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© Copyright ~ 2020

The Gadlys Lead Smelting Works

‘The company were for a long series of years the greatest mine adventurers in North Wales, and had very considerable mines in every part of Flintshire.’

Thomas Pennant, The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell (1796)

 

There’s very little to see now, little to show for the presence of what was one of the greatest and indeed earliest concerns of the Industrial Revolution in the British Isles.  In the fields and woods about Gadlys Farm in Bagillt once stood the smelting works of the London Lead Company, also known as the Quaker Company.  William Williams of Oswestry, in producing his, ‘A New Map of the Counties of Denbigh and Flint’ in the 1720’s, recognised the importance of these works, including a drawing of the buildings at Bagillt alongside, quite literally, representations of the churches at Wrexham and Gresford - the old and the new in delightful juxtaposition.  Williams’ work was a recognition of the growth of the north east as a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, leading to this often neglected corner of Wales becoming the most populous and progressive part of the Welsh nation.  For a hundred years, the Gadlys smelting works consumed the lead extracted from Flintshire mines, old, sometimes ancient, and new, rendering down the ore at Bagillt and shipping it out from the Dee estuary to the world.

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'A New Map of the Counties of Denbigh and Flint' William Willams (1720s)

The efforts of the London Lead Company at the end of the 17th century to exploit the lead of Flintshire was merely the latest attempt to do so. In fact, they were ‘johnny-come-latelys’ to an industry that can likely trace its past to the very earliest times.  Certainly, the Romans sought to extract, smelt and export the lead, their efforts throughout Flintshire, notably on Halkyn Mountain and at Pentre Ffwrndan in Flint, clear evidence of its importance to the Empire.

 

In fact, mining in Flintshire was so important, that farmers often left their fields to their families in order to mine the exposed ore and transport that lead and also coal to the coast or to Chester.  Before the railways revolutionised the transportation of freight, and with roads that were fit for nothing, the knowledge of local people of the ancient routeways was invaluable, and lucrative too.

 

‘As to the farmers in the mining part of the county, lead and coal carriage, and lean horses, are too much their objects of attention, to permit them to devote much of their time to the employments of agriculture.’

W.Davies, General View of Agriculture (1810)

 

By the beginning of the 19th century, ‘nourished by lead and coal’, and other concerns such as religion and banking, the town of Holywell was considered to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest town in Wales.

 

The London Lead Company, or more properly known as, The Governor and Company for Smelting down Lead with Pittcoale and Sealcoale, had its origins in the Royal Mines Copper company, which had received its charter in 1694.  As its name suggests, its interest in Wales lay at its beginning not just with the lead of Flintshire, but the copper that had been exploited by the peoples of the British Isles for thousands of years.  But it was certainly mining the lead of Halkyn Mountain at the end of the 17th century, though in these early days of the enterprise, little is known of the business with any real clarity.

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Dee Bank Quay - from here the lead produced at Gadlys was shipped throughout the world.

The Royal Mines Copper was no fly-by-night operation, no company of speculators and stock-jobbing desperados.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  At its foundation, it was a company of ardent Quakers of technical, industrial and financial genius.  Its chairman was the Quaker, Dr Edward Wright, a chemist whose association with the Company lasted for much of his adult life.  It is fair to say that in his capable hands, the Gadlys works enjoyed its greatest financial success.  His enterprise and genius was supported and encouraged by two other Quakers - John Haddon (1654-1724), a blacksmith by trade, and John Freame (1668-1745), a goldsmith and banker who went on to found what became known as Barclays Bank.  Together, these three were joined by others, mostly fellow Quakers, such as Samuel Davies, Thomas Cooper, Cornelius Mason and John Browne.  Urban Hall was also greatly involved in the business, though not a Quaker and in fact heavily involved in the slave trade.  His involvement, or rather the Quakers acceptance of a slave trading director is something of a shock, but remains a fact that cannot, and should not go unmentioned.  All these men, not a one of whom were Welsh, were entrepreneurs of the highest sort, in an age when Britain was seemingly bloated with them.  All of them saw the potential of Flintshire lead, and utilised their technical and financial acumen to turn a substantial profit.

 

It should be stated clearly, once again, that while the fame of Gadlys has obscured the industry of those that came before them, it is clear that they were not the first to exploit the area of its lead in the early modern era, or indeed the last, but the scale of their operation was enormous, certainly for its time.  It is worth reminding ourselves that the Royal Mines Copper and the London Lead Company that followed it, were fully operational in the Bagillt area by the end of the 17th century, and in Bagillt specifically by 1704 - very early in the Industrial Revolution.  The Royal Mines Copper were leasing existing lead mines from local landowners, including Mr Justice Evans of Northop Hall, Mr Daniel Peck of Holt and the ubiquitous Mostyns by the end of the 17th century.  Indeed, the first substantial record of the Royal Mines Copper is in its meticulous early minutes of an ongoing feud with Sir Thomas Grosvenor in 1698, who was refusing to sign leases on lead mines.

 

There was no smelting house at Bagillt in the beginning.  The lead was smelted elsewhere, possibly in Flint, as it had been during Roman times some 1500 years previously, but it is clear one was coming.  Wright and Haddon, the chemist and blacksmith, were responsible for a new method of smelting ore through a cupola, using the flame of pit coal. After an extensive tour of the Flintshire lead mines at the beginning of the 18th century, a lease of land at Bagillt was taken from Thomas Williams of Plas Ucha, Halkyn and Plas yn y Kellin, Leeswood.  By March 1703, a plan of the new workhouse was complete and sent to London for the Company’s perusal and John Freame advanced the company the sum of £500, at a respectable 6% interest.  A final agreement for the site was signed between Thomas Williams and the Company’s agent in Flintshire, Anthony Barker, and building work on what was set to become the largest industrial installation in Flintshire, and possibly Wales, was begun.  The workhouse was to cost a moderate £225 to build and was complete, certainly by the end of 1704.

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Rose Cottage - one of the few remaining original buildings on the Gadlys site.

During this time the Royal Mines Copper was the driving force behind securing a number of smelting patents by amalgamating a number of companies under its existing board.  To cut a tiresomely long story short, by January 1706, the Governor and Company for Smelting down Lead with Pittcoale and Seacoale had been born.  The name was to long, even for a time in which respectability seemed measured in such things, and the Company became known as the London Lead Company, or even, The Quaker Company.

 

The first quarter of the 18th century were ones of tremendous success and expansion.  By the 1720s, the Company had massively increased the number of lead mines supplying Gadlys, moving on from the original 3 or 4 on Halkyn Mountain and, given its new method of smelting with pit coal, it had leased numerous coal mines from the likes of Thomas Messham.  Coal was to become increasingly important as the century wore on, in order to power the steam engines that were employed to pump out the deeper levels of their mines.  By the 1720’s, Gadlys had become one of the most important industrial centres in the British Isles.  The importance of the business was recognised in the stamping of the three feathers on coins made from the metal from Welsh mines (English metal wore two roses), notably the sixpenny piece, the shilling and the flooring of the eras of Queen Anne and George I.

 

However, while the first quarter of the century were ones of success, expansion and excellent dividends, there were problems.  Water, ever the bane of early mining ventures, was becoming an increasing burden on progress.  And as is always the case, as the mines were required to go deeper to secure the ore after the shallower depths had been exploited, flooding became an ever present problem, reflected in the Company minutes, which show an increasing preoccupation with the issue.  As is sometimes the case, such external challenges presented themselves at times of internal structural flux, and by 1728 Edward Wright, one of the foundation stones upon which the Company’s success thus far had been secured, was dead.  Not long after, in 1730, another lynch pin of Company’s rise had also died, Urban Hall, whose interests had also run to slave trading. John Haddon had died in 1724.  Anthony Barker, the Company’s agent in Flintshire and stalwart of the Company’s success in North Wales had retired to Bath through ill health (he had been escorted to the Somerset city by Edward Wright, such was the esteem in which Barker was held). It was very much a time in which the old guard was passing.  And it was certainly by this time that the tremendous success of the Company had begun to slow down.

 

The lead mines in Flintshire were still seen as profitable, the Company’s minutes are clear on this matter, but not in the short term.  Challenge breeds innovation, and this before all things was the foundation of the Industrial Revolution.  The Newcomen Engine, the first workable steam engine was fashioned not for transport, but to pump water from the tin mines of Cornwall.  During the 18th century, these state-of-the-art machines were being installed in mines throughout the British Isles, including at the famous Trelogan Lead Mine between Whitford and Axton, which had a ‘fire engine’ by 1733.  Installed at great expense, but with the hope that such advanced technology would enable the extraction of lead from the deeper levels of existing mines.

 

Another effort at reversing the Company’s ailing fortunes was to look for new sources of lead.  A mine in the southern Berwyns was thought to be the answer to all problems.  Llangynog was some 45 miles or so from the cupola at Bagillt, but given the dreadful state of the roads at the time, it was thought to be more profitable to build a new smelting house at Benthall, close to Coalbrookdale, ironically see by many as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.  Benthall was actually further away from Llangynog than Bagillt, but it is thought much of the ore that was mined there travelled to Benthall on existing waterways. Unfortunately for the London Lead Company, the Llangynog venture was unsuccessful, and it was abandoned in 1738 after continuously failing to produce enough ore to turn a profit, and the new smelting house at Benthall was finally given up in 1748.

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Most of the original buildings were pulled down in a very few years after the closure of the works, few of the original buildings remaining.

Curiously, however, while its efforts in lead were proving problematical, the London Lead Company were increasingly investing outside its traditional core business, and were able to return considerable dividends to its shareholders.  The Company of scientists, blacksmiths and goldsmiths had become something of an investment company by the middle of the century - a different beast from its foundation by Wright, Haddon and Freame.  And the Company remained, at all times a London business, with no Welsh shareholders at all within its ranks.  Gadlys was in effect run in the coffee shops of London and through their Welsh agents in North East Wales, which for the better part of its history in Bagillt was the Barker family.  Anthony Barker, originally of Cilcain was there at the start, signing the leases and overseeing the building of Gadlys.  He was much valued by the likes of Wright, Haddon and Freame, who seem to have entirely trusted him and made sure of retaining his services with regular gifts and regular pay rises - making the Barkers a wealthy family.  Anthony was followed as the Company’s agent by his son, Thomas and perhaps also a younger son, John. Thomas resigned from the Company in around 1733 in order to follow his own interests, which included the Cheadle Brass Company in the Greenfield Valley, but so deep were his family’s connections to the London Lead Company that he did at times continue to undertake work for them.  It is thought that the Barkers were responsible for the building of Bryn Madyn, which overlooked the Gadlys workhouse and stands still, and which plays a part in the much older story of the Battle of Coleshill of 1157.  Whether they did or not build Bryn Madyn, they certainly lived there, which given their responsibilities makes perfect sense, of course.  The brothers also bequeathed the amount of £400, an extraordinary sum, for the complete rebuilding of Holywell Vicarage on Well Street.  Thomas Barker retired to the life of a wealthy squire in Overton on Dee, buying, possibly building, Argoed House in the Village.

 

If the first quarter of the 18th century was a period of huge success and expansion, the years following were difficult ones.  Despite new technologies to drain the mines, water was increasingly making profitable extraction or the lead ore very difficult.  By 1779, there was an increasing sense of the winding down of Gadlys.  The middle years of the century were tough ones in which to turn a profit, and it is clear that the Company was almost instinctively withdrawing its attention from Flintshire, its gaze turning to the Isle of Man (disastrously) and fixing on the north of England (where its business continued well into the 19th century).  It is not entirely clear exactly when the leases taken at the end of the 17th century and renewed early in the 18th century were due to expire, but we know that conversations were being had in London as to whether or not they should be renewed again.  If any in the London Lead Company felt it worth their while to do so is not known, but by 1791 it was agreed to sell off the Flintshire properties, including the Gadlys site.

 

Officially, the end of the Company’s interests at Bagillt, and indeed Flintshire came on February 21st 1799, with their agent, William Smith declaring to the Company that all business at Gadlys was settled.  He was then ordered to send to London the Company’s books and ‘Iron Chest’ by sea as soon as possible.

 

‘So in the last year of the 18th century, a bank note sent by post and an iron chest travelling by sea to St. Martin’s Lane, Cannon Street, ends the long story of Gadlys and a pioneering venture in British industry carried on with more or less vigour for almost a century.’

M.Bevan-Evans, ‘Gadlys and Flintshire Lead-Mining in the Eighteenth Century’ Flintshire Historical Society Vol 20

 

In the long, long history of the Flintshire lead industry, the involvement of the London Lead Company at Bagillt borders on the very brief - a match flame of activity.  But bright indeed burned that match flame and, brief as it was, it seems to have offered enough illumination to light the way for others.  It is clear that the enterprise at Gadlys was a true trailblazer of the Industrial Revolution, but as revolutionary as it was, the London Lead Company at Gadlys was no more than following in the footsteps of the Romans whose long presence on Halkyn Mountain, Flint, Meliden and Prestatyn was entirely founded on lead.

 

The eventual failure of the London Lead Company’s Gadlys operations were obviously based on the increasing difficulties in extracting the lead ore from the lower depths of the lead mines throughout Flintshire, including Trelogan, at sufficient quantities to turn a profit, largely due to the difficulties of flooding.  But is there not something else at play here?  There is a sense that in the beginning the Royal Mines Copper and the London Lead Company, as it became later known, was the eyes bright, hair on fire obsession of genuine visionaries, as much determined to put their ideas into practice as to make immense amounts of money.  Rather than following the money, Wright and Haddon seem rather to have been following their talent.  The fact that this talent was backed with Freame capital is what seems to have pushed talent into profit - but then that reflects the talent of Freame, as much as that of Wright and Haddon.  Is this the secret of success - follow the talent, not the profit, and in so doing the profit will come?  Because, with the death of Wright, Haddon and eventually Freame, the genius if you will, the wind does seem to have left the sails of the Company.  Certainly, from the middle of the 18th century, despite some ups as well as downs, the general direction of the Gadlys enterprise seems to have been a slow slide to closure.

 

Despite its eventual closure, the industry at Gadlys was fondly remembered in Flintshire - in its genuine genius, its early success, but also in its quiet altruisms - its care for its workers (there were times of hardship in which the London Quakers shipped corn to its people in Flintshire) and the renovations and rebuilding of parish churches, including at Alston and Halkyn.

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Smithy Cottage - part of the Gadlys Conservation area.

There is now little to show for this genuinely pioneering industry in the village of Bagillt, but it was there, and for a bright match flame of time, it stood above all others.  In Bagillt. In Flintshire.  In North East Wales.  That is absolutely quite splendid.