Dowlais Stables – an additional comment

Many thanks to Victoria Owens, a keen supporter of this blog for the following piece that she sent as a comment on my previous post. As it is so interesting I thought it was worth sharing with everyone and deserved a post in its own right.

In January 1835, following Josiah John Guest’s return – unopposed- as Merthyr Tydfil’s MP, he and Lady Charlotte hosted a ball in the granaries above the Dowlais stabling to celebrate. Charlotte organised the decorations, which included patriotic transparencies proclaiming ‘W.R.’ [William Rex] and EGLWYS Y BRENEN [Church and King] drawn by the clerks from the ironworks office and hung where they caught the light. Josiah John’s Arms -‘with a Lyre and a fleur de lys’ according to the Merthyr Guardian, but when had he acquired the right to an heraldic device? – were chalked on the floor. The Rev Evan Jenkins, Rector of Dowlais, lent the Guests the church chandeliers, evergreens bedecked the walls and the band of the Cardiff militia provided music. The local gentry, whether or not they shared Guest’s political views, came in anticipation of a good party. By all accounts, the weather was vile, with thick snow delaying the London mail coach. In consequence, the local paper had much fun at the expense of a party of urban sophisticates who arrived too late for the fashionable quadrilles and had to make do with country dances ‘like Sir Roger de Coverley and Boulanger’.

(Information from the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, Glamorgan, Monmouth, and Brecon Gazette, Saturday 24 January 1835 and Lady Charlotte Guest, Extracts from her Journal, ed. the Earl of Bessborough (John Murray: London, 1950, pp 37-38, 19 – 20 January 1835).

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

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……

Abermorlais School

The article transcribed below appeared in The Monmouthshire Merlin 150 years ago today.


The foundation stone of the British Schools now in course of erection on Newfoundland-tip was laid on Thursday se’nnight, by Lady Charlotte Schreiber. About half-past two the school children belonging to the different chapels of the town assembled in the Square, and having formed in procession marched flags and banners to the ground. They arrived there about half past three, by which time from six to seven thousand people had assembled.

Lady Charlotte Schreiber arrived shortly afterwards from London, accompanied by G. T. Clark, Esq., of Dowlais House. Her ladyship, who lived many years at Dowlais, Lady Charlotte Guest, was warmly received. The ceremony was performed with a silver trowel, which was presented to her by the contractors, Messrs. Williams, of Swansea. The stone having been laid, Mr. C.H. James returned thanks on behalf of the meeting to her ladyship for having come down to perform the work. Mr. Clark returned thanks for Lady Schreiber in an admirably appropriate speech, and then expressed a hope that her ladyship would speak afterwards herself. Lady Schreiber responded by addressing the meeting herself in a clear and distinct voice, being frequently interrupted by the cheers of the audience, especially at her reference in the vernacular to “Yr hen wlad” (the old country).

In the evening a meeting was held at Zoar Chapel, at which G. T. Clarke, Esq., took the chair. Capital speeches were made by the Chairman, the Rev. John Thomas, C. H. James, Esq and others. It appeared from the secretary’s statement that since April over £1600 had been subscribed, and at the close of the meeting he announced that one gentleman who had already subscribed £100 had doubled his subscription, an announcement which was greeted with loud cheers. We believe this gentleman is Mr. Clark, the chairman of the meeting.

The schools are rapidly progressing, and are expected to be opened before winter.

Monmouthshire Merlin – 20 July 1867

Abermorlais School. Photo courtesy of
The foundation stone at Abermorlais School. Photo courtesy of

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 1849 Cholera Outbreak

In 1849 a deadly outbreak of cholera hit Merthyr Tydfil resulting in hundreds of deaths.

The summer of 1849 was a long, hot one, in which drought conditions prevailed. This caused many normal supplies of fresh water to dry up, and forced people to use much less safe sources of water. In cities and towns this often meant using water from sources which were seriously contaminated, like rivers and canals. Conditions were therefore just right for the serious spread of cholera. The 1849 outbreak began in Edinburgh in October of 1848, having arrived there from a German port. This outbreak would cause over 53,000 deaths in England and Wales. It reached Wales in May of 1849, the first outbreak occurring in Cardiff.

Lady Charlotte Guest wrote in her diary on 31 May: ‘There is great alarm at Cardiff about the cholera, which has broken out there with great violence.’

Meanwhile, The Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian began reporting the outbreak shortly after this, and gave advice to the people of the district how to deal with the outbreak:

‘THE STRICTEST CLEANLINESS SHOULD BE MAINTAINED – in person and in habitation – and having done all that can be done to effect this object two should calmly proceed with our usual occupations, placing firm reliance in the merciful providence of an All-wise deity. The circumstances in which we are placed should induce caution, but not nervous agitation or faithless misgivings. In the year 1832, when the cholera committed sad havoc in Swansea, a little boy told his mother that he had discovered an effectual remedy for the complaint in the 91st Psalm – a portion of scripture which we commend to the perusal of our readers.’

 In late May, cholera appeared in Merthyr. A four year old child caught the disease, and by the end of the month, six people had died. On 7 June, 22 deaths were reported in Merthyr and the same number two days later. In the following month, 349 deaths were reported.

On 31 July, Lady Charlotte Guest wrote in her diary: ‘I am sorry to say the accounts of the cholera at Dowlais are fearfully bad. They are beyond anything I could have imagined, sometimes upward of twenty people dying in one day, and eight men constantly employed in making coffins …one of our Infant School Mistresses is dead. One of the medical assistants sent down from London is dying, and the whole place seems in a most lamentable state.’


In July, 539 people died in Merthyr, and in August, the death toll reached an average of 36 a day. The infection continued to rage in the town until November when the winter rains helped to dispel the conditions in which the cholera thrived. At the end of the epidemic, Merthyr had experienced the second highest death toll in England and Wales (second only to Hull), with 1,682 having succumbed to the disease.

St Tydfil’s Hospital and the Cholera Cemetery courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (

If you have any information you would like to share, please leave a comment to the left or email me at

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 (

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

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