Hidden away on the beautiful Rhual Estate, amongst oak trees and bramble bushes is a rather wonderful reminder of North East Wales’s dissenting past - a baptistery for religious dissenters, no less. It was thought to have been built at the end of the 17th century, between 1677-88 by Thomas Edwards of Rhual (1649-1700). He was son of Thomas and Elizabeth Edwards, and the grandson of the redoutable Evan Edwards, secretary to Richard and Edward Sackville, the 3rd and 4th Earl of Dorset. It was Evan who rebuilt the existing mansion at Rhual in 1634, a now Grade I listed mansion.
‘he kept a meeting at his house [at Rhual] and there commonly baptized, making a place for this special purpose near it.’
Joshua Thomas, Hanes y Bedyddwyr (1786), qtd. A.N. Palmer, A History of the Older Nonconformity of Wrexham and its Neighbourhood, (1888) p. 53
While Evan was a Royalist, his grandson, Thomas II became a prominent dissenter, and it is thought that the baptismal tank was built on his land for the use of various non-conformist congregations throughout North East Wales and Cheshire, including his own in Wrexham. Given that his grandfather was so staunchly conformist, it is perhaps a surprise to find Thomas becoming so very firmly a dissenter. However, it is possible that his mother, Elizabeth had converted to the Baptist cause after hearing a sermon by the great Puritan divine, Vavasor Powell at Treuddyn in 1658, and later at nearby Plas Teg. If this was the case, it was likely that she did so secretly, given the firmly held beliefs of her father-in-law. It is possible then that her son was influenced by her new faith. By 1670, both Evan and his son were deceased, and Thomas II came into his inheritance of the Rhual Estate. It was after this date that all pretence, if indeed there had been any, was discarded. Indeed, Thomas became something of a controversialist.
Thomas died in 1700 and Jane, his wife in 1720. But Rhual’s dissenting spirit continued, since dying without issue, the estate came into the ownership of Thomas’ widowed sister, who had married the passionate non-conformist Walter Griffiths and then onto their eldest son, Nehemiah Griffiths, a pronounced dissenter and responsible for the raising of the nearby Alleluia Obelisk. It’s possible then that the Baptistery was in use throughout this period.
Still, its use as a baptistery seems to have come to an end as the 18th century wore on, and it likely became instead a source of freshwater, as opposed to any dissenting baptisms. Thus it returned to what was likely its original function in the years before the Reformation and the resulting religious turmoil. The Baptistery was likely a holy well before Edwards built his baptismal tank about it - Ffynnon Dysilio, dedicated to St Tysilio, whose influence is felt throughout North East Wales and Powys. We know nothing of any cures it may have afforded.
The Baptistery remains in good condition, if now considerably overgrown, and has been restored twice in the previous 100 years. In 1931 the then owner, Helena Philips, a descendent of the Edwards of the 17th century, allowed work to restore the tank in memory of her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Basil Philips, killed at Gallipoli in 1915. The money required was raised through public subscriptions, including those gathered by ‘Baptist friends’. The iron railings surrounding the tank were raised at this time and the granite plaque donated by Edward Williams, chairman of the Baptist Association. It was restored once again in 1991 as part of the Eisteddfod celebrations held in the town.
The tank is impressive in stature. Beneath the brambles and nettles is a tiled rectangular immersion well, with a short series of steps leading into the water. A changing room, now roofless, was provided for those accepting ‘believers baptism’, with a small space for spectators to witness the ceremony. It must have been quite the experience to take the faith here, amongst the beauty of the park, but away perhaps from the prying eyes of those that sought to crack down on religious nonconformity.
The Baptistery is on private land, but the rather wonderful owners are happy to allow access. Be sure to call before visiting - a warm welcome awaits.