Thomas Assheton-Smith, industrialist and occasional resident of Brymbo

The gentleman on the right is Thomas Assheton-Smith, Esq (or “Asheton Smith” as it was often spelt at the time). Industrial archaeologists and historians will be familiar with him as the man who got the slate industry of Dinorwic underway, becoming fabulously wealthy in the process. His connection with Brymbo is now almost forgotten, but as a young man he was once quite familiar with it. Indeed, he may have first started out along the path of industrial entrepreneurship there, some years before John Wilkinson‘s arrival.

Though often now associated with Wales, Assheton-Smith was as English as his name sounded. He was born in 1754 to a minor landowner of Ashley, Cheshire. Thomas Asheton’s father, also Thomas, had lucked out when his uncle William Smith bequeathed him a large chunk of Caernarvonshire along with an estate in Hampshire. As often happened at the time, Thomas Assheton – as he then was – adopted his uncle’s surname to seal the deal.

However, Assheton-Smith did have some genuine Welsh connections, and it was through these that he gained some interests in Denbighshire. He married Elizabeth Wynne, the daughter of  Watkin Wynne of Voelas and his wife Jane. The latter’s maiden name had been Clayton, for she was one of the daughters of Mary, the much-married heiress of Brymbo, by her second husband Richard Clayton. Assheton-Smith’s wife was therefore the great-granddaughter of Robert Griffith, the last of the Griffiths of Brymbo. Moreover, J. E. Griffith’s book Pedigrees of Anglesey and Caernarvonshire suggests that Assheton-Smith’s mother was Mary Clayton’s youngest daughter, Mary. As estates were generally split amongst a family’s daughters, if they had no sons, this may show that there was a strategic element to Assheton-Smith’s marriage, reuniting property that had been divided between his mother and his mother-in-law. This kind of concern, rather than true love, was often uppermost in the minds of the 18th century gentry.

Thanks to the fallout from Mary Griffith’s succession of marriages, a series of legal actions had hung over the Brymbo estate during the mid 18th century. During this time it was rated to Dr James Apperley, a Wrexham medico and the widower of another of Mary’s daughters. However, by the 1770s the Wynnes were able to take possession of it, and at some point it seems that Assheton-Smith and his wife moved in, or at least made it one of their homes. That Assheton-Smith spent at least some of his time in the Wrexham area is shown by the church records, but there are other traces of his time there too. The Adams’s Weekly Courant, a Chester newspaper, ran a short item on November 21 1775, which stated:

RUTHIN HUNT.

THE Members are requested to meet on Sunday evening, the 3rd of December next. Supper on the Table at eight o’ clock. On Tuesday following, in the Evening, a BALL, for the Ladies.

Brumbo, Nov 4. 1775.  THO. ASHETON SMITH, Esq. Comptroller

However, the life of a country landowner wasn’t all hunting and balls (for the ladies). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Assheton-Smith’s residence in Denbighshire was the possibility that he may have exploited the area’s mineral wealth before John Wilkinson took over. It was kindly drawn to my attention (thanks, J) that the St James’s Chronicle of June 26th, 1790, records the Brymbo estate up for sale – presumably by Assheton-Smith and his mother-in-law, who were to sell it to Wilkinson. The advertisment contains a number of interesting points, especially when compared against the standard history of the area written down by Alfred Palmer, which has been the  basis for all subsequent accounts.

For a start, 1790 is at least 2 years prior to Palmer’s date for Wilkinson taking over, which he dates to “around 1793”. The estate is also stated as having an extent of “six hundred and twenty two acres, three roods, and twenty perches” – rather larger than Palmer assumed it to be. It looks likely that while Wilkinson did enlarge the estate, he did not do so to the degree Palmer suggests. Most interestingly of all, the advertisment mentions:

all those valuable and extensive Coal Mines, which are now opened and worked with very considerable Advantage; together with all that Lead Mine now working on the Estate.

It therefore appears that coal was worked to a reasonable commercial degree (or at least to “considerable Advantage”) on the estate in Assheton-Smith’s time, before Wilkinson acquired it. In fact, there was also a working lead mine: it’s interesting to note that one of Wilkinson’s first acts on acquiring Brymbo was to establish a lead smelting works, presumably fired by the coal he raised. He had already been working lead mines in Minera in a fractious partnership with his brother, and lead would at this stage have been as big a concern as the iron with which he became so associated that “Iron-Mad” is always added to his name. It is a pity that the exact location of this lead mine is not stated.

The advertisment is also of interest for listing the tenant farmers of the Brymbo estate (for the record, they were John Phillips, Pearse Lean, John Pierce, Samuel Parry, Thomas Williams, Mary Roberts, Robert Davies, Martha Jones (widow), Edward Davis, Robert Peters, Margaret Kenrick, Griffith Owen, Mary Edwards (widow), Richard Taylor, William Gething, and Edward Edwards). It also mentions the “Watercour Mill” in Minera once attached to the estate, having been leased from the crown by Griffith ap Edward over two hundred years before, and now occupied by Thomas Price. Messrs. Wrights of Knutsford were listed as holding plans of the estate for inspection: how fascinating it would be to be able to see those plans today.

Assheton-Smith did not keep possession of Brymbo for very long – according to Palmer, the house itself was for much of the time occupied by his widowed mother-in-law. Even so, he had a small part in the history of its industry, before he went on to grow wealthy from the slate of Caernarvonshire.