Magician of the north

Lord Armstrong seated in the inglenook of the Dining Room at Cragside, by Henry Hetherington Emmerson. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

In the early nineteenth century Newcastle-upon-Tyne was a hotbed of intellectual and scientific enquiry, centred around the Literary and Philosophical Society. Into this environment William John Armstrong (1810-1900) was born, the son of a merchant’s clerk and a coal-owner’s daughter. His fascination with water and his aptitude for experimentation was to propel him onwards and upwards in the world of Victorian engineering.

A youthful portrait of Armstrong hangs above the fireplace in his study at Cragside. ©NTPL/Nadia Mackenzie

Armstrong demonstrated a model of his new hydraulic crane at the ‘Lit & Phil’ in 1845. Two years later he was using them at his works at Elswick on the Tyne.

Armstrong entertaining the Princess of Wales and her daughters at Cragside in 1884. ©NTPL/John Hammond

Armstrong went on to build a huge shipbuilding, hydraulic machinery and armaments business, employing a workforce of 25,000 at Elswick. His company created the Japanese navy as well as helping to quench the thirst for armaments of the British Empire. He was the first engineer to be raised to the peerage.

Cragside, built for Arsmtrong by Norman Shaw and incorporating the latest technology. ©NTPL/Arnhel de Serra

Henrietta Heald has recently published the first full-scale biography of Armstrong, entitled William Armstrong, Magician of the North. Heald argues that his reputation as an arms manufaturer has, in recent times, overshadowed his other achievements.

The wonders of electric lighting at Cragside, as shown in a contemporary illustrated newspaper. ©NTPL

But Armstrong’s inventions were also put to pacific ends. The hydraulic mechnanisms he created still move Tower Bridge in London and the Swing Bridge in Newcastle. His country house, Cragside, in Northumberland, was the first to be lit by hydro-electricity. Armstrong was also a pioneer in the investigation of solar power.

A Chinese cloisonné vase converted by Armstrong into an electric lamp. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

More about Armstrong can be found on this dedicated website. His taste in art can be sampled in the Cragside pictures and sculpture list.

3 Responses to “Magician of the north”

  1. CherryPie Says:

    He was certainly a great innovator and Cragside is fascinating place to visit. The book sounds interesting I will have to see if I can get hold of a copy.

  2. Sophie Says:

    A truly fascinating man, and a brilliant book. It’s extremely well researched and creates a vivid picture of life in the industrial north, as well as revealing the many facets of Armstrong’s character. Highly recommended!

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you both for your comments. My copy of the biography is due to arrive in the next couple of days…

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