The landscape of Harwood village was a product of its history and topography as commonland, and of the course of the Industrial Revolution in the north-east of Denbighshire. It left a patchwork of houses and workers’ cottages mingled with crofts and little intake fields; old farmhouses alongside small-scale industry; of old tramroads, hawthorn-bordered lanes, and walls of brownish Cefn stone. The village chapels were an integral part of that landscape, and their names – Bethania, Moriah, Bryn Sion – punctuate older maps, although most have disappeared over the past forty years. If the pits and the ironworks first set the village now known as Brymbo in position, the chapels – and the beerhouses – helped fix it there.

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William Williams of Wern, 1781-1840. Eloquent, charismatic, and handsome, he was instrumental in the early history of Brymbo's Independent chapel. © The National Library of Wales 2014; used under Creative Archive Licence

Although the environment was not quite as hostile as in the mid 18th century, when as we have seen Moses Lewis of the Vron Farm was compelled to shelter a preacher from the attentions of the local authorities, nonconformity still existed in a sort of parallel world to that of the ‘official’ parish in the years before 1800. Brymbo had known some landowners of nonconformist sympathies, but the attitude of much of the local squirearchy can probably be summed up by a comment attributed to, I think, one of the Apperley family, who said that when a man became a Methodist it was usually “preparatory to his becoming a rogue“. The older and more respectable part of the parish nonconformists – the tradesmen and merchants of Wrexham – had their two chapels in the town, the Old and New Meeting Houses, the history of which Alfred Palmer has already given in detail. It was, however, amongst the newer communities of ironworkers and colliers, men with a reputation for riotousness and vaguely-described ‘immorality’, that the village chapels grew up, and in the process helped show these communities that they were equally as significant as their ‘betters’. Like the nature and ownership of those early cottages on the commonland, it was the sort of territory which official records did not really cover.

Luckily for us, many of the gaps have been filled in by private individuals acting as the historians of their communities’ chapels. Some of these histories, such as that written in 1947 about the Welsh Wesleyans of Vron Offa and Mynydd Seion by A H Williams are extremely detailed. We also know something of the origin of the Independent congregation at Bryn Sion, the austere chapel overlooking Brymbo from the hillside below Brynmally, thanks to its association with the famously charismatic preacher William Williams of Wern. Another of these manuscripts of chapel-specific history, now deposited at Denbighshire Archives, gives the history of Brymbo’s Baptists; it identifies the founding figure as the Rev. Evan Davis, previously of Cefn Mawr and before that of London, who came to Brymbo in around 1816 or 1817. The most distinctively Welsh of all the denominations, the Calvinistic Methodists, began their efforts in Harwood in approximately the same period, prompted by a Mr. Edward Rogers from the long-established chapel at Adwy in Bersham township.

Despite the example of the historic chapel at Adwy, the oldest Methodist presence in Brymbo was however to be heavily influenced by Wesleyanism, and by the English employees of Wilkinson’s ironworks and collieries. Indeed for many years the Welsh-language and English Methodists coexisted in the same premises, as noted by David Young in his Origin and History of Methodism in Wales and the Borders – a valuable 19th century source. These ‘premises’ were initially the house of William Miller, a works agent; another prominent figure was George Perry, the furnace manager, who Wilkinson had imported from among the workforce at Brosely. Perry’s three daughters, all good singers, were apparently something of a star attraction. Young’s account gives an impression of these early years after the Brymbo furnace first roared into life up at Plas Newydd: meetings in parlours and pub back rooms, sermons given in yards and crofts, orations heard outside the gate of Brynyfynnon farm. The village was still young and its spiritual custom, as it were, was up for grabs: the Established Church would not open up for business here until the 1830s.

One of the regular preachers in the 1790s was a manager at the Brymbo Colliery called Mainwaring; Young does not give his first name, but it appears to have been William. His wife was, I am sure, the Margaret Mainwaring who the Wesleyan minister Rev. William Jones identifies, in a memoir, as his sister. On August 23, 1800 William Mainwaring made the gesture of giving the floor to the bilingual preacher Rev. John Hughes, who gave the first Welsh-language sermon in Brymbo (Wesleyan, at any rate) outside the gate of George Perry’s house at the end of Blast Row. It was described in Hughes’ diary:

I preached at Brymbo Iron works Morning & Evening […] Mr Manwaring (sic) was going to preach but asked me to take his place […] I felt much power & I believe good will be done there – I admire in the divine Goodness in enabling me to speak so freely in the Welsh language for the Benefit of my poor Countrymen

The event caused quite a stir and quickly came to the attention of John Wilkinson himself. The following Wednesday, after a further sermon by Hughes at Bersham forge, Wilkinson – as described by Young “a professed sceptic“, and more importantly a man always ready to put one over on the Establishment – approached Hughes and told him that he would provide them a place of worship at Brymbo, if the “morals” of his workers might be improved by it. Encouraged, Hughes returned to Brymbo later in the year, his arrival preceded by a formidable storm and downpour. Although the weather led to a disappointing turnout, Mainwaring was there to receive Hughes and seemed as enthusiastic as ever (Hughes noting with satisfaction that he appeared to be modifiying his “Calvinist” tendencies). The Perry family were also present, and said it seemed “a special providence” that had brought them from Broseley, given that they were now likely to have a “Society” at Brymbo.

In the event, Wilkinson’s ‘place of worship’ turned out to be a shed rather than the chapel some had been hoping for, but the Wesleyans were able to overcome their disappointment. The shed, somewhere within the ironworks, served for a while, at least until another of the works agents, a man called Stephenson who was also a lay preacher, bought a small piece of land in the village on which in 1804 he built three houses and a chapel, pulling strings to get the majority of the chapel work done for free.

Although hard to track down in records, I believe that Young’s “Mr Stephenson” may be the James Stevenson who apparently appears on some baptismal records of the period as living in Brymbo, and who was by the 1830s described as a ‘mine agent’ or ‘coal master’ of Moxley in Staffordshire, owning property in Brymbo. The property was likely the row of cottages mentioned by Young. I also think that James was probably the Brymbo preacher (again named only as “Mr Stephenson”) who Young describes as giving a sermon in the Cefn Mawr English chapel in the early 1800s when it fell into a coalpit: luckily a thunderous noise accompanied the subsidence, so everyone escaped before the chapel collapsed.

Sadly it appears that James Stevenson, or Stephenson, fell out with the other leading members of the congregation, in the course of which – never trust a property developer – it was revealed that he had put the chapel’s deeds into his own name. After an incident in which the Rev. Anwyl, arriving for his weekly sermon, found that Stevenson had locked the door shut – giving Anwyl the opportunity to conduct a sermon in the yard on the text “Behold I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it” – there followed an uneasy period in which the Brymbo Wesleyans were forced to pay rent to occupy what they had thought was their own building. The congregation’s size dwindled to a mere handful by the 1830s, although it should be added that as this was the twenty years in which the ironworks operated fitfully, if at all, there may have been other factors at play than unsatisfactory accommodation. After a time in the Furnace Inn, they eventually got a new chapel constructed in 1837, itself replaced by a bigger version in 1863 as the congregation grew, and in time split into English and Welsh language churches. I will leave details of the story to Young, who names many of the figures of this period: Thomas Rogers the treasurer, John Hughes of Lower Glascoed farm and Robert Jones of Level Fawr, Joseph Fisher – “constantly warning the ungodly, and […] a terror to the evil-doers in the neighbourhood” – and Fanny Rogers, Elinor Thomas (formerly Charles), and Jane Jones, “whose names are still like sweet perfume, and will long live in the traditions of the locality“.