Arms of the Gruffydd or Griffith family of Brymbo. From J. Y. W. Lloyd, “The History of the Princes, the Lords Marcher, And the Ancient Nobility of Powys Fadog”

Most townships or manors were the home of at least one wealthy or influential family, whose estate would form the core landholding of the area. For several centuries up until the early 1700s, this position was filled in Brymbo by a family called Griffith. Although not in later years among the great or most powerful landowners of Denbighshire, their position in the gentry brought certain rights and responsibilities, and like others of their kind their names often appear in local administrative records. When John Norden surveyed the manor of Esclusham in 1620, John and Robert Griffith headed up the manorial ‘jury’, a mixture of minor gentry, freeholders and prosperous yeomen.

Part of the family’s remaining prestige came from their history: the Griffith pedigree is often recited in the manuscripts of the 16th and 17th century Welsh genealogists. In common with other gentry, the Griffith family once kept a “card”, or detailed genealogical table, in their library: the scholar Robert Vaughan’s book of pedigrees, the Llyfr Achau Robert Vaughan or Peniarth MS. 287, lists “Gruff. of Brymbo his card” amongst its sources. Their claimed ancestor, Sanddef Hardd (“Alexander the Handsome”), was a twelfth-century member of a noble family from Bodafon, in the north of Anglesey. As related in this usefully detailed page, he may have followed the common path of hiring out his military skills, possibly during the “Anarchy” of the 1140s, the period of strife in England between the supporters of King Stephen and Matilda. Sanddef’s mercenary service was to pay off – handsomely. He was rewarded with land in Burton near present-day Gresford, and several of the landowners of the Wrexham area traced descent from him, including the later owners of the Brymbo estate.

History has not recorded the exact process by which Sanddef’s fifteenth-century descendant Edward ap Morgan came into ownership of this windy corner of rural Denbighshire, but by that time it seems clear that the family owned a substantial amount of land in the township. It is possible that a marriage (recorded in Harleian MS. 2299, compiled by the herald Hugh Thomas) between Edward’s grandfather Dafydd ap Madog and Mallt, the daughter of Dio ap Dafydd ap Madog Ddu of Brymbo bought the estate into his hands. Edward’s marriage to another local heiress, Margaret Whitford of Plas-y-Bold, would have added to the family possessions.1 The heralds and antiquarians also gave them Sanddef’s coat of arms: a gold lion rampant on a green field sown with sprigs of broom, a plant whose bright yellow flowers still cover the roadsides around Brymbo in late spring. It grows along the footpath running north-east from the old Brymbo road at Penrhos to the brow of the hill where the Griffith house once stood, from where you can see the whole of the eastern and northern part of the estate beneath you, along with a view over five counties.

Edward’s son Gruffydd ap Edward, “gentleman”, appears in 1534, when a bond of the 1st February records his five year lease of water mills at Hope and “the Wharrell”. By 1564, as deeds in the Welsh archive’s Brogyntyn papers show, Gruffydd was leasing further properties from the Crown, including the mills at Minera. The few remaining documents seem to reveal a family consolidating its position amongst the local gentry: Gruffydd’s estates probably represented the high point of their wealth and influence. To better conform to English standards, Gruffydd ap Edwards’s descendants adopted his name, Gruffydd or Griffith, as their surname, although its application remained fairly flexible for a number of years. Gruffydd lived into the 1580s, and his sons took a more traditionally Welsh approach in splitting the family’s lands between them, with the Brymbo estate being settled on Robert Griffith and the second son, Roger Griffith, receiving the estate and house at Plas-y-Bold near Caergwrle. 

Robert’s son, John (referred to as John Wynn ap Robert in the Llyfr Silin, a genealogical manuscript of the 1640s) bought the Crown leases outright in 1629, and purchased a moiety of the tithes of Brymbo and Gwersyllt.

The Griffiths’ seat at Brymbo, pictured abandoned and empty by the mid 20th century. Part of the 1624 house built for John Griffith can be seen at left, while at right is a newer extension, possibly of the 1660s. Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales; used with permission

Some time in the early 1620s, John Griffith began building a substantial new house on the south-facing slopes of Brymbo hill; it clearly replaced an existing gentry house on the same site, though we have no record of the earlier building’s appearance. At this time and in this area, a building like this represented an enormous financial commitment: even prosperous farms were relatively small buildings, while the average labourer’s family lived in a crude hut. As the farmland around Brymbo was too high and exposed to make anyone much of a fortune, it could perhaps have been John Griffith’s interests in the growing local industries that assisted the expansion of his property. Wherever the money came from, the new house, Brymbo Hall, was an exceptionally attractive one by the standards of the area, built using ashlared blocks of the local sandstone with many Jacobean flourishes and details. Around its main entrance, Griffith commissioned an elaborate portico flanked by carvings of flowers and birds: it included a heraldic lion, a roundel with the date, 1624, and the inscriptions “IHS” and “the Glory of God“. Judging by the rather patchy evidence of later maps and pictures, there was a formal garden and terrace contemporary with this house; there was also a separate chapel. It was all sufficiently impressive that awed local residents, for years afterwards, spoke of the house being designed by the great Welsh architect Inigo Jones, a tradition that was repeated in many early guidebooks, some of which also mention the magnificent views to be had from there.  On the other hand, most architecturally impressive structures in Wales of that period tended to be attributed to Jones whether he had any involvement or not, so it remains an interesting but unprovable local story.

John Griffith’s estate and inheritance, not including his interests in neighbouring townships such as Minera, stretched for several hundred acres north, west and east of the hall. It probably included the farm known as Penrhos-isaf next to the common moor (or rhos) in the west (the township gwarchae or pinfold, where straying livestock were rounded up, was located on the road between the hall and Penrhos) and included other tenements around present-day Mount Sion and next to the common called Harwood. It also incorporated all the fields and pastures which were later the site of the steelworks. The deep banks of the lane that was formerly its southern boundary may show that the estate was, as a unit, very old, as such lanes often developed from the double bank and ditch used to define the limits of large landholdings in Britain before the Norman Conquest. The 1620 survey of Brymbo records John Griffith’s various farms and tenements, such as “Maes y Graig” and “Bryn Hoell” (although he seems to have been rather poor at recording the actual size of those tenements) along with the names of his tenant farmers: Robert Raphe, Robert Mathew, Gruffith ap John, and others.

Unlike the Powells and the Robinsons, John Griffith and his son (also John, and quite possibly the John Griffith of Wrexham who matriculated from Oriel College, Oxford on 20 March 1639/40, aged 19) seem to have had minimal or no active involvement in the Civil War. This was a surprisingly turbulent period in East Denbighshire and Wrexham: though many landowners were Royalist, the area was not as solidly for the King as one might expect. However, it may have been the case that the elder John Griffith was a bit old, and his son a bit young, to have seen active service. It’s a bit disappointing that there seems to be little or nothing surviving in the way of correspondence or portraits to flesh out our knowledge of the family. The Griffiths were men whose lives were measured out in court cases or deeds, if at all: somewhat typical of minor Welsh landowners, fairly well-off in land but poor in cash, carefully guarding a pedigree stretching far back into the Middle Ages.

One interesting development in the period was that Brymbo Hall appears, for a time, to have been divided and part-sold or leased to Sir Richard Saltonstall. Saltonstall was a Puritan and Parliamentarian and was heavily involved in anti-Royalist activity in the border counties. After Saltonstall’s death in 1661, the property passed to his heirs, some of whom were in America: but by the time of the hearth tax, a few years after the Restoration, the younger John Griffith was back in full possession and was indeed recorded as having recently built a new house. Unfortunately without the property’s deeds, which are lost, it cannot be said whether this indicates that the Griffiths fell out of favour during the Commonwealth. They were certainly connected to Royalist families: John’s daughter Elizabeth was later married to the son of Nanney Lloyd, a captain in Sir Thomas Salusbury’s regiment.2 John Griffith was not listed amongst the gentlemen of the area who had paid fines direct to Parliament, but many Royalist landowners – and particularly their tenants – suffered especially from requisitioning of livestock and property by Parliamentary troops (as well as from the demands of the Royalist forces). If he did suffer financially for his political affiliations there was at least a partial recovery, as at some point after 1660 an eastern extension was certainly added to the 1624 house. It was just as elaborate as its predecessor, in a highly fashionable classical style.

The younger John Griffith died in 1678, the Wrexham parish registers recording his burial on December 4th (Alfred Palmer, in his History of the Country Townships of Wrexham, mistakes this date as referring to his father, who had in fact died twenty years earlier). The house was afterward rated to his son Robert Griffith, born ca. 1642. Robert continued the usual existence of a rural squire, doing a stint as High Sheriff of Denbighshire between 1684 and 1685 and serving as one of its Land Tax commissioners. There is also evidence that (like Roger Mostyn, his neighbour, at Plas Mostyn) he had interests in the area’s coal and mineral resources: a marriage settlement early in the next century lists “2 Horses & 2 Mares belonging to ye Coal Pitts” amongst property at the house, many years before the estate’s later owner, John Wilkinson, began his much better-known exploitation of the coal beneath it. Once again it is possible to see how the seventeenth century brought an increasing mix of the agricultural and industrial to the area, as landowners sought new sources of income beyond the rather poor soils of their fields.

Robert Griffith married Jane Holland, daughter of John Holland of Teyrdan near Llaneilian-yn-Rhos. They had at least two children, John and Mary, and another daughter Jane who seems to have died in infancy, as so many did in that time. John, the only son and heir, was sent to Christ Church College, Oxford: a 1695 letter between two local landowners mentions that Robert (or “Robin”) had travelled to Oxford with him. However, John appears to have died unmarried in 1705, aged 28, and the affairs of the Brymbo estate were immediately made much more complex. The financial situation does not seem to have been as rosy as the earlier building spree had suggested – perhaps debt had indeed built up against the estate during the Civil War and Commonwealth, or perhaps all that expensive new stonework and glass had taken its toll – and Robert had borrowed money against the property, which his young daughter Mary now stood to inherit on his death. The resulting legal situation would grow more convoluted and eventually take several decades to unravel.

The fascinating story of Mary Griffith, and of the estate in the eighteenth century and after, is given in the next post. There is also more on John Griffith and the Saltonstalls.

Footnotes

Back to post. 1.Dio ap Dafydd himself claimed descent from Cynwrig ap Rhiwallon, a powerful lord of Maelor Gymraeg. The Welsh gentry’s obsession with genealogy might seem rather strange, not to say snobbish, to modern eyes, but it helped make things clearer in a system where patronymic names were used and estates were divided up equally amongst all the sons of a family.

Back to post. 2.In the immediately surrounding area, Alfred Palmer (in A History of the Older Nonconformity of Wrexham) lists several members of landowning families who fought as Royalist officers, including Sir Richard Lloyd, at Esclus, Colonel John Robinson of Gwersyllt, and two of the Powells of Gyfynys at Brymbo. However some, such as Captain Roger Sontley and Captain Hugh Pritchard, the latter a tanner who owned land in Brymbo and Broughton, fought to protect the rights of Parliament, along with many other men from the area of Wrexham.