Gorse growing on old spoil heaps in the fields behind Mount Pleasant farm, where coal mining may have taken place in the 17th century.

We know a fair amount about coal mining around Brymbo in the 19th century, after John Wilkinson had developed the area’s industry, and the township was at the heart of the Denbighshire coalfield. It’s also clear that some smaller-scale activity was taking place from at least the 14th century. These would have been very shallow mines by later standards: bell-pits with a central shaft flaring out at the coal face at a depth of around thirty feet, though sometimes more depending on the depth of the seams. Most of the evidence of the early coal workings has been obliterated by those of subsequent centuries, or by the destructive opencast workings of the past 50 years, but some references can still be found in old documents.

I have already mentioned the 14th century grant to the burgesses of Holt, permitting them to dig for coal on Brymbo’s commons. Leland, writing in the 16th century, also notes that there are “se-coles at Harwood”. Most remarkably, one document still exists which not only gives us a good idea of how the coal miners of the late 17th century Brymbo worked, but even tells us some of their names.

This document, described on its reverse as “the colliers bond of Performance”, is an agreement drawn up on the 20th December 1684 between Robert Griffith, the owner of the Brymbo Hall estate, and four Brymbo miners: Lewis Thomas, John Thomas, Robert Owen and Thomas Edwards. Griffith had granted them the right to dig coal on part of his land, and the bond sets out the terms under which the work would be done. The “pitt” had, it appears, already been dug by them beneath a parcel of land called Cae Mawr Bychan; a later map of the estate shows that the only field of this name at that time was part of the Mount Pleasant farm, behind the farmhouse a little to the south of today’s Brymbo Pool. There is a good chance that this piece of land, which today is dotted with old spoil heaps thickly covered in gorse, is the same one referred to in the bond: there were certainly several shafts there in Wilkinson’s time. Beneath the gorse the ground is honeycombed with old workings, and it was perhaps under here that Lewis Thomas and his partners carried out their work over three hundred years ago.

The document is in four main sections:

  1. The partners may take as much of the “brasse Coale” (presumably the “Brassey” seam of coal, as it was referred to in later centuries) as “possibly may be gotten digged delved and drawne” out of the pit under Cae Mawr Bychan. They must leave the pit open at the end of the work and not rob out any of the supports. Robert Griffith is to take a third share of the profits, and also receive “two pyches of Coales for his fire every day”. The partners must also make a hedge to prevent trespass on the field.
  2. Robert Griffith must put in a workman of his own – “eyther a winder, drawer, or hewer  (wch. he pleases)” – to act as his representative there,whilst the partners must find him work and pay his wages.
  3. Griffith retains the right to inspect the work as he pleases,while the colliers must work at least five days a week, unless they show good cause otherwise, or are sick, “drunkness and tiplinge […] beinge noe excuse for them”. Any neglect would result in the forfeit of a day’s wage.
  4. Before the 24th of June following, the colliers would at their own cost sink a further pit by “ty yn y kelin” in Brymbo, and there dig for thirteen yards beneath the “ten ynche Coale” whereby it should be possible to “come to the greate Coale”.
  5. Mr Griffith would be paid his third share of the profits every Saturday, along with the coal for his personal use; if it was necessary to store coal in the event carting it away was not possible (probably a regular enough occurence on the bad roads of the time, in the depths of winter during the “Little Ice Age”) the colliers would set aside their two shares and Griffith’s third share on the “banke”.

It sounds a difficult and unpleasant job – and no doubt it was, by modern standards. Thomas and his associates would have been working in cramped conditions and near-darkness, digging with hand tools by the light of a weak flame, and without any easy means of drainage or of dealing with any dangerous gases collecting in the pit. Even then, the landowner took a third part of all they drew up; they even had to pay the wages of the man he engaged to watch over them. However, we must also understand that the colliers were in this time skilled professionals whose product was in high demand. The agreement suggests an established industry and techniques, as well as a knowledge of how matters should be managed. While the terms of their agreement with Robert Griffith seem harsh, and the work dangerous, uncomfortable and physically demanding, it was still probably an existence of better earnings and vastly more freedom than that afforded the landless agricultural labourers of the time.