I have seen it written that before the arrival of John Wilkinson in Brymbo there was only one coal pit in the area. It is true that after 1790 there was a huge expansion of mining activity in the township, especially on Wilkinson’s estate, and even more so after he began smelting iron there. However, a closer examination of records provides a lot of evidence of other, earlier coal workings. Who worked these coal pits, and where exactly were they?

Even before the Industrial Revolution, knowledge of the techniques of mineral extraction – albeit the rather different skills involved in metal mining – may have been common enough hereabouts. The mines at Minera were active as far back as the mediaeval period, and possibly earlier, and miners from many other parts of the country came there, leading perhaps to the smattering of non-Welsh names seen in Minera since the earliest times. The coal industry took longer to get started on a large scale, but there is nevertheless solid evidence that it was present, most obviously the 15th century agreement under which the residents of Holt had permission to dig for coal on the commons around Brymbo. These were, however, likely shallow workings.

The earliest coal-pit we know about for certain is one on the common land at Harwood – right in the centre of Brymbo village today – at the close of the 15th century. It was operated by John Puleston, presumably one of the Pulestons of Berse, and possibly the John Puleston “Hen” who fought at Bosworth and did rather well from backing the winning side. (There are, I am afraid, rather a lot of people named John Puleston in the area at the time; John Puleston “Hen” had two sons called John). These are almost certainly the Harwood pits mentioned by Leland in the 1530s. In 1601 Richard Grosvenor of Eaton Hall started leasing the mineral rights in the wastes of Bromfield and Yale – they had previously been granted to, of all people, Nicholas Hilliard the miniature-painter – and accordingly the 1620 survey of John Norden mentions Grosvenor’s coal mines on Harwood common, although there is some disagreement over whether the record mentions six pits or just the one. A possible location for one of these early pits might be suggested by the “Pit Croft” shown on the tithe map, which directly adjoined the first Brymbo church (perhaps not coincidentally this was the church which soon after opening had to be pulled down due to subsidence).

By 1631, Charles I’s urgent need for money resulted in sale of the Bromfield mineral rights, which were purchased outright by the Grosvenor estate a couple of years later. We can soon see other coal pits being developed. A document in the Chester archives records a 1637 agreement between the Grosvenor representatives and Howell ap Edward of Brymbo, yeoman, regarding a coal pit, presumably on the common. Howell ap Edward agrees to bear a quarter of the cost of the pit, with the remainder being borne by the Grosvenor estate, in return for an equivalent share of the profit. A possible identity for Howell ap Edward can be found in Norden’s survey 17 years earlier; there is a Brymbo freeholder of the same name sitting on the manorial jury and holding a messuage and parcels of land called “dryll dybni” and “y weirglodd” (a Howell ap Edward also holds land and a house in Broughton).

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether Howell would have worked in the pit himself, or merely had involvement in what these days we might call a managerial capacity. In this time the boundary between a farmer and miner might have been somewhat blurred, particularly as miners often had smallholdings and kept livestock of their own. However, in this period we start to see documents in which Brymbo residents are specifically described as a “collier”, rather than “yeoman”, “labourer” or “husbandman”, so there were undoubtedly some professional miners about. Amongst those recorded early on are John Hughes, Richard Griffith and Humphrey Lloyd, colliers, seen in the Brymbo rate books of 1668; Lewis Thomas, John Thomas, Robert Owen and Thomas Edwards, working the Brymbo Hall estate in 1684, and collier and farmer John Bennett, who made his will in 1727, while in 1735 Samuel Jones and Joseph Owens turn up in the Great Sessions records (the latter had accused the former of assaulting him).

Such men were increasingly in demand by landowners in Brymbo eager for assistance in exploiting the minerals under their land, not least because the local lime industry, centred on the limestone deposits in the west of the township, would have meant a good price for coal. We have already looked at an agreement from the 1680s between Robert Griffith of Brymbo Hall and four partners regarding a pit under “Cae Mawr Bychan” to the Brassy seam (probably in the fields behind Mount Pleasant), and another by Ty yn y Celin. From the terms of the agreement, it seems as if this was no shallow hole in the ground, but a substantial operation. Another pit, on a little piece of land owned by the Powell family of Broughton Hall, appears in the township rate books of the 1680s: these might be the workings in the “Cranke and Brasse coals” mentioned a few decades later in one of the Powell wills.1

By this time, an increasing number of landowners were getting in on the act. At the same time as Robert Griffith was sinking pits on his estate, his neighbour Roger Mostyn of Plas Mostyn made an arrangement with the Grosvenor estate to trial for coal on Coedpoeth common, just across the Gwenfro. A small pit at the Lodge, later known as “Mr Hill’s Colliery”, was in operation before 1700, according to a court case between Robert Griffith and the Mr Hill in question. By the early 18th century, an estate owned by the Chambres family, seemingly the farm known as Tyddyn Broughton or Glanyrafon in later years, was advertised as including a coal pit which had lately been drained by workings carried out on adjoining property; and in 1730, another pit in Brymbo is mentioned as being worked by Hugh Roberts on land owned by the Myddletons (this may have been near Penycoed farm). By the middle of the century, with the Industrial Revolution underway in the area, there were clearly several pits in operation on the Brymbo Hall estate, then in the hands of its life tenant Dr. James Apperley, and within the next few years leases were taken to start further coal works at the Lodge and College Farm estates.

As such it seems that there were few landholdings in Brymbo which hadn’t been worked or at least trialled for coal – even well before John Wilkinson came on the scene. As the 18th century wore on we can imagine a landscape, still substantially rural and isolated by present-day standards, in which many farms nevertheless had old or active pits, and the old commons were dotted with workings as well as with miner’s cottages.

Footnotes

Back to post.1.Graham Rogers, in his book Brymbo and its neighbourhood, suggests that the seam locally known as the “Powell” was named after the Powell family of the Gyfynys, who he states were heavily involved in early mining activity. However, I have not found any evidence that the Gyfynys Powells had any coalmining interests, and by the early 18th century the family’s estate was being dispersed. A more likely suggestion (assuming the Powell seam was actually named after a local family) is that it refers to the Powells of Broughton Hall, who certainly operated coal pits. As noted above these are mentioned in the family wills; the “Broughton Colliery”, beneath the old Powell estate, is described in 1787 as leased to Richard Kirk, William Price, Samuel Davies and John Davies, while a pit on a parcel of their former land in Brymbo was recorded in a 1790 lease as the “Old Bromfield” colliery, lately in the occupation of Samuel and Robert Davies and John Cunnah.