The River Gwenfro – really just a stream – forms much of Brymbo’s southern boundary, successively separating it from Minera and Bersham townships. Following its course, even over only a few miles, can uncover much of historical interest.

Its name comes, probably, from gwen and bro. The latter can mean a variety of things, depending on the context. “Country” or “locality” is one potential translation, more specifically the “cultivated country”; “valley” (or more specifically “vale” – a large, wide valley) another. Gwen, of course, is “white”; either used in a literal sense or more poetically to signify “fair”, “blessed” or “holy”. So take your pick. “Gwenfro” can even be translated directly as “Paradise – which sounds a bit like the kind of ironic name that the colliers might have bestowed, were it not for the fact that the river name appears back in the 15th century at least.

The river starts high up among the limestone outcrops near Bwlchgwyn (generally supposed to mean “white pass”, as suggested by Palmer) in a variety of springs and wells beneath the old ramparts of the Bwlchgwyn hill fort, now sadly quarried out, and above the old mountain farm of Craig-Corn. The latter, as I’ve noted elsewhere, appears in records long before Bwlchgwyn village or before large-scale enclosures of common, and I wonder if it was perhaps one of the holdings built up by the legally privileged “men of Minera” who combined lead mining with farming in mediaeval times. Edward Jones owned it in the 1760s, while a family called Ffoulkes tenanted it; John Ffoulkes, yeoman, was followed by his son, Edward, who was a limer. There were even Ffoulkes in Brymbo back in the 1600s – with gentry connections, no less. John Foulkes, one of the ‘poore kindred’ of the Myddletons of Chirk, appears on the 1670 hearth tax returns and the Myddletons’ account books. In 1717, William Foulkes of Brymbo, yeoman, was successfully sued for money, alongside his more socially elevated neighbour Robert Griffith of Brymbo Hall, by a man called William Fisher. Foulkes appears in the rate books the same year, with his wife Elizabeth rated a few years later (initially as ‘uxor William Foulkes’) when presumably both William, and his old partner in debt Robert Griffith, had passed away. She was probably the Elizabeth Ffoulkes of Brymbo, widow, whose probate bond was signed by her son, John in 1727. Although I have not yet conclusively proved the connection between the earlier John Foulkes and the later one, there seems a fairly strong probability.

Jones mortgaged the farm to two miners, brothers called Edward and Robert Jones, who in consideration of £18 later assigned the mortgage to a Holywell flaxdresser, but the Ffoulkes family ultimately purchased it themselves. They also owned the neighbouring farm of Abercroesnewydd, in the Trefydd Bychain township of Llandegla parish. By the mid 19th century the farm’s occupant was Mr Edward Kendrick or Kenrick, who was a shoemaker, and was married to Mary Ann, the eldest daughter of William Ffoulkes, the last Ffoulkes to live at Craig-Corn. Their children included Samuel, who took over the farm, Edward, who became a shopkeeper in Bwlchgwyn, Margaret, who married a man called Roberts and lived in Broughton, and others. The younger Edward seems to have been an authority on the area’s history, and published a book on the subject (in Welsh) in 1905. It is fitting to think that he was a man descended from someone who had once been sued alongside Robert Griffith, the township ‘squire’, nearly two centuries before.

From the records available I get a distinct, if perhaps unfair, impression that the relative isolation of farms like Craig-Corn, high up on the common, could make for rather wild and lawless inhabitants. In the 1730s John Ffoulkes, along with a few close neighbours, was hauled up before a judge charged with breaking and entering an enclosure, while in the later 19th century the Wrexham Advertiser reported his distant descendant Mr Kendrick of Craig-Corn getting into hot water thanks to the behaviour of his children, who were refusing to go to school and spent much of their time menacing local residents.

The infant Gwenfro soon leaves Craig-Corn behind. Initially it runs in a straight ditch, a clear relic of moorland enclosures and drainage, but becomes tree-lined close to Cae Adar farm, which lies just within Minera township. Bwlchgwyn village is to the north, on part of the old Brymbo commonland. Nearby is a spot with the odd name of “Ffynnon Nephal” (the fynnon referred to appears to be another spring; it issues from a scrubby patch behind some modern houses before running down to join the Gwenfro). Cae Adar is older than Bwlchgwyn and was, I think, once the home of a mid 17th century landowner called Hugh Kenrick, gent, who seems to have been a man of some local influence. His son, styled variously as John ap Hugh Kenrick, as on the hearth tax returns, or John Hughes, married Mary, the daughter of John Hughes of Rhydorthwy in Flintshire, and is probably the person remembered in the name of a common in Minera called “Waen John ap Hugh Kenrick” over a century later. This may also have been the Kenrick / Hughes family identified by Palmer as owning the Heol Pwll y Kiln estate in Acton and much other property in the area, but the mid 18th century saw the family and its possessions dwindle away, and they are now long forgotten.

Among the later owner-occupiers of Cae Adar was the Thomas Smith, gent, whose tombstone in Wrexham churchyard, dated 1786, was described by Palmer. Its inscription stated that his “abilities as a practical miner must long be remembered and revered in this country“. Mr Smith was a partner in, and manager of, the Nant y Ffrith lead mine which operated in the 1750s; the account book of this mine, rediscovered a couple of years back and bought by Wrexham Museum, was copied from his notebooks. Smith’s mining interests extended as far as the lead mines of Shropshire, but it now seems very difficult to find any information about him, despite the warm tribute on his memorial.

The Gwenfro ducks under the Ruthin road before running into a steep little valley just south of the farm (and well) of Fynnon-y-cwrw, the source of another tributary. Among the trees at the bottom of the valley was a cottage known as “Ty’n-twll”. A little further, the land attached to Brithdir farm occupies the northern (Brymbo) bank, as the rough mountain pasture around Bwlchgwyn gives way to greener, lusher fields. The river then dives under, successively, the former embankment of the Brymbo-Minera railway – scene of the riding accident that ended the life of ironmaster and horse racing enthusiast John Thompson, whose stable was at Brithdir – and then under the old turnpike, near the important farm of Gwernygaseg (whose owners have been the subject of a few recent posts). Older maps prominently mark the culvert on the river here, which turns southwards.

The change in character of the landscape also becomes reflected in the industries alongside which the stream passes. Further uphill lead and lime were the main sources of profit, but Gwernygaseg lies near the main outcrop of coal in Brymbo. As for the lead industry, R V Kyrke – grandson of the well-known Wilkinson-era coalmaster Richard Kirk – reported, in the course of his correspondence with Alfred Palmer, that a number of lead smelting sites of likely Roman origin had been found along the course of the Gwenfro between Minera and Southsea. Palmer gave no further details so it is impossible to say whether or not Kyrke was correct in his Roman attribution or exactly where these sites were located. In any case, some of the land around Gwernygaseg was opencast for coal as long ago as the 1950s, and as a result the landscape on the Brymbo bank of the river, to the north and east, is not as it would have been in former centuries. 19th century maps show many little fields and tree-lined hedges around Plas Mostyn Bach which have largely gone today.

I’ll follow the rest of the river in the next post.