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Orchid growing beneath a hedge, near Brymbo

This is a blog about local history, and the history of one place in particular. But as everyone needs some variety, this post will mainly be about natural history.

On the face of it, Brymbo would seem an unpromising area for wildlife of any kind. Coal extraction and steelmaking have dominated the landscape for two centuries, and new houses are now spreading in their wake. Local government policy seems to have targeted much of the community as a site for urbanisation, rather than protection.

Despite this, not everything is as uniformly post-industrial as someone who had never seen the area might think. After all, this was deep countryside for many centuries before the mines and furnaces arrived; and though there were few corners of the township that did not have some sort of industry, most of it was on a much smaller scale than the sprawl of the ironworks. Particularly in the west, the farmland outlasted the scars of mine tailings, quarries and tramways, most of which are now so green and overgrown it can be difficult to spot they were ever there. It still has a rich biodiversity, even now: anyone walking around the lanes of the old township in late spring and early summer, when the pastures are at their best and filled with buttercups, can see many interesting plants or birds.

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Remains of the engine house built near Penrhos by Wilkinson.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about the history of Brymbo without mentioning John Wilkinson at some point. Though there seem to have been coal-pits in the area from mediaeval times, and though previous owners of the Brymbo estate might have tried to make money from minerals (such as Robert Griffith with coal, and Arthur Owen with lead), Wilkinson was the first to make an obvious success of it. It was through the expansion of his holdings, as we have seen, that much of the upper part of the township was turned from common and waste into farmland. Lastly, his bringing together of the particular resources of the locality – ironstone, coal, and limestone from the nearby mountain, along with plenty of fast-flowing water – laid the foundations of an industry that would come to define the area for the best part of two hundred years.

Plenty has been written about Wilkinson already, of course. There has been at least one detailed biography, and Alfred Palmer’s article John Wilkinson and the Old Bersham Iron Works, published in 1897-8 in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, gives a huge amount of detail about both the works at Bersham and his later enterprise at Brymbo. Nevertheless it is probably worth talking about Wilkinson a little, if only because – as I mentioned at the start – he cannot be ignored.

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In its pre-industrial days, Brymbo was divided up into smallish, mainly freehold estates, many of which were in the hands of the minor “gentry”, or at least farmers with some pretensions to a coat of arms and a long family tree. The origin, development and fate of these estates, or stentiau, forms the background to the area’s transformation over the centuries. Beginning from the original Welsh tref, usually held by an important family and over the generations divided amongst its sons, we can see estates consolidate under English rules of inheritance, pass out of families, become tenanted out or sold off piecemeal. Gradually the wealthy farmers become replaced by industrialists, the rural labourers by miners, and the local gentry by large landowners, often living in other parts of the country, while the dispersed rural settlements typical of Wales are eventually replaced by the clustered villages of later centuries.

This is a very simplified way of looking at it, but many of the bigger landholdings in Brymbo have gone through this kind of development. An example is the area just to the northeast of today’s Brymbo village, marked on Ordnance Survey maps by the text “Gyfynys Farm”. This was once the centre of a large estate held by an (in local terms) important family, but having gone through the usual cycle of dissolution, industrial development, and a return to agriculture, there is little today to show that this was ever the case.

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