Guest, Lady Charlotte (1812–1895)

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Guest, Lady Charlotte (1812–1895)

Welsh industrialist, educator, translator of Welsh medieval tales , The Mabinogion , and renowned collector of ceramics and fans . Name variations: Lady Charlotte Bertie; Lady Charlotte Schreiber. Pronunciation: Bartie. Born Lady Charlotte Elizabeth Bertie on May 19, 1812, at Uffington House, near Stamford, Lincolnshire, England; died at Canford Manor, Dorset, England, on January 15, 1895; daughter of Albermarle Bertie, 9th earl of Lindsey (a former army general and member of Parliament for Stamford, 1801–09) and Charlotte Susanna Elizabeth (Layard), Lady Lindsey; no formal schooling, educated at home by governesses;married Josiah John Guest, on July 29, 1833 (he became Sir John Guest in 1838; died 1852); married Charles Schreiber, on April 10, 1855; children: (first marriage) Charlotte Maria Guest (b. 1834); Ivor Bertie Guest (b. 1835); Katherine Gwladys Guest (b. 1837); Thomas Merthyr Guest (b. 1838); Montague John Guest (b. 1841); Augustus Frederick Guest (b. 1840); Arthur Edward Guest (b. 1841); Mary Enid Evelyn Guest (b. 1843); Constance Rhiannon Guest (b. 1844); Blanche Vere Guest (b. 1847).

Moved to South Wales on marriage (1833), living next to the Dowlais ironworks run by her husband; taught herself Welsh; published English translation of 12 medieval Welsh tales (1849); produced a lavish 3-volume illustrated edition of the tales which she called The Mabinogion; developed works schools; took over the running of the Dowlais Iron Company, largest ironworks in the world (1852); became (with second husband) a leading collector of 18th-century china and fans.

Selected works:

The Mabinogion (published under titles of individual tales from 1838 on, then in collected 3-volume edition in 1849, printed by Rees of Llandovery, published by Longmans of London); (as Lady Charlotte Schreiber) Fans and Fan Leaves: English (London: John Murray, 1888); Fans and Fan Leaves: Foreign (London: John Murray, 1890); Playing Cards of Various Ages and Countries (3 vols. London: John Murray, 1892, 1893, 1895).

In mid-19th-century Britain it was especially tough for any woman in the overwhelmingly male world of business. Yet on her husband's death in 1852, Lady Charlotte Guest began running the world's largest ironworks. The Dowlais Iron Company, situated above the town of Merthyr Tydfil, the largest and most unhealthy town in Wales, supplied much of the bar iron for railroads as far away as America and Russia. Here was a classic example of the devastating effects of the industrial revolution on both landscape and lives. Within a year of taking charge, Lady Charlotte had a strike on her hands and was forced to negotiate with both her workforce and the other employers. The Masters, as the employers were known, formed an obdurate oligarchy and were unaccustomed to having a woman as a business partner. Why, they must have wondered, was an English aristocrat from a sleepy, rural village in such an unlikely place and position?

Born at Uffington House in Lincolnshire in 1812, Lady Charlotte Bertie was the first child of the elderly 9th earl of Lindsey and his wife Charlotte Susanna (Lady Lindsey ). She had two younger brothers, one of whom was recognized to be as dull-witted as she was intelligent. Yet, as the eldest son, he inherited the family title and sat in the House of Lords. Lady Charlotte's father died when she was six, and her mother soon remarried. She now gained two half-sisters. Charlotte cast the Reverend Peter Pegus as the classic wicked stepfather. Yet it was he who, unknowingly, set in train one of the great consolations of her life, the keeping of a journal. From the age of nine, when he gave her a diary, until she was 79, Lady Charlotte Guest recorded and reflected on her thoughts in what she called the "Depository of my dreams," filling thousands of pages. Her journal became "my old friend."

Charlotte was an introspective youngster, uninterested in social chit-chat and, although taught the accomplishments thought proper for a young lady, far more interested in tales of Persia or Petra. She described the "great object of my existence" as "improvement in my studies," schooling herself into habits of disciplined application. In addition to acquiring languages such as French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, she taught herself Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian. She revelled in things medieval.

After a brief flirtation with a future prime minister, the young Benjamin Disraeli (whose novel Sybil contains an oblique reference to her), she married, aged 21, the wealthy, middle-aged, widowed John Guest. He was the town of Merthyr Tydfil's first member of Parliament (representing the Whig Party) and was an iron manufacturer. Marriage appeared as a providential escape from the stultifying atmosphere of Uffington House and, as ironmasters went, John Guest seemed singularly enlightened. His young wife had never before seen mountains. Now she was to live in Merthyr, a raw, industrial mountainous and potentially mutinous community of 20,000 ironworkers. Lady Lindsey saw this as somewhat alarming, particularly in its social implications. As Lady Charlotte wrote, "in this aristocratic nation the word Trade conveys a taint." She now resolved to make society accept her husband while her children must "never feel that there live any on the earth who do or who dare look down upon them." In 1838, just one year after the young Queen Victoria came to the throne, John Guest was made a baronet. This was not enough for Lady Charlotte. To aid her husband's acceptance in society, a vast estate was purchased in Dorset called Canford Manor. Lady Charlotte's hopes were realized when, in 1880, her eldest son Ivor was elevated to the Peerage and became Lord Wimborne.

From her initial arrival in Wales, Lady Charlotte wasted no time in immersing herself in her new community; she eagerly learned about her husband's business. On her first day, she toured the furnaces and forges. After dinner, she watched the casting of iron. This set the pattern for almost daily trips to the works. She inverted the usual gendered demarcation of daily life ("He for the public, She for the private") by writing of the works, "I always feel here in my proper sphere." In a telling comment, she wrote: "I am iron now—and my life is altered into one of action, not of sentiment." Her journal brims with details of blast furnaces, mines, and rails. She translated and published a French pamphlet on the advantages of using hot air in the manufacture of iron. By the early 1840s, she was declaring that she found it "more congenial to calculate the advantage of half percent commission on a cargo of iron than to go to the finest ball in the world." She accompanied her husband on business trips, discussed matters with leading scientists such as Charles Babbage, worked as her husband's secretary and did bookkeeping. She had her own room in the company's offices in the City of London and became adept at handling

aggrieved employees. In a number of capacities therefore, she was well equipped to shoulder responsibility when her husband died, particularly since (even though he was not always happy with this), she had increasingly deputized for him during his last months of illness.

Whatever I undertake, I must reach an eminence in.

—Lady Charlotte Guest

Lady Charlotte also involved herself in social welfare. There already existed an educational system instigated by her husband. Between the 1830s and 1850s, she developed this, giving Dowlais a reputation for progressive approaches. Teachers were properly trained and a ladder of education stretched from infancy into adulthood for boys, girls, men, and women (not until 1870 did England and Wales possess a national system of even elementary schooling). She even occasionally taught in the schools herself. In 1855, new and impressive school buildings were opened, designed by the leading British architect Sir Charles Barry (who also designed the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament and remodeled the Canford estate). Although, like all women of her time, she could not vote in elections, Lady Charlotte had played an active part in canvassing and promoting her husband's cause during elections. She had also supported the (relatively) radical views he expounded in the newly reformed House of Commons. At the same time, she understood that "one cannot make people good and religious by Act of Parliament. The first step is to make them comfortable and happy."

Though the Guests' record on housing for their workers leaves much to be desired, Lady Charlotte did attempt to provide recreation for the workforce. In this, she was aided by her cousin Henry Layard, famed for his archaeological discoveries at Nineveh. Attempts to provide sport, musical evenings, and workers' outings need, however, to be viewed in the context of threats from Chartism, the movement which sought to give parliamentary democracy to all adult men. Chartism found strong support in Wales, and paternalistic efforts to provide "rational recreation" and education were in part seen as conducive to harmony, valuable antidotes to working people taking affairs into their own hands.

Yet despite her efforts at Dowlais (where there is even a public house named after her), Lady Charlotte is probably best remembered for her translation work. To her love of languages, romance literature, and the medieval was added her new-found devotion to Wales. She began studying Middle Welsh as soon as she came to Dowlais. This task was as significant as it was unusual. It set her apart from most of the English ruling class who had settled in industrial Wales and ignored the Welsh language. Lady Charlotte was not the first to attempt to translate these tales, neither did she work in isolation (collaborating, more than she actually acknowledged, with leading Welsh clerical scholars) but, from the first publication in 1838 to the collected edition 11 years later, it was she who was responsible for the overall production. Her detailed annotated notes were instructive and very well informed. One later Celtic expert has argued that her range of knowledge and breadth of English, Welsh, and "Continental" scholarship made her "one of the most remarkable women of that Victorian age." Dr. Rachel Bromwich sees her as probably the first person to make the connection between the three Arthurian Romances which form part of The Mabinogion and their European analogues.

Her powers of application were immense. Before translating, it was necessary to do transcriptions. For one tale alone this involved copying 2,288 lines of a medieval manuscript. This painstaking work took her six days. In 1911, an Arthurian scholar took one month to complete the same task. Alfred Tennyson praised Lady Charlotte's translation. It was "the finest English he knew," and he compared it to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Part of Tennyson's The Idylls of the King (the most popular poetic work of the Victorian period) was based on Lady Charlotte's tale "Geraint the Son of Erbin." Matthew Arnold, like many others, acknowledged the debt which Celtic scholars owed to Lady Charlotte. Her "happy entry into the world of letters" enabled contemporaries to appreciate medieval Welsh literature, and it inspired successors. Yet so influential was her translation that not until over 90 years after her first tale had been published did a new translation appear. The Mabinogion remains part of the canon of Celtic literature. It (though no longer Lady Charlotte's version) is reprinted in Britain almost yearly, has been translated into many languages, and the tales have appeared in numerous forms, including a Disney film.

Lady Charlotte's achievement is all the more remarkable when it is recognized that during the period that she was engaged on this work and immersing herself in the ironworks and fortunes of its workforce, she was almost continually pregnant. She had ten children in thirteen years (plus a miscarriage). Her five girls and five boys all survived into adulthood though one died as a young man. Most were born in Merthyr where there was no hospital, and infant mortality rates were among the highest in Britain. Although her journal suggests that childbirth was one more facet of a busy and literally productive life, it can also be suggested that her consciously matter-of-fact entries at such times (written a few days after the event) contain more than a hint of bravado. Perhaps she was trying to convince herself (let alone any possible reader), of the ease with which she took to motherhood, and the ways in which this could be reconciled with her other roles. It is also the case that the complete journals reveal her to have been ill, depressed, and frustrated during the many months she was pregnant.

Lady Charlotte was ambitious for her children though this was largely couched in hopes (well realized) of "good" matches. Her eldest son married Lady Cornelia Churchill , eldest daughter of the 7th duke of Marlborough, and the next son married Lady Theodora Grosvenor , sister of the 1st duke of Westminster. Yet she did not encourage her daughters to emulate her own achievements or even develop their own, though unlike their mother they were born at the height of Victorian domesticity. One of her many grandchildren did, however, become a militant suffragist who was arrested for breaking windows in support of women's suffrage.

Lady Charlotte's journal reveals her own ambivalence about women's roles and rights. Her class, acquired wealth (and tolerant husbands) permitted her to enjoy a qualified freedom unknown to most Victorian women. Yet even so, there were times when she protested against the legal constraints and ways in which men, unlike women, had "field for action." She acknowledged that John Guest saw women as "rational beings" and on the whole encouraged her, but she was still acutely aware of her disadvantages as a woman. She wrote:

I have given myself almost a man's education from the age of twelve when I first began to follow my own devices—and since I married I have taken up such pursuits as in this country of business and ironmaking would render me conversant with what occupies the male part of the population. Sometimes I think I have succeeded pretty well—but every now and then I am painfully reminded that, toil as I may, I can never succeed beyond a certain point and by a very large portion of the community my acquirements and judgements must always be looked upon as those of a mere woman.

Yet, despite her personal example of female capability, her misgivings tended to be confined to her journal.

Within three years after Sir John Guest's death, Lady Charlotte was married again, this time to a much younger man. The 28-year-old Charles Schreiber, 14 years younger than Lady Charlotte, was also an employee who was tutoring her eldest son for Cambridge University. Partly because they were aware of how society could view such a mésalliance, the couple now began traveling extensively on the Continent. Lady Charlotte left the world of Dowlais behind her (though it remained in family hands) and began a new "career" collecting ceramics. Her collection of 18th-century English china, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the Schreiber Room, is still reckoned to be among the finest in the world. Lady Charlotte wrote a comprehensive catalogue to accompany the 1,800 or so pieces she bequeathed in memory of Schreiber who died in 1884. The couple had scoured the Continent in their search for china, finding wonderful bargains just before the craze for china collecting truly developed.

Lady Charlotte is also well represented in the British Museum by her vast collections of fans, playing cards, and even board games. She produced five illustrated folio volumes depicting and describing her fans and cards. Her fan collection, like her china, focused on the 18th century. For example, she possessed some rare French Revolutionary fans, depicting scenes such as the fall of the Bastille. In 1891, she received a unique honor, becoming the first woman to receive the Freedom of the Worshipful Fan Makers' Company. At this time only one other woman, the philanthropist Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts , was a "Freewoman" of a City of London Guild.

Lady Charlotte's three folio volumes on European and English playing cards again demonstrate her interest in political history. Her rare collection included packs on events such as the Popish Plot of 1678 to murder King Charles II. The catalogue of her cards (in the British Museum) itemizes 1,066 packs, many of them French, German, and Italian.

Lady Charlotte Guest died in 1895. She had stopped keeping her journal four years earlier due to her deteriorating eyesight. Throughout her life, she had set herself extremely high standards. Despite the strictures on women's lives, she excelled in a number of markedly different pursuits and over a long timespan, remaining active into her old age. Her journal resonates with a determination born of her own undoubted skills and intellect. Its tone is also shaped by the uneasy combination of being both extremely privileged and yet at one and the same time circumscribed as a woman of the Victorian period. All of this made it imperative for her to prove that she could persevere and triumph: "But whatever I undertake, I must reach an eminence in. I cannot endure anything in a second grade."


Bessborough, Earl of. The Diaries of Lady Charlotte Guest. London: John Murray, 1950.

——. Lady Charlotte Schreiber 1853–1891. London: John Murray, 1952.

Bromwich, Rachel. "The Mabinogion and Lady Charlotte Guest," in Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. 1986, pp. 127–141,

Evans, Leslie Wynne. "Sir John and Lady Charlotte Guest's Educational Scheme at Dowlais in the midnineteenth century," in National Library of Wales Journal. Vol. ix, no. 3, pp. 265–283.

Guest, Lady Charlotte. The Mabinogion. Ruthin: Spread Eagle Publications, Facsimile, 1977.

Guest, Montague, ed. Lady Charlotte Schreiber's Journal: Confidences of a Collector of Ceramics and Antiques. London: Bodley Head, 1911.

Havill, Elizabeth. "The Respectful Strike," in Morgannwg. Vol. xxiv, 1980, pp. 61–81.

suggested reading:

Guest, Revel, and Angela V. John. Lady Charlotte: A Biography of the Nineteenth Century. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.


The original journals remain in family hands, but Lady Charlotte's Deed Box is in the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales; her china collection is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and fans and playing cards are in Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, London. The Dowlais Iron Company Records are in the Glamorgan Record Office, Cardiff, Wales.

Angela V. John , Professor of History, University of Greenwich, Woolwich, London, England