Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald


Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald

Country Life, 16 February 2011
By Amicia de Moubray

Biography William Armstrong, Magician of the North
Henrietta Heald (Northumbria Press, £18)
Published autumn 2010
ISBN 978-1-904794-49-3

Our late-19th-century forebears would be astonished to know that the Tyneside industrialist William Armstrong, later Baron Armstrong of Cragside, is today a relatively obscure name. Only to architectural historians is he still well known-as the owner of Norman Shaw's Cragside, the first house to be lit by hydroelectricity. Armstrong was later also responsible for restoring that iconic image of the Northumberland coastal landscape, Bamburgh Castle, a project he embarked on at the age of 83. A Fellow of the Royal Society at 35, he was fascinated by water and mechanics. Nothing gave him more pleasure than taking old spinning wheels and other domestic implements to pieces and constructing mechanical devices. Armstrong was fortunate to have been born in Newcastle, a hotbed of intellectual fervour at the time. Henrietta Heald vividly brings to life the activities of The Literary & Philosophical Society (Country Life, January 5), founded by an educational pioneer, the Rev William Turner, in 1793. Turner instigated a popular series of lectures on 'natural and experimental philosophy' that would continue without a break for 30 years. The Society was the first organisation of its kind to admit women, and in 1845, Armstrong demonstrated a model of his hydraulic crane at a meeting. These cranes were to be the foundation of his works at Elswick, established in 1847, which, by his death in 1900, had become a global shipbuilding empire, employing nearly 25,000 people. The Swing Bridge in Newcastle still uses the hydraulic machinery installed by Armstrong, as does London's Tower Bridge.

Armstrong was also an arms dealer, and the industrial giant he created on Tyneside was intricately bound up with the British Empire. The author believes that this, together with the post-Darwinian perception of scientists as 'subversive, even potentially dangerous', is why he has been 'airbrushed out of history'.

The first engineer and one of the first scientists to be raised to the peerage (he was knighted after presenting his gun patents to the government in 1859), Armstrong deserves to be recognised as one of the titans of the 19th century. This extensively researched book should do much to readdress the balance.

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