I have spent a lot of time talking about John Wilkinson, over the course of putting together this site. It is difficult not to, in many ways. But I am now going to say something controversial. I do not think that Wilkinson was the single most important figure in Brymbo’s history, at least in terms of the more modern era – that of the ironworks and the village and the beginnings of the landscape we see today. Wilkinson may be the person who gets on the school curriculum; he certainly made it into that of my primary school, and inspired some of my curiosity about my local area. He even seems to have inspired a (fairly dismal) poetic tribute, although unlike another local celebrated in song, Watkin Williams-Wynn, he never got as far as having a pudding named after him. But I think that a special place should be reserved for the one person who did more than anyone else to shape the community – often, though not entirely, for the good – and above all to create a permanent association between Brymbo and steelmaking. This was the Scottish engineer Henry Robertson.

I should backtrack a little; Wilkinson is a fascinating figure in the context of the early Industrial Revolution. His national importance, as opposed to his local importance, cannot be argued with. But there are many reasons to consider whether he should overshadow Robertson. Wilkinson may have begun the ironworks at Brymbo, but his involvement with Bersham lasted far longer. He may have had many pits sunk for coal and ironstone, but the estate was certainly also worked for coal (and lead) under Thomas Assheton-Smith, Dr James Apperley, Arthur Owen, Richard Clayton, and Robert Griffith, and perhaps earlier. Most of these men – and indeed the women such as Mary Griffith – have been nearly forgotten, even if (as in the case of Mr Griffith) they were part of a family who had owned much of Brymbo township for three hundred years and more. Wilkinson’s presence at Brymbo was a matter of fifteen years, for all its transformative energy.

By contrast, Robertson was involved with the ironworks for over forty years, and his son extended the family control yet further. He arguably saved it at least twice, ensuring its continuation into the last part of the twentieth century, long after most similarly-sized operations had been killed off by the great steelworks of northern England and South Wales. Indeed, he pioneered UK steel production at Brymbo, a farsighted investment. While Wilkinson’s empire rapidly disintegrated after his death, the talented managers that Robertson had encouraged ensured that production could continue without him. Wilkinson took on Brymbo as a project of his late maturity (coinciding with another late project, his attempts to father an heir with the former Brymbo Hall housekeeper); but many of Robertson’s achievements were made while barely out of his twenties. His Liberal instincts were a powerful political force in the district, and helped shape it in other ways. Wilkinson is easily the most interesting character connected with Brymbo’s industrial era; but Robertson, I think, accomplished far more here.

Robertson was born in 1816 in Banff. He was not exactly of working class stock, but his parents were not well off; his father was a minor civil servant and Henry the youngest of eight children. He won a university scholarship and chose to study engineering despite his parents having envisaged him entering the Church. By his early twenties Robertson was building up a solid engineering practice and was already exploring the possibilities of the then cutting-edge railway technology: a biographical note in a 1920 Brymbo Works Magazine claims that he narrowly avoided, due to a delay in his journey, becoming a victim of a boiler explosion during a demonstration of one of the very early ‘steam carriages’. It was one of several instances of good luck which marked his career. A further one was his introduction to Robert Roy, who came to own the Brymbo estate in the years after John Wilkinson Jr departed for America, never to return.

Roy, born in 1797, was another Scotsman; the son of an army surgeon at the bleak Fort George garrison north-east of Inverness. He had apprenticed in law, becoming a Writer to the Signet, a sort of superior class of lawyer. He is a shadowy and, at this distance, rather unsympathetic figure. His career before purchasing Brymbo had not been without controversy: his involvement in what became known as the “Dundonnell Cause”, a case in which he was accused – along with his sister Isabella – of having swindled the rightful heirs of the Dundonnell estate in Ross-shire out of their inheritance, had culminated with the former laird’s tenants allegedly attempting to murder him. The deceased laird, said the heirs’ lawyer, had spoken of his “fear and detestation” of Robert Roy. After long and costly litigation, Roy lost the estate but a few years later was to turn up in North Wales.

Roy had purchased the freehold of the Brymbo estate out of Chancery, no doubt for a relative bargain price. The thirty or so years since John Wilkinson senior’s death had not been kind to his former ironworks and collieries or to those who depended on them for work, with operations being sporadic at best. Since 1808 one of Wilkinson’s former employees, colliery engineer William Rowe of Bersham, had been left in place as manager and seems to have tried his best, but a combination of mismanagement by the trustees and Wilkinson’s heirs, poor communication links to the outside world, insufficient capital to rejuvenate production, and the end of the Napoleonic Wars had together left Brymbo in decay. None of the figures connected with it in this period – James Kyrke, John Thompson, who took over briefly in 1819 and probably built the ‘Old No. 1’ furnace on the site of Wilkinson’s original, John Wilkinson Jr, who tried to restart production around 1835, or Alexander Reid – had made a go of things: it seemed entirely possible that Brymbo might have shared the fate of so many other rural ironworks of the early period, which failed or remained small and are now long forgotten.

Roy, in the meantime, was trying to establish what kind of a purchase he had made. By mid 1842 he had put together a partnership of investors, most with Scottish connections, to attempt to inject some fresh capital into the ironworks and collieries. Roy was the leading figure, and the chairman of the company subsequently formed. The other partners included the civil engineer and railway contractor William Mackenzie, and railway contractors William Betts, Hugh Ross and his nephew Alexander M. Ross; men linked through their association with the contractor Hugh McIntosh, who had started his career as a navvy but ended up carrying out projects from the Brighton Pavilion to the Regents Canal. The shared background of the majority of the partners indicates what they had in mind at Brymbo from the start, as does their appointment of Henry Robertson, another man interested in the potential of railways.

Robertson appears to have been recommended to the investors by a Glasgow contractor named Matthieson or Mathieson – possibly the Kenneth Mathieson recorded as responsible for several bridges and similar works in the 1810s, 20s and 30s – whom he had assisted on several projects. The Brymbo Works Magazine relates a curious story that Robertson first came to his sponsor’s attention not due to his engineering prowess, but because Matthieson noticed his “nimble” dancing at a party. You may make of that what you will, but it was to be a lucky break. Matthieson’s recommendation landed Robertson a job with a Scottish bank looking to exploit the minerals of North Wales, and therefore sometime in 1841 he found himself on his way southwards with the task of drawing up a full report on Brymbo ironworks and its prospects.

Robertson cannot have been too impressed with what he found. With Wilkinson’s drive and energy a distant memory, the young engineer discovered Brymbo to be sunk in a morass of poor management, inefficiency and commercial isolation. The workers were much of the time paid in boots, hats and other such items. In addition, prospective ironmasters were still confronted by the same basic problem Wilkinson had faced: the miles of bad roads and hilly country before major industrial markets, ports or navigable rivers were reached. Wilkinson, and the coalmaster Richard Kirk, had backed a canal to the area, though the terrain had defeated the engineers. Robertson’s immediate suggestion was a tramroad to the River Dee, and his report impressed the bank enough that they gave him the financial backing to start the project himself. With the formation of the Brymbo Mineral & Railway Company, Robertson joined with Roy and his partners and became the chief engineer of something more ambitious still.

Not that everything was plain sailing by any means. The depression of the early 1840s was a tough time to get into the industry. The Kyrke brothers, James and George, of Glascoed and Brynmally, both went bankrupt in this decade. In the very year of the Company’s formation, a serious fire broke out in the Main Coal of the No. 8 pit at Penrhos, and no coal was raised there afterward. This was the most productive pit in the colliery, and its loss an unfortunate event. Undaunted, the new management had the Bye Pit sunk in 1843 under the direction of Samuel Evans, agent, another long-service employee. The first attempt at getting the railway company off the ground faltered due to the opposition of certain landowners, but the whole project advanced considerably when, largely thanks to Robertson’s efforts, an Act was passed in August 1844 to incorporate the North Wales Mineral Railway. Even so, one of the partners – William Mackenzie – was still to pull out in 1845, believing Brymbo to be a bad investment; he sold his shares to Roy. The ironworks was saved through the formation of a new company to run it and the collieries, simply called the Brymbo Company, in 1846, and by Robertson’s efforts in persuading the Darby brothers, William and Charles, to come from Coalbrookdale to be managers. The Darbys were gently-spoken Quakers, great supporters of Temperance; for the next few decades the local press saw regular mentions of tea parties, and cocoa, and summer temperance picnics on the mountain at Bwlchgwyn. But the Darby brothers were respected by their workers: Robertson had picked the right men, and their skill got the ironworks through the difficult years.

Henry Robertson’s railway reached Brymbo a year after the Darbys, rising by two tunnels and a series of inclines, or “brakes”, from Gwersyllt. It extended iron fingers towards Vron and to the lime workings of Minera, where the lead mines, although at that time largely abandoned to flooding, promised future profits. In the Moss Valley it foreshadowed the destruction of the woods and lakes mourned by Alfred Palmer sixty years later, as the Westminster Colliery followed in its wake. In the process the railway confirmed that the area’s character would, in future, be definitely ‘industrial’: not perhaps the large-scale organised industrial landscape of South Wales, but industrial nonetheless. Robertson went on to promote and develop much of the North’s railway network, in addition to becoming a partner in the Manchester-based locomotive builders Beyer Peacock.

The Brymbo Company of the early Robertson era had a much broader focus than later incarnations of the works. Like the Ffrwd works of John Thompson, and his successors Messrs Sparrow and Poole, it was both a colliery and an ironworks operator on essentially the same site, in addition to selling bricks and any other profitable byproduct. The later association of Brymbo and steel has obscured the fact that the colliery once made up a large part of its business: “IMPORTANT TO SHIP OWNERS”, ran one advert in the Economist in 1852, followed by the smaller subheading: “COAL”:

“The superior Brymbo Steam Coal, which is now on the Lists of the British and French Governments and of the East India Company, is now supplied at a very moderate price, with great dispatch, being loaded by a powerful new Steam Crane at Birkenhead Dock, Liverpool […] orders received by Mr HANCOCK, agent, at the Brymbo Company’s offices”

There were many local competitors, of course. Sometimes the competition got a little too fierce. In 1848 a newspaper reported that Mr. Parry, agent to the Brynmally coal company, and Mr. Round, clerk to Mr. Smally, agent to the Brymbo Company, had quarrelled. They came to blows, and Parry grabbed Round by the hair: Round “struggled hard to release himself, with the result that Mr. Parry became insensible from the punishment he received, and having been brought home, soon afterwards expired“. Brynmally was to face additional competition from Robertson when he purchased the Broughton Hall Estate and sank further pits there.

In later years the local industrial rivalries gained an additional political frisson. Robertson, a lifelong Liberal supporter, became MP for Shrewsbury in 1862; later he was a backer of George Osborne Morgan, MP for Denbighshire, who rented Brymbo Hall and became (in relative terms) wildly popular in the village. Thomas Clayton of Brynmally and W F Butler of Cae Penty and Vron were, by contrast, solidly Tory, and the ability of the rival works to put a large number of men out in support no doubt had some contribution to the 1885 Brymbo election ‘riot’, one of the township’s more interesting forgotten episodes.

In the meantime, Robertson bought Roy out: a local story claimed that the transaction was decided by a horse race which the workmen, friendlier to Robertson, ensured he won. If nothing else, this shows that there was not much affection in Brymbo for Roy, who married a widow and left for the more fashionable surroundings of Chester a few years later, finally ending his days in 1870s Bournemouth. A rather stiff newspaper obituary commended his dutiful service as a magistrate: Mary Roy, once again a widow, gave some commemorative stained glass to Brymbo’s recently built church, but it is safe to say that Roy was more or less forgotten. Robertson, on the other hand, had become a more dominant figure than ever, though based in Shrewsbury, and latterly at Pale Hall in Merioneth, for much of the period. He gained full control of the Brymbo Company by the 1870s, but even so, his contribution to Brymbo’s development had yet to go through its last and perhaps most revolutionary stage.

By the close of the decade, the industrial landscape was once more beginning to change. Even the local land sales of coal which had kept the colliers of Brymbo working through the 19th century were dying off. The reputation of the area for what the Colliery Guardian, in 1893, called “big-class house coal” had been founded on the Old Brymbo Main Coal, worked there for three hundred years; the “great Coale” of Robert Griffith’s pit in the 1680s. But, as the Guardian observed, this seam was now worked out except perhaps for the part within the take of the Vron Colliery. The smaller ironworks of the country were starting to have a tough time of it as well, and it was at this point that Robertson made the decision to start experimenting with steelmaking at Brymbo; J. H. Darby, assisted by Peter Williams, another of the important figures of this era, were able to make the project – a whole other story that I will probably leave for a future post – a success within a couple of years. Other works that did not make this step, like Brymbo’s competitor at Ffrwd, were soon to disappear.

Robertson died in 1888 – according to the Works Magazine, after insisting on going outside to play in the snow while in bad health – but by then he had secured the works’ future for another century: a fitting memorial.

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