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The demolition of John Griffith’s 1624 house at Brymbo. (Copyright NWN Media; used under their licence; downloading or commercial reproduction prohibited).

Many of the gentry houses of Britain failed to survive the 20th century. Even the old mansions of Wales, often very different buildings to those attached to the large estates of England, proved in many cases to be just too impractical or expensive to maintain.

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Even some farmland in the area has been changed drastically over the years through the effects of mining and industry. The NCB's opencast mine at Brymbo in summer 1974, looking across towards the site of the later steelworks rolling mill.

Grass, hedges and even trees can grow back fairly quickly if left to their own devices. As a result it’s quite easy to look at the more rural parts of our area of study and imagine that the landscape seen today gives a good idea of the surroundings a hundred years ago, or even three hundred years ago.

In fact, the effects of industry and in particular mining  have wrought substantial change, making the history of the landscape that much harder to read. Probably the most destructive of these changes was the series of opencast coal workings that were carried out between the end of World War II and the mid 1970s. There are still a few places where you can see field boundaries and lanes much as they appear on, say, the tithe maps of the 1830s: over towards Glascoed or in the valley of the Gwenfro on the township’s southern boundary, for example. But much of the rest of the land in between has been dug over for coal, and with it disappeared all kinds of historical evidence that can now only be seen on maps.

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Just a quick post this time; a break from the 18th and 17th century to look at the changes that have occurred even in the past 50 or so years, and a chance to talk about a wonderful photographic archive.

The National Library of Wales has recently begun digitising its huge collection of photographs by the late photojournalist Geoff Charles, who lived in Brymbo. In his time, Charles was one of the most talented and significant photographers working in Wales, and in a lifetime of work for Y Cymro, Farmers Weekly and other publications built up a large library of negatives. Although they cover all areas of Wales, some of these are a record of the area in which he lived.

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Arms of the Gruffydd or Griffith family of Brymbo. From J. Y. W. Lloyd, “The History of the Princes, the Lords Marcher, And the Ancient Nobility of Powys Fadog”

Most townships or manors were the home of at least one wealthy or influential family, whose estate would form the core landholding of the area. For several centuries up until the early 1700s, this position was filled in Brymbo by a family called Griffith. Although not in later years among the great or most powerful landowners of Denbighshire, their position in the gentry brought certain rights and responsibilities, and like others of their kind their names often appear in local administrative records. When John Norden surveyed the manor of Esclusham in 1620, John and Robert Griffith headed up the manorial ‘jury’, a mixture of minor gentry, freeholders and prosperous yeomen.

Part of the family’s remaining prestige came from their history: the Griffith pedigree is often recited in the manuscripts of the 16th and 17th century Welsh genealogists. In common with other gentry, the Griffith family once kept a “card”, or detailed genealogical table, in their library: the scholar Robert Vaughan’s book of pedigrees, the Llyfr Achau Robert Vaughan or Peniarth MS. 287, lists “Gruff. of Brymbo his card” amongst its sources. Their claimed ancestor, Sanddef Hardd (“Alexander the Handsome”), was a twelfth-century member of a noble family from Bodafon, in the north of Anglesey. As related in this usefully detailed page, he may have followed the common path of hiring out his military skills, possibly during the “Anarchy” of the 1140s, the period of strife in England between the supporters of King Stephen and Matilda. Sanddef’s mercenary service was to pay off – handsomely. He was rewarded with land in Burton near present-day Gresford, and several of the landowners of the Wrexham area traced descent from him, including the later owners of the Brymbo estate.

History has not recorded the exact process by which Sanddef’s fifteenth-century descendant Edward ap Morgan came into ownership of this windy corner of rural Denbighshire, but by that time it seems clear that the family owned a substantial amount of land in the township. It is possible that a marriage (recorded in Harleian MS. 2299, compiled by the herald Hugh Thomas) between Edward’s grandfather Dafydd ap Madog and Mallt, the daughter of Dio ap Dafydd ap Madog Ddu of Brymbo bought the estate into his hands. Edward’s marriage to another local heiress, Margaret Whitford of Plas-y-Bold, would have added to the family possessions.1 The heralds and antiquarians also gave them Sanddef’s coat of arms: a gold lion rampant on a green field sown with sprigs of broom, a plant whose bright yellow flowers still cover the roadsides around Brymbo in late spring. It grows along the footpath running north-east from the old Brymbo road at Penrhos to the brow of the hill where the Griffith house once stood, from where you can see the whole of the eastern and northern part of the estate beneath you, along with a view over five counties.

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East elevation of house at Plas Mostyn, Brymbo

East elevation of house at Plas Mostyn, Brymbo. Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales; used with permission

The building shown on the right was once the largest house in Brymbo. This is Plas Mostyn, built sometime in the early 17th century and pictured in a state of dereliction after the Second World War – probably on a bright, windy summer morning, judging by the photograph. Although there is still a farm of the same name, the house itself was demolished not long after this photograph was taken and today there is a cowshed on the site.

Nobody seems to have been able to establish exactly who built Plas Mostyn, which stood on a hilltop in the south of the township. It was a fine double-pile house of three stories, built from narrow slabs of shale stone: originally there were four chimneys, one at each corner of the building. The earliest record of the house and its estate was uncovered by Alfred Palmer, who said that though he was unable to trace it in Norden’s 1620 survey, found it had been sold by a William Santhey to William Mostyn sometime around 1640: it was soon to become known as Plas Mostyn (“Mostyn’s Hall”, more or less). This name still appears on today’s maps.

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This is site about Brymbo, a township once part of Denbighshire, and its history. You can read more about the site in general, start with the most recent posts or with the archives listed below.
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