Gwernygaseg, a substantial stone-built farmhouse, sits in a hollow formed where the Gwenfro meets a tributary stream, its grounds shaded by pines. The name means something like “the mare’s alder grove” or “the mare’s marsh”, depending on the exact translation of gwern, a word described by Alfred Palmer as corresponding closely to the old English term carr. Although always rated under Brymbo, the farm’s location on the bank of the Gwenfro meant it was only just within the borders of Brymbo township, and the majority of the land attached to it – including, for a period, Cae Fadog farm – was in fact in Minera.

In the early industrial era Gwernygaseg was owned by Robert Burton, an associate of John Wilkinson who grew prosperous on the mineral resources of Minera, and his descendants. Its tenant in the early 19th century was a mine agent called John Turner (perhaps the same Turner celebrated amongst genealogical researchers for the bizarre names he gave to his children). Turner was preceded by Robert Peters, whose family owned Ffynnon-y-cwrw a short distance up the hill, and indeed seem to have built it some forty years earlier. Judging by the marriages his daughters contracted, which made it into local news sheets, Peters was one of the area’s more ambitious yeomen. His choice of residence reflects this, for Gwernygaseg has signs of having once been the site of one of the small gentry houses once common across Wales.

The family of ‘gentry’ – in this context, the descendants of ancient Welsh freeholders – in question were called Hughes. They had long gone from Gwernygaseg by the time Robert Burton came to own it; John Davies, the son-in-law of the last Hughes owner, sold the house and its land back in 1754 to William Ford, gent, of Chester. Davies had owned Gwernygaseg by right of his wife Jane, the daughter of John Hughes. I’ve previously written that the Hughes family were undeniably important but that details of their identity were somewhat murky, but I’ve since found more evidence of their existence.

In fact, there is even a personal memoir that throws the very briefest of lights onto the existence of the Hughes family – though despite its brevity it does confirm their social status. A correspondent of the Archaeologia Cambrensis, writing around 1900, writes that he has obtained an interesting manuscript in the hand of John Denman, who was Rector of Llandegla between 1796 and 1831, and quotes a fragment of it. “My Grandfather“, writes Denman,

“was a native of Winster, near Bakewell in Derbyshire, and came into Wales about the end of the sixteenth [clearly “seventeenth”]  century, with several others, as a Mine adventurer, and settled at Minera in this County. He married […] Hughes, Daughter of a respectable gentleman, who lived at Gwern-y-Caseg, near Minera. In those days there were Pikemen (before the Militia were called out) who were paid by the respectable inhabitants of the County, and one man was paid by my Great Grandfather (Hughes of Gwern y Caseg) jointly with one of the family of Puleston of Hafod y Wern near Wrexham; and my Grand-mother, when a child, used generally to attend her father, when he went to pay the Pikeman”.

This little vignette of a late seventeenth-century family is particularly interesting for showing the status in the community that “mine adventurers”, even English ones, could quickly attain. As another indicator of his forebears’ standing, Denman adds:

“A sister or aunt of my Grand-mothers married the Rev Rowland Owen, Vicar of Wrexham, who after preaching a sermon against Oliver Cromwell’s usurpation, was taken out of the pulpit, and put in the stocks”

Owen’s wife – who must surely have been the aunt rather than sister of Denman’s grandmother, given the timings – is elsewhere identified as Martha Hughes, and a note in the Chirk Castle Accounts suggests that she lived in Broughton after being widowed. Clearly Denham’s family traditions were relatively accurate.

Local historian A. N. Palmer wrote that the owner of Gwernygaseg in around 1700 was called John Hughes, according to the evidence he had seen: he served as a Wrexham churchwarden in 1701-2. This John therefore seems a reasonable candidate for the great-grandfather “Hughes of Gwern y Caseg” mentioned in Denman’s memoir. Palmer thought that John was preceded by a Robert Hughes, but offers no other comment on the origins of the family, beyond noting a possible connection with the chapel at Minera, which once benefited from an old rent charge on land attached to Gwernygaseg. However, some further information may be offered by a will proved in 1662 and written by a man called Thomas ap John Hugh, gent, of Minera. Thomas mentions a son, Robert Hughes, and grandsons, John and Thomas Hughes (the younger of the two, Thomas’s namesake, is left a generous sum). A daughter, married to William Jones, gent, of Wrexham, is also mentioned. Thomas’s wife is named as “Mary Sontley”, her surname showing she came from one of the neighbourhood’s most “respectable” gentry families, as Denman might have put it. The will guarantees her income from her husband’s lands, as well as the use of his dwelling house during her lifetime. She shall, furthermore, “have the use and benefitt of such gardens as she will please to make use of“, a nice touch.

The most interesting part of Thomas ap John Hugh’s will, however, is his reservation of twelve pounds due to him in rent to be put “to the best use towards the maintenance of divine service in the Chappell of Minera“. The rent is due from the lands of a John ap Hugh Kenrick (judging by an agreement preserved from the 1650s, the son and heir of Hugh Kenrick, gent, probably of the Cae Adar farm, and remembered even decades later in the name of a common, “Waen John ap Hugh Kenrick“). There are a number of reasons to connect the Hughes family of Gwernygaseg to Minera Chapel, such as the rent charge and the presence of a stone bearing the name “Robert Hughes buried” and date 1710 built into the porch of the current 19th century church building. In fact it has been suggested by D. R. Thomas that the chapel – said in the 18th century to have been built by “miners” in earlier times – was a private foundation and that the Hughes were its main benefactors. It seems fairly likely then that Thomas ap John Hugh, perhaps succeeded by his son Robert and grandson John Hughes, lived at Gwernygaseg. The inventory attached to his will shows a sparsely unostentatious but solid enough lifestyle: the mention of a “greate table in the hall“, with two bench seats, along with a grate and fire irons suggests that the property might have been an old-fashioned hall house, before later rebuilding. He also had plenty of ready money judging by both his bequests and the loans, detailed in the inventory, he had made to surrounding landowners: certainly more than his impecunious neighbours, the Griffiths of Brymbo Hall, despite their entitlement to arms and their occupation of the next rung up on the social ladder.

The whole is an interesting portrait of a class of minor gentry once typical of upland Wales but which long ago died out. In a speculative sort of way, I wonder if the Hughes family could have been one of those who, taking advantage of the special status of lead miners in mediaeval times, combined pastoralist farming and mining to build up large land-holdings in Minera. It might certainly explain why in later years they were happy enough to let another generation of “adventurers” marry into the family.