A few months back I started to write about the history of one of Brymbo’s smaller villages, the Lodge, starting in the 18th century. The second part, however, will be a step backwards to the century before.

Legal cases, particularly Chancery cases, can often provide a lot more information than you’d think at first glance. In this instance a 1692 suit filed by Robert Griffith, Esq, of Brymbo Hall against John Hill and his wife not only holds the answers to an ownership puzzle over the Lodge estate itself, but casts some light on a previously unknown coal mine.

The historian of Wrexham and its rural townships, Alfred Palmer, wrote that the Lodge was once probably part of the estate of the Sontley family, ancient freeholders who lived at Sontley near Marchwiel. He bases this solely on the fact that by 1715 it was owned by John Hill, who married Ann, the Sontley heiress. However, there’s a problem which Palmer either didn’t notice or chose to ignore – there is no mention of any land owned by the family in Norden’s 1620 survey of Brymbo. There are, apparently, no old deeds to give any records of the Lodge’s ownership. So who owned the Lodge before 1700?

Luckily for us, the answers are hidden away in the Chancery case. Robert Griffith makes the matter quite clear in his 1692 bill, stating that he owns land in Brymbo, inherited from his father, which had been bought from the Sontley family many years before, but on which the latter had retained rights to a coal pit:

John Griffith your Orators late ffather deceased was in his life tyme seized of […] yt Messuage or Tenement and Lands with the appurtenances situate and being in the Townshipp of Brimboe […] of the yearely value of four and twenty pounds or thereabouts and late in the tenure & occupation of Richard ap Roger and now in ye occupation of your Orator  […]

And your Orator sheweth that the premises were formerly purchased by some of your Orators Ancestors or some other person under whom they claymeth of and from one Robert Sontley the great Great Grandfather of Ann the now wife of John Hill […] And the sd John Hill and Ann his wife pretend that when the said Robert Sontley sold ye Same he Excepted and reserved to himselfe and his heires and assigns the Coal Myne being in & upon the premises with ffree ingresse egresse and regresse thro the said Lands […]

John and Ann Hill do not dispute much of this – indeed, they say they possess the counterpart of the original sale documents, showing that her great-great-grandfather sold the land to “one Robert Edwards” for £120. A member of the Griffith family (likely Robert Griffith, the great-grandfather of the complainant, or his great-great-grandfather Gruffydd ap Edward) must have acquired it afterwards; or perhaps “Robert Edwards” was the name then used by the elder Robert Griffith, in this period of fluid surnames.

Ann’s great-grandfather, another Robert Sontley, was High Sherriff of Denbighshire in 1598 and 1611. So land purchased from her great-great-grandfather would have had to have been sold well back into the 16th century. This would neatly explain why the Lodge might be untraceable as a Sontley holding in Norden’s survey: by then it would have belonged to someone else. In fact, there is an entry in the survey of Brymbo that looks quite promising:

Rent 9s. 11d. The aforementioned John Gruffith [i.e. of Brymbo Hall] holds a messuage with appurtenances and various parcels of land formerly the land of Robert Sontley.

Could this be the Lodge in 1620? It’s certainly the only mention, in Brymbo, of the Sontley family of Sontley (though their distant cousins, the Sontleys of Brymbo, hold a small farm later to become the nucleus of the Plas Mostyn estate). The land is freehold and although it is not well described, its rental indicates a holding of a fair size. So perhaps another mystery has been cleared up. Palmer was in some ways right – the Lodge was originally the Sontleys’ land – but wrong in others: it did not come to Mr Hill through the inheritance of his wife Ann Sontley, other than a coal-pit in the middle of the estate. For nearly all of the 17th century the Griffith family of Brymbo (preceded, possibly, by an enigmatic Robert Edwards) owned the land. What happened to it afterwards might be indicated by a sentence towards the end of John Hill’s response to the bill – that Hill “for ye prevencion of Suites and troubles did by his Agent offer to give to the Complt. soe much money for ye said Lands”.  It may be that after John Hill and Robert Griffith’s legal wrangling, Hill simply bought the Lodge from Griffith to save himself any further trouble.

Although all the above is useful to the local historian, it is the documents’ references to the local coal industry that are really fascinating. Indeed, I had not yet found any references to coal works in the Lodge as early as 1692. There is also a surprising amount of detail to be extracted about working and commercial practices, giving us some idea of the competitive world of small-scale mining half a century before the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution.

Griffith states that the workmen of Mr Hill and his “confederates” had been causing a huge amount of trouble: they “pull up his fences and drive their Waynes Carts and horses over your Orators pasture and meadow ground,” “cover a great part of the same” with piles of coke and coal and in general acted “contrary to Equity and good conscience“, leaving the land worth very little.  There is a lot more complaining, but the substance is that he is taking the matter to Chancery to get Mr and Mrs Hill to prove their title to access the coal pit over his land and get them to stop damaging it.

Hill’s answer is that his right to access the coal mine is shown by the terms of the land’s sale, and that the possible inconvenience of allowing access was part of the reason it had been sold for a very low price. His workmen had dug several pits, extracted coal for sale and had “charked” (burned to charked-coal, or coke) some of the rest “the better to sell the same“, as was the general custom, but had mostly done so “on the rubish mould and earth that came out of the said pitts” and had in general been very responsible. In fact, Mr. Hill argues, there was an underhand reason to all of this. Robert Griffith, as we know, had lucrative coal works of his own higher up in Brymbo. Hill therefore suspects that his purpose was ultimately to “hinder this Defts. sale of Coale and to promote the Complts. sale of his owne Coale“: commercial sabotage. He hoped to prove that Griffith had been sending his own servants to make fences and hinder people from coming onto the land to buy coal, and thought he was now “add[ing] this bill as a further trouble“. The whole business, in fact, led him to offer Griffith over three times the £120 originally paid for the land.

It seems that coal mining in the 17th century was a dirty business in several senses of the word.