John Wilkinson is, by a long way, the most well-known of the area’s early industrialists, the men who oversaw the first transformation of the area from an essentially rural one into one of the centres of the Industrial Revolution in Wales. This is understandable, given the importance of the ironworks he single-handedly established. However, there were many other figures in this early generation of iron- and coalmasters who played a part in developing the mineral resources of the Denbighshire hills. They came from a variety of backgrounds – small landowners, or the sons of the first generation of furnace-owners – but by the early years the 19th century they had risen hugely in status on the back of their mineral wealth (and the labour of thousands of colliers, lead miners and ironworkers). Some of them were closely involved with our small area of study, Brymbo.

William Wilkinson

Although William is mentioned rather less than his brother in histories of the area, he was almost as active an entrepreneur in his time, lived near or in Wrexham for much of his life, and is now there permanently, being buried somewhere in the Dissenter’s Graveyard on Rhosddu Road.

Born either 10 or 16 years later than John (depending on which source you consult), he also received a Nonconformist education, which seems to have gained a final polish at the hands of Joseph Priestley, chemist, clergyman and philosopher – and later brother-in-law, as he married Wilkinson’s sister Mary. In 1762, perhaps aged just 18, William joined his brother in taking over the Bersham works from their father, on the latter’s departure for South Wales.

William was subsequently to spend a good deal of time in France, where John was attempting to develop his iron-founding business. It has been speculated that this was partly a means of escaping his older brother’s rather dominating personality, but even so, William was to to do very well out of the partnership, which continued in a series of lead mining ventures at Minera. He returned to Wrexham in 1787, purchasing property there, as well as land in Cartmel near his brother’s estates. It was not until the 1790s that the increasingly fractious relationship between the brothers was to erupt in a serious breach, after John – who wanted a site on which he could use iron ore and coal raised from his own land – decided to go it alone at Brymbo. The results of the arbitration between them led to the remnants of Bersham being sold in 1795, while William further needled his brother by disclosing to Boulton & Watt, their collaborators, that John had been pirating their steam engine designs. From that point the brothers communicated little, other than through periodic legal threats or via their go-between, John’s agent Gilbert Gilpin.

In Brymbo itself, William Wilkinson sunk the Plas Mostyn mine at Pentre’r-fron, less than a mile from the fringes of his brother’s estate. The smoke of the Plas Mostyn engine-house would have been a constant thumbed nose to John, just over the hill at Brymbo Hall.

William seems to have been at least as formidable a character as his brother or father. Gilpin was certainly very fond of him, and in later years wrote him many letters in which John was described in amusing, and occasionally scathing, terms. Towards the end of his life William developed a particular fixation with improving the roads of the parish of Cartmel, a process which was to lead to a series of legal actions. You can, perhaps, see a common thread of family behaviour in the reminiscence, given by William’s nephew James Stockdale, that William “used to say that he well knew how much he was disliked for indicting the roads in Cartmel, but that the day would come when all he had done in this respect would be approved of.”

Alfred Palmer quotes a brief, but illuminating memoir of the old ironmaster written by Charles Apperley, better known as the 19th century sporting journalist “Nimrod”. Apperley came from Wrexham (he was a relative of James Apperley, the doctor who married Alethea Clayton of Brymbo Hall) and his father lived at Plas Grono near Erddig – a house which William later bought. Wilkinson was a friend and neighbour of  Mr. Yorke of Erddig, and according to Apperley his wit, experience and conversational skills made him a regular guest at the Erddig dinner-table, despite his nonconformism and strongly Radical political convictions. The neighbourly idyll was briefly shaken by the revelation that William had been selling iron to Britain’s traditional enemy, the French, as his brother John had been discovered to be selling iron “pipes” (“pipes” that looked suspiciously like cannon barrels) to France in a kind of 19th century version of the Iraqi “supergun” scandal. Having spent a lot of time in the country, William’s partiality for the French – and their revolutionary politics – was well known. Naturally, Squire Yorke was left to decide whether he could continue to allow a possible traitor into his house. However, Yorke dealt with the situation by simply changing his name for Wilkinson from “Neighbour Will” to “Wicked Will”, and continued to invite him to dinner.

William died only a few months before his brother, in March 1808.

John Thompson

The next, and locally perhaps the most obscure, of the early industrialists of the Brymbo area is John Thompson. There is not even a surviving portrait of him, though the March 1926 issue of the Brymbo Works Magazine, which included likenesses of several “local industrial pioneers”, did manage to track down a silhouette which showed him to be a rather thickset, prominent-nosed gentleman.

Thompson is stated (by A. H. Dodd) to have arrived in the area in around 1813, though without any clear indication of where he might have arrived from. The author of the 1926 magazine article thought that he might have originated in the “Wigan area”. I suspect, however, that he may be the same man who ran a small ironworks or forge in Hampton Loade, Shropshire, between 1796 and 1802, and who was from an established family of Sheffield ironmasters. Thompson, who lived at Lye Hall Farm near Hampton Loade, later operated a coalmine in nearby Highley. He sold the colliery in 1812 and moved on, in good time to appear in Denbighshire around 1813, when he acquired or built a furnace at Ponciau.

In the 1820s Thompson was behind one of the abortive attempts to restart the Brymbo ironworks, then in the hands of the Wilkinson trustees, and seems to have had some interests in South Wales, but his main iron-founding activity at Brymbo was the works at Ffrwd, often at that time anglicised to “Frood”, where he built the furnaces in 1824. Although there is little today in the steep, wooded valley of the Cegidog to show that a large industrial site was there, this was a major competitor to the Brymbo works through much of the 19th century: a combination of ironworks, colliery and brickworks ranged across the hillsides above the river. Most of the works lay a little to the east of the Red Lion (now called the Ffrwd) and the Pont plas-maen bridge, near the former Powell lands at the point where Brymbo, Gwersyllt and Broughton townships met. Deeds among Thompson’s estate papers, listed in the Denbighshire Archives records, show his purchase of several properties in this area, including the Ffrwd Inn, lands in Brymbo known as hirdir issa,1 the Cefn fields in Broughton, and the Tai public house, all of which had formerly belonged to an inkeeper and “victualler” called Samuel Davies. Thompson also ran the associated colliery at Pont plas-maen (sometimes anglicised as “Plasmain”) for a period.

It was Thompson (or his son, Richard, who followed him in the family business) who purchased the old Edwards estate at Stansty, a couple of miles from the Ffrwd. The large Edwards holdings also included the farm in Brymbo known as Brithdir, lying on the road between Pentresaeson and Bwlchgwyn, where Thompson established a stable for racehorses: his efforts in the iron and coal business had clearly paid off. In 1830, his son Richard Thompson, styled “Esq” in accordance with his landowning status, built the now-demolished house known as Stansty Hall: he was to be one of the more visible members of Wrexham “society” in the mid 19th century, and his main memorial in the town is St Mary’s Roman Catholic cathedral, which was largely paid for by him. His father John, however, was to continue in charge of business into old age, and the manner of his death, at the age of 83, was appropriately bound up with the industrial landscape he had helped to create. The Wrexham Advertiser of July 1, 1852 took up the story:

“On Friday evening, the 4th ult., a fatal accident happened at Minera, near Wrexham, by which the life of JOHN THOMPSON, Esq., the extensive iron and coal proprietor was sacrificed. It appeared that Mr. THOMPSON, about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, was riding about his estates at Minera, and upon crossing a branch line of the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway at that place on his pony, he had nearly passed over, when a train was coming up. He put his spurs to the pony, which swerved, and the engine caught it on the hinder part of the body, which threw it and the rider a considerable distance down an embankment. Assistance was immediately rendered, and Mr. THOMPSON was taken to the Miner’s Arms Inn, and medical aid was obtained, but he died about 8 o’clock the same evening. No blame is attached to any person”

With the death of Richard Thompson’s wife a few years later, he left Wrexham for Lancashire and the family industrial concerns broke up. The Stansty estate eventually came into the hands of Thomas ffrench, Baron ffrench, who had married Richard’s daughter and heir Mary Anne in 1851, while the Ffrwd ironworks was taken over in 1855 by James Sparrow, who ran it successfully for much of the rest of the 19th century.

There is one curious postscript, however. A John James Thompson, “formerly of Stansty Hall”, later a cavalry officer, and later still “following no business or occupation”, was brought before the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors in early 1856. What was the story here? The Thompson family papers have, as of 2002, been deposited in the Wrexham Archives, so perhaps there is still a lot of information waiting to be unearthed on this particular family.

Footnotes

Back to post. 1.The fields on the Brymbo / Gwersyllt border known as “hirdir” (probably “long land”) are particularly interesting, as they appear in Norden’s survey of 1620, owned by “Johannes Rees ap Hugh”, and were noted as formerly belonging to Gruffydd ap Edward ap Morgan (i.e. the owner of the main Brymbo estate in the 16th century). Samuel Davies, the inkeeper, seems to have operated a blast furnace on them at some point.