An Extraordinary Man

An Extraordinary Man

Cragside is one of my favourite places to visit. It was the home of industrialist Lord William Armstrong. He initially built the house as a weekend retreat, but later went to live there permanently. He added to the house over the years giving it the look of a baronial castle leading it to sometimes be referred to as the palace of a modern magician. The house which is perched on a craggy hillside overlooking Debdon Burn contains many of his innovative inventions and It is surrounded on three sides by Europe’s largest rock garden. He also turned the barren hillside into a mass of greenery by planting trees and mosses.

Lord Armstrong was a collector of contemporary British art, furniture and natural history. Some of his collections are still displayed in the house, which was the first house in the world to be lit entirely by hydro-electricity. The estate at Cragside has many interesting features including man-made lakes, orchard house, pinetum and formal garden with three terraces.

As well as being a lover of nature and the arts, he was also a scientist and technical inventor from an early age who became one of the most successful industrialists of his generation. He had been interested in mechanics but due to his father’s wishes started his working career as a lawyer. He had success with his hydraulic crane invention which led to a change in career. He founded a new business which he named W.G. Armstrong and Company and set up a factory known as the Elswick works on the north bank of the Tyne between the river and a branch line of the Newcastle and Carlisle railway.

Eventually Armstrong diversified from building cranes into armaments, tank production and ship building. A separate company was set up to produce the Armstrong gun although this venture was short-lived due to opposition from the Army and rival arms manufacturers. Guns that were made at the Elswick works were fitted to warships built at the nearby Mitchell’s yard. To make this task easier he built the swing bridge in Newcastle so that after ships had been built and launched they could sail to the Elswick works to have their guns fitted. He was also responsible for the hydraulic lifting mechanism in another famous bridge, Tower Bridge in London. Eventually the two businesses merged and became Sir W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell and Co Ltd. The Elswick works expanded over the years featuring steel works as well as the engineering and gun making departments and eventually becoming one of Tyneside’s largest employers.

The company continued to expand and, after the WW1, the output at Elswick included locomotives. In 1927/28 the company merged with Vickers and became Vickers-Armstrong Ltd. After nationalisation of some of the operating groups, what was left of the company became Vickers plc (currently known as BAE Systems Land and Armaments) which went on to produce the Challenger 2 main battle tank that is currently in service with the British Army.

Due to a downturn in orders for armoured vehicles the factory is due to close at the end of 2013 ending over 165 years of engineering history at the site.

When Armstrong was no longer responsible for the day to day running of the company it was to Cragside he retreated. He was a philanthropist and benefactor, gifting many things to the people and community of Newcastle.

1 thought on “An Extraordinary Man

  1. What a fascinating (and complex) man. Thank you so much for introducing him to me. And what an incredible home he built…

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSoosie
    Love learning about the history of the people who lived in these amazing homes. Yes – what a fascinating man!!!!

    August 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterMarcie
    After all that, no wonder he was a Lord and a Sir! With all the knighting and lording and sir-ing of which you are so familiar, Cherry, I’m sure you could teach us a LOT more than about this extraordinary man. But this is a good start. Armstrong is a good name, me-thinks. My ex-husband always called himself my “armstrong heater,” so I have a special bond to that name. HA! The things we remember. 🙂

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGinnie
    They always say…every house has a story!

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGotham Girl Aka Robin
    When I hear of stories like this about men or women who have truly changed the world, I always want to know more about their private lives. How they thought, loved, breathed, cried, laughed. Did they hug, were they loved? Did they love? I hope in this case that he loved and was loved in return. Then one could say he had not only a fulfilling life, but an extraordinary one as well…

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Buie-Collard
    I’m with Lisa. I always wonder things like that too. The best history class that I ever had was all about just normal day-to-day life. Well, I guess my interest was peaked there because we actually learned about women in history in that class, which was a new awakening for me. I like that Armstrong did things to benefit his community after retirement. I wonder if that was actually the most enjoyable part of his life?

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaery Rose
    Thank you for sharing. Is Craigside fairly close to you? You mention it is one of your favorite places, what is it that draws you to this particular place?

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSue
    I had seen some pictures of Cragside, but I had never known about the owner. Thank you for telling us about him.

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarola
    grand old homes like that
    seem almost like characters themselves
    in the stories of our lives.

    August 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Richardson
    Thank you for this brief history of a man who obviously had a lot going on. Is his home open for tours? It would be so interesting to look inside, and also to learn about how it was powered by hydroelectricity. He must have been a fascinating person to know, I would imagine.

    August 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSara
    Thank you for all your comments 🙂

    In answer to your questions…

    what is it that draws you to this particular place?

    I am drawn to that particular area of England because it feels like home, I am not sure why… Cragside itself is a fasinating place; Countryside, Nature, Technology, Innovation and an Extraordinary Man.

    Is his home open for tours?

    The home and surrouning countyside are owned by the National Trust and open to visitors, there is an entrance fee.

    August 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCherryPie
    The palace of a modern magician! Love that description… 🙂 People like Lord William Armstrong change history for sure, I admire that inventiveness and persistence.

    August 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPetra
    What a beautiful home – your picture is a teaser for wanting to see more. And I enjoyed reading about such a person. What a legacy to be able to leave behind – and what a place to retreat to.

    August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara
    Yes, extraordinary, indeed. It sounds like a lovely place to visit, thank you for this little lesson in the history and beauty that reside there.

    August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

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