Elihu Yale, famous as the benefactor and namesake of a top ivy-league American university, had a strong association with Wrexham in north east Wales.
Elihu Yale is buried in St Giles Parish Church in Wrexham. His tomb can still be seen at the church today.
What is not so well known is that Elihu Yale had strong associations with Erddig. He was to play a part in a major turning point in Erddig’s history and in the fortunes of its owner, Joshua Edisbury.
" Born in America, in Europe bred, In Africa travell'd and in Asia wed, Where long he liv'd and thriv'd; in London dead Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even And that his soul thro' mercy's gone to Heaven. You that survive and read this tale, take care, For this most certain exit to prepare: Where blest in peace, the actions of the just Smell Sweet, and blossom in the silent dust."
Gambling and cock fights
Elihu Yale was a remarkable character. After he entered the service of the East India Company as a clerk, he worked his way up through the company to the post of Governor of Fort St George at Madras.
Meanwhile in Wrexham in 1682, Joshua Edisbury was appointed High Sheriff of Denbighshire; it was to be the making of Erddig, and the unmaking of Edisbury.
The Edisbury family had been minor gentry since the mid-sixteenth century. Joshua was easy-going, fond of gambling, cock fights and forever bailing out family and friends short of money, which was often. His fortunes were at their peak, so he decided to build a new home.
Edisbury chose the dramatic site on an escarpment above the winding River Clywedog a mile south of Wrexham. Work on Erddig Hall began in 1684.
'A Japan Skreen'
Joshua Edisbury had been eager to curry favour with such a rising man as Yale. So he decided to present him with ‘four rundletts [casks] of Sandpatch Ale’ – 74 gallons in all.
On 20 April 1682, Yale wrote back a letter of effusive, but rather stilted thanks sending to Edisbury in return a cask of ‘our best mango Atchar [chutney]’ and to his wife ‘A Japan Skreen’. Remarkably, the screen can still be seen in the State Bedroom at Erddig today.
But things were not going well for Edisbury. Building costs were spiralling out of control. His relations continued to pester for money, his lead mining investments in Flintshire turned sour, and he had to borrow to pay off the interest on old debts.
By the late 1690s he was in dire financial straits and turned to Elihu Yale, among others, for help. Not a problem for the wealthy merchant.
However Edisbury and Yale’s friendship evaporated when Yale, who had been forced to leave Fort St George after accusations of corruption, called in his debts. He demanded £4,000 in payment for a loan of half that.
It was a crushing blow for Edisbury. Joshua’s brother, Dr John Edisbury, a successful lawyer, MP for Oxford University and from 1684, a Master of the Chancery, came to his aid, but only succeeded in being ruined with him. John was found to have stolen Chancery fees in a vain attempt to stave off his brother’s creditors, and was brought to trial.
Dr Edisbury died in disgrace the following year; Joshua who had been declared bankrupt in 1709, left Erddig for ever and seems to have spent the rest of his life in London. He is last heard of in 1716, when he was living ‘at Blew Spires in the Old Bayley’.
It was Dr John Edisbury’s successor as Master of Chancery, John Meller, who profited from their downfall, and who began to develop Erddig as we know it today.
As for Elihu Yale – after leaving India a wealthy man, he spent his time at Plas Grono and in London. He secured his place in history in 1718 when he made his now famous gift of “nine bales of goods together with 417 books and a portrait of King George I ”, which were sold to raise money for the development of a small college in New Haven, Connecticut. The college changed its name in recognition of Yale’s gift and went on to become one of the most famous and prestigious universities in the world.
Much of the information for this article was taken from ‘Elihu Yale the great Welsh American’ ©Wrexham Area Civic Society and from the National Trust guidebook to Erddig by Oliver Garnett.
Erddig Guidebook ©National Trust
Elihu Yale the great Welsh American © Wrexham Area Civic Society
Erddig Merlin Waterson ©National Trust 1973