Dowlais Stables

One of the oldest and most impressive buildings still standing in Merthyr is Dowlais Stables.

In the early part of the Nineteenth Century, despite Merthyr being at the forefront of the industrial revolution, and indeed pioneering the first steam-powered locomotive in 1804, Dowlais (and all the other) Ironworks were reliant on horses and ponies to bear the brunt of the heavy haulage work. In July 1819, it is recorded, Michael Faraday the eminent scientist visited the Dowlais Works, and walked with Josiah John Guest to the hay fields near the Works where the hay made there was used to feed the 150 or so horses which the Dowlais Iron Company used.

The following year, Josiah John Guest had stables built to house the horses. The architect of the building is unknown, but it was (and still is) a striking building. The complex is of symmetrical design, in the form of a rectangular plan of ranges set round a (formerly railway-served) central yard. The façade has two-storeys with centre and end pavilions separating 9-bay ranges and there is a tall central arch, through which the railway passed, with a circular clock face. This façade is roughly 450 feet long, and the central block rises to over 50 feet, with the central arch being roughly 30 feet high. This is topped with a decorative wooden cupola.

A plan of the layout of Dowlais Stables

It is said that when the stables was built, a number of contemporary newspaper cuttings, and several items of memorabilia were hidden behind one of the arch stones to be revealed “when the building falls down”.

The stables were well used; towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Dowlais Iron Company were employing “over a dozen blacksmiths, several stable lads and a score of other hands to tend the several hundred head of horses now owned by the Company and stabled in the very heart of Dowlais”.

As well as being used as for stabling horses, soldiers were stationed in the building for several years after the Merthyr Riots of 1831. Also, of course, Lady Charlotte Guest famously used the large first-floor rooms as a boys school until Dowlais Central Schools were opened in 1854-5.

The stables closed in the 1930’s and the complex became derelict; in the late 1970’s unauthorised demolition was started, but was brought to a halt. The site was subsequently bought by the Merthyr Tydfil Heritage Trust in 1981, and despite the façade partially collapsing in 1982, the building was eventually rebuilt as flats; the south east facade walls were also substantially rebuilt. Of the original structure, only the southeast range and Stables House on the north west range currently survive.

Dowlais Stables after the partial collapse in 1982

London to Dowlais via Downton Abbey!!!

Many people of a certain age will remember Dowlais Central Schools, but did you know that the building was actually designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect responsible for building the present Houses of Parliament (not to mention remodelling Highclere Castle – the setting for Downton Abbey)?

Sir Charles Barry
Sir Charles Barry

In 1853, Lady Charlotte Guest decided to commission a new school in Dowlais in memory of her late husband, Sir John Josiah Guest. She approached Sir Charles Barry, a personal friend who had previously re-designed the Guest’s new home at Canford Manor in Dorsetshire, to design the school to accommodate 650 boys and girls and 680 infants. The school was built by John Gabe, the prestigious Merthyr builder, and it was completed at a cost of between £8,000 and £10,000 (depending on which source you consult) and opened in 1855. The cost of the building was paid for, in full, by the Dowlais Iron Company. The Merthyr Telegraph described the completed building as:-

“…very chaste, massive and grand, without being at all heavy in its effect. The principal entrance admits, under a spacious gallery, into the Infants’ School-room, a noble apartment, 100 feet long by 35 feet wide; the roof of the open Gothic is 60 feet from the floor at the highest point. To the right and left, through two immense arches, open the schools for boys and girls, each 90 feet long by 30 feet wide. Light is admitted through very large and handsome Gothic windows – there are several spacious and handsome class-rooms attached, and there is an extensive play ground in front.”

Dowlais Central Schools
Dowlais Central Schools courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm)

There was even a form of central heating used in the school, provided by hot air pumped from an engine house in the ironworks through underground ducts to the school itself.

Sir Charles Barry also designed, at Lady Charlotte Guest’s instigation, the Guest Memorial Hall (now the Guest Keen Club), a library and reading room for employees of the Dowlais Iron Company.

Guest Memorial Hall
Guest Memorial Hall

Dowlais Central Schools were demolished in the 1970’s, one of the many architectural masterpieces that Merthyr has sadly lost in the name of progress. Luckily the Guest Memorial Hall still survives to this day.

Do you have any memories of Dowlais Central Schools? If so please share them by using the comments button, or by e-mail at merthyr.history@gmail.com

If you want to learn more about Sir Charles Barry have a look at these sites:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Barry

https://www.architecture.com/Explore/Architects/CharlesBarry.aspx