Poetry always held first place among the arts in Wales, and nearly every area has a few Welsh-language poets associated with it. In the immediate area of Brymbo, Alfred Palmer found a reference in the 17th century Wrexham parish registers to the burial of John Roberts of Bersham, “Welsh poet”; another part of the parish records shows that Edward Jones, owner of the Pentre farm in the late 18th century, was familiar with the englyn verse form, as he scribbled one into the 1791 account books.

One of the area’s forgotten literary talents, however, was English; a “saesones”, as she described herself. In 1840, a slim volume of verse appeared called Sketches and Legends amid the Mountains of North Wales. Its contents were decidedly romantic in temperament – rather too much so for today’s tastes – with references to the Welsh harp’s “plaintive wailings” and “spells that work within the mystic night”, set in a landscape of moonlit ravines and tumbling rivers, along with a flurry of exclamation marks. It is, I suppose, a work thoroughly of its time. Nevertheless, Sketches and Legends was a greater achievement than would first appear: its author Janet Wilkinson, as noted in her initial dedication, was only fifteen. Moreover the dedication is dated 22nd August 1840, at “Brymbo Hall”.

The poem’s opening stanzas actually refer to the house at Brymbo directly:

Brymbo! Dear Brymbo! with thy time-stain’d walls
Thy sculptured portals, and thy shrine of yore,
O’er which the ivy like a mantle falls,
Scattering its tendrils o’er the carvings hoar –
Adieu! a fleeting and short-liv’d adieu!
Utter’d with glances that gay Pleasure breathe;
Farewell thy yew-clad walks, and boundless view,
And roses that around the terrace wreathe!

The “sculptured portals” must be the elaborate main entrance portico, while the “shrine of yore” is presumably another appearance of the elusive chapel sometimes attributed to Inigo Jones. It all sounds very pleasant, even more so as the author (understandably) ignores John Wilkinson’s former ironworks just over the hill.

Janet Wilkinson seems to disappear from the poetic record after this point, and in later years a couple of the area’s antiquarians went so far as to wonder where she had got to. Palmer, writing in 1897, said that he was “assured that the Miss Janet Wilkinson, of Brymbo Hall, who in 1840 published Sketches and Legends […]” was not related to John Wilkinson, although it was easy to draw that conclusion. She made it into Black’s Picturesque Guide to North Wales, published in the 1870s, which also – inferring some connection to John – assumed she lived at Brymbo: “here resided Miss Janet W. Wilkinson, the gifted writer of Sketches and Legends amid the Mountains of North Wales, in Verse, which evince much refined taste and poetic talent”. A correspondent to the Red Dragon magazine, writing in 1886, asked: “Did this lady afterwards appear as an authoress?”

In fact, Palmer was right: Janet Wilkinson was not directly related to John, although she had some connections with people who were associated with him (by 1840 the Wilkinson family had left Brymbo, John’s son having emigrated to America). She did not live at Brymbo Hall, either, but was only a visitor. However, she certainly appeared afterwards in print.

A fairly distinctive name and the association with Brymbo make it relatively easy to identify the poet. She appears to be the Janet Walker Wilkinson who was niece to Alexander Reid of Llantysilio Hall near Llangollen. Reid was chairman of the Minera Mining Company and was associated with Robert Roy in working the leadmines of the West End, close to the limeworks (there was, in fact, a “Reid’s Shaft” and engine house, located at map reference SJ26535168). Mining here was not always terribly successful, as the mines in the West End were repeatedly inundated with water from the Clywedog’s underground tributaries. This was not Reid’s only industrial business venture: he was described as an “iron manufacturer” and as “of Brymbo” in 1843, when he went bankrupt. An older resident of Brymbo told Palmer that Reid had taken on the ironworks in 1838, but failed to pay the purchase price, and eventually Henry Robertson was brought in by Roy to drag the business onto its feet. Still, Reid’s efforts would have given his young relative an excuse to spend plenty of time visiting at Brymbo. A poem called “Last Hours at Brymbo”, published under a pseudonym in an 1866 collection called Scattered Flowers, is clearly another of Janet’s early efforts; the book’s editor excuses the “many imperfections” of its contents by prefacing them with the statement that most of the writers “were in their teens” when they wrote them. Nevertheless the poem, for all its heavily mannered style, is further evidence of how much affection Janet Wilkinson had for the place.

Reid died in 1866. He was, and still is, commemorated in a window erected by his shareholders in Minera chapel (this was a common enough gesture at the time; the east window in the same place commemorates the mine owner John Burton, while a window in St Mary’s in Brymbo is dedicated to Reid’s old partner Robert Roy). By this time, however, his niece had gone on to have a modestly successful literary career: a romantic novel, Hands not Hearts was published in 1849. The New Monthly Magazine reviewed it shortly after publication, noting that “she has exemplified with great truth and feeling the misery attendant upon marriages made either from convenience, or the gratification of ambition or revenge, and has woven the incidents arising from these fatal errors into a narrative of great power”. “It is a romance, of course,” wrote another reviewer, “but still a romance of real life, which gets into extravagance only through the over-expansion of an excited and exuberant imagination”, adding however that there “were too many deaths, especially deaths by violence, for the compass of three volumes post octavo”. Its central heroine, the reviewer noted, was Ada, an “authoress” of determined character and great intelligence. Gripping stuff, by the sound of it.

Janet – as shown by a number of newspaper notices – was married in 1851 to an army officer, Richard Ellerton. After that time her literary output seems to have slowed, though another novel, Dauntless, followed in 1858. She continued living in Wales for at least part of that time: after Reid’s death she was involved in several Chancery cases against Roy over her uncle’s estate. I can only hope that these legal troubles did not sour her memories of Brymbo too much.