Page last updated at 07:28 GMT, Thursday, 29 October 2009

'Victorian' farm families wanted

By Neil Prior
BBC Wales news website

Snowdonia landscape
The families will be expected to work in slate quarrying and run a small holding

After two successful series of the BBC Wales historical reality show Coalhouse, a new series is to be set in a Victorian farmhouse in Snowdonia.

The producers are looking for members of the public who want to take part in Snowdonia Farmhouse.

Two families will travel back in time to 1890 to taste life in slate quarrying and farming a small holding.

Applications are open for the three week-long series open via email and a BBC hotline.

Filming for the series starts next March.

The families will experience life as a quarrying family, subsidising their meagre wages by farming their mountain small-holdings.

Clare Hudson, BBC Wales' head of English language programming, said the series would offer a "dramatic context for the collision of social history and real life drama".

She added: "We look forward to transporting the viewers, along with the families, back to a fascinating period in north Wales's history."

Publicity poster
The producers are appealing for interested families to apply by 27 November

On the face of it, many of the challenges facing the successful families will be similar to those in the two previous series - coping without mod-cons, labour intensive work, lack of money, and expected to conform to the socially norms of the day.

But Llanberis-based historian Dewi Thomas believes the series will be a major departure from Coalhouse.

"Much more so than today, north and south Wales were totally different entities, with differing lifestyles, cultures, industrial relations, and even to a certain extent, languages," he said.

"As you saw in the first two series of Coalhouse in south Wales the industrial revolution brought about an explosion of activity in mining and iron work in a short period of time, resulting in mass immigration, with a great deal of labour focused in a small area.

"Essentially this gave the coal masters the upper hand, and for the workers, meant poor, cramped housing, low wages, and little chance to improve your lot."

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Are you ready for life on a farm in Snowdonia in the 1890s?

Mr Thomas added: "In Snowdonia slate quarrying came about more gradually. Of course the industrial revolution brought things on a pace, but things developed at a rate whereby it merged with, rather than replaced the existing agricultural economy.

"That meant that you didn't see the same volume of immigration, and so the people of Snowdonia were able to retain their language and culture to a greater extent.

'Back-breaking work'

"Also, as they were more geographically isolated, there was a lot more space for farming as a side-line.

"And the smaller labour pool meant that wages and conditions were, comparatively-speaking a lot better than for their counterparts in the south."

But, if you're thinking of applying, don't be lulled into a false sense of security. There might have been more economic freedom in slate quarrying communities but that doesn't mean life was any easier.

"It's fair to say that there were more advantages and opportunities open to 19th Century slate workers, but didn't they half have to work for them," said Mr Thomas.

"Men and boys would spend 12 hours a day in the quarries. Boys from around 14 or 15 years old in 1890, but as young as nine years old in the earlier years of the century.

"It was back-breaking work, with many of the health problems associated with breathing in dust and muck all day. Boys and unskilled workers wouldn't make very much, sorting through rock and preparing blast sites, but one of the advantages they had over the south was a greater dependence on skilled workers.

Still from Coalhouse
The Coalhouse series took families to a mining community and experience of wartime

"Coal will still burn pretty much however you hack it out of the seam, but if you shatter a piece of slate, it's all but worthless.

"How they'll teach the Farmhouse men to split a piece of slate in three weeks I'll be very keen to see!"

Elen Wyn-Roberts education officer at the National Slate Museum, said: "Yes you could say that life was a lot more pleasant around Snowdonia during that time. The diet was certainly a good deal healthier, with milk, cheese, eggs, fresh veg and meat all relatively common sights on the table."

Women were key to the relative prosperity of the slate families, more or less taking on the running of the family small-holding.

'Squeamish'

"With the men in the slate mines for 12 hours a day, not to mention an hour or so travelling either way, it was the women who made sure that the small holdings produced for the family.

"That's on top of running the house, and caring for the children, and all the chores which women in south Wales would have been expected to do. Whoever the successful families are, they'd better not be squeamish, or afraid of hard work, otherwise they're in for a hungry few weeks."

If you think you and your family are up to the challenge call 03703 500 700* or log on to Snowdonia Farmhouse to request an application form. The closing date for applications is 13 December.

*0370 calls cost no more than 01 and 02 geographic landline numbers and are included in discount packages for both fixed-line and mobile phones. Calls may be recorded for monitoring and training purposes.



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