Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

William Armstrong

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William Armstrong's 'Hydro electric machine', which used steam and water droplets to generate sparks from static electricity, displayed at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle

Lord William George Armstrong (1810–1900) of W. G. Armstrong and Co

Contents

General

1810 November 26th. Born 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.

William was originally launched on a career in law but his major interest was in engineering.

1834 Having completed legal training he became junior partner in the firm of Messrs. Donkin, Stable, and Armstrong. He began engineering as past-time.

1835 Aged 25. William married Margaret Ramshaw (1807–1893), the daughter of William Ramshaw, builder and engineer.

1840 Aged 30. He invented a hydraulic engine, following it up with other electrical and labour-saving devices, including the hydraulic crane. The first of these cranes was erected on the Newcastle Quayside and attracted wide attention. He also invented the hydraulic accumulator tower; a surviving example is some 300 feet high and dominates the docks at Grimsby.

1841 Living at North Street, Rothbury (age 30), Attorney at Law. With father William (age 60), Merchant and Margaret (age 30). [1]

1846 Having became so engrossed by his engineering experiments, he gave up law in 1846 to concentrate on mechanical engineering.

1846 Formed the Newcastle Cranage Co

1847, Armstrong founded the W. G. Armstrong and Co at the Elswick works at Newcastle, to produce hydraulic machinery, cranes and bridges, soon to be followed by artillery, notably the Armstrong breech-loading gun, which re-equipped the British Army after the Crimean War. A rifled Armstrong front loading gun was also supplied to the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. This gun was designed to sink the new ironclad ships of the Civil War. It fired a 150 lb shell 5-6 miles. One was stationed at Fort Fisher, NC. Rifled and throwing a shell-shaped projectile, the Armstrong gun is regarded as marking the birth of modern artillery. The Armstrong 100-pounder breech-loader naval rifle was, however, less successful. Armstrong handed over the rights of his guns to the nation, and received a knighthood. He also took the position of "Engineer of Rifled Ordnance" for the British Government, and set up the Elswick Ordnance Co, in which he had no financial interest, to manufacture the guns. Such was Armstrong’s fame as a gun-maker that he is thought to be a possible model for George Bernard Shaw's arms magnate in Major Barbara.

1851 Living at Jesmond Road, Jesmond (age 40 born Newcastle), Managing Partner of Manufacturing Engineers employing 400 men. With wife Margaret (age 44). Also two visitors and four servants. [2]

1858 of Elswick Iron Works, Newcastle.[3]

1859 Aged 49. 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 Arsenal.

1861 Visitor at 9 Hyde Park Street, London (age 50 born Newcastle), Civil Engineer. Superintendent of Royal Gun Factories. [4]

1863 Despite the well demonstrated advantages of rifled artillery, in 1863 the British Government ceased ordering artillery from Armstrong's and for 17 years reverted to muzzle loading artillery manufactured at Woolwich. Armstrong resigned his position for the Government, the Elswick Ordnance Co merged with what was by now Sir W. G. Armstrong and Co, and the focus turned to finding overseas orders.

From 1863 onward Armstrong became less and less involved in the day to day running of his company affairs and began to pursue other interests. He became particularly noted for his successful pursuits in the field of landscape gardening. This was initially carried out in Newcastle's beautiful Jesmond Dene, most of which he owned and where he built a house for himself and his wife in the 1830s.

1863 President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

1871 Living at Jesmond Dean Hall, Jesmond (age 60 born Newcastle), Knight Companion, Chief Partner in a form of Manufacturing Engineers. With wife Margaret (age 64). Five servants. [5]

1871 The University of Newcastle was originally formed by Lord Armstrong as the College of Physical Science, later Armstrong College in 1904. He was twice president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

In 1876, Armstrong built the hydraulically-powered Swing Bridge. A steam engine which powered the bridge is on display at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle

1881 Living at Jesmond Hall, Jesmond (age 70 born Newcastle), Civil Engineer, Knight Companion of the Bath. With wife Margaret (age 74). Nine servants. [6]

1882 Armstrong's interests were merged with those of Charles Mitchell and Co in Sir W. G. Armstrong Mitchell and Co Ltd, with a capital of £2 million; by this time, the two companies had built about 20 ships together. The Swing bridge made it possible to create an integrated warship-building capacity at Elswick; Mitchell's yard then concentrated on merchant ships.

1883 Armstrong donated the long wooded gorge of Jesmond Dene to the people of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, as well as Armstrong Bridge and Armstrong Park nearby.

1884 The new facilities were available by 1884. Armstrongs built great numbers of vessels for the world’s fleets, including warships, complete with armament, for the emerging Japanese navy. Armstrong gathered many excellent engineers at Elswick. Notable among them were Andrew Noble and George Wightwick Rendel, whose design of gun-mountings and hydraulic control of gun-turrets were adopted world-wide. Rendel introduced the cruiser as a naval vessel.

Armstrong also supplied the original lifting gear for Tower Bridge in London.

His last great project, begun at the age of 80, was the purchase and restoration of the huge Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast, which remains in the hands of the Armstrong family.

1891 Living at Cragside Hall, Rothbury (age 80 born Newcastle), Peer, Retired Civil Engineer. With wife Margaret (age 84). Also great-nephew William H. W. Armstrong (age 27), Lieut in Yeomanry; his great-niece by marriage Winifred A. W. (age 30); his nephew John William Watson (age 63), Retired Special Pleader; his niece Margaret G. Watson (age 57); his great-niece Dorothy Watson (age 18). Also a visitor and ten servants. [7]

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.

1893 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. The later years of Armstrong's life were spent in his magnificent parkland mansion of Cragside now owned by the National Trust.

1897 the firm merged with Joseph Whitworth becoming Armstrong Whitworth

1900 William Armstrong died on December 27 at Cragside and is buried in Rothbury churchyard.

Lord Armstrong's generosity extended beyond his death. He left £100,000 for the building of the new Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle upon Tyne. Its original 1753 building at Forth Banks near the river Tyne were inadequate and impossible to expand. Armstrong's legacy was matched by John Hall, a local merchant, on condition that the new site at Leazes be used.

Obituaries

See William Armstrong: Obituaries.

See Also

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  • Obit in The Engineer of 4th January 1901.

Sources of Information

  1. 1841 Census
  2. 1851 Census
  3. 1858 Institution of Mechanical Engineers
  4. 1861 Census
  5. 1871 Census
  6. 1881 Census
  7. 1891 Census