The daughter of an English aristocrat, Charlotte married John Guest in 1833. He owned the largest ironworks in the world at the time, the Dowlais works in Merthyr Tydfil. They lived in a grand house overlooking the works in Dowlais, which was a predominantly Welsh-speaking area and it was here that Charlotte learnt Welsh.
Having been lent a copy of the Red Book of Hergest she set about translating these medieval Welsh folk tales of the Mabinogion into English, which were published in three volumes between 1838 and 1849. Bringing medieval Welsh literature to the notice of the rest of Europe in this way Charlotte came an influential figure – and worthy of the accolade of heroine for this alone. Even Tennyson used her translations!
When her husband died in 1852 she took control of the ironworks, a highly unusual thing for a Victorian lady to do. She was only 40 years old when she became chairwoman of Dowlais but she had learned the principles of iron production from her husband as well as assisting him with accountancy and planning. She instigated a programme of renovations and under her management Dowlais became the world’s largest manufacturing company.
As well as running the business she considered the welfare of her workers, setting up schools and a welfare scheme. She handed the business over to her sons when she remarried in 1855, and travelling with her new husband she began collecting. Amassing ceramics, fans, board games and playing cards her collections are now in the British Museum and V & A.
Charlotte kept a diary for nearly seventy years, documenting family life (she had ten children in thirteen years), business activities and events in the wider world. Commenting on everything from radical politics and young Dowlais scholars, to blast furnaces and cholera epidemics in the town, her writing provides a wonderful glimpse of 19th century Merthyr and the life of a heroic woman.
Where to Visit?
Cyfarthfa Castle in Merthyr Tydfil is a great place to find out about the Victorian town of Merthyr Tydfil and the impact that Lady Charlotte had on the people who lived here.
19 May 1812
15 January 1895