William Armstrong – the magician of the north

Baron Armstrong of Cragside

Henrietta Heald presents the achievements of a brilliant Victorian engineer and innovator

In May 1905 the island nation of Japan – for centuries closed to the outside world – burst onto the global stage with an unexpected victory against the Russians at Tsushima, the decisive naval engagement of the Russo-Japanese War. Half the Japanese ships that took part in the battle had been built on the River Tyne by Armstrong Whitworth, and the entire fleet was armed with Armstrong guns.

Tsushima was a climax in the early history of global maritime Britain, and secured the close industrial relationship between Britain and Japan that has existed ever since.

William Armstrong – the Victorian engineer and industrialist who gave his name to Armstrong Whitworth – is best remembered today as the creator of Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electric power. Armstrong’s fascination with harnessing natural resources, especially water, to enhance efficiency and innovation in the service of humanity was evident in everything he did – not least in his revolutionary advances in hydraulics and hydroelectricity. He was also an environmentalist far in advance of his time, planting on his Cragside estate, near Rothbury, an estimated 7 million trees and shrubs.

Early years

William Armstrong CB Kt FRS (1810–1900).

In 1847, Armstrong had set up factory at Elswick (pronounced ‘Elzik’) on the north bank of the Tyne, west of Newcastle, to produce hydraulic cranes and other machinery. He came to national prominence in the 1850s with the invention of an entirely new type of battlefield gun in response to the disaster of the Crimea, when Britain’s artillery had been exposed as hopelessly outdated. The Armstrong gun was rifled rather than smooth-bore, and fired shells rather than cannonballs, making its performance far more accurate and long-range than that of any of its predecessors. It secured a knighthood for its inventor, along with his appointment as Engineer for Rifled Ordnance and Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factory at Woolwich. He would go on to design and produce, at Woolwich and Elswick, ever more sophisti­cated artillery, including heavy guns for use on warships.

After a disputatious interlude with the army establishment, Sir William Armstrong returned to Newcastle to pursue his engineering and business interests, and to capitalise on his inventions. A pivotal moment occurred in 1867, when he signed a deal with Charles Mitchell – a shipbuilder who had built ironclads for the Russian navy – to construct gunboats. The vessels were to be built at Mitchell’s yard at Low Walker, six miles downriver from the Elswick Works, while the weapons would be manufactured and fitted at Elswick.

The association with Mitchell derived from the need to test guns at sea, in order to avoid the noise and dangers of land-based testing. It was realised that a squat, barge-like vessel would make an excellent vehicle for mounting guns and, as the business historian Kenneth Warren points out, it was ‘a short step from a gun experimentally mounted in a barge to a floating gun usable as a coastal battery’. 1

The first product of the collaboration was Staunch, a 79-foot ‘floating gun carriage’ ordered by the Admiralty. Carrying a single ‘disappearing’ 9-in muzzle-loading gun – raised from and lowered into the shallow hold by hydraulic action – Staunch had no protective iron cladding, making her lighter, faster and cheaper than a lumbering ironclad, and her low draught made her ideal for patrolling shallow coastal waters.

Staunch was a resounding success for Low Walker. During the 1870s and early 1880s, the yard completed 21 of these vessels, including 3 more for Britain, 2 for the Netherlands, 4 for Australia and 11 for China, and the same basic design was used for orders from Brazil, Chile and Italy. By 1877, Elswick was shipping dismantled Staunch gunboats in crates to various parts of the world and having them reassembled at their destination under the supervision of Elswick engineers.

Hot on the heels of Staunch – and coinciding with a formal merger between the Armstrong and Mitchell companies – came a new Elswick warship that had been inspired by the gunboat but was much larger and faster. Introduced in 1882, Esmeralda carried two 10-in breech-loading guns and six 6-in guns, and could reach speeds of more than 18 knots – making her, in Armstrong’s words, ‘the swiftest and most powerfully armed cruiser in the world’. Esmeralda had no armour-plating, but her engines, boilers and other vital parts were all contained inside steel decks below the waterline, so that she would be ‘almost absolutely secure against the worst effects of projectiles’. This was the first of a group of deadly, well-protected warships that would gain universal fame as ‘Elswick cruisers’.

Growth of the business

With the opening of a new shipyard at Elswick in October 1884, Armstrong Mitchell embarked on its period of greatest growth. From that time onwards, warships – including gunboats for the Royal Navy – would be built at Elswick, and all other types of ship at Low Walker. The first vessel launched at the yard, on 13 June 1885, was Panther, a torpedo cruiser for the Austro-Hungarian navy. On the same day, work began on the battleship Renown, destined to be the heaviest and costliest vessel so far constructed on the Tyne, with a displacement of 11,000 tons. Before her launch in April 1887, Renown was renamed Victoria in honour of the Queen’s golden jubilee year. The first war vessel to be entirely built, armed and fitted out by a single establishment, she cost £724,855 (about £50 million in today’s money).

In the following years, the demand for Esmeralda-class cruisers was overwhelming, with orders arriving from Austria, Italy, China, Spain, Romania, Argentina, Norway, Portugal, Turkey, Brazil and the USA. New technological developments meant that the ships’ speed of travel was dramatically increased – and they were less than half the price of a battleship.


The gunboat HMS Staunch (1868). Photo: Illustrated London News

Meanwhile, Armstrong was campaigning for a change in Britain’s naval defence policy and insisting that enlightened engineering skills could, and should, be used to promote the best interests of the human race, especially in the pursuit of peace. There was no country in the world less inclined to aggression than Great Britain, he said in a speech of 1882 – but, equally, there was none so likely to incite the greed of an assailant: Britain had more than half of the ocean-carrying trade of the whole world in its hands, and its ships, swarming over every sea and conveying merchandise of huge value, would in the event of war inevitably attract the interest of hostile cruisers. Armstrong argued that for the cost of one ironclad the Royal Navy could have three unarmoured ships of far higher speed.

His intervention stimulated a debate about Britain’s place in the world. In 1884, W T Stead, editor of Pall Mall Gazette, published a sensational series of articles arguing that the Royal Navy was falling behind its rivals and required vast public investment. Stead was backed by the naval strategist John Fisher, who understood Britons’ fears that their country was in danger of losing its dominant position. Eventually, Prime Minister Gladstone, an erstwhile opponent of increased defence spending, was forced to add £5 million to the naval estimates. British firms then embarked on a period of rapid expansion, boosted by the Naval Defence Act of 1889, which prompted innovations in the design of warships and weapons. Naval engineering was reinvigorated and, wrote Marshall Bastable, ‘national power and status were given their highest expression in the mighty ships and guns which poured out of the dockyards and factories of the world’s armaments companies’.2  It was this surge in investment that made possible the building of the Japanese fleet that triumphed at Tsushima, and which fuelled the success of Armstrong Whitworth (created by a 1897 merger of two leading defence firms), which, along with Vickers, would form the industrial backbone of Britain’s fighting forces during the First World War.

A global concern

Baron Armstrong of Cragside (as he had become) died in 1900, aged 90, by which time the small factory he had established on the Tyne half a century earlier had evolved into a dominant global shipbuilding concern. In the early 20th century, Elswick Works occupied a frontage along the Tyne of 1½ miles and covered more than 300 acres, but the shipyard there could not meet requirements and a new one was commissioned at High Walker.

When the Walker Naval Yard opened in 1912, the prosperity and fame of Armstrong Whitworth were legendary. ‘The works was one of the sights of Newcastle and the name of Armstrong was used almost as an incantation,’ wrote the Elswick historian A R Fairbairn. By 1918 there were 78,000 people on the payroll of Armstrong Whitworth, with a wages bill of £1,000,000 a week. However, when wartime manufacture ceased, swift decline set in, culmi­nating in 1927 in an enforced merger with the firm’s erstwhile rival, Vickers.

Armstrong is less well remembered in the 21st century than two other contemporary engineers, Robert Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, both of whom acknowledged his genius. Stephenson, a fellow Novocastrian, observed and admired Armstrong’s early experiments with electricity; Brunel col­laborated with him on the development of his first gun. But the memory of Elswick’s founder – ‘Newcastle’s greatest citizen’, as he was hailed in a Times obituary – would live on in the name of Vickers-Armstrong until the late 1970s, when the firm ultimately became part of British Aerospace.

  1. Kenneth Warren (1989), Armstrongs of Elswick: growth in engineering and armaments to the merger with Vickers.
  2. Marshall J Bastable (2004), Arms and the State: Sir William Armstrong and the remaking of British naval power 1854–1914.

Henrietta Heald is the author of William Armstrong: Magician of the North and Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines, a centenary history of the Women’s Engineering Society.