I recently visited Nth Wales the land my grandfather left 105+ years ago. Many of the original 3,000 workers in the Penrhyn Slate Quarry where he worked also left due to industrial disputes that dragged on and off for years. Such disregard for customers by the quarry owners meant customers found other suppliers in France and elsewhere, or simply alternative products, such as cheap mass-produced tiles.
My grandfather was not alone in abandoning the slate mining industry. Better conditions elsewhere, World War I, and lost skills resulted in a shortage of the skilled labour needed to extract the slate in the traditional manner. Proprietors ignored attempts at mechanisation of parts of the process, despite them being successful elsewhere. A “quarter of the skilled splitters were killed during World War I, and those that returned had lost their firmness of hand and eye.” (M Burn, THE AGE OF SLATE p43)
Welsh slate, despite being so lucrative for the mine’s owners that it has been referred to as “grey gold”, subsequently faced a relatively rapid decline.
“If the threat from tiles was foreseen, and could have been diminished, little preparation seems to have been made against it. … The proprietors found it hard to imagine that hundreds of thousands of householders could already cease to want slate roofs.” (M Burn, THE AGE OF SLATE p43)
Slate is an abundant resource, and yet, like time sold by most lawyers, expensive. Alternative products might not be as good, but they can be more affordable. There was a complete lack of co-operation among the quarry owners and those related services that supported them. Railways, for example, often duplicated their lines.
A Union Report of 1923 speaks of the industry as “a self-contained and not too prosperous agglomeration of small undertakings, mostly private companies, with inadequate resources and indifferent technical equipment … a relatively large number limp to the rear with small profits and even losses … a few larger and more efficient make substantial profits even in dull times. (M Burn, THE AGE OF SLATE p43)
The result was, that over a few decades, the narrow roads that once echoed to the sound of workers walking the 8 or so miles to and from their 6 am to 6 pm shift, gradually fell silent. A century later, those same roads are once again being pounded by the feet of workers – joggers burning off the negative affects of a day on keyboards mining Google Adwords or search terms. Thanks to the arrival of fast internet in the region, young professionals are re-birthing long abandoned stone cottages to keep their overheads down.
It is not just knowledge workers who have moved in. I met a specialist carpenter who built kitchens for clients as far away as London. The internet expanded the market for his skills in maximising the use of small spaces first developed on boats, then in the tiny Welsh cottages. How much easier must it be for a service provider whose raw materials can be supplied in electronic form, as can the output? The opportunity afforded by the internet is to greatly expand your market beyond your village, provided you specialize.
The carpenter I met works with two others on an informal basis to provide a more complete service. Unlike the mine-owners and their service providers, a co-operative approach to product delivery prevails.
Could there be lessons for the legal profession in the story of slate in North Wales? There are some similiarities to date, but what will be the roof tile equivalent for law? Could it be online AI with document assembly? IBM’s Watson is already being put to work for an Australian bank, and a university. When combined with other events, that unimagined transformation might not be not far away.