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JOHN WILKINSON AND THE OLD BERSHAM
BY ALFRED NEOBARD PALMER.
BERSHAM is a large township which stretches westward
Read before the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, at 20 Hanover Square, on Wednesday, March 9, 1898. Chairman, Mr. Henry Owen, F.S.A.
2 The lower part of Bersham village is still designated Ddol."
3 Other spellings of this name which I have met with are " Pentre debonney" (1676 & 1770), "Pentre debenni" (1674), "Pentre dybenny" (1676 and 1778), and "Pentre Dyvenni" (1699). The spelling "Pentre 'r dibynau" (Hamlet of the cliffs) is modern. Whatever be the true form of the addition, I suspect it represents a personal name. Compare the form "Pentre Dyvenni" with "Llan devenny," the name of a hamlet in Netherwent, Monmouthshire.
simply as "The Pentre." It was in this hamlet—about a mile and a half from Wrexham-that the furnace and buildings connected with it stood, which buildings were often called locally "the Pont y Pentre Works" or "the Pentre Works," but inasmuch as the proprietors sold most of their wares in England or abroad, they naturally called the works after the township, rather than after the village, in which they were erected.
It has been repeatedly stated that it was John Wilkinson, or John Wilkinson in conjunction with his brother William, who about the year 1770, first started the Bersham Iron Works. In reality, however, Isaac Wilkinson, the father of John and William, had carried on those works long before. And so far as the Blast Furnace is concerned, this was in existence at Bersham at least as early as the as the year 1724 (see Appendix), and was then worked by Mr. Charles Lloyd, and afterwards by others, and was not taken in hand by Mr. Isaac Wilkinson until about the year 1754.
The question now arises, how came Pentre Dybenni to be selected as a place suitable for the smelting of iron? First of all, Llwyn Enion in Esclusham Above the place from which the iron-ore was mainly procured-was only a mile and a half distant, and so situate with regard to it, that the ore brought thence would be carried along roads which were slightly down hill all the way. Next, it was always then thought desirable to build a blast-furnace against the face of a low cliff, so that it could be charged from the cliff-top, and the molten metal be run off below at the level of the main road. Now, there were at Pentre Debenni in Bersham many such sites, close to a main road, and near two water mills, with water-rights belonging to them, which mills could be used to work the bellows for supplying the necessary blast. And thirdly, charcoal was
to be had in the neighbourhood. The last point is one that has never yet received the attention of local antiquaries. But there are various entries in the Wrexham parish registers, which go to show that charcoal burning was to a certain extent resorted to within the parish at this time. One of these entries may be quoted, as apparently pointing to the existence of an iron furnace near Bersham,' or, at any rate, somewhere within the parish, before the end of the seventeenth century :
"June 2, 1699, Elizabeth, wife of John Caradoc, wood collier, of sclusham, who died in a caben by the ffurnesse, Mr. Moore, workemen, buryed."
There are abundant indications in the names of places that a large part of the waste land in the upper part of the townships of Esclusham Above, Bersham, Brymbo, and Minera, were formerly covered with woods, in which charcoal burners, or, as they were here called, "wood colliers," plied their work. The name "Coedpoeth," or Burnt Wood, is a striking example of this statement, and although long before the date I am now speaking of, Coedpoeth was already an open common, bared of trees, some tracks of waste woodland, there is reason to believe, were still left in the higher parts of the parish, and charcoal burning was still carried on, though on a continually diminishing scale.
The original Bersham furnace was erected on land belonging to John Roberts, Esq., of Hafod y bwch Fawr, and close to one of the two water-mills above-named, which mill belonged also to Mr. Roberts. This mill has since disappeared (it is described as "down" in the year 1780), and its exact site is not now known, but it was certainly
Bersham Furnace stood quite close to the boundary of Esclusham. Of course there may have been an iron furnace in Esclusham itself in 1699, but I have hitherto found no mention of it.
close to the village of Pentre Dybenni, on the bank of the Clywedog, and either immediately above or immediately below the property, a map of which is given opposite. In 1725 the furnace and mill were in the occupation of a Mr. Charles Lloyd, whom I have good reason to suspect to have been of Dolobran, in the parish of Meifod, but who seems to have in no way made a success of them. In 1730, a Mr. John Hawkins (see Appendix) took them in hand, and carried them on until his death in November 1739, and they continued in the occupation of his widow (Mrs. Ann Hawkins) until about 1750. Then a Mr. Harvey (see Appendix) is charged in the parish ratebooks for "furnace, mill, and land," and in 1753, Mr. Isaac Wilkinson appears upon the scene. But in 1749 we begin to read of a "Mr. Nathaniel Higgons, of Bersham Furnance." He was probably a manager or clerk for Mrs. Hawkins, and continued to occupy some such office well on into the times of the Wilkinsons. He may, perhaps, have belonged to the family of Higgons, of Llanerchrugog Hall. On May 15, 1749, his son William was baptized at Wrexham Church.
Mr. Isaac Wilkinson was not of so obscure an origin as some have suggested, no common labourer, in short. Mr. James Stockdale, from his connection with the Wilkinsons, must be regarded as a prime authority as to their family history. He tells us, in his Annales Carmoelenses (published in 1872), that "according to tradition Isaac Wilkinson . . sometime after the beginning of the last century, occupied a small farm either in Cumberland
I find a Mr. Ivy described in 1737 as "of Bersham Furnace," but what he was then doing there I have not been able to ascertain (see Appendix).
2 This Mr. Jas. Stockdale's paternal aunt became the wife of Wm. Wilkinson, who had estates and houses in the same parish [of Cartmel].
or Westmorland, and had also employment as a workman, or perhaps an overlooker, in one of the numerous hæmatite iron furnaces and forges of that part of the kingdom." On the other hand, Mr. John Randall, in his John Wilkinson (published 1876), says emphatically that Isaac was at first a day labourer working for 12s. a week, and goes on to quote his very words :-"They raised me to 148.; I did not ask them for it: they went on to 16s. and to 18s. I never asked them for the advance. They next gave me a guinea a week, and I said to myself, If I am worth a guinea a week to you, I am worth more to myself."" But I would point out how excellent these wages were at that time, and that they reached an amount which shows that he was at least a very skilled workman and not a mere day labourer. It is certain he was shrewd, intelligent, and far from uncultivated, and he gave his sons an excellent education. He sent John to the academy of the Rev. Dr. Caleb Rotheram, of Kendal, where some of the chief Presbyterian ministers of Lancashire in the last half of the eighteenth century received their scholastic training. His son William he afterwards sent to Nantwich, Cheshire, to the school of the Rev. Joseph Priestley, one of the founders of modern chemistry; and an acquaintance was thus struck up which ultimately resulted in Mr. Priestley (afterwards the famous Dr. Priestley) marrying Mr. Isaac Wilkinson's daughter, Mary.
In 1740, according to Mr. Stockdale, Mr. Isaac Wilkinson migrated to the village of Backbarrow in the parish of Coulton in Furness, where he had a good house, and began business in a very small way by the manufacture of flat iron heaters. In this he was assisted by his eldest son John. They had, at first, no furnace of their own, but got their melted metal from a furnace worked at Backbarrow by the Machells and others, bringing it in large ladles