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Armstrong, William George, Baron Armstrongfree

  • Stafford M. Linsley

William George Armstrong, Baron Armstrong (1810–1900)

by W. & D. Downey, pubd 1890

Armstrong, William George, Baron Armstrong (1810–1900), armaments manufacturer and industrialist, was born on 26 November 1810 at 9 Pleasant Row, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne, the second child and only son of William Armstrong (1778–1857), corn merchant and local politician, of Tyneside, and his wife, Ann, daughter of William Potter, a minor coal owner of Walbottle House, about 4 miles west of Newcastle.

Family background

William Armstrong, the son probably of a shoemaker, was born at the village of Wreay, 4 miles south-east of Carlisle in Cumberland. Nothing is known of his early education, but he moved to Newcastle in the 1790s to join the quayside firm of Losh, Lubbren & Co., corn merchants, as clerk. George Losh (1766–1846), the senior partner in the firm, was also born in Cumberland, the family seat at Woodside lying adjacent to Wreay. The Losh and Armstrong families must have been known to each other and George Losh was a useful contact for Armstrong, being also a ship- and insurance broker and a proprietor of the Newcastle Fire Office and Water Company. Losh's brothers William and James—the latter a lawyer—were also to become influential members of Tyneside's industrial and cultural élite.

Armstrong married Ann Potter probably in 1801 and eventually succeeded to ownership of the firm, possibly in 1803 when Losh had become financially embarrassed by the collapse of the local Surtees and Burdon Bank and the firm subsequently traded as Armstrong & Co., corn merchants, of Cowgate, Newcastle. With his financial position reasonably assured, Armstrong was able to satisfy some of his other interests, particularly in mathematics, in the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society which he had joined in 1798, in the creation of a chamber of commerce on whose committee he served, and in the founding of the Natural History Society.

In 1824 Armstrong entered the debate on the respective merits of a horse-drawn railway or ship-canal link between Newcastle and Carlisle, noting that 'We can bring corn from the Cape of Good Hope to Newcastle cheaper than we can convey it between Newcastle and Carlisle' (Mackenzie, 129). He sided most with those who supported the canal proposal and referred to the railway plan as a 'spiritless' proposition. His argument was to no avail, and in the following year a provisional committee determined on railway communication. It has been suggested that his support for a ship canal demonstrated an innate caution, yet it could be argued, given the then largely untried experiment of the railway over such a long distance, that his response represented the valid preference of a corn merchant.

In 1831 Armstrong attended a Northumberland county reform meeting with James Losh and Armorer Donkin—the latter a prosperous Newcastle solicitor and family friend—to support a resolution opposing the rejection of the Reform Bill by the House of Lords. Soon after the passing of the Municipal Reform Act of 1835 Armstrong secured a substantial victory as a reformist candidate for the Newcastle town council. He was heavily defeated at the election of 1839, only to be returned in 1842 without opposition. In 1845 he spoke out in council against the repeal of the corn laws, no doubt fearing that his business would suffer as a result of lower grain prices. He was unanimously elected alderman in 1849 and became mayor in 1850. (Addison Potter, his brother-in-law, had been mayor five years earlier.)

Armstrong's primary concern in local politics centred on the management of the River Tyne. During his first spell as a town councillor he published a pamphlet of observations on the improvement of navigation. This was a topical and contentious subject, for the unreformed corporation had long and justifiably been charged with wilful neglect of the river. Many hoped that the reformed council would attend to the manifest problems of the river, upon which the very prosperity of Tyneside depended; and when the council established a River Tyne committee, some hopes of improvement were raised. Armstrong was chairman of the River Committee from 1843, but neither he nor the council's appointed engineer had the skills needed to enable a programme of improvement to be pursued with any degree of confidence. Moreover, the reformed council proved as reluctant as its predecessor to make sufficient funds available for river improvement, and the widespread recognition of this fact, plus the belief expressed by some that river funds were being misappropriated, led to vigorous agitation directed against the council, especially by the estuarial interests of North and South Shields. Armstrong remained as a sometimes abrasive chairman of the committee until, after strenuous opposition by the town council to the demands for reform, the conservatorship of the Tyne was wrested from them under the Tyne Improvement Act of 1850 which placed control of the river under commissioners; Armstrong was appointed a commissioner.

Armstrong died on 2 June 1857, only a few weeks after giving up his various offices, and in the following year his son, William George Armstrong, respected his wish that the Literary and Philosophical Society should have the benefit of any scientific books and local tracts from his personal library which were deemed useful. Thus it was that 1284 works were added to the society's library, making its collection of mathematical books unrivalled by that of any other provincial institution.

Education and early engineering interests of William George Armstrong

William George Armstrong's childhood fascination with mechanical contrivances survived his early schooling in Newcastle upon Tyne and Whickham-on-Tyne and was enhanced while at Bishop Auckland grammar school in co. Durham between 1826 and 1828, when he was a regular visitor to the works of William Ramshaw, builder and engineer. The attraction which the works had for him may have been partly due to Margaret Ramshaw (1807–1893), the proprietor's daughter, whom he married in 1835. On leaving school his father persuaded him to take articles under his friend (and soon fellow town councillor), Armorer Donkin, a bachelor with an amateur interest in science who had long treated the younger Armstrong as an adoptive son. With a house in Jesmond, Newcastle, and a country retreat at Rothbury, Northumberland, Donkin was to have considerable influence on Armstrong and his then unanticipated career. Soon Armstrong was furthering his law studies in London under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, William Henry Watson, later Baron Watson (1796–1860), then a special pleader at Lincoln's Inn, but he rejoined Donkin in 1833 after five years with Watson and was made a partner in the firm in 1835, then styled Messrs Donkin, Stable, and Armstrong. Donkin, perhaps rather more than Armstrong's father, introduced him to many people whose support would soon become invaluable.

Donkin did not stifle Armstrong's continued interest in scientific and mechanical matters, nor in the possible practical realities of some of his ideas. While on a fishing holiday in Dentdale, Yorkshire, in 1835, his attention was turned to the relatively inefficient use of a head of water in turning an overshot water-wheel. From that time, his family claimed, 'William had water on the brain' (Cochrane, 24), and it is certain the ideas which flowed from his deliberations at this time laid the foundations of his engineering works and his personal fortune.

Armstrong's first serious attempt to better utilize the potential energy in a head of water was the design of a ‘rotatory’ engine in 1838, a working model of the design being constructed in Henry Watson's High Bridge engineering works in central Newcastle. In spite of Armstrong's advocacy of the device, it failed to arouse any interest, and remains a by-water of engineering history.

An interesting diversion came Armstrong's way in 1840, when he began to investigate the creation of an electric charge generated by the escape of high-pressure steam from a boiler at the Cramlington colliery—a phenomenon which was to be called the ‘Armstrong effect’. This was to lead him away from hydraulics for a while, and into experimental electrostatic generation. He published papers on the theme, gave dramatic demonstrations of spark-generating devices in Newcastle and London, corresponded with Michael Faraday on the subject, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 7 May 1846 in recognition of his study of the phenomenon. There was to be no significant industrial application of his work in electrostatics, but he was now becoming known to the scientific establishment.

Armstrong as lawyer

It was as a lawyer that Armstrong, with others, in 1844–5 promoted the Whittle Dene Water Company, whose aim was to acquire the existing supplies to Newcastle in the short term, and to construct impounding reservoirs some 10 miles west of Newcastle; the company would thereby soon relieve the town of its dependence on water from an increasingly polluted River Tyne. The proposed company was discussed in the town council, receiving tacit support from Donkin and Armstrong's father. Donkin, Stable, and Armstrong were appointed solicitors to the company, and Armstrong was appointed secretary. His uncle, Addison Potter, a notable coal owner, became the first chairman, while George W. Cruddas, a shipowner and railway director, and Richard Lambert, a lawyer and wine merchant, acted as joint managing directors. These men were to become crucial to Armstrong in his subsequent ventures, one of which may have already been in his mind as he promoted the water company. He resigned his position as company secretary in 1847, while retaining his pecuniary investment, because, quite simply, he had by then embarked upon a new venture where there was the possibility of a conflict of interest. (He was to return to the company as director and chairman from 1853 to 1864.)

Genesis of W. G. Armstrong & Co.

After his rotatory engine failed to gain any acceptance, Armstrong designed a hydraulically powered crane based on the much simpler hydraulic reciprocating ram. A working model fed with town water was sufficiently successful to encourage him to proceed along this line of development, but again without generating any public interest. The idea was kept on ice for about five years until November 1845, when he invited the town council to accept an offer, from himself and a few of his friends, to modify an existing crane on the quayside to utilize town water as a source of power. This, he argued, would reduce the turnaround time of ships at the quay and thereby increase port revenues to the council. In return, he asked that should the experiment prove successful, he and his friends would be permitted to similarly modify and lease all the quayside cranes for a period of ten years and have the exclusive right to erect new hydraulic cranes at the same location.

These friends of Armstrong were his colleagues in the water company, Cruddas, Lambert, Donkin, and Potter, and with Potter as mayor and Armstrong's father as chairman of the River Committee, it is perhaps not surprising that the offer was accepted. Once again Armstrong had exploited his connections, sometimes familial, in the intertwined business and political communities of Newcastle, which were the sources of economic and social power. To expedite the business arrangement, he and his friends formed the Newcastle Cranage Company in 1846, and this company commissioned Henry Watson to construct new cranes at his Newcastle works. But early in the following year the same men formed Messrs W. G. Armstrong & Co., with a capital of £19,500 plus Armstrong's patents valued at £3000, to manufacture new hydraulic devices. Armstrong had now severed his connections with the law and was determined on a life in industry. It is clear that he could not have predicted the size to which the enterprise would ultimately grow, for the company's first buildings were erected on a narrow strip of land, between the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway and the Tyne, at Elswick, just over a mile to the west of the town, upriver of a low-level, multi-arched, eighteenth-century stone bridge over the Tyne beneath which seagoing ships could not pass. Production commenced in the autumn of 1847, some twenty or thirty men being employed.

Further developments in hydraulic engineering

The north-east of England had witnessed the birth of what was to become known as hydraulic engineering, first through the invention in 1765 of William Westgarth's ‘statical pumping engine’ at the Coalcleugh lead mine in upper West Allendale, and second by the development of a superior form of hydraulic engine by a Mr Deans of Hexham, Northumberland, installed at the Derwent lead mines in co. Durham in 1831. Deans' engines were said to be similar to those developed at Elswick, but Armstrong was to take hydraulic engineering on to an altogether different plane.

Already by 1847 Armstrong had seen other avenues for the employment of hydraulic power, and among the early orders placed with the works were cranes and warehouse lifts for Jesse Hartley's Albert Dock in Liverpool, but, perhaps more importantly, two rotative engines for underground use at the South Hetton colliery in co. Durham, and seven similar for a variety of purposes at the lead mine and dressing-floors at Allenheads, Northumberland; the latter engines were ordered by Armstrong's friend and colleague Thomas Sopwith (1803–1879). The significance of these rotative engines, designed on a totally different and more efficient principle than his earlier rotatory device, was that they could substitute for stationary steam engines but without the need for coal, for they only needed a head of water which could be supplied by town water or a purpose-built reservoir. Armstrong's invention of the hydraulic accumulator in 1850–51 at once bypassed the need for reservoirs, enabled higher pressures to be generated and utilized, and introduced a flexible power system through the ability to transmit stored hydraulic power to widely spaced hydraulic devices. This was particularly important for railway and dock purposes where machinery might be required to operate only intermittently; such tasks could not be performed efficiently by stationary steam engines. By March 1852 some 352 workers were employed at the Elswick works.

War and armaments

Hydraulic devices were to continue to be made at Elswick for the rest of Armstrong's life and after, but the Crimean War provided the impetus for the second important product type from the works. In 1854 the War Office asked Armstrong to design and build submarine mines for blowing up Russian ships sunk in the harbour at Sevastopol. His design, consisting of a wrought-iron cylinder filled with gun cotton, was first tested in a field near his home in Jesmond. Witnessed by the principal employees of the company, the mines exploded 'in a most exhilarating manner' but they were never used in anger. However, a discussion concerning the battle of Inkerman with his close friend James Meadows Rendel (1799–1856), the prolific dock engineer, proved a decisive moment in the future direction of the Elswick works. Their discussion, in November 1854, centred on the existing use of 18-pounder guns, which at 3 tons weight, including carriage and limber, had been almost impossible to advance, and they concluded that light field guns, patterned on the ordinary military rifle and using elongated projectiles of lead instead of cast-iron cannon, would be far superior in range, accuracy, and portability. In December 1854 Armstrong produced a report on the 'Construction of wrought-iron rifled guns adapted for elongated projectiles' which so impressed the duke of Newcastle, then secretary for war, that he asked for six such guns to be built immediately. Armstrong's report outlined what would become the essential features of projectiles for the next hundred years. The gun was to be quite different, both in material and construction, from any other field gun then in use, and Armstrong wisely decided to build one experimental gun in the first instance. It was a breech-loader, weighing just 5 cwt, that would fire elongated 3 lb lead shot. The barrel design, and its materials, most exercised Armstrong's mind in producing this first gun, and he eventually determined upon coil-welded, wrought-iron cylinders, shrunk one above the other upon a steel cylinder which was rifled with eight spiral grooves to give the projectile spin and therefore greater accuracy. The rifling was difficult to achieve, but the workforce included men of considerable ingenuity, and reputedly the rifling was carried out at night, with Armstrong in attendance, by John Bradley, only seven years out of his apprenticeship. (It had long been Armstrong's practice to sleep in a factory office to deal with any problems which might arise on the night shift.)

It took just over six months to produce and prove the gun to Armstrong's satisfaction, but the ordnance committee, to whom it was submitted in July 1855, objected that it was unable to fire common or shrapnel shell. Only slightly daunted, Armstrong bored out the gun to take 5 lb cast-iron shells coated in lead, and after some difficulties produced a concussion fuse. A demonstration on the Northumberland coast, in December 1856, enthused the local press but not Colonel Wilmot, chief officer of the gun department at Woolwich. But Armstrong was encouraged by the ordnance committee to produce still larger guns. His 18-pounder, tested at Shoeburyness, Essex, in February 1858, proved to be more accurate over 2 miles than a smooth bore over 1 mile, and the ordnance committee was now largely satisfied of the merits of the Armstrong rifled gun. However, General Peel, now secretary for war, appointed a rifled gun committee, charged with deciding on the best form of rifled gun for both garrison and field service. Of all the guns submitted to the committee, Armstrong's were awarded the palm.

A dominant gun manufacturer

On 23 February 1859 Armstrong was knighted for his services to the state and simultaneously appointed government engineer for rifled ordnance and superintendent of the royal gun factory at Woolwich, to replace Wilmot. He had declined to patent his inventions in ordnance and projectiles, but the government took them out on his behalf and in his name, and, by act of parliament, withheld their publication. He was no particular admirer of patents, and all those taken out by himself had been at the expense and on behalf of the firm to ensure that the firm could not be denied the use of his inventions.

The factory at Woolwich was quite incapable of producing Armstrong guns, being essentially a gun foundry with boring machines, and while Armstrong set about its reconstruction, the Elswick ordnance factory was established alongside the engine works in January 1859, exclusively to supply the government with Armstrong guns—at least until Woolwich was ready. The government supplied capital of £50,000 for the new concern, which was later increased to £85,000. The partners were Cruddas, Lambert, and George Wightwick Rendel, the 25-year-old son of James Meadows Rendel, who was also appointed manager of the works. Armstrong was not to be directly concerned in the new company while he continued to hold his government positions, but, to ensure access to military technical information, he persuaded Captain Andrew Noble (1831–1915), an artillery officer who had been secretary to the rifled ordnance committee, to become joint manager of the works in 1860. This was to be an inspired decision, and Rendel and Noble were to manage the affairs of the company for more than twenty years.

More than 3000 guns were supplied to the government by 1863, orders worth some £1,063,000 having been placed. But this success, and Armstrong's personal reputation, were soon to be undermined by public controversy over the government monopoly enjoyed by the Elswick ordnance factory, and by rival claims of other inventors and manufacturers, of whom Joseph Whitworth (1803–1887) and his advocates were the most forceful. Indeed, Whitworth took up residence near Westminster, the easier to press his case for a gun barrel of homogeneous cast steel, with a hexagonal-sectioned tapered bore. Moreover, while Armstrong was developing a full-scale gun-making facility at Woolwich, conservative elements within the military still preferred muzzle-loaded guns and cannon-balls, and soon after the completion of Armstrong's reconstruction of Woolwich the government withdrew its unconditional support for the Elswick ordnance factory. The public controversy was distasteful to Armstrong and he resigned his government positions, without any open hostility towards the government, in 1863; the Elswick factory only received about £65,000 of government orders between then and 1878—mainly modifications to existing guns. Meanwhile, the army decided to abandon the construction of Armstrong-type guns and reverted to muzzle loading with simple three-groove rifling. There was a certain justification for the abandonment of Armstrong's breech-loading system, especially for the larger guns where it proved, as Armstrong was to agree, rather cumbersome to use.

Returning to concentrate on the works at Elswick, Armstrong could now legitimately enter partnership in the Elswick ordnance factory, and he immediately secured the merger of the two works as Sir W. G. Armstrong & Co., with the intention of expanding both sides of the operation in the face of the decline in government orders. Additional land was bought adjacent to the works, enabling more than a doubling of the land available for extension, and after an initial reluctance on Armstrong's part—for this might have meant the arming of future enemies—a concerted effort was made to find export orders for armaments. Stuart (later Lord) Rendel, George Wightwick Rendel's younger brother, was entrusted with this task, for it was he who had suggested it, arguing that the supply of guns to foreign powers was far from an unpatriotic act since it made such powers dependent upon Britain for their munitions of war. Soon orders were achieved for guns for both sides in the American Civil War, as well as for Italy, Egypt, and Turkey; then from Russia, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Chile, and Peru—all by the late 1860s.

Armaments manufacture had not been pursued to the detriment of hydraulic engineering; indeed, the spread of the railway system and the development of docks and harbours brought considerable business to the strictly commercial side of the enterprise. Every principal railway company became a customer, and there was hardly a port in the United Kingdom that did not purchase Armstrong hydraulic equipment. Semi-domestic applications were not overlooked, and hydraulic lifts were supplied to hotels and clubs such as the Junior Carlton Club. In particular the firm became the predominant supplier of swing-bridges, an example of which is the Goole railway bridge (1869) over the River Ouse in Yorkshire—a design which pleased Armstrong considerably.

Warships and naval guns: a worldwide supplier

For some time Armstrong had been interested in naval guns, and from 1868 the Elswick firm had entered into co-operation with the warship builders Charles Mitchell & Co., whose yards lay at Walker-on-Tyne, some 5 miles downriver from Elswick. Naval guns built at Elswick were barged down the Tyne, passing under the arches of the low-level bridge at Newcastle before meeting wider and deeper water at Walker. Armstrong could not have played a significant role in the arguments which his father had to endure concerning the state of the Tyne and the town council's poor performance as conservators, but the formation of the Tyne improvement commission was to lead to improvements which had never before been envisaged. Extensive improvements below bridge were at last providing part of Tyneside with a navigable river more suited to its needs, but above-bridge firms such as Armstrong's gained little advantage. It was to be expected, therefore, that Armstrong became an advocate for above-bridge improvements, and it was no surprise that his firm should be entrusted with the design and construction of a hydraulic swing-bridge to replace the multi-arched eighteenth-century stone bridge. The new bridge, which opened in 1876, was inaugurated in true Armstrong fashion. The Italian vessel Europa was the first ship to pass under the new bridge, the largest of its kind in the world. With the Europa berthed at Elswick, the largest gun ever built in the world was loaded onto it by the largest hydraulic shear legs in the world, both of which were Elswick-built. The gun was later unloaded at Spezia, Italy, by the largest hydraulic crane in the world, which was also designed and built at Elswick.

By 1882 some twenty warships were built in co-operation with Mitchell at the Walker yard. In that year the two companies agreed to merge their interests in Sir W. G. Armstrong Mitchell & Co. Ltd, with a capital of £2 million and the intention—made feasible by the presence of the swing-bridge—of creating an integrated warship-building capacity at Elswick; Mitchell's yard would then concentrate on merchant ships. The new facilities were available by 1884, and from that year the Elswick naval yard, under the charge of Sir William White (1845–1913), formerly chief constructor to the Royal Navy, maintained a healthy order-book for several decades. Warships were supplied to the British navy, but also to those of Italy, Chile, China, Japan, and other countries. The Japanese connection was to become very important to Elswick and a source of considerable pride to Armstrong. In 1872 a delegation of the Iwakura mission, aimed at increasing Japan's knowledge of western industries and culture, had been shown around Tyneside by Armstrong, and a beneficial and lasting impression was left on both parties. The mission's impact on Elswick was not immediate, but, from the 1880s, numerous Japanese warship orders were placed at the Elswick yard. As a measure of the nation's esteem, Japan awarded Armstrong the order of the Sacred Treasure of the Rising Sun in 1895. Meanwhile, Armstrong had come to believe that high-speed cruisers would be essential adjuncts to the increasingly heavy battleships, and when the cruiser Esmeralda was launched for the Chilean navy in 1884, a new type of warship—soon to be adopted by all the navies of the world—was inaugurated.

Armstrong had by now largely left the fortunes of his Elswick works under the careful management of hand-picked men. The extent of his direct involvement after 1863 is uncertain, though he remained the titular head of the company until his death in 1900. George Wightwick Rendel left the firm in 1881, but Noble remained as its effective head, formally becoming chairman on Armstrong's death; he was to resign his active management of the firm in 1912 but remained chairman of the board of directors until his death in 1915.

President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1863

In 1863 the British Association held its annual meeting under Armstrong's presidency, a recognition of his outstanding contribution to science and engineering. In his presidential address he argued strongly for the adoption of the French metric system and, believing that this system would sooner or later become universal, suggested that the British Association should immediately show leadership in this matter. He also predicted that England would cease to be a coal-producing nation on an extensive scale within two hundred years—an argument developed in his evidence in 1866 to the royal commission on coal (of which he was also a member) and in his presidential addresses to the North of England Institute of Mining (1873) and the British Association (1883). Towards the end of 1863 Armstrong took a short holiday at Rothbury in the Coquet valley, Northumberland, returning to scenes of his childhood, for the Donkin family had a country retreat there and, as he was later to claim, his troublesome cough was quickly removed by a visit to Rothbury. The busy years after the initial formation of his company had made such holidays difficult, and he had not visited his favourite valley at all in the fifteen years prior to 1863. But now, a man of considerable wealth and confident in his management team at Elswick, he was to embark upon the creation of Cragside—still, however, mindful of the firm's need for a longer-term strategy.

Building Cragside

The Debdon burn ran down from barren moors and across rough agricultural land to join the River Coquet at Rothbury, and, apparently on impulse, Armstrong decided to purchase part of the Debdon valley with the intention of building a modest holiday home there, suitable for small shooting and fishing parties. The new house, which Armstrong named Cragside—a relatively modest two-storey picturesque lodge designed by an unknown builder–architect—appears to have been completed by 1864. Characteristically, Armstrong soon began to utilize hydraulic machinery to make life more comfortable at his house, damming the Debdon burn to create Tumbledown Lake as a head of water to power a hydraulic ram which would pump water to Cragside and to some conservatories. He had moved with typical speed but was soon to extend his plans and seek to create a country mansion, set among ornamental gardens, landscaped grounds, and woodlands, which would become his home, his laboratory, and occasionally a place to impress and entertain potential customers for the products of his works.

It was the proposed Northumberland Central Railway, intended to pass through Rothbury and thereby provide direct rail communication with Newcastle, which persuaded Armstrong that Cragside, suitably altered and extended, could become his permanent home. In 1869 he entrusted the relatively unknown architect R. Norman Shaw (1831–1912) to create a home appropriate to the stature and interests of its owner. The result was not entirely to Shaw's satisfaction, for Armstrong kept close control of the project, but it did enhance Shaw's reputation as a designer of the picturesque. Shaw's principal works were carried out in the periods from 1870 to 1877 and from 1883 to 1885, and the end result was the most dramatic Victorian mansion built in the north of England. The 1700 acres of former barren land were planted with 7 million trees, and the project eventually employed seventy gardeners.

The strike and lock-out of 1871

Armstrong's wish to spend as much time as possible at Cragside was sharpened by a sorry interlude which was to mark his last major direct involvement with the firm that he created. In May 1871 some 2700 men from the Elswick works joined about 4700 engineers at other Tyneside works in a strike aimed at securing a reduction in the working week from fifty-seven hours to fifty-four hours for the same weekly wage; Armstrong set the tone of management's response by locking out even those of his engineers who did not support strike action. As head of the largest works in the area, he took the lead in co-ordinating the employers' resistance, and acted provocatively in importing labour from the south of England and the continent. Throughout the four and a half month strike the employers remained stubborn and inflexible, refusing until the end to concede what others elsewhere had long conceded—the nine-hour day, to commence in 1872. It is generally believed that Armstrong's faulty leadership unnecessarily prolonged the strike, enraged local public opinion, and lowered his personal reputation. His attitudes during the strike must have altered his workers' perceptions of him, and therefore of the firm. Here, after all, was an employer who had embraced the education movements of the 1850s and 1860s by supporting the Elswick Mechanics' Institute from about 1852, as well as a school for the technical education of his workers' children in 1866; now the school was closed down to house imported strike-breaking labour. The firm had encouraged family traditions, with sons following fathers in jobs where apprenticeships were much sought after. Yet, in the strike, Armstrong, the former paternalist, appeared in a guise approaching that of a tyrant, prepared to ditch his workforce for imported labour.

Semi-retirement and travel

There can be little doubt that Armstrong was chastened by the course and outcome of the 1871 strike and of public criticism of his role in it. Elswick had been the one overwhelming passion of his life, but now that this had become somewhat soured, Cragside offered the perfect diversion for risk-free work, experiments, and pleasure. He would never again chance his hard-and well-earned reputation in such a high-profile manner; the works could safely be left in the hands of his capable lieutenants.

In 1872 Armstrong journeyed to Egypt, on his first excursion outside of Europe. Ostensibly he went, with other eminent engineers, to advise on possible methods of securing traffic on the Nile from the difficulties posed by its cataracts—not a field in which he had any experience—but he appears to have been more interested in the archaeological sites which he visited. From about 1875 he lived almost permanently at Cragside, introducing water-turbine-powered arc lamps for lighting the house in 1878 (the first house to be thus lit), converting to incandescent lamps in 1880 with the help of Joseph Swan of Newcastle, his friend and inventor of such lamps.

Philanthropy and later life

In 1878 Armstrong presented the 93 acre Armstrong Park, followed in 1884 by Jesmond Dene and its banqueting hall, for the benefit of the inhabitants of Newcastle. He and his wife had lived in the newly built Jesmond Dene House from the year of their marriage in 1835, and the banqueting hall had been used to entertain the foreign dignitaries who were now the chief customers for Elswick's guns and ships; but with the railway having opened to Rothbury in 1872, and Cragside approaching completion in 1884, the opportunity for much grander scenes of hospitality was presented. The visit of the prince of Wales to Cragside in 1884, and the royal approval thereby gained, marked the beginning of an influential stream of visitors to Rothbury.

From 1854, while still living at Jesmond Dene, Armstrong had been a collector of items relating to natural history and of works of art, but he considerably expanded his picture and sculpture collection between 1869 and 1876, during which period Shaw provided a gallery to house them at Cragside. Benefactions to his native city continued in a manner which would have pleased his father: to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, to the Hancock Museum of Natural History, and to the Literary and Philosophical Society. In 1878 Armstrong became a founder member of the council of the Durham College of Science in Newcastle—an extension of the University of Durham—which was the forerunner of Armstrong College, named after him. (It later became King's College, and later still the University of Newcastle.) He did not, however, favour higher education for all, believing that education for most people should be restricted to their school years in order that the supply of men to the necessary humbler positions in life should be maintained.

At the annual meeting of the British Association in 1883, held at York, Armstrong—who was again president—suggested in his presidential address that some form of thermoelectric engine might supersede the steam engine, that there was a future for solar-derived heat, and that hydroelectric power generation and the transmission of electric power would become of great importance.

Though Armstrong felt himself to be ‘too advanced’ for the tories and insufficiently advanced for the Liberals, he none the less contested Newcastle upon Tyne as a Liberal Unionist (opposed to home rule for Ireland) at the general election of 1886. He and the Conservative candidate were defeated by John Morley and another Liberal in the two-member constituency. But when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Armstrong of Cragside in June 1887, he remarked that 'The calmer atmosphere of the upper house will suit me much better' (Fairbairn). He attended every debate on the ‘Irish Question’ in the House of Lords and made several speeches on the subject, but seems to have had little enthusiasm for other topics of the day.

In 1892 Armstrong made his last appearance at the Elswick works, now employing about 13,000 men, during a visit by the king of Siam. His wife, Margaret, Lady Armstrong, died in 1893; she remains a shadowy figure. Her short local obituary mentions her unfailing support of her husband, her love of botany, and her involvement with the planting of the grounds at Jesmond Dene and Cragside (Newcastle Daily Journal, 4 Sept 1893). Soon after her death Armstrong embarked upon the last of his great ventures; he bought Bamburgh Castle and estate in 1893–4 and began a series of restorations and alterations to the fabric of the castle, intending it to become a convalescent home in his wife's memory. This project was not completed in his lifetime. He was an invalid in his last years and, according to oral tradition, exhibited a degree of paranoia. However, he remained mentally active, contributing a preface to an article in 1899 on electric movements in air and water. He died at Cragside on 27 December 1900, leaving almost £1.5 million, and was buried on 31 December alongside his wife in the extension of Rothbury churchyard overlooking the River Coquet. As they had no children, Armstrong's great-nephew, William Henry Armstrong Fitzpatrick Watson (1863–1941), inherited the Northumberland estates.

Many honours had been bestowed upon Armstrong, and he held presidencies of several institutions and organizations. In addition to those already noted he was a Telford medallist of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1850, Society of Arts Albert medallist in 1878, and Bessemer medallist of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1891. He was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Cambridge in 1862 and DCLs from Oxford University in 1870 and Durham University in 1882. Among his presidencies were those of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society from 1860 to 1900, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1861–2 and 1869, the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers in 1872, 1873, and 1875, the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1882, and the Natural History Society of Northumberland and Durham in 1890. At a more personal level he was described as a charming man of mild demeanour, whose innate reserve could make him seem formidable to strangers (Conte-Helm, 15; PICE). He bestrode much of the nineteenth century as a singular figure in science, industrial development, philanthropy, and liberalism, and, while he greatly profited from his life financially, he retained a love of the country and a personal simplicity.


  • A. Cochrane, The early history of Elswick (1909), 24
  • S. M. Linsley, ‘Armstrong, William George’, DBB
  • P. McKenzie, The life and times of William George Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Cragside (1983)
  • E. Allen and others, The north-east engineers' strikes of 1871: the Nine Hours' League (1971)
  • W. G. Armstrong, Cragside, Northumberland, ed. A. Saint and others (1992)
  • D. Dougan, The great gun-maker: the story of Lord Armstrong (1971)
  • M. Conte-Helm, Japan and the north east of England, from 1862 to the present day (1989), 15
  • R. W. Johnson, The making of the Tyne (1895)
  • E. Mackenzie, An historical, topographical, and descriptive view of the county of Northumberland, 2nd edn, 1 (1825), 129
  • PICE, 147 (1901–2), 405–12
  • R. A. Fairbairn, ‘Elswick works, 1847–1947’, 1948, priv. coll. [S. M. Linsley, Newcastle upon Tyne]
  • IGI [William Armstrong, father]


  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, corresp. and papers
  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, records
  • CUL, letters to Sir George Stokes
  • ICL, letters to Thomas Huxley
  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to Sir Andrew Noble
  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, corresp. with Lord Rendel
  • U. Durham L., archives and special collections, letters to third Earl Grey
  • University of Bristol Library, special collections, letters to I. K. Brunel


  • J. Ramsay, portrait, 1831, Cragside House, Northumberland
  • A. Munro, two busts, 1861, Cragside House, Northumberland
  • H. H. Emmerson, study, 1880, Cragside House, Northumberland
  • M. L. Waller, oils, 1882, NPG
  • G. F. Watts, portrait, 1887, Cragside House, Northumberland
  • M. L. Waller, portrait, 1898, Cragside House, Northumberland
  • W. H. Thornycroft, statue, 1906, Hancock Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • W. & D. Downey, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in W. Downey and D. Downey, The cabinet portrait gallery, vol. 1 (1890) [see illus.]
  • Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1882); similar print, NPG
  • A. Munro, marble bust (after his bust, 1861), Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • W. H. Thornycroft, statue, Barras Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • photographs, Cragside House, Northumberland
  • photographs, Newcastle City Library

Wealth at Death

£1,400,682 1s. 7d.: resworn probate, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

D. J. Jeremy, ed., , 5 vols. (1984–6)
, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latterday Saints
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
private collection