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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Lady of Iron: The Life of Victorian Industrialist Lady Charlotte Guest.

Updated: 2 days ago

There was a time, during the Golden Age of Railroads, when the name of the small Welsh town of Dowlais was stamped on iron rails that ran the length of the developed world. Dowlais Ironworks was a titan of nineteenth century industry, with a worldwide reputation for the quality of its production and a local renown for the progressiveness of its labor policy, and for three years, from 1852 to 1855, it was run by an English woman of noble birth who had over the course of her marriage to iron magnate John Guest pain-stakingly taught herself the finer points of coal mining, furnace and locomotive design, iron production, business management, international trade, and the Welsh language.

Lady Charlotte Bertie (1812-1895) had, on paper, every advantage available to a child of the Regency Era. She was the daughter of an Earl, showed from a young age a genius for languages that only grew over time (she ultimately learned Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, German, Greek, Latin, French, and Persian in addition to the fluency with Welsh that makes her a name in literary circles to this day), and possessed a natural curiosity, intelligence, and beauty that meant she had her choice of London’s suitors after her official coming-out (including future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli!).

Dig a little beneath the surface polish, however, and you start seeing why it was that a daughter of privilege and seeming ease was to prove such an effective and indomitable force as an industrial leader in adult life. Her father died when she was six, and the man her mother married in his stead was a controlling, violent-tempered figure whose attempts to marry off her mentally challenged brother were so baldly avaricious that they were a lingering source of irritation and concern to her. Disgusted by and afraid of her stepfather, Charlotte retreated into her world of languages, teaching herself from textbooks when tutors couldn’t be found.

Hers was a life of outward opulence and academic accomplishment papering over a host of familial tensions and an overall restlessness to apply her tremendous energies to something of a more than purely personal scale. That opportunity arose in late Spring of 1833 when her social circle overlapped with that of Welsh iron industrialist John Guest, a widower some 27 years her senior. He was a dynamic and charming man of action who landed like a bombshell in the midst of the affably decadent nobility that formed the seemly majority of the Bertie social circle, and she was a brilliant, engaging, beautiful and young (an important consideration for a man with a commercial empire who lacked heirs) figure of high family. The two fell quickly in love and by July they were married.

Socially, Guest was a step down for Charlotte, but in terms of opportunity to apply her intellect, he represented a move forward into a brand new horizon of people who acted upon the world stage instead of merely observing it. Arriving at Dowlais, near the town of Merthyr Tydfil, she saw a world of exploding activity with a wide scope of potential action for somebody committed to progressive action.

It was not long until she was called to lend her unique skills to aid the ironworks. An 1834 report on the efficacy of “hot blast” furnace techniques written by the French mineralogist Ours-Pierre Armand Petit-Dufrenoy contained within it potentially invaluable information about the effect of pre-heating air entering a blast furnace. The Hot Blast method had recently been patented in 1828 by James Neilson in Scotland, but ironworkers were skeptical as to its use, as long standing belief held that cold air produced better quality iron. Dufrenoy’s report seemed to be a rigorous analysis of the actual usefulness of Hot Blast methods, but there was nobody among the Welsh ironworking circle who knew enough French to translate it, until Lady Charlotte arrived on the scene.

Guest was tasked with translating this highly technical track, and in the process began her own education as to the inner workings of iron production. Her translation was ready by 1835 and published in 1836 to general enthusiasm among industrial circles. The adoption of Hot Blast techniques ultimately allowed the use of less fuel in the blasting process and, crucially, the use of lower quality coal and anthracite. Previously, under Cold Blast techniques, entire forests were leveled to produce enough charcoal to feed a furnace, but with Hot Blast, anthracite could be employed, as well as raw coal instead of processed coke. The following decades saw the steady eradication of Cold Blast furnace techniques throughout England, America, and the continent.

The Dowlais Ironworks (1840) by George Childs.

For her next translation project, Guest turned away from the world of iron and towards that of her new adopted homeland. There had long been plans put forth by various literary societies to bring forth an edition, with an English translation and commentary, of the great Welsh tales of the 12th and 13th centuries, and Guest seemed a natural choice to see the project through. From 1838 to 1849 she undertook the translation of the Mabinogion, an eleven part cycle of Welsh stories and tales that sparked a re-evaluation of the importance of Welsh folklore and literature throughout Great Britain. Released one tale at a time, beginning with Lady of the Fountain in 1838 and concluding with The Meeting of Lludd and Llevelys in 1849, Guest’s work was hailed for the quality of its translation and the depth of her commentary, which placed the Mabinogion in the context of the better known epics of world literature. Though today it is criticized for Guest’s Victorian scruples that shied away from the more bawdy moments in the original, none dispute the importance of Guest’s work or the depth of her commitment to the cause of Welsh literature.

Even as she was winning plaudits for her literary pursuits, and giving birth to a string of ten children, she was closely observing the oscillating fortunes of the Dowlais Ironworks. Problems of regular coal supply, of transportation, of increasing local and international competition, of management practices and labor relations were intensified as John Guest’s health began to decline and the running of the business was handed over to his hapless nephew Edward Hutchins. The famed quality of iron and reliability of service that had been the hallmarks of the Guest brand took a sharp dive under Edward’s indifferent and unfocused leadership, while Charlotte looked on in dismay, rallying the forces that would convince her husband to buy Edward out of his share of the company and resume personal control of the company.

While Charlotte worked to improve the lives of the Dowlais workers by establishing schools, recreational facilities, self-improvement classes, and reading libraries, she was also keeping a close eye on international iron rates and coal availability knowing well that, in the terms of John’s will, if he were to die, she would be in sole control of the Ironworks until their sons came of age.

John’s death ultimately occurred in 1852, and with it Lady Charlotte’s first great tests as an industrial leader. It was hardly a propitious moment to assume control of one of Britain’s largest and most important ironworks. Tensions with Russia, one of the biggest purchasers of Guest iron rails, did not bode well for business. Meanwhile, all of the ironworking companies of the region were facing stiff demands from labor for higher wages culminating in a series of strikes that would test the leadership of even the most experienced iron magnates. Add on major problems in coal distribution and supply, the need to upgrade an aging locomotive fleet, and the wild fluctuations in iron value, and sailing the Dowlais Ironworks safely through the 1850s seemed an all but impossible task.

Lady Charlotte, however, was determined to succeed. She reorganized the management structure so that all of her managers sent her monthly reports of what their expenses were, what experiments they would like to try, and what resources they would need to try them. This formalized the ad hoc processes by which different parts of the company worked in an uncoordinated and often redundant manner, and allowed for a more efficient streamlining of management and innovation that would prove so useful that Guest’s successor would make weekly reports mandatory.

Guest made walking through the different parts of the colliery and ironworks a habit, to allow people working at different levels of the company to approach her with ideas and complaints, and to see for herself how effectively different parts of the process were being run. She took personal initiative in ordering second-hand locomotives when official channels proved too cumbersome and slow to supply the factory’s needs, and brought in experts to suggest new ways of mining coal that would improve the efficiency and safety of the processes that had been in place for decades.

Most critically, Guest kept a cool head during the series of labor strikes that overran the coal industry in the early 1850s. When another ironworking concern faced a strike of its labor force, the local iron magnates got together and advocated a plan to shut down all of the operations of all of the factories to put punitive pressure on the striking workers, a plan that Lady Charlotte steadfastly refused, arguing that it was cruel to punish men who had done no wrong in order to break down the will of those who had. Later, when her own men went on strike, asking in a moment of declining coal prices for a raise that would place their wages above those of the other local colliers, she approved an increase of a certain amount, and when the workers asked for more, she explained that the factory could not function with those wages given the current flux in iron prices, and when that had no effect, she shut down the ironworks for a month.

One could argue a great deal at this point about the ethics involved in the decision to close down the ironworks. Thousands of people were placed temporarily out of work as a result, while Guest’s clever farming out of the company’s responsibilities to the still functioning ironworks allowed business to at least nominally continue. The issue was one of the “Dowlais Differential” - the practice whereby, in the past, Dowlais iron and coal workers had always been paid more than those working for other companies in the area. The workers wanted that differential to be maintained, and Guest saw that, at present, with all of the other iron owners raising their wages in response to strike threats, there was no way she could both keep up with those raises and maintain the Dowlais Differential on top of that. It was an ugly impasse, and Lady Charlotte saw her company through it better than most nineteenth century industrialists did, performing her duties as she understood them during a high pressure situation made all the more stressful by doubts about her ability rising from her gender and lack of experience.

Guest saw the company through the strike and oversaw the return of the colliery and ironworks to their former levels, but personally the pressure was taking its toll. She felt alone in everything that she did, and wanted more than anything else a companion to whom she could confide all the stresses and strains that confronted her on a daily basis. She found such a companion in the form of one of her children’s tutors, Charles Schreiber. The two fell in love and married in 1855 which, by the terms of John Guest’s will, meant that Lady Charlotte had to surrender control of the operations of the ironworks, which were subsequently taken over by George Thomas Clark, whose introduction of the Bessemer Process in the 1860s allowed Dowlais to enter the steel age and a new Renaissance of power and profitability.

Lady Charlotte stepped away from the world of iron after 1855, and put her energy and knowledge instead into reinventing herself as a world authority on porcelain, with her personal acquisitions forming the basis of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s porcelain collection, while also delving deep into the world of decorative fans and playing cards which struck her fancy by their intricacy and variety. In a wide world of iron and poetry, porcelain and fabric, Lady Charlotte had room enough in her broad curiosity for all things over the course of her long and improbable life. A literary legend, an industrial titan, a seeker after the arcane products of human whim, Lady Charlotte Guest finally left this world whose delights and responsibilities she had known in equal measure on the 15th of January, 1895.


Lady Charlotte Guest: The Exceptional Life of a Female Industrialist by Victoria Owens, published in 2020, charmingly and elegantly tells the story of Charlotte with a heavy concentration on her industrial years. If you want an in depth look at her private world, you can find her journals online here.

This piece was originally published as Episode 195 of the Women In Science column, in 2020.


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