In this post I’ll briefly look at the common land around Brymbo, its uses, and where it was located.

There were actually various types of common land within a township, all of which were a different resource. In much of the mediaeval English countryside, the open ‘common fields’ of a village were allocated out in strips to different individuals, ploughed by the common draught team, and used for various arable crops. While there were some areas of such open-field agriculture in Wales, even in the north-east (Alfred Palmer made a very detailed examination of the system of “quillets” used in some manors of Bromfield in his book A History of Ancient Tenures of Land in North Wales), the greater emphasis on pastoral farming in the upland areas meant that such fields were less often seen there. Many townships, however, included large areas of “waste” or common pasture, used for grazing, along with common woods and other areas. All of these technically belonged to the lord, but commoners had certain rights over them.

I’ve already mentioned the common known as Harwood or Harwd, where in the mediaeval period coal was dug. The name likely comes from hare-wood, wood of the hares, or just possibly from Old English har, hoary, “grey”: whatever its origin, the wood took up a large proportion of Brymbo township and gave its name to the first hamlet on the site of the modern-day village. Like other common woods, it would have been a valuable source of what Norden’s 1620 survey calls “boote” (wood for repairs, hedging, domestic carpentry, and the like) and “tinsell” (firewood). Like the large woods in Bersham known, in Norden’s time, as “y coed poeth”, the Brymbo common wood might also have been used by charcoal-burners, and would have been a good place to let your pigs root around. As mentioned above, in theory such common resources would belong to the lord, but there was a general understanding that local farmers needed access to them to keep their farms ticking over: you can’t mend hedges without good hazel, for example. As the townships were largely self-reliant it was to everyone’s benefit to preserve access to the common woods and grazing. In the case of Brymbo and of the manor of Esclusham, John Griffith and the other members of Norden’s jury seem to have had little idea exactly who was entitled to what in any case, or by what licence they took it, and it may have been that in this quiet spot the residents took what they needed fairly freely.

Most of the old commons of Brymbo seem to have lain in the west and north of the township. Some survived until relatively late on, such as the farm known as the Waen, or later as Waen Farm, east of Bwlchgwyn along the Glascoed road; this is known to have been a creation of John Wilkinson, who enclosed it from the old common. A little further west along the same road is another of Wilkinson’s old farms, once known as the Gorse (the whole area being called “Gorse” on older maps). While it’s tempting, given the amount of it that grows in the vicinity, to connect this with the yellow-flowered heathland plant called gorse or whin, Palmer points out that areas known as y gors (“the marsh”) can sometimes signify the former common turbary of a township – the place where its inhabitants cut turves to burn on their fires. The Gorse is in fact right on the edge of the township, exactly where Palmer states that such areas would usually be.

There may also have been small quarries of limestone, which is close to the surface near Bwlchgwyn: Norden mentions that the freeholders and tenants of Esclusham (of which Brymbo was a part) took it freely. It would have been an excellent natural fertiliser, particularly for any arable crops, which would have had a hard time on the poor soil.

Equally important was the common pasture, often signified by the name rhos (usually translated as “moor”). This area would have provided grazing for the farmers’ animals, meaning that in turn less of their own land had to be kept under grass. In the case of Brymbo this can be seen in the area called Penrhos, the “end” (pen) of the moor, and the township gwarchae, the pound or pinfold where any animals who had wandered away from their owners’ attentions were gathered up, was very close by. A gwarchae could also be let out for the night to any drovers passing through with their flocks. As one of the main drove routes came down from Llandegla through Bwlchgwyn to Wrexham, it’s possible that the Brymbo pound might have been used for this – it’s certainly still marked with a very large tree, often used as a drovers’ waymark. There was also once an inn nearby – the Red Lion, now Rhos-y-Coed farm.

A distant view of the site of the township gwarchae, or pinfold, below Penrhos. Note the large tree at centre-right. The bank in the centre of the picture is old mine waste, and Rhos-y-Coed (once the Red Lion) is at upper left.

The end of  old system of common fields and common resources came gradually and was perhaps less drastic in Wales (where patterns of land use were different) than in some parts of England, where, as wool became an increasingly valuable commodity, and former arable lands were converted to sheep farming, entire villages often disappeared, their residents left to fend for themselves. In Brymbo, some common land was probably lost due to encroachments, or individuals building cottages on it. The Welsh custom of a newly married man being able to claim the land around a house built on the “waste” in one night – a result of large areas of such land and lax officials – was apparently active in the area until the 19th century. Some miners may also have built themselves squatter’s cottages and carved small gardens from the common. The Inclosure Acts of the 18th century and later would accelerate the process as common land was purchased and parcelled off as farms, as in the case of the Waen. Enclosure in this form was, in part, a response to the rising grain prices of the 1780s and later – a result of foreign wars – as landowners sought to bring more areas under profitable cultivation. However, the process proceeded at different rates in different areas and may have depended on the presence of a  particularly enthusiastic landowner. John Wilkinson was, it seems, exactly this type of landowner.

An interesting article by W. Chaloner, published in the Agricultural History Review, notes Wilkinson’s long history of pursuing agricultural improvement projects, once his industrial interests had provided him with sufficient capital. The first involved a large tract of marsh at Castlehead, his estate in Lancashire, which was with great effort and ingenuity turned into valuable agricultural land (although some critics at the time pointed out that the amounts spent on it could simply have bought productive land in the first place). Wilkinson continued with these enthusiasms at Brymbo, where the soil was heavy and acidic, by burning large quantities of limestone and using it to fertilise his farmland. He also used powdered coal as a dressing on pasture to produce early grass, and reclaimed further land from the furze and rushes that covered it. He even built a steam-powered threshing machine at Brymbo – the first in north Wales, and perhaps in the country, giving the township an important if little-known place in agricultural history. Faced with Wilkinson’s energies, the commons shrunk still further, until the high pasture and moorland in the far west of the area were the last remaining fragments of this ancient system of management.