There are any number of places to start when looking at the history of an area, but one of the most productive is to see if there are any official surveys or other records.

As an ordinary farming area without towns, markets or anything of particular strategic or monetary value, Brymbo would have passed under the radar as far as most official attention was concerned. It did, however, have a lot of coal close to the surface, and it’s in this connection that it begins to appear in records. John Leland, an antiquary who travelled across the country in the reign of Henry VIII, writes of Bromfield as a “playne country”, which “hath good Plenty of Wood, and goode Corne and Pasture, and Se-Coles at Harwood”. Early in the next century, a detailed survey of Bromfield and Yale conducted by the map-maker John Norden noted a coal mine owned by Sir Richard Grosvenor “in Comun’ vocat Harwood“.

Norden’s survey of 1620 is an attempt to set down just those things that might be of interest to the monarch, in this case James I: how much land there was, who owned it, how much it was worth, and more importantly if there were any more revenues that could be got out of it. His description of Brymbo reveals something of a backwater where even the jury, the board of local landowners assembled to give an account of the manor of Esclusham and all the townships within it, are unsure of many rents, the profits of Grosvenor’s coal pit, other details, and apparently the size of their own estates in some cases. They are, however, able to describe the township boundaries in some detail, at least as far as the common moor above Bwlchgwyn.

The Esclusham jury, incidentally, consisted of John Griffith, gent, John David, Robert Griffith, gent, Hugh ap Llewelyn, Roger ap William, John ap Rhys ap Hugh, David ap Robert ap Hugh, Robert ap Edward, John ap Hugh, Edward ap Richard Vaughan, James ap Robert, William Twissingham, John Wynn ap John ap Edward, Ellis ap John Wynn, Thomas Williams, John Mathews, Thomas Lewis, Howell ap Edward, John Sontley and Hugh ap Howell. It is immediately apparent that nearly all apart from Mr. Twissingham (one of the Brymbo men; he lived in Glascoed) are Welsh, still using patronymics, and only two are dignified as gentlemen. The rest would have been of something closer to the yeoman class, in English understanding anyway, although John Sontley was a member of one of the area’s most important families.

The level of detail recorded by Norden means that for the first time we have substantial information on the township and (indirectly) on the people who lived in it. Reading through the survey gives you an immediate sense of the patterns of land ownership in the area. Much of the land is held freehold in rather small estates by independent yeoman-farmers of the type noted above, or by minor gentry families who (despite bearing arms or long pedigrees) were not much more than farmers themselves. Thomas Pennant, writing about 150 years later in his Tours in Wales, approvingly notes that the parish of Wrexham was inhabited by a “numerous gentry” of a then rather old-fashioned character (he elsewhere complains about land being swallowed up by great estates). Brymbo itself he simply describes as a “township on the heights”, producing coal, pausing only to note the “house of Brymbo, a good antient seat, once the property of the Griffiths“.

The Griffith family, of whom I’ll be writing much more in due course, appear in Norden’s document as the prominent landowning family of the township. “Johannes Gruffith gen’” and “Robertus Gruffith gen’” head up the jury for the manor and would have been responsible for passing Norden much of his information. John Griffith, in Norden’s abbreviated Latin, is listed as owning vnu’ capital’ messuagi’ cum pertinen’ et diuers’ p’cell’ terr’ eidem pertinen’ – a large (capital) dwelling and various parcels of land – and various farms and cottages in the tenure of Robert Matthews, Thomas Younge, and others. This estate, comprising the lands around the main house, Brymbo Hall, along with the farms at Pen-Rhos and stretching towards the Glascoed valley, was the core landholding of the township and its later history was to prove important for the whole area.

Another of the larger landowners in the township was William Robinson of Gwersyllt, listed as owning about 247 acres of freehold land in total in various parcels. Many of these seem to have been fairly recently acquired from Hugh Puleston, presumably the Hugh who had been the head of the branch of the Puleston family based at Plas Berse. The Robinsons were in the grand scheme of things a rather more powerful family than the Griffiths: William was the son of Nicholas Robinson, bishop of Bangor, and had further estates in Anglesey and elsewhere. However, amongst the larger landholdings in Brymbo are many smaller freehold estates adding up to 10 acres or less, down to the likes of Hugh Francis, with 6 acres and a cottage, Elizabeth verch Edward, with 5 acres called “y coed towyll“, and Lilly Morgan, who owned a cottage and 2 roods of land called “Erwr hendur” (presumably Erw’r Hendre, or something like that). Such an estate might have supported a couple of cows, perhaps some sheep, and produced hay to keep animals fed in the winter. The residents of the area were also able to gather “turfe, furse, heathe and fearne” from the commons of the manor and cut down trees to repair their properties (though “what Licence they have, this Jury know nott”). There were, the jury said, woods of “birch, owlers and hazell” which yielded materials for hedging, and “quarreys of lyme”, which was taken, without payment, by freeholders and tenants to improve the poor clayey soil of their land. People who do not appear on the survey are farm labourers, who in this time would either have lived at the farmhouse itself – if unmarried – or in small cottages of clay, turf and thatch, in conditions of extreme poverty and discomfort by our standards. However, the area’s farmers didn’t necessarily have a bad life, at least in dietary terms. In 1597, a document recorded that a yeoman family of Brymbo were able to have roast mutton for dinner, and often bought beef from the market (presumably in Wrexham).

The whole survey was transcribed in the 19th century and published by the Archaeologia Cambrensis: it’s now been made available on archive.org, so you can easily look at this fascinating document for yourself (the relevant sections appear from cciii onwards).

The survey is particularly useful as it lists field names, which can help identify the pieces of land being referred to. Field names can usually be found from 19th-century maps, but even today’s residents might recognise some of the names listed. The name Brithdir (a small farm near Bwlchgwyn) appears as one of Robinson’s possessions, as does Gwern y gassag (Gwern y Gasseg), alongside Govennys (the Gyfynys), the latter then being owned by Thomas Powell.