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.