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.
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.
Many thanks to Victoria Owens who provided the following fascinating article.
When James Beaumont Neilson, engineer of the Glasgow gas works, patented his ‘hot-blast’ of 1828 – the system of pre-heating air by passing it through a hot ‘vessel or receptacle’ before it entered the blast furnace – he was confident that it would save fuel and reduce costs. Encouraged by three Scots iron manufacturers – Colin Dunlop of Tollcross, Charles McIntosh of Crossbasket, and John Wilson of Dundyvan, all of whom acquired shares in his patent rights – Neilson conducted experiments at the Clyde Ironworks which demonstrated that use of the hot blast could reduce fuel consumption by about a third. News of its merits spread fast. Not only did many English, Scots and Welsh ironmasters adopt Neilson’s system, but the French inspector of mines, Ours-Pierre-Armand Petit-Dufrénoy, (1792-1857), visited Britain to analyse the economic and metallurgical consequences of its application.
Dufrénoy’s Rapportsur l’emploi de l’air chaud dans les mines à fer de l’Ecosse et de l’Angleterre’ appeared in the 1833 issue of the French Annales des Mines. By chance, Edward Hutchins, nephew of Josiah John Guest of the Dowlais Iron Company, obtained a copy, in autumn 1834 and, recognising the British iron trade’s likely interest in its content, asked his uncle’s wife Charlotte to translate it into English.
The previous year, John Guest had married Lady Charlotte Bertie, daughter of the late ninth earl of Lindsey. An able linguist, she was fluent in Latin, Greek, Persian, Arabic and Hebrew. Soon after her marriage, she began to learn Welsh from the Revd. Evan Jenkins, Rector of Dowlais, and would in time publish a best-selling translation of the mediaeval Welsh story-cycle known as the Mabinogion. That she had a fair working knowledge of French goes without saying.
She started work on her translation of Dufrénoy’s article on 3 December 1834, while John Guest, MP for Merthyr Tydfil, was canvassing votes for the coming general election. She found the text ‘full of technicalities’ and foresaw that producing an English version would take a long time. Nevertheless, she continued throughout the following day, and calculated that by the evening, she had completed about a sixth of it. Here, to give some flavour of the task, is Dufrénoy’s description of Neilson’s methods:- ‘Dans la première experience,’ he writes
l’air fut chauffé dans une espèce de coffer rectangulaire en tôle de 10 pieds de long, sur 4 pieds he haut et 3 de large, semblable aux chaudières des machines à vapeur. L’air provenant de la machine soufflanteé tait introduit dans cette capacité, oùil s’échauffait avant de sa render dans le haut-fourneau. Malgré l’imperfection de ceprocédé, qui ne permit d’élever la temperature de l’air qu’a 200⁰ Fahrenheit (93.3 cent), on pouvait déjà pressentir que l’idée de M. Nielson était destinée à produire une revolution dans le travail du fer.
‘In the first experiment,’ offers Lady Charlotte, ‘the air was heated in a kind of rectangular box of sheet iron, ten feet long, four high and three wide, similar to the boilers of steam engines. The air proceeding from the blowing machine was introduced into this space, where it was heated, previous to being conveyed into the blast furnace. Notwithstanding the imperfection of this process, which did not admit of the air being heated above 200⁰ Fahr, it became immediately apparent that Mr Neilson’s idea was destined to produce a revolution in the manufacture of iron.’
If terms such as tôle [sheet metal] and chaudières [boilers] sent her to the dictionary, her rendition of the idiomatic phrase on pouvait déjà pressentir, [literally, ‘one could already foresee’] as ‘it became immediately apparent…’ shows her ready command of the syntax.
First caught up in the excitement surrounding the election and, later, dismayed by an outbreak of cholera, Charlotte does not mention the hot blast again in her journal until February 1835. By this time, she and John and their infant daughter Maria were visiting Charlotte’s mother and step-father at their Lincolnshire home – Uffington House near Stamford. ‘Wet Day,’ Charlotte wrote on Friday 13 February; ‘Merthyr (her private name for her husband) […] corrected iron hot air [sic] for me.’
For all its brevity, her statement raises intriguing questions. That John Guest should have been interested in the observations of a highly qualified mining engineer from a rival nation upon the production process of every ironworks from Calder to Merthyr Tydfil by way of Monkland, Codnor and Wednesbury was understandable. Whether he also wished to explore Dufrénoy’s account in the hope of discovering some means of using the hot blast technique without having to pay Neilson royalties is a matter for speculation. The fact that on 12 March 1836 an injunction was issued against Guest and partners restraining them from infringement of Neilson’s patent suggests that by the time Lady Charlotte was translating the French treatise, the Dowlais Ironworks had already introduced the hot blast. In the event, John Guest, was quick to settle with Neilson and his fellow patentees, and pay the shilling-per-ton royalty on iron produced by their method.
Furthermore, Lady Charlotte’s reference to her husband’s ‘correction’ of her work, suggests that, rather than treat her translation of the treatise as a work of private reference, the two of them thought it deserved publication. Certainly the English edition of On the use of hot air includes a number of observations – each designated ‘Note by the Translator’ –which, to judge from their detailed knowledge of the ironworks and coal deposits of South Wales, are the work of an industry insider. The remark, for instance, that before they introduced the hot blast, both Guest at Dowlais and Samuel Homfray of the Penydarren ironworks were using raw coal rather than coke to fuel their furnaces evinces considerable local knowledge. Incidentally the concluding ‘Note by the Translator’ not only gives a complete overview of the hot blast apparatus in use respectively at Dundivan in Scotland and Pentwyn, Clydach and Dowlais in Wales but also appraises the efficiency of the system and the quality of the iron produced in each place. Dufrénoy includes no corresponding commentary and this state-of-the-art survey of British iron manufacture offers an authoritative epilogue to the English version of his treatise.
Our regular feature on the chapels in Merthyr continues with one of the oldest chapels in Dowlais – Caersalem Welsh Baptist Chapel.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the Baptists of Dowlais had to travel to Zion and Ebenezer Chapels in Merthyr to worship.
In 1817 a Baptist Cause was founded and met in the old Bethel Chapel in the Lower High Street in Dowlais. In 1820 it was decided to build a new chapel, so a plot of land in Well Street, just under 300 square yards was leased from the Dowlais Iron Company for 99 years, at an annual rent of £1.14s.11d, and the chapel was built at a cost of £500. Within three years of opening, the congregation had increased and a gallery had to be built at a cost of £150. Caersalem was still considered as a branch of Zion until 1829 when it gained its independence.
As the congregation grew, a larger building was required and a new chapel designed by Mr William Lewis, foreman carpenter at the Dowlais Ironworks was built in 1833 at a cost of £509.9s.3d.
The congregation grew to such an extent that three new churches were established, originally as branches of Caersalem:- Elim in Penydarren, Hebron and Moriah in Dowlais, and Caersalem was itself refurbished in 1852 at a cost of £650. In 1863 a cottage situated underneath the chapel was converted into a vestry, and in 1873 a baptistery was installed.
By 1883 it became obvious that extensive repairs were needed to the chapel. The exterior of the chapel was redesigned and the interior refurbished and a new pipe organ installed in the gallery. Whilst the renovations were carried out, the congregation met at Tabernacle Chapel in Ivor Street (later Elim Chapel).
In 1906, as a result of the 1904 revival, the vestry beneath the chapel was extended by converting the chapel keeper’s cottage which was next to the original vestry. This work was done by members of the congregation at a cost of £245.
On 30 June 1924, the freehold of the chapel and the three cottages beneath the chapel were purchased from Messrs Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds. The chapel freehold was purchased for one shilling as it was a religious building, but the three cottages were bought for £30 each.
Caersalem Chapel was forced to close and was finally demolished in 1977 due to the redevelopment of Dowlais. A new chapel was built in 1977 in Pant and is still in use.
Today marks the 164th anniversary of the death of one of the most famous figures in Merthyr’s history – 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.
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.