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Armstrong, Josephfree

  • Ronald M. Birse

Armstrong, Joseph (1816–1877), locomotive engineer, was born on 21 September 1816 at Bewcastle, Cumberland, the son of Thomas Armstrong (1785–1844), yeoman and later farm bailiff, and his wife. Joseph and his three older brothers went with their parents in 1817 to Canada where his brother George [see below] was born, before the family returned in 1824 to Newburn-on-Tyne in Northumberland. From 1824 Joseph attended Bruce's School in Newcastle and as he grew up he became interested in the locomotives at work in the local collieries. On leaving school at fourteen he was apprenticed to Robert Hawthorn, the engineer at Walbottle Colliery, and came to know George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth, who encouraged him in his chosen career. He became an engine driver on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1836 and four years later moved to the Hull and Selby Railway as locomotive shed foreman. In the course of several further moves, including a time with the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway, he was married in Chester in 1848 to Sarah Burdon (d. 1885), whose brother John married Joseph's sister Rebecca. By 1853 he was locomotive superintendent at the Stafford Road works of the Shrewsbury and Birmingham Railway in Wolverhampton.

Joseph's long association with the Great Western Railway (GWR) began in 1854 when the works became part of the GWR's northern division and he continued in charge under Daniel Gooch, the locomotive superintendent of the GWR at Swindon. At that time the Wolverhampton works dealt with small-scale maintenance and repair, in contrast to Swindon, which undertook most of the broad gauge locomotive manufacture and repair for the GWR. The same policy was adopted for the standard gauge works at Wolverhampton where Joseph had first to reorganize and extend the works, while keeping as much as possible of his existing stock in reasonable running order. Over the next few years eighty-six standard gauge locomotives were built for him at Swindon and elsewhere, while almost two hundred more were acquired by amalgamations with a number of smaller railway companies. In the ten years from 1854 to 1864 he transformed a small repair shop into a major manufacturing facility. More than two hundred new or in-service locomotives came into his care, and after 1859 twenty more were built to his own designs. In 1864 Gooch and his carriage and wagon superintendent at Swindon retired and Joseph Armstrong was appointed to both posts. His brother George succeeded him as divisional locomotive superintendent at Wolverhampton.

The move to Swindon brought greatly increased responsibilities and some unique problems. The Great Western Railway and its locomotives were built to the 7 foot broad gauge while the rest of Britain's railways (with minor exceptions) adopted the narrower gauge of 4 foot 8½ inches recommended in 1846 by the gauge commission as the standard. It was clear long before 1864 that the standard gauge must prevail, and Joseph built only a few types of broad gauge locomotive. During his thirteen years at Swindon he designed six types of standard gauge locomotive, of which almost six hundred examples were built, some of them convertible to broad gauge; he introduced convertible coaching stock, and he witnessed the spread of the mixed gauge on the GWR which heralded the end of the broad gauge in 1892.

Joseph Armstrong's concern for the welfare of his workforce led him to introduce a number of measures to improve health and safety in the Swindon works, including better lighting and ventilation, and the provision of safe crossings over the main running lines. Having served as president of the Swindon Mechanics' Institute and chairman of the new town local board, a member of council of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and a local preacher in the Wesleyan Methodist church, in April 1877 he was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was by then in charge of almost 13,000 employees and the strain had begun to affect his health. He was persuaded to take a holiday, but on his way to Scotland Armstrong collapsed and died at Matlock Bank, Matlock, Derbyshire, on 5 June 1877 at the age of sixty, leaving a widow, four sons, and three daughters. He was buried in St Mark's churchyard, New Swindon. Two of Joseph's sons and one of his grandsons also became locomotive engineers.

George Armstrong (1822–1901), locomotive engineer, was born in Canada on 5 April 1822 and after the family's return to England in 1824 he grew up at Newburn-on-Tyne. Like his brother Joseph he left school at fourteen to work under Robert Hawthorn at Walbottle Colliery and in 1840 followed Joseph to the Hull and Selby Railway where John Gray was the locomotive superintendent. Both Armstrongs moved with Gray to Brighton in 1845, but after a short time George went to northern France, returning to England in 1848 because of the unsettled conditions there, and rejoined his brother on the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway. He assisted his brother as locomotive foreman, and when Joseph was promoted to Swindon in 1864 George succeeded him as locomotive superintendent of the GWR northern division at Wolverhampton, with William Dean as his assistant.

The northern division included no fewer than six railways acquired by the GWR at various times. George had to maintain many different locomotive types, and he embarked on a programme of building larger numbers of fewer basic types. In 1868 Joseph Armstrong called William Dean to Swindon and made him his chief assistant, to the considerable chagrin of his brother; Joseph, however, was determined to avoid any hint of nepotism, and when he died in 1877 Dean was appointed to succeed him. George refused to take orders from Dean, saying 'I only give orders, not take them', and it is to Dean's credit that he allowed George almost complete autonomy at Wolverhampton. George reigned supreme for a total of thirty-three years, during which time 626 engines were built and a further 513 were more or less extensively rebuilt.

In 1866 George was elected a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and although not as strongly religious as his brother he was a member of the Methodist church. He never married, and even after his retirement in 1897 at the age of seventy-five he maintained his contact with the works. On a very hot day, 11 July 1901, he collapsed and died at the flower show held in Wolverhampton's West Park. He was buried four days later at Bushbury church.


  • H. Holcroft, The Armstrongs of the Great Western (1953) [incl. references, portraits, illustrations, maps, plans, and genealogy]
  • J. Marshall, A biographical dictionary of railway engineers (1978)
  • PICE, 49 (1876–7), 255–8
  • Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Proceedings (1901), 1283
  • d. cert. [George Armstrong]
  • CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1901) [George Armstrong]


  • photograph, repro. in Holcroft, Armstrongs, frontispiece
  • photographs (George Armstrong), repro. in Holcroft, Armstrongs, facing p. 81

Wealth at Death

under £18,000: probate, 25 Aug 1877, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£15,497 13s. 11d.—George Armstrong: probate, 1901, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers