How has slate been used throughout the years?

The History Of Slate

At The Bespoke Sign House, slate is an essential material for us to handcraft custom slate house signs which we make to order and distribute around the world. But the slate we use in 2021 is a product derived from hundreds of years of trial, error and innovation to make the high-grade material which we use in our sign production shop. But how did the slate industry get to where it is today? The Bespoke Sign House looks back through time to see the evolution of slate and its uses throughout history.

 

The First Recorded Use Of Slate

Although there is no definitive period when slate started to be used, we know that when the Romans invaded the British isles in 43 AD, it didn’t take long before slate roofs were being used in construction of significant buildings in the UK. Recognised for being easy to shape and robust by nature, it was clear to see why it was a choice for temples and forts at the time. But the quarrying process wasn’t efficient, making it an expensive, laborious and often hazardous task, even for the efficient and hardworking minds of the Roman empire.

When the Romans left the UK in the 5th century, use of slate in construction all but grinded to a halt, at least, according to the records dating back that far. The Saxons who settled in the UK at the time had little use for slate, with thatched roofs being the construction method of choice. Thatched roofing was made using straw and wood. Unlike slate, thatched roofs were highly flammable and prone to rotting over long periods in damp conditions, but being easy to construct, cheap to produce and easy to transport, it was a mainstay in construction methodologies right through to the 11th century.

(An example of a Saxon settlement with thatched roofs.)

Saxon thatched roof

From the 11th century, the Normans, led by William The Conqueror, invaded Britain in the famous battle against the Anglo-Saxons of 1066. This was a defining moment for the UK and architecture at the time, with the Normans winning the battle to end the Anglo-Saxon reign, and becoming the ruling power in England at the time. 

The Normans made plenty of changes across the land and the construction of castles was one of them. Thatched roofing was a thing of the past, and with a lifespan of over 100 years, weather resistant and easy to stack, slate roofs we’re growing in popularity for the large and wealthy institutions such as the church and the crown, who could afford the outlay to obtain the sturdy and reliable material. 

(Warwick Castle, founded by the Normans in 1068.)

Warwick Saxon castle

It wasn’t until the early 1300’s when the first recorded use of slate roofing on a private property was documented. It goes without saying that the owner of the property would have been a wealthy nobleman at the time, but this was a defining step in the growing popularity of slate over the next few hundred years.


The Use Of Slate In Modern History

Fast forward a few hundred years, and slate is still a mainstay not just in the UK, but across the world too. Slate queries were common throughout the UK, but were especially prominent in Wales and the South West, where an abundance of slate queries can be found even to this day. 

(Picture of a Slate quarry in Devon)

Slate quarry for extracting slate stone used to make house signs

While Welsh slate, currently widely used to make Welsh slate house signs, is recognised around the globe as one of the highest quality slates on the market, during the 1800s, Spanish slate started growing in popularity. The Spaniards started to streamline the quarrying process, to make it more efficient and effective. With the technological advances made by the Spanish, slate started to become mass-produced for everyday homes across Europe. To this day, 90% of slate sold worldwide comes from Spain! 

During the late nineteenth century the use of slate started to diversify - it wasn’t just sturdy roofing the material was found to be good for. Slate was a popular choice in schools across the world as a tool in the classroom for students to learn to read and write. In some schools, horizontal lines were etched into the slate to aid neat handwriting. These slate tiles used for literacy were slightly larger than a modern day A4 piece of paper, which had a wooden frame to protect the edges of the slate, as well as having a sponge attached on a string to easily erase the chalk writing.

(An example of a slate board used during the 20th century for children to learn how to write.)

Slate writing board with chalk for classroom learning

During the early to mid 20th century, slate production dwindled in the UK, with the World Wars being a catalyst to its decline. During the First World War, UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George declared slate mining a non-essential industry, stating that the manpower needed to mine slate could be better utilized elsewhere. This was aided by the use of new manmade materials coming into popularity at the time, such as asphalt and asbestos, both of which were cheaper and easier to manufacture compared to its slate predecessor. 

During the Second World War,  Neville Chamberlain imposed a restriction on new build properties, to keep materials free for use in the war and not tied up in non-essential construction projects - a policy that Winston Churchill maintained during his time in office. This meant that the slate industry wouldn’t start to recover until the second world war ended, on the 2nd September 1945.

 

The Use Of Slate Today

In the 21st century, the slate industry is as big as it has ever been. With efficient mining processes in place, which have been honed and adapted over hundreds of years, slate has never been in greater demand across the world. 

With it’s naturally low water absorption rate, weather resistant properties and sturdy structure, it’s a material that is used in a huge array of industries and is used in a wide range of products such as snooker tables and flooring tiles, to electric switchboards and of course, slate house signs.  

The Bespoke Sign House are specialist slate sign manufacturers who have an impeccable reputation for handcrafting and distributing stunning slate house signs not just in the UK, but across the world too. If you’re looking to see more slate products or are interested in having your very own natural slate house sign, you can view our full collection of slate signage at The Bespoke Sign House

Slate house sign on wooden gate