This post follows from my previous one about some of the early industrialists of the area.

Robert Burton

One of the immediate contemporaries and close associates of William and John Wilkinson was Robert Burton, who I mentioned briefly in my post about Pentre’r-fron.

I’m not sure whether anyone has yet traced the origins of the Burton family. Alfred Palmer, in his historical notes on the area, was unable to prove even the exact connection of Robert with his descendants, as the then-head of the Burton family refused to talk to him. There was certainly a very wealthy and successful family of Wrexham merchants of that name in the eighteenth century; but there also seem to have been Burtons in Minera, of possibly humbler origins. Robert Burton may or may not have been related to them, but on deeds of the 1770s on which he appears he’s referred to as a “yeoman”, rather than as “Esq”, or “Gent”. By the Wilkinson brothers’ time, Burton owned land in Minera at Maesyfynnon Wen, “the pasture of the white spring”, where the waters of the Clywedog once surged from the limestone caves that honeycomb the Mountain. The same geological conditions had given rise to rich veins of minerals, especially lead, and the area around Maesyfynnon Wen (later known as the “West End”) was the site of some of the most productive leadmines, although Burton also worked mines at Eisteddfod and down towards the City Lands.

The Wilkinsons and Burton had operated several leadmines in partnership. Burton was to go on to partner William Wilkinson in the Plas Mostyn coal mine, of which he was also manager (like the Wilkinson brothers, Burton seems to have been a rather hands-on businessman). In common with some other mine owners in the area, his lead mines ran the notorious “shop” system, in which employees were paid in tokens they could exchange in the company “shop” – at a rate, presumably, advantageous to the employer. Miners much preferred payment in cash when they could get it.

The proceeds of Burton’s mining and other activity enabled him to build Minera Hall around the year 1800, as well as enclosing much of the old common around Minera, similarly to John Wilkinson in Brymbo. Unlike Wilkinson, however, Burton was able to successfully pass his business empire on to his descendants. He died in 1819, but his son, John Burton (followed by grandson Rev. Robert Burton  and great-grandson, John Robert Burton), continued the family mining interests into the late 19th century, running collieries at the Talwrn and elsewhere and adding to the estate. As with the Thompson family of Stansty, the mineral speculators of the late 18th century had risen to become the squirearchy of the 19th.

There is a small, contemporary pencil drawing of Burton in the March 1926 Brymbo Works Magazine, which contained an article on local “industrial pioneers”. Although something of an artistic failure (the article’s author commented that its odd appearance suggested Burton was “either asleep or playing cards”) it gives some idea of a man who was once very influential in the district.

Richard Kirk

Richard Kirk is also depicted in the 1926 magazine: another of the bewigged, prosperous-looking men who stood at the very beginning of the area’s greatest period of change.

The Kirks, who also spelt their name Kirke or Kyrke at various points, originated among the yeomanry of Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire. They had steadily gained status throughout the 17th century, with several members of the family’s more senior branch distinguishing themselves in military service: one, George Kirke, was Gentleman of the Robes to both Charles I and Charles II. A more junior though still well-to-do branch of the family was based nearby at Martinside, where they lived a quiet existence as small but respectable yeoman landowners.

By the 1770s Martinside was in the hands of Henry Kirke. His nephew, Richard Kirk, at some point came to the attention of Charles Roe of Macclesfield, one of the most successful and energetic of the early northern industrialists. Roe, a clergyman’s son, had first made his money in the silk trade, but went on to accumulate a large industrial empire, including the huge and immensely productive copper mines on Parys Mountain in Anglesey. The fuel for his smelters came from a number of coal pits, at least one of which was in Broughton, Denbighshire, the neighbouring township to Brymbo. Roe leased the Bryn Mali (or Brynmally) estate, on the border of Brymbo and Broughton, and mined coal in partnership with James Venables, who Palmer notes had been operating the Cae Hick, or Cae Hico, pit in Broughton for some years. Roe had been granted a lease on the minerals beneath Halcock Issa and a “common” called Cae Hico in 1769, which probably gives us a reasonable date for the founding of the colliery at Brynmally.

It’s unclear where Richard Kirk first became associated with Roe, but at some point he moved to Denbighshire, married Venables’ daughter Ellen, and set up home at Brynmally. The probable marriage record of Richard and Ellen is from the parish of Prestbury, close to Macclesfield, and the baptism of a James Venables in the same parish in 1728 may be that of her father. As Kirk is described as a “skinner” on the marriage record it seems possible that he first became interested in coal mining through his wife’s father. But however he got his start, he rapidly expanded his industrial holdings – Palmer, in fact said that he “was concerned, more, perhaps, than any man of his time, in the development of the mineral resources of the district”. Other collieries operated by Kirk were those at Ffrwd, later taken over by John Thompson, and Southsea: he was also a promoter of the abortive Ffrwd canal branch.

The Kirks’ link with their old home at Martinside was finally broken in 1789, when Henry Kirke died. The property passed to Richard, who cleared it of all the old armour, swords and other historical trappings of the family, let it out, and moved everything to Denbighshire. He also moved his own residence from Brynmally to the newly-built Gwersyllt Hill Hall.

In common with the Wilkinsons and
many other of the early industrialists, Kirk was a Dissenter: his children were all baptised at the Presbyterian Church in Wrexham and many members of the family are buried in the Rhosddu Road graveyard. Like their father, some of Kirk’s children strategically married into other industry-owning families (John Burton of Minera, for example, married Richard Kirk’s daughter Elizabeth). His sons changed the spelling of their surname to Kyrke, perhaps emulating a spelling occasionally used by their ancestors. The oldest of the three sons who appear in the area’s records, James Kyrke, settled at Glascoed Hall, from where he ran a business based around the area’s lime-kilns, and operated the small colliery at Pen-y-coed. Listed, for a period, as in receipt of the Brymbo tithes, he was also appointed the Receiver of John Wilkinson’s estate after the legal cases between Wilkinson’s natural children and his nephew had exhausted it, and eventually purchased the Cefn, Waen, and Gorse farms, as well as the three farms in Glascoed. Another son, George, was based at Brynmally, and was to take over the colliery.

However, as it turned out Richard Kirk – who died at the age of 92, in 1839, shortly after leaving Nonconformism for the C of E – was not to found an industrial dynasty, for his sons were beset with financial problems. Surprising as it may seem, the early 1840s were a time of industrial depression, which severely affected some ironfounding and coalmining communities. Perhaps as a result, George Kyrke mortgaged the Brynmally property in 1844, and a Fiat in Bankruptcy was issued against him of 5th March 1849. James Kyrke of Glascoed (described as a “Lime burner, Dealer and Chapman”) had a similar fiat issued in January 1849. The brothers sold Brynmally and its colliery, which were purchased by a young mining entrepreneur called Thomas Clayton. Despite this, the family of the youngest brother, Richard, ensured that the Kyrkes remained influential in the area for many more years. His son, R V Kyrke, and his grandson, R H V Kyrke, continued to live locally, the family having purchased Nant-y-Ffrith Hall in 1865. Both men took an interest in the history of their area, and the latter at least seems to have been a regular and enthusiastic correspondent with Alfred Palmer, passing on several observations and suggestions on family history and local antiquities. By contrast, the last of the Burtons – the “old Squire” as Palmer called him – refused to even cooperate with the historian. Such secrecy now seems very strange.