Alfred Palmer is perhaps the greatest Wrexham historian, followed closely by the academic A. H. Dodd. He was something of a pioneer of local history studies: while his interests retain a fundamentally 19th century bias, being focused on families of what he termed “considerable importance” and ignoring many humbler people, the level of detail he uncovered is a remarkable achievement for an amateur.

Palmer knew Brymbo very well, for his day job was as a chemist at the Brymbo ironworks. A piece in the Wrexham Advertiser published in the latter years of the 19th century shows that he was happy to act as a tour guide too, and in the process sheds some further light on one of Brymbo’s most persistent local tales.

Headed “YMCA Rambling Club”, the story states that:

“On Saturday a dozen of the members and friends left Wrexham by the 1.40 train to Brymbo, where they were kindly met by the conductor, Mr A. N. Palmer F.C.S, and Mr. F. A. Sturge. Mr Alfred Darby was unavoidably absent. By the kindness of the Right Hon. G. Osborne Morgan, M.P, the present occupier of Brymbo Hall, the ramblers were shown through the Hall and grounds by his gardener”.

It is a great shame that such a trip is impossible today, although as recently as the early 1970s you would still have been able to gain some sense of the appearance and setting of one of the area’s most remarkable buildings. Sadly even the grounds are long gone, and the present view is a poor substitute.

The Advertiser article is only a short one, and not much detail is given (other than a rehearsal of the usual legend about the Hall being built to a design by Inigo Jones). However, there is one snippet of particular interest, which runs:

“For a time it was the residence of one of the Wynnes, and a room is now known as Madam Wynne’s room, in which his wife committed suicide”.

This is clearly an early version of a ghost story familiar to older residents of the area and which I have mentioned elsewhere. It is of particular interest in view of the fact that Palmer himself, when he came to write his book on the Country Townships of Wrexham several years later, had since been able to dispel some of the tale’s basic facts. The “Madam Wynne” in question – a descendant of the Griffith family of Brymbo and part-inheritrix of their estate – had in fact lived there in the 1770s and 80s after her husband’s decease. Palmer, who rather sniffily notes that locals told “all kinds of stories” about her ghost, had confirmed that Jane Wynne, rather than dying at the house, had sold it to John Wilkinson and gone to live in Hendon. No doubt any tours he conducted by this time were told the true story.

Despite Palmer’s debunking of the tale, it proved resilient, as such stories usually do. Versions in the 20th century transfer the setting to the 19th, and the suicide’s identity to either a servant or to a daughter unwilling to enter into a marriage. The latter form was recorded by D. Owen in an article of the late ’60s, the author noting that one of her informants, curiously, asserted that her own grandfather had been present at the time of the incident and clearly remembered it. As the existence of the “Madam Wynne” story told to Palmer disproves the truth of the later version, I feel sure that the latter was in fact a vague remembrance of the suicide at Pen y Garth of ironworks manager Charles Darby, an event that shocked the entire community. It would certainly have taken place in exactly the right time frame to have been remembered by the grandfather of Owen’s source.

So, what lies behind these tales? There was undoubtedly a persistent local memory of an unfortunate incident at the Hall. The nature of the social attitudes towards suicide, which was classed as a crime of the most serious kind, in previous centuries means that any incidents of it among the landed classes would probably be both sensational on the level of local gossip and a matter to be concealed on the ‘official’ level (usually by a verdict of ‘temporary insanity’ being recorded). I would guess we have to look back further than the 1780s and the residence of Jane Wynne to find anything that might inspire it. A number of the family who owned the estate in the earlier 18th century had an early demise and in a couple of cases the circumstances seem unclear or unexpected, so perhaps eventually something will be uncovered to explain the curious reputation of the house two centuries later.

All this was unknown to the Hall’s 19th century visitors, Palmer and the rambling party. “The prospect from Brymbo Hall is noted for its variety and extent,” added the article, “but Saturday was unusually favourable, and the Wrekin was visible in one direction, and the Mersey in another“. They finished their day out by clambering across Offa’s Dyke and on down to the “picturesque Vale of Glascoed“, an attractive walk even today.

The Advertiser article also mentions among Brymbo’s earlier occupants Miss Janet Wilkinson, the young poet about whom I wrote a few months back. She may have heard the ghost stories too (and being of a romantic frame of mind, would probably have appreciated them). If she did, however, she never mentions them, and the handful of descriptions of Brymbo in her poems are of a place of impressive views, beautiful gardens and of happy social gatherings. In view of its reputation in its last years, it is perhaps worth remembering that this was how the house was known for most of its existence.