Leeswood is a small pretty village on the outskirts of Mold, easily missed on a journey from Wrexham north through Flintshire. There is little to suggest that the slightest of detours from the main road would take you amongst what was, in truth, the centre of a 19th century ‘oil mania’, which was arguably on a scale not witnessed again in Britain until the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s and early 70s. Scattered amongst the woods behind the village are the remains of a short lived multi-million pound industry, slowly returning to the trees from which it was originally fashioned.
But, we are ahead of ourselves. Leeswood has a Bronze Age past of course, with the almost ubiquitous cairn and tumuli dotted throughout the area. Yet, other than these ancient sites, there is little in the way of evidence of a later history until the late medieval age. It was at this time that Leeswood emerged from the dark as an area heavy in mineral resources. The discovery of coal in the area and the beginning of its mining sometime in the 15th century bring it into recorded history. The necessarily shallow drift mines were replaced as technology allowed with deeper pits in the early 19th century.
Together with the mining of coal, the influence of the iron industry was felt with the sizeable production of pig iron in the area. This saw a considerable influx of migrants from throughout the British Isles, from as far afield as Scotland and the North East of England, as well as from Anglesey. Leeswood became an integral part of the Flintshire industrial boom of the 17th century onwards, the county revolving almost entirely around coal, lead, iron and clay, either in its extraction or its refining, as well as the service industries that rose around them.
Leeswood Hall and, perhaps more importantly, the extraordinary White Gates were raised on money made through the discovery of rich seams of lead on Wynne land on Halkyn Mountain, a valuable source of the metal from Roman times.
Yet, despite the undoubted importance of clay, coal, iron and lead, it is the extraordinary, if short lived impact of oil which is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Leeswood’s recent past and affords it a uniqueness in North East Wales.
It was the accidental discovery of rare cannel coal, also known as candle coal which resulted in the frantic investment of millions and millions of pounds in creating a number of Welsh coal oil businesses. Probably the first reference to this rare form of coal in the area can be found in a 1769 publication. In, ‘A Description of England and Wales, Containing a Particular Account of Each County’, the author describes the discovery of cannel coal.
‘In sinking some new coal-pits at Leeswood, in the parish of Mold, near the river Alen, was discovered a flat sort of slate, upon which are frequently found the leaves of several plants, delineated with as great exactness as an impression of them, in plaster of Paris or clay.’
Cannel coal was considered virtually useless by colliery proprietors until it was discovered that it was a valuable source of coal oil. It was generally left to waste by mine owners, used more as a kind of kindling by the locals that gathered it. Indeed, until the 19th century its value rested largely in its beauty. From Neolithic times it had been used to fashion jewellery, and Durham miners would collect and shape it for their children, while it also owned a curiosity value as a source of fossilised plants. With the understanding that coal oil could be extracted from it, and the technology to do so, Leeswood’s fortunes saw a dramatic upsurge. Small reserves of cannel coal were already being used to supply the oil works at Bagillt and Cefn Mawr, but with the discovery of rich seams at Leeswood everything changed, and a short-lived oil rush began.
The accidental discovery was largely down to the desperate needs of the proprietor of Leeswood Green Colliery, a William Charles Hussey Jones. With the shallow seams exhausted, he dug deeper seams.
‘About six years since, all the main coal being nearly exhausted in the take of Mr. Henry Jones, a trial was made to prove the Lower Coal Measures, and at a depth of 95 yards below the main coal the famous oil producing cannel was found, much to the astonishment of all people in the neighbourhood.’
E.Nixon, ‘The Coalfields of Denbighshire and Flintshire: Liverpool Geological Society Vol I’
Many of the existing collieries in the Leeswood area were quick to exploit the cannel coal, and sometimes this led to friction between the colliery owners and their Welsh miners. The proprietors began to bring in expert colliers from Lancashire, particularly from the Wigan area in which a large cannel coal deposit had been worked from the 16th century onwards. The owners believed their Welsh workers were poor at dealing with this rare coal, ‘so much more brittle and valuable than the common coal of the county.’ In fact, the owner of Coed Talon Colliery at Leeswood went further, declaring in court in 1863 that, ‘the Welsh people were incompetent to work cannel’, which was said to have instigated riots. It is curious that these tensions were prevalent in the early 1860s, the very same decade as the notorious Mold Riots of 1869, the motivation for which centred on the Leeswood Green colliery.
However, the oil mania of the 1850s and early 60s did not last long. Indeed, by 1868, an account describes the collieries as silent, falling into ruin or unfinished, such was the speed of the collapse. The causes were to be found in the development of the first oil wells in Pennsylvania (ironically settled by, amongst others, Thomas Wynne, a barber surgeon from Caerwys). At the end of the American Civil War, Britain was flooded with the cheaper oil which resulted in a collapse in both the price and demand for cannel coal oil. Bankruptcy and ruin was the result for most of the Welsh coal oil businesses that had sprung up after the discovery of Leeswood’s cannel coal resources.
After this frenzied few years, Leeswood seems to have settled back into a sort of solitude, consumed into the growth of its near neighbour, Mold, bypassed by the A541. Today, a wander down Pontybodkin Hill can bring you close to a period of time when Leeswood was the centre of an oil craze to rival the California gold rush.