To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, there is in Newcastle all that life can afford: pioneering industry, lush green spaces, a buzzing cultural scene, a renowned seat of learning and some of the best healthcare in the country. Of course, you can’t build a beautiful, vibrant city overnight. Time to nominate an historical hero, I think—an outstanding individual whose legacy, in my opinion, has helped secure Newcastle’s position as one of the finest cities in the country, if not Europe—William George Armstrong.
Born in 1810, Armstrong’s ambitious father, a corn merchant by trade, insisted he pursue a career in law. However, engineering was his great love. In his spare time he designed various devices, and in 1847 exchanged his legal career to found his own company, manufacturing cranes and hydraulic equipment. At its peak, the company employed over 25,000 people. The company continued to expand, diversifying into bridges, armaments and battleships, with several mergers along the way. (The Swing Bridge over the Tyne still in use today was built by the company to enable larger ships to move upstream to the Armstrong works in Elswick.) Apart from being the major employer in the city at the time, the goods produced were ingenious and their templates adopted the world over.
Innovation only makes up a small part of Armstrong’s legacy. Culturally, his contribution to the north east is huge. He bought Jesmond Dene House in 1863, landscaping the surrounding land and donating Jesmond Dene to the people of Newcastle 20 years later. The Dene—an 80-acre wooded valley formed by post-Ice Age meltwater is a true oasis complete with waterfall and grotto. And his famous country retreat at Rothbury, Cragside, was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. (Armstrong was a fan of green energy, predicting the decline of the coal industry and favouring solar and hydroelectric power.) Now under the aegis of the National Trust, the estate is a playground for adults and children alike, and showcases his love of innovation with its collection of ahead-of-their-time gadgets. And let’s not forget his restoration of the wild and romantic Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast (which he even kitted out with central heating and air conditioning). It remains the home of the Armstrong family to this day.
A generous benefactor, Armstrong founded the College of Physical Science in 1871, which later became part of the top-ranking Newcastle University we know today. He contributed to the establishment of the Hancock Natural History Museum, now the Great North Museum, where you can wonder at a full-size T Rex skeleton, an interactive Hadrian’s Wall and curiosities from around the world. And in 1901, a year after his death, his heir William Watson-Armstrong donated a hefty sum towards the building of the Royal Victoria Infirmary.
Writing this article has made me realise how much this man’s legacy has touched my own life in Newcastle. My children were born at the Royal Victoria Infirmary. On many occasions I have walked, waddled and pushed a pram along Armstrong Bridge to Jesmond Dene and spent many happy hours therein (most memorably at 5.30 on a summer’s morning thanks to pregnancy insomnia and noisy neighbours—an enchanted garden, full of greenness and rhododendrons, all to myself). Here in Blaydon, with the now-downtrodden Elswick just in view, I can well imagine how only a few generations ago it would be bustling with life and industry, at the forefront of industry and innovation.
Forward-thinking, innovative and philanthropic, green champion and all-round polymath, I nominate Lord Armstrong as my first historical hero…now it’s your turn—who’s yours?