Meet the Armstrongs
Cragside was created by two remarkable individuals, Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong.
The marriage of Lord and Lady Armstrong was very much a partnership. Lord William Armstrong had a passion for efficiency, innovation and engineering, while Lady Margaret Armstrong - the daughter to an engineer - had a love for natural sciences as well as the foresight and vision to design the estate that transformed a once baron heathland into the rocky landscape we know today.
Who was William Armstrong?
William George Armstrong (1810-1900) is one of Britain's least celebrated geniuses. He was a visionary inventor, engineer and businessman. Owner of the Elswick Works in Newcastle, in its heyday it employed more than 25,000 people in the manufacture of hydraulic cranes, ships and armaments.
Armstrong built Newcastle's Swing Bridge and the hydraulic mechanism that operates London's Tower Bridge. Cragside was not his first attempt at landscaping and architecture. Located in the heart of Newcastle, Jesmond Dene, a steep-sided valley cut by the meandering Ouseburn, was given to the Armstrong’s as a wedding gift and was the couple’s first attempt at landscaping and large-scale planting. They shaped the valley and enhanced its natural features, creating what would become a model for Cragside which he later gifted to the city as a public park which is still open and widely used today.
Despite these accomplishments, Lord Armstrong did not start his professional career as an engineer. As a young adult, Armstrong was a solicitor and practised for 14 years while delving into the world of mechanics in his spare time.
When not dealing with disputes about tenure, Armstrong devoted himself to electrical experimentation, which he later described as his 'first love' - and about which he corresponded with Michael Faraday, whose revolutionary discoveries had laid the foundations for the practical use of electricity. Armstrong created a 'hydraulic machine' to demonstrate the generation of electricity by friction; it emitted sparks more than a foot long and was put on show in 1843 at the London Polytechnic where is attracted large crowds.
The land which later formed what we know as the Cragside estate was not stumbled upon by chance. William was familiar with the area and as a young boy Lord Armstrong visited neighbouring Rothbury and would fish in The Coquet which runs through the estate. Here he stayed with Armorer Donkin, a Newcastle solicitor and wealthy bachelor who also kept an estate in Jesmond.
Who was Lady Armstrong?
Margaret Armstrong (1817-1893) was the daughter of William Ramshaw, an owner of an engineering works in Bishop Auckland. While William Armstrong had been attending boarding school in the town, he was a frequent visitor at the works. This is where he met Margaret – she had a keen interest in her father’s work and warm rapport developed between the two young people. Almost a decade later, William and Margaret married on 21 April 1835.
Less is known about Lady Armstrong but we do know that she had a keen interest in gardening, flora and fauna, much of Cragside’s landscape by her, as it had been at the couple's first home, Jesmond Dene.
While Lord Armstrong had a passion for efficiency and engineering, Lady Armstrong led the way in creating a series of natural ‘rooms’ across the estate with a forward-thinking vision that would in-time transform the land into a woodland of over 7 million trees, including the Pinetum - which today is home to some of the tallest conifers in the UK, the creation of a colourful Formal Garden with an impressive Orchard House.
Lady Armstrong had a love of natural sciences; geology, botany and horticulture. The House was filled with over 7000 collected shells and an array of specimen cabinets. This interest in nature and wildlife influenced the interior design of the House including the William Morris wallpapers, the dainty sunflower designs on knives and forks, animal and insect wood carvings on dado rails and the ornate leafy tiles which line the hallways.
Helping the local community
Throughout her life Lady Margaret worked tirelessly to improve education and healthcare, taking a particular interest in a local sick children’s hospital where she donated a lot of her own money. She also worked with deaf, blind, and women’s charities to name a few. A newspaper obituary noted “during her long lifetime Lady Armstrong became as distinguished for her modesty and generosity as her husband. She was a cheerful helper in all efforts of a charitable or philanthropic character.”
An independent lady
When her husband was away on business or busy working, Lady Margaret carved a life out for herself. Having a close circle of friends around her, she would throw parties with music, dancing and games, or would take regular trips to London to see exhibitions, concerts and the opera. Lady Margaret was a spirited person in her own right, taking great interest in many things beyond home life.