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A brief history of W. G. Armstrong.

The Victorian age produced many entrepreneurial engineers but none was more surprising than a 36 year old  practicing solicitor who founded and developed the giant engineering group of Armstrong Whitworth. This is not so surprising when we learn that as a boy his inclinations lay with things mechanical and practical.


With the arrival of the  19th Century we find William Armstrong, an established corn merchant on the Newcastle quays, and his wife Ann preparing for their first child, a daughter named Ann. Some six years pass before in 1810 she is joined by a brother named William George Armstrong. Father William is delighted and determined that his son should receive every benefit in life in order to better himself. 


At a time when education was reserved for those who could pay, his parents had him attend the local grammar school till 16 years of age. He was then sent to King James 1st Grammar School, Bishop Auckland. Nearby the school were the workshops of W. Ramshaw Engineers, which William often visited. It was here that his mechanical interests were nurtured and unbeknown to him then he would some seven or so years later return to marry William Ramshaw's daughter Margaret, who though six years his senior proved to be a constant help and support during their sixty years of happy marriage.

W. G. Armstrong
W. G. Armstrong with his Hydro-electric machine

On leaving school William's father had him articled to his solicitor friend  Armorer Donkin. There followed five years in London studying law before returning in 1833 to Newcastle to join the firm renamed Donkin, Stable and Armstrong. Hindsight allows us a wry smile as we realise the best made plans of parents are not an exact science. 


In 1835 now married, he had a house built at Jesmond Dene which lies to the east of Newcastle upon Tyne. At this time he also became a very keen angler. It was while fishing the river Dee at Dentdale in the Pennines he noticed a water wheel which was powering  machinery for a marble quarry, and realised much of the potential power was wasted. On his return he set to, designed and had constructed a water powered rotary engine. This led to the construction of a piston engine which using the excess water pressure in the lower part of the town was used to power a hydraulic crane for the loading and unloading of ships. The Corporation were impressed and three more cranes were installed on the quayside.

This success allied to his being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1846  led William to believe he could set up a successful business manufacturing cranes and other hydraulic equipment. It is worth noting that Armorer Donkin, his legal colleague supported him in his career move and provided financial backing for the enterprise. In 1847 the firm of W.G. Armstrong and Company bought 5.5 acres of land along side the river Tyne at Elswick and commenced the building of a factory there.

There appears no record of what William's father thought, but we know he was still around as he became Mayor of Newcastle in 1850. We may well conclude he had his father-in-law's approval.

By 1853 the company was producing 100 cranes per year and did so each year  for the rest of the century. Other products were made such as the hydraulic machinery for the dock gates at Grimsby.  This was followed by diversification into bridge construction.. One of the early bridge orders was from Inverness and was completed by 1855.


Armstrongs were also responsible for the development of the hydraulic accumulator and weighted hydraulic accumulator which provided the high water pressures needed for machinery in low lying places, lacking in eye appeal but a very significant invention.

Armstrong breach loadng field gun
 The Armstrong breach loading field gun    

The Crimean War in 1854 caused William to turn his mind to the improvements, which were obviously needed, to field guns. Briefly the construction of a lighter, stronger gun, breech loading and firing a shell of some 18 pounds proved to be superior to all of its rivals. William surrendered all of the patents for the gun to the British Government rather than profit from its design. In recognition he was created  a Knight Bachelor and in 1859 was presented to Queen Victoria.  


He was appointed engineer of rifled ordnance to the War Department. To avoid any conflict of interest he formed the Elswick Ordnance Company in which he had no financial interest. This company agreed to design and manufacture guns for the British Government and no other. William worked to bring the old Woolwich Arsenal up to date so that it could manufacture the Elswick guns.


As ofttimes happens when things are going well opposition arose, from inside the army, and not surprisingly from rival arms manufacturers; stirred up by a certain Joseph Whitworth of Manchester in particular. They claimed that the Elswick gun was too difficult and dangerous to use, needed frequent repairs and was too expensive. William easily refuted all criticism to government committees but found the whole process annoying and tiresome. From today's stand point how the army could in 1862 revert to muzzle loading guns beggars belief.


Eventually compensation was awarded and the freedom to sell to other governments resulted in sales to both sides of the American Civil War.

William Armstrong had a very pragmatic view regarding the decision to enter into the production of arms. ' It is our province as engineers to make the forces of matter obedient to the will of man; those who use the means we supply must be responsible for their legitimate application' 

Further expansion of the business was achieved when William reached an agreement with Charles Mitchell, a shipbuilder in Low Walker, to supply the guns fitted to the warships which they built. By 1876 Armstrongs had paid for the 18th century bridge sited between the two yards to be replaced by a swing bridge so allowing the more efficient fitting of armaments to the warships at the Elswick yard.


A merger in 1882  to form Sir William Armstrong, Mitchell and Co Ltd. resulted  two years later in a shipyard opened at Elswick specialising in warship production which eventually extended for over a mile along the river bank.  The Low Walker yard now concentrated on merchant shipbuilding.

Armstrong Mitchell Elswick shipyard 1890

Photo credit Tyne built ships

Armstrong Mitchell Elswick Shipyard. c 1890.

In 1894 Elswick built and installed the steam-driven pumping engines, hydraulic accumulators and hydraulic pumping engines to operate London's Tower Bridge.

In 1897 there was a further merger with William's old rival Joseph Whitworth 's company to become Sir W.G. Armstrong, Whitworth and Co Ltd.  Sadly this does not speak of reconciliation as Joseph had passed on by this time.

William George Armstrong's way through life had proved very successful, though in 1886 when persuaded to stand as a Unionist Liberal candidate success eluded him.  He was awarded with  several honours, including the Freedom of the City of Newcastle. In 1887 he was raised to the peerage as Baron Armstrong of Cragside in the County of Northumberland, the first engineer or scientist to be so honoured. 

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