Another view of Wilkinson’s engine house at Penrhos

This post is the first in an occasional series on the coal industry in Brymbo.

As I’ve previously mentioned, Brymbo’s first appearances in the records are often in connection with coal – as with the 16th century account of Leland, who in passing mentions “se-coles at Harwood”. Later, the township was for a time the epicentre of mining activity in the Denbighshire coalfield. It was then the most important and productive mining area in North Wales, and hundreds of men worked there underground (in appalling conditions, for the most part). The very intensity, and the early commencement, of this activity meant that by the early 20th century, many of the mines had been worked out. Even so, there were enough coal reserves left that the period after the Second World War saw a series of opencast workings that further scarred the landscape.

The main group of pits through much of the 19th century were those belonging to the Brymbo Co., the successor to John Wilkinson‘s enterprises; by 1896 their pits, then under the management of Edward Griffiths, still employed 197 people, though by then they were dwarfed by collieries in neighbouring areas. The Brymbo Co. had its origins in a group of investors centred around Robert Roy, a Scottish lawyer (or more accurately a “writer to the signet”) who had bought Wilkinson’s Brymbo estate out of Chancery. Hoping to develop their investment, in 1842 Roy and his assocates sent Henry Robertson, a 26 year old Glasgow engineer, to investigate. He seems to have been a dynamic sort of individual, and the investors were taken enough by his ideas to revive the works that they made him a full managing partner. Robertson (along with Roy, civil engineer Alexander McKenzie Ross and the English railway contractor William Betts) duly formed the “Brymbo Mineral & Railway Company” to develop the works and collieries, as well as promoting a railway to serve them. This became the “Brymbo Company” a few years later, and William and Charles Darby – two brothers from a family well-known in industrial history – were hired as managers.

Looking along the tramway from Mount Pleasant towards Penrhos

The Brymbo Company’s pits were, naturally enough, on the land previously owned by Wilkinson. After the financial problems of the years in the hands of the trustees, the estate had shrunk, and now corresponded more or less to the old Griffith lands originally purchased by Wilkinson in 1793. The estate had been worked for coal on a smaller scale for many years even before Wilkinson came on the scene, with one pit certainly in operation in the 1680s near Mount Pleasant farm, but with his usual energy, Wilkinson managed to pepper the ground with many more workings in the search for coal and ironstone. By the time of the Brymbo Co.,  the land behind Mount Pleasant was still the site of a mine: the 1873 Ordnance Survey map shows that there was a shaft here known as “No. 1”, along with two others, a small tip, and a series of tramways running to the Smelt, Penrhos, and the ironworks. Penrhos itself, the site of Wilkinson’s engine house – not used by the Brymbo Co. and converted into a dwelling – still had a number of shafts shown as active there in the 1870s. However there were several clusters of other workings, collectively making up the Brymbo colliery, that stayed in operation well into the Brymbo Co.’s period of ownership, or were sunk by them.

The Level Fawr

One of the main mining constructions of Wilkinson’s time was the Level Fawr, (“Great Level”), which is described by Palmer as around “two miles long”. It was sunk in order to drain the mines under the estate to a depth of around 130 yards, and ran (again according to Palmer) from a point somewhere near Brymbo Hall to the Glascoed valley, a little to the north-east of the Lower Glascoed farm, where it discharged into the Cefn stream. The 1829 estate sale particulars note a weighbridge there, along with a house and garden (“lately in the occupation of John Matthias”). The level, which had a drainage channel and tramway running along its floor, seems to have remained in use by the Brymbo Co., as the 1873 Ordnance Survey still shows a building and other structures in the Glascoed woods marked “Level fawr“. A later plan of the workings shows the level heading south-eastwards, beneath Caello, before turning south at Pit 28, just north-east of Mount Zion. Beneath Brake Road it split, with one branch running south-east to the Wonder Pit and another heading southwards to the No. 1 Pit and on to Penrhos.

The Glascoed end of the Level Fawr, taken from the Ordnance Survey 1873 (Crown copyright).

Not much else has been written about it, despite Palmer’s characterisation of it as “famous”. Buildings continue to show on the Ordnance Survey until the 20th century, though by that point the mine itself is simply shown as “Old level (coal)“, so was clearly unused. From the turn of the century onwards, the Ffrith Fireclay Co’s works and levels appear further down the Glascoed valley towards Ffrith (and continued in operation until the 1970s). Some of the Ffrith fireclay levels can still be seen, though it is not recorded if anything now remains of the Level Fawr. The Coal Authority, however, has records of a number of adits running more or less eastwards at this point.

Incidentally, it was probably the construction of the Level Fawr, and the consequent dewatering of the mines above 130 yards, that resulted in the Penrhos engine house falling out of use.

The Wonder Pit

The “Wonder”, or “Wonder Pit” – a name referring, apparently, to the exceptional quality of the coal seam accessed through it – lay roughly in between Brymbo Hall and Mount Pleasant, more or less on top of Offa’s Dyke. It was first sunk in 1835, in the very last gasp of the Wilkinson trustees’ stewardship.

An incident there on 1st May 1870, which caused “considerable consternation throughout the neighbourhood“, was reported in the Wrexham Advertiser a week later. The pit engine had what was described as an “old-fashioned shaped boiler” that had not been used for around four years, but which had just been repaired. The engineman got up steam, and all appeared well for an hour, when the boiler suddenly exploded. It was lifted 20 yards in the air, scattering bricks in all directions, while part of the chimney stack was carried 62 yards. Amazingly no-one was hurt apart from a workman standing 50 yards away, who had his leg broken by a flying brick.

In 1873 the shaft was shown as producing both coal – from the Main and Two Yard – and ironstone, which would both have gone to feed the Brymbo Co.’s blast furnaces. It is important to remember that in the early years at Brymbo, the ironstone, which lay above the “black bed” seam, would have been just as significant as the coal. By the turn of the century, however, the Wonder Pit was out of use, although the site was being used to dump the mine waste from the Blast Pit a short distance away. The resulting spoil heap, the flat topped, partly tree-covered “Wonder Bank” is still there today – still part of the Steelworks land, and still heavily fenced off.

The Wonder Pit, circa 1873 (Crown copyright)

The Bye Pit or Blast Pit

The Brymbo Colliery’s Bye Pit dated from the Robertson era, being sunk in 1843 under the supervision of mine agent Samuel Jones. (Jones was an experienced mining engineer, who also worked for the collieries at Broughton and Ruabon as well as the Westminster Colliery at Brymbo, and under whom Isaac Shone would serve his apprenticeship). The Bye Pit – actually two pits, no. 1 and no. 2 – was often known as the “Blast Pit”, as it was within the ironworks perimeter close to the furnaces. Although not as dramatic as the boiler explosion at the Wonder Pit, the Blast Pit’s workers had a lucky escape in January 1893 when part of the haulage engine gear gave way at the end of a shift, trapping 300 men below ground. “An old deep engine on the bank was called into requisition“, reported the Advertiser‘s regular “Brymbo Notes and Notions” correspondent, “and worked by hand […] the men were bought to the surface in a tub, two coming up each time“. The “slow and tedious” process took all of Saturday night, with the last men not rescued until 8 a.m. on Sunday, many of them having simply gone to sleep until rescued.

Despite a subsequent period of closure  – the pit’s workings in the Drowsell seam having been closed in March 1893, with the loss of around 150 jobs, according to the Advertiser – the Blast Pit stayed open as late as 1914. A historically interesting article in the Brymbo works newspaper, summer 1977 issue, included a brief reminiscence by a Mr A. Griffiths – then 86 – who had worked in the pit before closure and recalled it as “extremely wet […] like working in a continuous rainstorm or worse”. The water was thought to come down from higher workings in the Drowsell.

There are quite a few pictures of the Blast Pit around. There is at least one (link opens in new window) in the Geoff Charles archive which is now being digitised by the National Library of Wales; the headgear is visible more or less in the centre of the photograph. A well-known picture of the Blast Pit’s repair shops in 1850, now held by the Flintshire Archives, gives a rare glimpse of the early years of operation under Robertson.

The Smelt

The Smelt in the 1960s, showing how little there was above ground (© Crown Copyright. All rights reserved)

Located on the hillside near Wilkinson’s lead smelting works, alongside the Glascoed road, the Smelt possibly predated even Wilkinson, and certainly outlasted all the other mines in the area as it was worked until the late 1960s. It was also a day-level, driven sideways into Brymbo hill, although a shaft for coal was sunk in the 1840s. While the Smelt produced some coal after the 19th century, it was latterly mainly used for fireclay – used in the brickworks at Caello nearby – and was sometimes referred to as the “Clai-tan” (fireclay) pit as a result. By that time it was a rather small operation; a newspaper article in its last years describes it as “a country colliery for a country setting“, while even in the 1890s it was only employing 12 people.

An old photograph shows the pit to have had a small surface building with a stubby chimney and wooden headgear, which had been taken down by the 1960s when only the level was in use. The small spoil tips lay around the site and across the railway tracks. Until the 1990s the site of the Smelt was overgrown and fenced off with “danger” signs, but it has since then been reclaimed, and there is nothing to show a colliery was once there.

The 1842 report of the Royal Commission on the employment of children in mines, the North Wales section of which was written by H. Herbert Jones, contains some interesting accounts of what it was like to work the Brymbo Co. pits in the period just before the Company’s formation. Several people were interviewed at the “Brymbo Colliery and Ironworks” on 12th May, 1841. Amongst other statements are those of Edward Jones, aged 11 years and 9 months, who had already been at work for three and a half years, and operated an air-door for 6d. a day (a day in this connection would have been 12 hours of work). Another was John Womsley, 15, who had been at work for nine years. He was then a coal-cutter, and “[did] not consider it hard work”, but nevertheless “would be very glad to go to a school”. Although conditions at Brymbo do not seem to have been as bad as some mines elsewhere in the country, where the Commission’s report details some truly horrific things, this section at least betrays the concerns of its time by focusing mainly on the morality of the workers, rather than the fact they were at work at all. The Reverend John Davies of Brymbo, interviewed on May 13th, is noncommittal on the subject of mines’ employment of children, and although he appears to approve of education adds that “I would not recommend that the lower orders have any education unconnected with religion”. Also interviewed was Samuel Jones, agent – almost certainly the man who sank the Blast Pit. Although he does not think 12 hours underground is too long a day for those over ten (he had, he stated, always worked 12 hour shifts himself in his 23 years as a collier) he does observe that “colliers [are] more delicate than many other classes of working people but does not exactly know the reason”.

There were of course many more collieries than this in the township of Brymbo – particularly during the 19th century, when other landowners and industrialists began to get in on the act. I hope to cover some of these in future posts, as well as give more detail about the Brymbo Company, its operations and employees.