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 In the autumn, however, the cattle were withdrawn to farms on the lower slopes, and the higher ground was largely left to the snow and perhaps, in the earlier part of the period, to the wolves remembered in a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.

However, despite the area’s poor agricultural quality and inhospitable climate, it attracted a few permanent residents. The ancient “one-night” custom referenced by Palmer resulted in a scattering of cottages built by otherwise landless labourers. The hills north and west of present-day Minera village were, from the 13th century onwards, also home to a specialised community of lead miners, leading to the area being known as “the mines”; by the 14th century the inhabitants of the “mines” regularly appear in the Bromfield and Yale records. They seem to have been a hardy and compact group of a mere handful of families, many of whom were of English origin; Cheshire surnames appear several times. Some, such as the Locock and Capron families, were influential people, central to the community for several generations. Most were also farmers in a small way, building up land holdings in the old mountain waste, and occupied a relatively privileged position in that they were exempt from many of the usual burdens of feudal-era existence. I have already mentioned C. J. Williams’ paper on the customary law under which their business was conducted. This might be most charitably described as “harsh but fair”: any miner found repeatedly swindling his clients was liable to be transfixed to his wooden windlass frame by a knife through the hand, and then left there until he either expired or freed himself. Despite such risks, the community flourished. Judging by a later note, the miners even organised the building of their own chapel, the site of which is today occupied by Minera Church. The development of this part-English mining settlement forms an interesting parallel to the grant of coal rights to the burgesses of Holt, a little downhill in Brymbo, and to the occurence of placenames such as Pentresaeson and Cae Saeson in the vicinity.

The special status of the lead miners is explored in some detail by Derrick Pratt in a very interesting article, “Minera, Township of the Mines”, in volume 25 of the Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society. Amongst other points, he identifies an important administrative change occuring in the 14th century, when it was decided to more officially codify the priveleges enjoyed by the inhabitants of the area known as the “mines”, in the upper part of Bersham, by creating their own township: Minera. This process involved a major redrawing of boundaries, so that Bersham shrank considerably, as the main lead ore-producing land was brought within the new township. However, the change also had ramifications for Brymbo: the new northern boundary of Minera was placed, according to Pratt, along “the abrupt termination of [the] veins by a fault running E.N.E across Top Eisteddfod. The drawing of this particular boundary isolated a narrow strip of land along the border with Flintshire“. This isolated strip, mainly of poor-quality summer pasture along with the ravine of Nant-y-ffrith was added to Brymbo, increasing the latter’s area and giving the township the lopsided “panhandle” shape still followed by the civil parish, or community, today.

It is this boundary change that lies behind Brymbo having historically had two areas of common land – Harwood, in the east, and that around Bwlchgwyn in the west. The original western boundary of the township likely ran though Glascoed north to the Cegidog, closely following – if not actually contiguous with – the main estate, that of the ancestors of the Griffith family of Brymbo Hall. It was only after the creation of Minera and the incorporation of a large tract of Bersham’s mountain waste into Brymbo that the boundaries extended westward to Maes Maelor. It is notable that some of the holdings shown in Norden’s 1620 survey around Glascoed, or Pentre Glascoed as it is several times called, are not held under old freeholds but represent later settlement. They represent the ongoing conversion of waste and common into farmland, a process that continued into the 18th and 19th century through a variety of means, until all that remained was a fragmented stip along Nant-y-ffrith itself, eventually incorporated into the Nant-y-ffrith estate. However, it seems that mining was the original impetus for the gradual reduction of the waste. Indeed, it was so important that even in the Elizabethan era men from the townships of Brymbo and Broughton were habitually referred to as coming from “the mines”.