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History of Cragside

An elevated view of the decorative exterior of the house at Cragside
The decorative exterior of Cragside House | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Cragside's house and estate was created by a remarkable couple, Lord William and Lady Margaret Armstrong. William was a visionary Victorian inventor while Margaret was a keen gardener. The couple's passions for engineering and natural sciences are reflected across the estate even today. Rising from an outcrop of rocks and surrounded by towering trees, Cragside is a masterpiece of the late 19th century.

Meet the Armstrongs

Lord William Armstrong and Lady Margaret Armstrong married in 1835 and their marriage was a real partnership. William had a passion for efficiency, innovation and engineering while Margaret had a love for natural sciences.

William Armstrong

William George Armstrong, (1810-1900), is one of Britain's least-celebrated geniuses. He was a visionary inventor, engineer and businessman.

He owned the Elswick Works in Newcastle, which employed more than 25,000 people in its heyday. It manufactured hydraulic cranes, ships and armaments.

William built Newcastle's Swing Bridge and the hydraulic mechanism that operates the Tower Bridge in London.

Painting of William Armstrong, 1st Lord Armstrong of Cragside, by Mary Lemon Waller (1871–1916) signed and dated 1898 at Cragside, Northumberland
1st Lord Armstrong by Mary Lemon Waller | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Becoming an engineer

As a young adult, William started his career as a solicitor. He practised for 14 years but delved into the world of mechanics in his spare time.

He created a 'hydraulic machine' to demonstrate the generation of electricity by friction, which emitted sparks more than one foot long. It was put on show at the London Polytechnic in 1843 where it attracted large crowds.

Jesmond Dene, Newcastle

Cragside was not William's first attempt at landscaping and architecture. The Armstrongs were given Jesmond Dene in Newcastle as a wedding gift.

A steep sided valley cut by the meandering Ouseburn, this was the couple's first attempt at landscaping and large-scale planting. They shaped the valley and enhanced its natural features, creating what became a model for Cragside.

Discovering Cragside

William didn't stumble across the land that later formed the Cragside estate by chance. He was familiar with the area, having visited nearby Rothbury as a child and even fished in the Coquet River that runs through the estate.

Lady Armstrong

Margaret Armstrong, (1817-93), was the daughter of William Ramshaw, who owned an engineering works in Bishop Auckland. William Armstrong was a frequent visitor to the works while he attended a local boarding school.

This is how Margaret met her future husband. He had a keen interest in her father's work and warm rapport developed between the two. William and Margaret married almost a decade later on 21 April 1835.

A keen gardener

Less is known about Margaret, but she had a keen interest in gardening, flora and fauna. She led the way in creating a series of natural 'rooms' across the Cragside estate, with a forward-thinking vision that in time transformed the land.

She also had the foresight and vision to transform a once barren heathland into the rocky landscape we know today.

Charitable work

Margaret worked tirelessly to improve education and healthcare throughout her life. She took a particular interest in a local children's hospital, where she donated a lot of her own money.

She also helped several other charities, including deaf, blind and women's charities.

'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'

- A newspaper obituary on Lady Armstrong

Staying entertained

Margaret had a close circle of friends. She threw parties with music, dancing and games, and took regular trips to London to see exhibitions, concerts and the opera.

Margaret Ramshaw Armstrong (1807–1893), a portrait by Henry Hetherington Emmerson at Cragside, Northumberland.
Margaret Armstrong by Henry Hetherington Emmerson | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Creating Cragside House

Cragside house sits on a rocky outcrop surrounded by trees. It's a true masterpiece of late 19th-century architecture. Lord and Lady Armstrong were a visionary couple and commissioned the era-defining architect Norman Shaw to create their dream home.

The house in an Arts and Crafts style has homely comforts with innovative design and domestic amenities. All this reflected the romance of the past and the modernism of technology.

How the house developed

The Armstrongs and Shaw worked to extend Cragside over 25 years. Originally a modest fishing lodge, they transformed it into a fantasy castle of luxury and convenience.

The first house at Cragside was relatively modest, with only two storeys. It was a picturesque house rather than a grand country house. Its interiors were homely and conventional, decorated with wallpaper and catalogue furniture.

A touch of luxury

As the house was extended certain marvels were installed, such as a plunge bath and a central heating system. Dramatic turrets and towers were also added.

Inside, the interiors were lavish combinations of exotic fabrics, gothic carving and pre-Raphaelite stained glass. An extensive gallery housed natural history specimens and contemporary art.

Entertaining dignitaries

As William's business successes grew, Cragside became a place for entertaining foreign dignitaries.

Shaw's final additions to the house included the Owl Suite. This was a bedroom fit for royal visitors and a drawing room with a 10-tonne marble fireplace built into the crag face itself.

Innovative additions

The house's technical wonders were equally as impressive as its architecture and made possible by William's experiments with hydroelectricity.

These included a hydraulic lift, water-powered spit and, most brilliantly, electric light. Cragside was a home that dazzled all who visited and set the standard for modern living.

To this day, Cragside uses a hydroelectric system. In 2014 the National Trust installed an Archimedes Screw, which uses water from Tumbleton Lake.

As water passes through the spiral blades, the screw turns and harnesses the energy of the falling water. The electricity produced lights the whole house, and any surplus goes to the National Grid.

Many electric pendant lights powered by hydroelectricity at Cragside, Northumberland.

Cragside's collections

Explore the objects and works of art we care for at Cragside on the National Trust Collections website.

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