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.

The Gyfynys or Gyffynys estate – it is spelt different ways, depending on the source you use – was of particular interest to Alfred Palmer, the Brymbo steelworks’ chemist who became one of the main authorities on the history of the Wrexham area. In fact, he devotes much of the Brymbo chapter of his History of the Country Townships of Wrexham to it: its history is something of a puzzle, and Palmer seems to have relished puzzles. Even its name is open to discussion, he notes; does the spelling Gofynys – the smith island – or Gyffynys – the double island – accurately reveal its origin? (Actually, the name Cyfynys, or Y Gyfynys, occurs elsewhere in Wales, where it perhaps means “the two (adjacent) water-meadows”).

Palmer is more certain in tracing the estate back to an Elizabethan gentleman called Howel ap Llewelyn ap David ap Owen, the earliest owner he can find on record. I assume that this is a reference to a dispute over the estate in the Court of Exchequer, when he was the defendant and William Lloyd of Halghton the complainant. Lloyd’s father was the copyholder of the estate, and as such received rent from its occupant Llewelyn ap David, the defendant’s father, though a dispute had since arisen with Howel.

Howel ap Llewelyn not only got the better of his legal troubles but passed the estate on to his illegitimate son Thomas, who adopted an English-style surname and set himself up as Thomas Powell, Esq. He occupied what was probably a largeish house, or smallish mansion, at the Gyfynys. Norden, writing in 1620, makes a note of the Exchequer case in his survey of the estate, adding “…but this Powell is in possession“. It is now difficult to determine much about Powell’s house, but it was assessed for three hearths later in the 17th century. The “Govennys” itself is stated by Norden to have gardens, an orchard, and a croft attached, but Powell’s remaining lands occupied much of the northern part of the township towards Ffrwd and stretching into Broughton and Gwersyllt. They included Halcog or Halcock, Bryn Rhug farm, and the farm called Crachdy, though the whole estate was rather fragmented; he also owned a mill, which though long disappeared is referred to in the name Coed-y-felin, the Mill Wood. Much of the the land around the Gyfynys is still farmland: walk down the steep-banked Glyon Lane and along Cae-pen-ty Road today and you are in the heart of the old Powell estate.

Thomas Powell was followed at Gyfynys by his son Samuel. Both Samuel Powell and his eldest son, another Thomas, have been identified as officers during the Civil War, in common with many members of the minor gentry. Palmer was not able to discover a great deal about the Powells other than that revealed by their wills, which still survive, and was not entirely sure if they were Royalist officers or not, but assumes they were: both were a part of Royalist gentry circles. However it seems that the Samuel Powell identified as a military captain was one of Thomas Powell’s younger brothers, not his father. A Lieutenant Thomas Powell of Denbighshire appears in the records of John Owen’s regiment, which means (if it was the same Powell, which is possible) that he could have fought at Bristol and the first Newbury, amongst other actions. However, Norman Tucker, in his Denbighshire Officers in the Civil War, thinks that this was another man, and that the Brymbo Thomas Powell served in Colonel Robert Ellice’s regiment of foot. This regiment supported Sir Thomas Aston’s night attack on Middlewich, where most of them were captured after a counter-attack, and a reconstituted version fought its way through Lancashire in May 1644 alongside Prince Rupert, before possibly ending up at Marston Moor. Whichever regiment he served with, Thomas Powell would have had an eventful 1640s, and as we will see the young man’s time fighting for the Royalist cause may have had an unfortunate effect on his later life. He married twice, and his second wife, Christian, was the daughter of William Edwards of Cefn y Wern, a staunch supporter of Charles I who was among those in Harlech Castle when it was besieged by Parliamentary forces in 1647.

The elder Samuel Powell’s will, dated 1665, is a fairly complex affair leaving money to daughters Marie,  Margaret and Alice (who gets a handsome sum of one hundred pounds) and dividing his household goods between the latter two, also named executrixes, although noting his intent “that my heire shall have my books“. His land in Brymbo is not mentioned (although some in the neighbouring township of Broughton is) though this is to be expected with land held under copyhold tenure, which automatically passed to the eldest son of the family. Interestingly, an inventory is attached, though as with the similar inventory of the possessions of his neighbour Robert Griffith (named as one of Powell’s trustees) it is surprising to see how little he owned in comparison to what we might expect. A small amount of furniture is mentioned, and the contents of his parlour – including a “decayed” coat of mail, five equally decrepit maps and a gaming-table – give a good sense of the typical surroundings of an impoverished country gentleman of the 1660s. A disputed codicil to this will was, however, to lead to a later Exchequer case, which Palmer evidently had not seen, as it both reveals much more about the Powell family and about what happened to the estate.

The remaining documents, dated to the 17th & 18th years of Charles II’s reign, show Thomas Powell suing three of his siblings –  his younger brother Samuel and sisters Margaret and Alice – as well as certain witnesses to the will. They reveal Samuel Powell the elder to be a man deeply concerned about his children’s prospects after his death. The family was large (he had eleven children by his first wife, Alice) and he was five hundred pounds in debt. His eldest son and heir Thomas, the Cavalier, had been handsomely educated in London, but one gets the impression that since his days in Ellice’s regiment he had fallen into bad ways, or at least into company and behaviour his father did not approve of: according to one deponent, William John Gough, Samuel “did use often times to declare and express his dislike of [his son’s] courses“. Another deponent, Robert Parry of Brymbo, who states he was a manservant to Samuel Powell, describes how the latter was “desirous and used persuasions to [his son] to contrive and take his Entertaynement with him but [Thomas] Contrary thereunto would goe abroad, stay forth severall dayes and often tymes upon his returne would be farr in Drinke to the great displeasure of his father“. Parry even recalled being sent to Wrexham to bring back both Thomas and his father’s mare, which he had borrowed and failed to return when promised. Moreover given the family’s precarious financial position, Samuel had insisted that Thomas seek his permission before marrying – presumably hoping that the match would be a lucrative one.  Thomas had predictably disobeyed him, marrying a girl who he then proceeded to neglect, spending a great deal of time away from home. (Palmer, who prints a suggested pedigree of the family, identifies the unfortunate girl as Elsbeth ferch Llwyd of Orsedd Goch). The relationship between father and son had deteriorated so much that Samuel Powell, worried his oldest son would simply sell off the estate and pocket the money, eventually made a will signing over land (the tenement known as Plas Alcock, today the area called Halcog) to a daughter and heavily favouring children other than Thomas, who would therefore have lost out on many parts of the sprawling estate.

The deponents in the case (including Captain Ellis Sutton, another of the area’s more notable Civil War figures) give many surprising details. One states that Samuel had told him “that the plaintiff his sonn came rudely at times in Drinke into his company and Charged him for offering to pass his Lands upon the defendant Samuell [Thomas’s younger brother] who had been a Traytor and born Arms against the King or words to that effect and found fault with him for doing for his daughter [that] attended him for that shee was a phanatticke and had bynn one of Morgan Lloyds church or words to that effect”. So, it seems that not only had at least one of the sisters been a nonconformist – a “fanatic” as Thomas called her – but that the younger Samuel had been a Parliamentarian officer, rather than a Royalist as Palmer supposed: a graphic description of the way that the Civil War could split families. Another deponent states that Thomas, far gone in a rage, had threatened to kill his younger brother. Margaret Powell, widow, went on record to say that about six months before his father’s death, Thomas “in his anger” had said that he “would sell all the land in question to the very doresill rather than that his brother Samuell […] or any others of his brothers or sisters should have any part thereof“.

Given the financial effects of the will, Thomas’s anger towards his father continued unabated after that latter’s death. He suggested he would tear down the Gyfynys, and replace it with a pole on which would be hung a message insulting his father. Edward Humphreys of Flintshire, gent, deposed that “not a year agonn” he had met Thomas in Wrexham, whereupon he told him that if:

he was forced to spend any money touching the Lands in question, he would spend all his lands in Gwersillt except for one Close adjoyning the wayside & there he would build a wall & put a stone therein engraved upon ‘there dyed Samuell Powell late of Gyfynis who Lived ungodlily & dyed accordingly and was the destruction of his family and putt his Children together by the eares’ or words to that effect

The Civil War is often said to have been destructive at the personal level, but it is still strange to see it brought home with such immediacy. It is difficult to know who to have sympathy for – the despairing but admittedly authoritarian-sounding father or his son the embittered Royalist – but either way the story of the Powells has a rather tragic air about it. Margaret Powell deposed that Samuel Powell, the very last time he returned to the Gyfynys from Wrexham, was convinced that his eldest son would “sell all” after his death and had “broken his heart“. She had heard that he had asked Thomas “whether hee had reported that hee intended to pass his Estate upon a base sonn [of Thomas’s] but [Thomas] answered nothing thereunto, but turned his back and went away from his father’s roome“.

The will of Thomas himself, grown “aged and somewhat sikely” in October 1686, is rather simpler leaving everything to his (second) wife Christian, and to his cousin, Christian Jones. The land mentioned in the Exchequer case is charged with the sum of one hundred marks, bequeathed to his wife and cousin, and his remaining land in Broughton and Gwersyllt is to be sold off, and the money given to his wife and cousin. Other than his nephew Edward Jones of Glan-y-pwll – the son of his sister Catherine –  the rest of his family are not mentioned. In 1689, his will having been proved that January, his wife presented Wrexham Parish Church with a large silver dish, which still forms part of the church plate: she also gave a silver chandelier, which many years later was moved to the Berse Drelincourt chapel.

Palmer states that Thomas Powell was succeeded at the Gyfynys by his nephew, another Samuel – the son of his younger brother the Parliamentarian. It was after the second Samuel’s time at the Gyfynys that the estate began to be broken up further and sold as separate farms, probably to satisfy the inheritances of various parts of the family, and the Powells gradually sank into obscurity, at least in their place of origin. Samuel Powell seems to have acquired plantation lands around Drumbee in Armagh, Ireland, and the family may have settled there permanently. Sir Edmund Thomas Bewley, in fact, believed that one offshoot of the Powell family of Drumbee in Armagh – with a habit of changing their surname’s spelling – were the possible ancestors of Edgar Allan Poe.

One interesting thing about reading Palmer is that he had access to local gossip and traditions that have died out over the intervening century. He recorded that “there is a tradition that one of the Powells clung to the house and garden, or part thereof, after the rest of the property had passed away“, noting that a Samuel Powell appears in the township rate books for some years, rated for a very low amount: this is something I have confirmed myself, as a “Samuel Powell (poor)” appears throughout the 1740s and 1750s, just before the entry for the Gyfynys, rated at small amounts of 2d. or thereabouts. By the later part of the 18th century the Matthias family were tenants at the old mansion, but by the middle of the following century it was gone, almost, but not quite, as if it had never existed. A clue to its location can be seen in the old path running across the fields to Woodlands Farm, itself only built in the 20th century. This track once curved back round from Cae Penty Road to Glyon Lane, enclosing a small, raised field that on the tithe schedule was still called ‘Gyfynys’. The larger field to its south was Cae Penty. Palmer wrote:

The site of the true Gyfynnys is pointed out by tradition, and indicated by the existing name “Cae pen ty” (House-end field). Strange to say, in 1845 this field was owned by a man named Samuel Powell, and it is famed in the neighbourhood for the crop of snowdrops, violets, and other flowers which it yearly bears, presenting the semblance of an old but abandoned garden.

He wonders if the Samuel Powell of 1845 was descended from the man in the 1740s rate-books – who in turn may have had some connection with the almost-forgotten Civil War officers of a century before.