IN GOOD time for the bicentenary of the birth of Lord Armstrong on November 26 comes another – and probably the weightiest – biography of the man who did so much to shape the North East as we know it.
Officially launched today, William Armstrong: Magician of the North is the work of Henrietta Heald. It is her first book as author although she has worked in publishing for years so knows what makes a good read.
Henrietta is a Londoner but she has a terrace home in Jesmond, Newcastle, which she bought for her daughter when she came to study English at Newcastle University five years ago.
On the day we meet it is teeming down, the rainwater racing down the gutters carrying everything in its path. Letting me into the house, her North East pad until the new tenants arrive, a light bulb is flickering wildly.
Both downpour and bulb, it turns out, are timely reminders of the Armstrong legacy. Early in her book, Henrietta relates her subject’s lifelong love of water. He had a passion for fishing, earning the nickname the Kingfisher.
He was also a pioneer in hydraulics and hydroelectricity, his house at Cragside becoming the first to be lit by such means. Electricity, he would identify as his first love but water, Henrietta tells us in her book, was the "unbroken thread linking all his achievements".
The Jesmond house is on land once owned by the Armstrong family. It is a stone’s throw from Jesmond Dene which William Armstrong and his wife, Meggie, transformed before handing it over to the people of Newcastle for their recreation – a role it still performs today.
Although not the superstitious type, Henrietta mentions that she also shares a birthday with Armstrong.
Coincidence or not, she has spent many months in his company, poring over copious letters and documents and also retracing his footsteps. The result is a fascinating and comprehensive book about one of the North East’s great men.
Henrietta studied English at Durham University and loved it. "I think, being an ignorant Londoner, I had no idea of the richness of the history of this part of the world," she recalls self-deprecatingly.
"In Durham, you’re very aware of that because it’s on your doorstep with the castle and the cathedral.
"I also explored quite a lot of Northumberland in those days."
But it was when her daughter’s studies brought her to Newcastle, and she bought that house near Jesmond Dene, that she was first alerted to the achievements of Lord Armstrong – in science (he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at 35), in engineering, in shipbuilding, in business, in shaping the landscape (at Cragside he planted more than 7m trees) and, more controversially, in armaments.
Looking for a book about this man "who bestrode the 19th Century world like a colossus", she found a few, but none that totally satisfied her curiosity on all fronts.
It all began with her walks through the Dene where Armstrong built a house after his marriage in 1835 on the 16 acres bought as a wedding present by his in-laws, the Ramshaws of Bishop Auckland, where Armstrong went to school.
"I realised more and more how he shaped the Dene, the waterfall and the stepping stones. He had the idea of a Swiss mountainside and he tried to recreate it.
"His patron lived there, too, Armorer Donkin, who was this charismatic lawyer and a bachelor."
Henrietta describes how a close-knit group of influential and well-off friends settled in and around Jesmond Dene.
Donkin had been a friend of Armstrong’s grain merchant father, William senior, who had moved his family to the upper Ouseburn Valley from Shieldfield .
William Armstrong senior had been born in what is now Cumbria, where he was fortunate enough to fall in with the influential and dynamic Losh family. James Losh, who became Recorder of Newcastle, also settled with his wife in Jesmond Dene.
As he grew richer, William Armstrong junior bought up more and more pockets of land, inheriting Donkin’s acres, until he was in a position to shape the Dene as he wanted – a monumental task that he and Meggie would later repeat at Cragside.
Henrietta says Armstrong "specifically says that it gave him huge pleasure to know the land was going to be used for working people to enjoy themselves and get away from the factories.
"That’s what appealed to me about him originally. I thought: here’s this great industrialist and he could have been horrible. Some people say he was horrible to the workers but, on the whole, I think he had his workers’ best interests at heart."
He certainly had enough of them. In its heyday, his famous Elswick Works had a workforce of 25,000 employed in making hydraulic machinery, ships and armaments.
The latter activity does make some people feel uncomfortable. Were the peaceable delights of Jesmond Dene created at the expense of those slain by his powerful weapons?
"He was the least militaristic of men," insists Henrietta. "I’ve had to learn about guns because, if anything, I’m a pacifist.
"But I would say Armstrong was not interested in killing people. What he was interested in was engineering. His first gun was all to do with the fact that Britain’s artillery was hopelessly out of date.
"At the time lots of people were trying to build better guns but he won a competition held by the Government which adopted his model."
As in just about all things, Armstrong was successful. Like his hydraulic cranes, his guns, deployed on battlefields and then by the Royal Navy, became known throughout the world.
In peace and war, Armstrong made a huge impact. "He was," says Henrietta, "the most incredible character, a national hero in his time and someone everyone should be really proud of."
William Armstrong: Magician of the North is published by Northumbria Press at £18. It will be launched at Newcastle Discovery Museum tonight at 6.30pm, when Henrietta will sign books and a new Armstrong Ale, from the Wylam Brewery, will be served. All welcome.