Man who put us on the map

BICENTENNIALS are like buses: you wait an age for one and then two come along at once.

Neil Tonge, Lord William Armstrong

BICENTENNIALS are like buses: you wait an age for one and then two come along at once.

The Journal reported recently on the programme of events lined up to mark the 200th anniversary this year of the death of Admiral Lord Collingwood.

Now preparations are in full swing to celebrate a second 200th – the anniversary of the birth of another of the North East’s greatest sons in Lord Armstrong.

William Armstrong was not only a great inventor and industrialist who put Tyneside on the world map.

His other legacies include his country home at Cragside in Northumberland, now run by the National Trust as one of the region’s major visitor attractions.

He also bought and restored another top visitor draw, Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, and created the Swing Bridge across the Tyne.

His generosity included giving Jesmond Dene to the city of Newcastle and helping found the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Fleming Memorial Hospital, Hancock Museum and Armstrong College, the forerunner of Newcastle University.

Armstrong’s impact on the region increasingly fascinated Neil Tonge as he worked on a project with schools in Newcastle’s West End.

The schools venture explores the industrial and cultural heritage of the West End, which was the centre of Armstrong’s industrial empire where his works employed 25,000 at their peak.

Neil, who lives in South Charlton in Northumberland, said: “I realised that you couldn’t think of the West End without thinking of Armstrong.

“He was an incredible industrialist, inventor, and entrepreneur. It was a unique combination in what was a phenomenal time in Tyneside’s history.

“Armstrong also displayed amazing generosity to the city of Newcastle.”

Neil set up and chairs the Armstrong 200 committee to co-ordinate ideas and events to mark Armstrong’s birth on November 26, 1810 in Pleasant Row in Shieldfield in Newcastle.

Lord William Armstrong

“The committee was set up to pull everything together for the bicentenary of this genius of the North,” he said. “Combining a flair for invention, business acumen and enterprise, he became a world-leading figure.”

William Armstrong was the son of a corn merchant, also called William, who encouraged his son to train as a solicitor, becoming a partner at Armorer Donkin’s Newcastle law firm.

But his real interest lay in engineering, mechanics and the power of water.

Armstrong came up with a design for the hydraulic crane and gave up his legal career to open a works at Elswick in Newcastle.

His 1876 Swing Bridge is powered by his hydraulic engines. He and his wife Margaret were living on the edge of Jesmond Dene, which they owned, when in 1864 he began work on his countryside home at Cragside, near Rothbury.

Armstrong set out to create a Himalayan-style landscape, planting seven million trees and shrubs.

In 1887 he was made Ist Baron Armstrong of Cragside.

He used his wealth to help his home city, paying out £600 to open a new school for the deaf.

He played key roles in funding the Fleming Memorial Hospital for Sick Children and donated £3,000 for what was to be the Royal Victoria Infirmary.

He gave £11,500 towards the Hancock Museum, now the Great North Museum, and his Armstrong College building is now at the heart of Newcastle University.

In Rothbury, he built 12 almshouses in memory of his mother, Ann.

In 1878 he gave 26 acres of his Jesmond estate to the city, which would become Armstrong Park, and in 1883 donated Jesmond Dene, with its iron bridge.

Inspired by Royal visit

THE visit to Cragside by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1884 will be used as the inspiration for the location’s contribution to the Armstrong celebrations.

Electric light was used to illuminate Armstrong’s Cragside estate to mark the royal stay.

Ten thousand small glass lamps adorned the rocky slopes and railings lining the walks, with an almost equal number of Chinese lanterns. A firework display rounded off the show.

A report of the event reads: “Clouds of little lamps hung like fireflies in the hollow recesses of the distant hills.

“The entire sweep of the Debdon Valley presented a fairly-like appearance.”

Zoe Bottrell, director of the Northumberland Lights Festival is working with ideas based on the royal lighting extravaganza.

This would be staged at Cragside as part of both the Armstrong and this year’s Northumberland Lights event.

The fire work display could also be replicated.

Zoe said: “Cragside means something special to me because it was where I married in 2001, and I love it.”

Events to celebrate a remarkable life

A PLAQUE will be erected by Newcastle City Council to mark the Armstrong 200.

Potential sites include Argyll Street, previously Armstrong’s birthplace of Pleasant Row, and a location behind High Bridge where Armstrong made his early inventions in Henry Watson’s works.

Other events include a show for pupils by Tyne Wear Museums in March which will feature actors as Armstrong and light bulb inventor Joseph Swan and which will include science demonstrations.

Next month will also see a conference at the Literary and Philosophical Society titled Engineering for the World: Armstrong.

From July 10 - January 16 an exhibition on Armstrong will run at Newcastle Discovery Museum.

City Guides walks will include an outing on June 27 from the Swing Bridge to the site of Armstrong’s Elswick works.

Another walk on July 11 will follow Jesmond Dene to Matthew Bank.

There will also be site tours of the Armstrong works of BAE Systems.

What is described as the first definitive biography of Lord Armstrong, by Henrietta Heald, will be published by Northumbria University Press in September.

His legacy lives on

LORD Armstrong’s legacy features in the Past into Future project in Newcastle’s West End.

The £71,000 project, backed by £50,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, involves St Bede’s, Canning Street, Lemington Riverside , St John’s, Hawthorn and St Joseph’s primary schools.

"It is important at this time, when West Newcastle is in transition, that the history and heritage of this important part of the city are preserved and debated," said project co-ordinator Neil Tonge.

"This is being achieved through a study by children and young people of the industrial past."

Armstrong’s works turned the villages of Elswick, Scotswood and Benwell into suburbs. "A quarter of Newcastle depended on Armstrong in some way," said Neil.


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