan & Whitland Railway actually passed through Forest Farm land (and now forms the entrance to the Wildlife Centre), no operator seems to have been prepared to sink capital into a connection to it. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems a pity that the immense tonnage of waste dumped in the river and willy~nilly on the adjacent marsh was not laid in a line to form the bed of a tramway to Cardigan quay. Even before the river became obstructed it would have obviated the double handling which the use of lighters involved. Rail connection and the use of steam or oil for power to saw and plane slab would have prolonged activity for several decades.
It has been said that the name Camarvon was used to persuade buyers that they were receiving Caemarfon material. Actually the name derives from an ancient cottage of that name, now rebuilt and called the 'Coracle Building'. A further dwelling, Forest Cottage, has also been modestly restored (making use of some machine-sawn slate blocks). Reputedly both were lived in until 1927, when their occupants' furniture was carried to Cardigan by boat.
Few artifacts now remain on the site. The dressing sheds and the mill building have been entirely lost. The wharf is much degraded, but ' the riverside tramway which connected Tommy, Ffynnon and Camarvon quarries to the mill is extant with traces of its concurrent leat. The most notable feature is the fine cut-and-cover tunnel giving access to Tommy.
[Based on material in the author's book, The Slate Quarries of Pembrokeshire (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. £5.50).]