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The laws of the Anglo-Normans and those of the Welsh princedoms differed greatly with respect to land and inheritance. It was the former that won out, and which remain the basis of land law today. Remnants of earlier Welsh law, however, can still be seen in patterns of settlement and land ownership.

Although Welsh law has a clear basis in the social life of semi-nomadic pastoralists, leading a very different life to the settled arable farming communities of England, it was not in any way primitive, as T.P.Ellis was to point out in the 1920s. Welsh law is highly sophisticated, subtle, and developed. Indeed such was the aptitude of the Welsh lawyers that they became great experts in English law when compelled to adopt it. As A. H. Dodd put it in his classic Studies in Stuart Wales, by the 16th century the gentry had developed a “passion for what a Denbighshire man picturesquely called ‘lawying’“.

We know fairly little of Brymbo in the time when Powys was a thriving kingdom. It was clearly a frontier area, as Offa’s Dyke cuts it in half. At the time of Domesday, much of the area had been in English hands for some time, although it was lightly populated, if at all. The Cheshire hundred of Exestan stretched around Wrexham as far as Offa’s Dyke, while to the north the hundred of Atti’s Cross covered much of later Flintshire. The preponderance of English township and other names – Esclusham, Bersham, Stansty, and of course Harwood – is a record of this period of English administration.

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Rough pasture near Ffynnon-y-cwrw. This land was first added to Brymbo after the 14th century creation of Minera: the more fertile fields in the distance are in Minera township.

Rough pasture near Ffynnon-y-cwrw. This land was first added to Brymbo during the 13th century creation of Minera: the more fertile fields in the distance are in Minera township, along with the slopes of the mountain once called ‘Glasfre‘.

The upper and western part of the township of Brymbo is formed of land that was once mainly mountain “waste” or common. Although the higher parts are still open, much of the area is now either enclosed as rough pasture or has become part of the village of Bwlchgwyn. Two familiar processes can be seen at work here: the piecemeal encroachment onto common land of labourers’ cottages and gardens, and the efforts of 18th and 19th century ‘improving’ landowners such as John Wilkinson and James Kyrke. However, in the case of Brymbo there is an extra element in the area’s long history of mineral extraction: it is even to some degree responsible for the physical boundaries of the township as they later appeared.

The “waste” seems a bleak place today, friendly only to sheep and grouse, but it is even now scattered with the signs of Bronze Age habitation, and was hardly deserted in mediaeval times. Some areas would have been wooded, perhaps frequented by the charcoal burners often associated with the early appearances of the name “coed poeth“. As common land, the waste would have been a rich source of game (Norden notes that the upper reaches of Esclusham manor were much frequented by gentlemen with their hawks) and defined areas within it, later becoming detached parts of Esclusham township, were reserved as summer pasture for Valle Crucis and for the lord of Bromfield. Throughout the summer months the area would have been covered with livestock and the huts or hafodau of the shepherds who looked after them. In the autumn, however, the cattle were withdrawn to farms on the lower slopes, and the higher ground was largely left to the snow and perhaps, in the earlier part of the period, to the wolves remembered in a handful of old field names. The freehold farms of Brymbo would, in this period, have been the last outpost of settlement before the beginning of the upland commons.

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The late 18th and first part of the 19th century saw something of a fashion for travelogues covering the ‘wilder’ parts of Britain – which, after all, were then still uncharted territory for most of the reading public. There are a number of descriptions of journeys through north Wales, the greatest of which is also one of the earliest, that of Thomas Pennant; Pennant described Wrexham, but sadly mentions our own little area of study only briefly. At the other end of the period, Borrow – passing through in the mid 19th century – talks about the miners of Minera and Ruabon, in generally uncomplimentary terms, but fails to mention those of Brymbo. Nevertheless, one or two books have taken notice of the area over the years.

One of these books was called Cambria Depicta, published in 1816, the work of a painter from Ruthin called Edward Pugh. Landscape prints were an even bigger industry than travel literature during this period, and Pugh’s ambitious work – Cambria Depicta took over nine years to complete – combined handsome colour plates of his sketches with a lively narrative of his travels around north Wales. He did not, in fact, live to see book published, dying in 1813 three years before its publication. It has never been reprinted and was very rare even a century ago, but I was recently very fortunate to be able to look at a copy, as almost alone amongst books of the period it includes a few pages describing a day spent in and around Brymbo. It is usually only mentioned in connection with one of Pugh’s pictures, which shows the Ffrwd canal in water with Caergwrle castle in the far distance, but deserves to be better known.

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This is site about Brymbo, a township once part of Denbighshire, and its history. You can read more about the site in general, start with the most recent posts or with the archives listed below.