The village of Bagillt as it is known today is largely the result of the merging of a number of smaller settlements, like Rome if you please. Coleshill Fawr, Bagillt Fawr and Bagillt Fechan all seem to have grown together as the industrialisation of the Flintshire coast gathered pace. Yet, what of the curiosity of the name? Bagillt, at first glance seems entirely Welsh, what with its, ‘illt’. But, such opinion would be incorrect, since it is in fact an Anglo-Saxon place name – Mercian to be precise, a derivative of ‘Bacca’s Lea’, or something very similar.
This in itself is not unusual, at least in Flintshire. The Domesday Book is rich with the towns and villages of the County, reflecting its past as a much fought over middle country, ‘Perfeddwlad’, and indeed Bagillt is within its pages, listed as, ‘Bachelie’. There are many settlements within Flintshire that can trace their foundation to the invading Mercians of the 8th and 9th centuries, and Bagillt remains one of them.
However, looking for actual physical evidence of Saxon foundation is usually futile – a result of their propensity for works in wood, not stone. However, Hen Blas in Coleshill Fawr is the probable site of the original Mercian fortress, ‘Dinas Basi’ in which Cenwulf King of Mercia died in 821, after spending some five years raiding throughout Dyfed, Powys and into Snowdonia. Hen Blas is described in greater detail elsewhere, but it is suffice here to say that at Hen Blas we have a hugely important site that illustrates a turbulent period of Anglo-Welsh relations and the early history of Basingwerk Abbey. It is possible that Hen Blas is one of the most important sites in Welsh history – much remains to be unearthed.
Following the defeat of the Welsh princes of Gwynedd by Edward I in 1277, Bagillt rather disappears from recorded history. It does not reappear until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, within which it played a crucial and wholly essential part. At the end of the 17th century, and certainly by 1704, Bagillt began to enjoy a renaissance. It was in this year that the Quaker Edward Wright and his partners founded the Gadlys Lead Smelting Works at Bagillt, exploiting as many had done before the abundance of lead in the Flintshire hills and mountains. By the mid 19th century Bagillt had become a hugely important industrial centre, with some 12 collieries and factories refining a variety of metals, such as iron, lead and zinc, with the several small quays which had originally been home to a small fishing fleet growing into a docks from which the products of Bagillt’s industrial might were shipped.
This industrial boom, however, led to problems amongst its growing population. In 1847, the notorious ‘Reports of the commissioners of enquiry into the state of education in Wales’, in deriding the state of education in Wales made explicit mention of Bagillt in its apparent efforts to illustrate the reasons for such poor provision.
‘In some of the collieries the men are paid every other Saturday, and do not return to their work till the following Tuesday or Wednesday. In Bagillt and in the adjoining town of Flint the old Welsh custom of keeping a merry night (noswithlawen) is still prevalent, and, being generally reserved for a Saturday, is protracted to the following Sunday, during which drinking never ceases. This custom is represented by the clergy and others as involving the most pernicious consequences. I saw two men stripped and fighting in the main street of Bagillt, with a ring of men, women, and children around them. There is no policeman in the township. The women are represented as being for the most part ignorant of housewifery and domestic economy. The girls are very early sent to service, but marry as early as 18, and have large families. Women are not employed in or about the mines, but spend most of their time in cockling, or gathering cockles on the beach. They have low ideas of domestic comfort, living in small cottages dirty and ill- ventilated, and at night are crowded together in the same room, and sometimes in the same bed, without regard to age or sex.’
It would seem deeply unfair and entirely wrong to suggest that these conditions were not similar to the conditions found in industrial communities throughout the British Isles, but in giving us a snapshot of those industrial communities it retains some worth, however angry it made Robert Jones Derfel.
The industrial growth of Bagillt continued unabated throughout the 19th century reaching, perhaps, its zenith with the start of the building of the Milwr Tunnel in 1897. However, as in many places that had thrived with the exploitation of the mineral wealth of North East Wales, by the middle of the 20th century Bagillt’s fortunes declined.
Today, Bagillt stands as a testimony to North East Wales’ industrial past, but also to a much more ancient past of Anglo-Welsh rivalry.