RIBA President’s Medals: Dissertation

Rhiain Bower

Baricsio: The Slate Quarrymen’s Barracks in North West Wales

University of Westminster

Tutor: Harry Charrington


 

Baricsio is the story of the humble barrack dwellings of Welsh migrant slate workers. Rhiain Bower’s choice of subject was prompted by her interest in workers’ housing and also her family history – a great great grandfather had worked in the slate quarrying town of Blaenau Ffestiniong in the 19th century.

Slate was the primary industry in Wales by the end of the 19th century, centred on Snowdonia in the north west. During her research, however, Bower was surprised to find that there was very little documentation of the barics (barrack) buildings that housed the baricsio workers from Monday to Saturday while they were away from their homes and families. She supplemented the scant available material with her own fieldwork, trudging around the ruins of the sometimes remote slate barracks and recording them in photographs and plans.

Conditions were generally harsh – dark, cold and cramped (men usually slept two to a bed) with little furniture... shared sanitation was a privy over a cesspit

The barracks themselves were built from unsaleable quarried slate and were, says Bower, generally small, squat versions of the vernacular cottage of one to four rooms, often built to share gables to create a row. At Anglesey Barracks, accommodation consisted of two rows of 11 units separated by a 7m wide ‘street’. Construction was akin to dry stone walls, with few if any architectural embellishment beyond the occasional slate drip-stones over doors and windows. These were a sharp contrast with the stone houses built for the managers.

Conditions were generally harsh – dark, cold and cramped (men usually slept two to a bed) with little furniture. Walls may have been unplastered and windows shuttered rather than glazed. Shared sanitation was a privy over a cesspit. There were a few exceptions – at Dinorwic, for example, the owners built an on-site hospital, which also had a much better standard of construction. 

Bower’s dissertation explores not only the barrack buildings themselves but the way of life of those who lived there. She looks at the harsh realities of the migrant workers’ commute from their homes (sometimes as far as 25 miles away) on a Monday morning and also the lives of the matriarch-led families left behind. Once at the barracks, the men had to contend not only with finding a way to live with each other, but also with potential tensions between them – both within the Welsh workforce and with the English or English-speaking managers. There might well also have been tensions between the migrant slate workers (who often had smallholdings at home) and the surrounding community.

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Bower considers the life of the men outside the slate works and the barracks, and the importance of the chapel (or capel) and the cabin, which was a sort of social club. Both places offered an element of community life away from the bleak sleeping quarters. 

‘With poetry and political discussions there was a sense of community and an understanding of their culture and where it fitted within the wider British culture, which they wouldn’t have had otherwise,’ she says.

The remnants of the barracks, still scattered around the Welsh countryside, are a poignant testimony to the harsh way of life that the slate workers endured. Bower notes that most of the barracks have been left to fall into ruin, and concludes that it is important this little-documented industrial architecture, and the lives of those who lived there, are remembered.

‘It’s sad but also quite poetic. They were built out of the landscape and now they are returning to it,’ she says.


Commendation:

Christopher Rogers, RIBA Studio. Tutor: Timothy Martin

Naomi Rubbra, Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Tutor: Giorgio Ponzo

Rory Sherlock, Architectural Association. Tutor: Mark Campbell


Dissertation judges

Tom Avermaete

Mhairi McVicar

Peg Rawes

Dimitry Shvidkovsky

 

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