James Neilson’s Hot Blast: Pierre Armand Dufrénoy and Lady Charlotte Guest – part 2

by Victoria Owens

In September 1836 advertisements for On the use of hot air in the Ironworks of England and Scotland […] appeared in the London newspapers. Published by the august firm of John Murray, it was a modest octavo, priced at 5s 6d. To all appearance, the English text was anonymous, the title page stating only that the work was ‘Translated from a report made to the director-general of mines in France, by M. Dufrénoy in 1834 [sic]’ without naming the translator. The entries in John Murray’s ledgers were equally uninformative about the origin of the English version, referring to the work only as ‘Hot Air (On the use of)’ with a caret mark adding the scribbled note ‘By M. Dufrénoy’. The illustrations, however, carry some mark of Lady Charlotte’s involvement. Murray’s publication re-cycles the engravings which had appeared in Dufrénoy’s Rapport, but with an addition. Examination of the English text reveals the initials ‘C.E.G.’ – Charlotte Elizabeth Guest – in her distinctive handwriting beside each picture, presumably as confirmation to the printer that the image is to be bound in with the text.

Illustration of the Dundivan Heating Apparatus from On the Use of Hot Air in the Iron Works of England and Scotland […] (London: John Murray, 1836). The initials ‘C.E.G’ and date ‘March 1836’ appear below the engraved diagram.
To remain anonymous may have been her choice. Not only were mid-nineteenth century publishers apt to view women writers dismissively – it was why the Bronte sisters took masculine pen-names – but her mother had been less than happy about her marriage. For all his acumen, the industrialist John Guest was not the husband she would have chosen for her daughter – she preferred Robert Plumer Ward, a barrister-cum-novelist, whose proposal Charlotte resolutely declined. Charlotte, what was more, had loved South Wales from her first sight of the ‘blazing furnaces’ of Dowlais and the ‘broad glare of the fires.’ By contrast, when Lady Lindsey visited in August 1834, she thought the Glamorganshire countryside ‘wild enough for banditti’ and likened the ironworks to ‘a den of thieves.’ It seems unlikely that she would have viewed her daughter’s work on the Rapport sur l’emploi de l’air chaud with much enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Charlotte’s achievement did not remain secret for long. In December 1836 the local newspaper jubilantly identified her as the translator of On the Use of Hot Air and carried a story full of praise for her disregard of all ‘temptations to indolence’ and ‘frivolities of fashion,’ and ready devotion of her ‘time and talents to useful […] works by which mankind may be benefitted, and the interests of Science advanced.’

Her book had a print run of only two hundred copies but in iron manufacturing circles, it sparked considerable interest. On 1 October 1836, when it had been out for less than a month, John Wilson, co-proprietor of the Clyde Ironworks and member of the syndicate which held the patent rights to the Hot Blast process, called on Lady Charlotte to request a copy of her translation. He was apparently ‘anxious to see [it], as he did not understand French.’

If it yielded little financial return, the engagement with Dufrénoy’s survey of the British iron trade nevertheless set the course of Charlotte’s future. It is no coincidence that in her journal entry for 26 September 1836 – just when the book went on sale – she should mention having ‘undertaken the office of Merthyr’s secretary, to write all his letters and keep them copied and arranged.’ It was, she thought, a ‘beginning in earnest’ for which she had ‘been training for some time.’ Her remarks were prescient indeed, for on John’s death in 1852, she succeeded him as head of the works, and would soon have to bring all her acuity to bear on resolving a strike. Disputes aside, commerce gave her immense satisfaction. ‘I am happy to see we are at the head of the iron trade,’ she wrote in April 1839. ‘Otherwise I could not take pride in my house in the City, and my works at Dowlais, and glory (playfully) in being (in some sort) a tradeswoman.’

James Neilson’s Hot Blast: Pierre Armand Dufrénoy and Lady Charlotte Guest – part 1

by Victoria Owens

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.

Ours-Pierre-Armand Petit-Dufrénoy

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.

Lady Charlotte Guest. Photo courtesy of Cyfarthfa Castle Museum & Art Gallery

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.

To be continued in the next post……

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.

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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 http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

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 http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm