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The definition of ‘the gentry’ in seventeenth and eighteenth century Wales was rather elastic, and encompassed many families of rather modest means. The dignity of being a ‘gentleman’ mostly attached to the ownership of freehold land, however small the piece of land in question was; and if it could be backed by a pedigree showing descent from some ancient prince or member of the old uchelwyr class, then so much the better. As A. H. Dodd observed, in Tudor and Jacobean times the concept of the proud but impoverished Welsh gentleman, ready in an instant to recite the contents of his “card”, as the home-compiled genealogical tables were known, was sufficiently familiar to become a staple of stage comedy.
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Although it saw no large battles, the Civil War in Denbighshire was a bitter and drawn-out affair. The unusually numerous and old-fashioned gentry of the area (praised by Thomas Churchyard in his 1587 poem, The Worthines of Wales) were predictably Royalist in inclination, and supplied many officers of the King’s armies. But the town of Wrexham, and even the surrounding countryside, produced its Parliamentary officers and supporters too: a few are even connected to Brymbo. Samuel Powell, the younger brother of Thomas Powell of the Gyfynys, has already been mentioned as an example of a Parliamentarian among the area’s gentry families.

Two others, however – Captain Hugh Prichard and Captain Edward Taylor – were from the yeomanry, rather than the gentry. The latter certainly took up arms against the King, while the former was very active during the Commonwealth. They were, in fact, old associates, being related by marriage: Prichard’s wife, Ellinor, was a kinswoman of the Taylors, and both men were strongly religious, with nonconformist convictions that doubtless influenced their support of Parliament.

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In its pre-industrial days, Brymbo was divided up into smallish, mainly freehold estates, many of which were in the hands of the minor “gentry”, or at least farmers with some pretensions to a coat of arms and a long family tree. The origin, development and fate of these estates, or stentiau, forms the background to the area’s transformation over the centuries. Beginning from the original Welsh tref, usually held by an important family and over the generations divided amongst its sons, we can see estates consolidate under English rules of inheritance, pass out of families, become tenanted out or sold off piecemeal. Gradually the wealthy farmers become replaced by industrialists, the rural labourers by miners, and the local gentry by large landowners, often living in other parts of the country, while the dispersed rural settlements typical of Wales are eventually replaced by the clustered villages of later centuries.

This is a very simplified way of looking at it, but many of the bigger landholdings in Brymbo have gone through this kind of development. An example is the area just to the northeast of today’s Brymbo village, marked on Ordnance Survey maps by the text “Gyfynys Farm”. This was once the centre of a large estate held by an (in local terms) important family, but having gone through the usual cycle of dissolution, industrial development, and a return to agriculture, there is little today to show that this was ever the case.

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Gorse growing on old spoil heaps in the fields behind Mount Pleasant farm, where coal mining may have taken place in the 17th century.

We know a fair amount about coal mining around Brymbo in the 19th century, after John Wilkinson had developed the area’s industry, and the township was at the heart of the Denbighshire coalfield. It’s also clear that some smaller-scale activity was taking place from at least the 14th century. These would have been very shallow mines by later standards: bell-pits with a central shaft flaring out at the coal face at a depth of around thirty feet, though sometimes more depending on the depth of the seams. Most of the evidence of the early coal workings has been obliterated by those of subsequent centuries, or by the destructive opencast workings of the past 50 years, but some references can still be found in old documents.

I have already mentioned the 14th century grant to the burgesses of Holt, permitting them to dig for coal on Brymbo’s commons. Leland, writing in the 16th century, also notes that there are “se-coles at Harwood”. Most remarkably, one document still exists which not only gives us a good idea of how the coal miners of the late 17th century Brymbo worked, but even tells us some of their names.

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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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