Sir Josiah John Guest

Today marks the 164th anniversary of the death of one of the most famous figures in Merthyr’s history – Sir Josiah John Guest.

Sir Josiah John Guest

Josiah John Guest was born in Dowlais on 2 February 1785, the eldest child of Thomas Guest, manager and part owner of the Dowlais Ironworks, and Jemima Revel Phillips. His grandfather John Guest had moved from Shropshire to South Wales, where he helped to start a furnace at Merthyr Tydfil in the 1760s; he then became manager at Dowlais, which was transformed over successive decades by the Napoleonic wars and the international development of the railway, from a modest venture into the largest ironworks in the world. In turn Guest followed his father into management of the Dowlais Iron Company in 1807, having gained a valuable informal apprenticeship in the works after attending Bridgnorth grammar school.

From the mid-1830s to the late 1840s the Dowlais Works were in their heyday. By 1845 they boasted 18 blast furnaces (the average number for ironworks was three), each producing over 100 tons weekly. The site covered 40 acres and the workforce numbered more than 7,000. A second works, the Ifor works (the Welsh spelling of Guest’s eldest son’s name), had been erected in 1839 at a cost of £47,000. As the railway network expanded at home and abroad, so the Dowlais Iron Company seized opportunities for new contracts both within Britain and further afield, notably in Germany, Russia, and America. In 1844, for example, an order was placed for an unprecedented 50,000 tons of rails for Russia.

Guest was forward thinking, engaging with key figures in scientific and technological development. He was elected a fellow of the Geological Society in 1818 and of the Royal Society in 1830. In 1834 he became an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers. His business interests included coal mines in the Forest of Dean and he was the first chairman of the Taff Vale Railway Company.

Guest’s first wife, Maria Elizabeth (née Ranken), whom he married on 11 March 1817, was Irish, the third daughter of William Ranken. She died in January 1818, less than a year after their marriage, aged only twenty-three. There were no children. On 29 July 1833 Guest married into the English aristocracy: Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Bertie (1812–1895) was the eldest child of the late Ninth Earl of Lindsey; she was twenty-one and remarkably gifted. They went on to produce ten children.

The Guests lived in Dowlais House in the 1830s and 1840s; in 1846 they also purchased Canford Manor near Wimborne in Dorset for over £350,000. With the help of the architect Sir Charles Barry they turned Canford into their main home (although Dowlais House was retained). Guest was made a baronet on 14 August 1838 but his eldest son, Sir Ivor Bertie Guest, was elevated to the peerage, becoming the first Baron Wimborne in 1880; and a viscount in 1918.

Dowlais House. Photo courtesy of

Guest was also a politician. Between 1826 and 1831 he represented Honiton, Devon, initially supporting the Canningite Tories, but then becoming increasingly independent and in favour of parliamentary reform. During the reform crisis he lost his seat but he was returned in the new reformed parliament of 1832 as a Whig, the first Member of Parliament for Merthyr. He retained his seat until his death twenty years later. He won some support from the non-voters as well as from the small electorate, adopting a fairly progressive stance on a number of issues. He had helped to mediate during the Merthyr Rising of 1831.

The Dowlais Iron Company did not, however, own the land on which the Dowlais Works stood. In the 1840s its proprietor, the Tory Marquess of Bute, prevaricated over the renewal of the lease, endangering the livelihoods of about 12,000 families now dependent on the Dowlais Works. Annual profits were consistently high from the mid-1830s until 1848—in 1847 they exceeded £170,000—but fears over whether the lease would be renewed in 1848 resulted in the deliberate running down of operations. By the end of the decade profits had plummeted, and for 1849 amounted to less than £16,000. When the dispute was settled in 1848, the Guests were greeted in Dowlais like triumphal feudal lords returning from battle.

In his last years, severe kidney problems forced Sir John to rely increasingly on his wife’s business skills, and on the management structure he had evolved. When he died on 26 November 1852 an estimated 20,000 gathered for the funeral in Dowlais and The Times attributed to his foresight much of the wealth and prosperity of mid-nineteenth century Britain.

Sir Josiah John Guest’s Tomb at St John’s Church, Dowlais. Photo courtesy of

The Fighting Woman of Merthyr Tydfil

by Carolyn Jacob

A hundred years ago women of very masculine (and muscular) proportions were often summoned for assaulting other women, fighting with men and even attacking the police. Mostly the regular fights took place in a public house and in 1912 the Merthyr Tydfil Police paid 10,386 visits to public houses in 3 months to either deal with serving out of hours or to referee and sort out fights taking place there. There were certain women whose names came up frequently in the Police Courts. Such a one was Margaret Hagerty.

In April 1903 the boxer Redmond Coleman was charged before the Merthyr Tydfil Police Court with living on the prostitution of women, especially Margaret Hagerty, a dipsomaniac whose favourite drink was gin. He may have been the toughest man in the tough town of Merthyr Tydfil, but on more than one occasion it was Margaret who fought to protect him from the law.

One local legend concerning her was that she stood on the Iron Bridge stripped to the waist and challenged all comers to a fight. Maggie Hagerty is mentioned frequently in the Merthyr Police Reports for drunkenness, robbery and insulting language. After she was convicted of drunk and riotous behaviour in Riverside on a Saturday night in November 1910, Margaret Hagerty, when asked if she had anything to say she said “There’s not much good saying anything. I’ve done a lot of prison.” This was her 73rd appearance in the Police Court.

In 1911 she tried her utmost to prevent the police taking Redmond to the station by stabbing an officer with her hat pin. She was taken in herself and managed to break nine windows in the Merthyr Police Station. Although in 1916, on her 98th court appearance, she claimed to have ‘given up fighting’, Margaret continued to be mentioned in the Merthyr Express and in November 1921 she was reported thus:-

“Margaret Hagerty a middle aged woman was arrested for insulting language at Riverside. She produced carpenter’s tools which she claimed Julie Murphy had used against her. The girl had called her a robber. Case was dismissed. The Chief Constable said she was the worst woman he had to deal with in Merthyr.”


The Birth of Non-Conformity in Merthyr

by Steve Brewer

Religious dissent in the Merthyr area has existed since the middle of the 16th Century. In the 1540’s, a man called Tomos Llewellyn of Rhigos translated William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament into Welsh. Llewellyn travelled widely across North Glamorgan and left the seeds of his dissenting beliefs in what was then the village of Merthyr Tydfil. A number of the villagers adopted these beliefs and clung stubbornly to them when the persecution of the Dissenters got underway under the Stuart kings. No matter how stubborn they were in their beliefs, they still had to be converted. If they were found practicing their beliefs, they were given sentences of imprisonment or death.

It is unclear when exactly Non-Conformity started in earnest in Merthyr but we can be sure that it had firmly taken root by the beginning of the 1600’s. The most conclusive evidence regarding the birth of Non-Conformity in Merthyr can be found in the papers of Rev Nathaniel Jones, the rector of the Parish of Merthyr Tydfil between 1640 and 1662. Amongst his papers was found a manuscript, written at some time in the early 1650’s giving a history of the troubles in the town at the time of the Long Parliament – the English Parliament summoned in November 1640 by King Charles I to raise the money he needed to wage the second Bishops’ War against the Scots which eventually led to the English Civil War.

In the manuscript Rev Jones states: “We have, in Merthyr Tydfil parish, a fellowship of men and women, who have for some time been in the habit of holding conventicles, in which some have formulated an ecclesiastical constitution according to their own wishes, contrary to the prevalent laws and regulations of the State Church”. The document emphasizes that this had been going on for about 30 years, so it is safe to argue that the Non-Conformists started holding regular meetings in about 1620. It was then that Non-Conformists from both Merthyr and Aberdare started meeting at Blaencanaid Farm.

Blaencanaid Farm

Under the aegis of Oliver Cromwell, Parliament relaxed the laws against the Non-Conformists and they began to meet openly. Following the restoration of Charles II to the throne however, new stringent laws were passed against Non-Conformity, foremost amongst these was the Conventicle Act of 1664. The Non-Conformist worshippers, who now numbered between 300 – 400, had to return to meeting in secret at Blaencanaid. They were in constant danger of antagonism and arrest, so a number of men were elected as ‘watchers’ to keep watch whilst the meetings were taking place and warn the worshippers of any imminent danger. Despite all of their difficulties the congregation flourished, so a new meeting place was found at a barn belonging to Cwm-y-Glo Farm. As well as being larger, the new meeting place was more secluded and thus safer than Blaencanaid.

In 1689 the Toleration Act was passed which granted freedom of worship to all Dissenters. As a result the worshippers at Cwm-y-Glo decided to build a proper chapel for themselves. The landowner, Captain David Jenkins, granted them permission to build a chapel at Cwm-y-Glo which was completed in 1690. The congregation at Cwm-y-Glo at this time comprised of many different groups – Quakers, Presbyterians, Arminians and Anabaptists.

The Ruins of Cwm-y-Glo Chapel

For many years, all went peacefully at Cwm-y-Glo until disputes arose over points of religious dogma, and a bitter argument followed. This is not surprising since the congregation of Dissenters comprised many different denominations. The main split came in 1741 when the Unitarians left to establish their own church at Hen Dy Cwrdd, Cefn Coed. In 1752, Cwm-y-Glo itself was closed when the remaining congregation moved to their new chapel in Merthyr town – Ynysgau.

Ynysgau Chapel

Non-conformity was firmly established by the end of the 18th Century. The Baptists established Zion Chapel in 1788 and Ebenezer Chapel in 1794, the Calvinistic Methodists established Pennsylvania (Pontmorlais) Chapel in 1793, and the Independents managed to establish Zoar Chapel in 1798 and Bethesda in 1807 as well as having acquired Ynysgau. Lastly, the Wesleyans established their chapel in 1796.

Between 1789 and 1850, at least forty places of worship were licensed in Merthyr, Dowlais and Penydarren alone.

Merthyr’s First Cinema

Following on from yesterday’s Commercial Break blog, here is an interesting newspaper article about the opening of Merthyr’s first cinema – The Electric. Not only was the Electric Merthyr’s first cinema, it was also the first purpose built cinema in South Wales.

Merthyr Express – 22 October 1910

Lots more about Merthyr’s many old cinemas in the coming weeks.

J.O. Francis Plays

Following on from Mary Owen’s fascinating article about Merthyr’s forgotten literary hero, J.O. Francis, Merthyr Tydfil Public Libraries are organising an evening dedicated to him, and have arranged for two of his plays to be staged at the Old Town Hall.

Please note that this a FREE event.

Tickets are available from The Old Town Hall (aka The Redhouse). Telephone – 01685 384111