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Walking in Lord William Armstrong’s Footsteps

James Cross and WIlliam Watson-Armstrong
By Yvonne Shannon
The Friends of Jesmond Dene

It is always a pleasure to take visitors around the Ouseburn Parks and show them the hidden places. On Wednesday 6 November 2019 it was even more of a special occasion to have William Watson-Armstrong of Bamburgh Castle join us for a walk in Jesmond Dene.

In the late 1800s Lord William Armstrong gave three parks to the people of Newcastle ‘in perpetuity’. These are Armstrong Park, Paddy Freeman’s and Jesmond Dene. Jesmond Dene became a garden created by the Armstrongs when they married in 1834 and moved into their newly built house called Jesmond Dene.

To even try to explain the extraordinary zeal of the individual inventors, scientists and the entrepreneurial acumen of the people who worked and lived near and around Lord William Armstrong is impossible, but their combined abilities contributed to the mighty Industrial Revolution and they created a true powerhouse here in the North East. He would have influenced and been influenced by George and Robert Stevenson, John and Albany Hancock, Joseph Swan, Thomas Sopworth, Andrew Noble and Isambard Kingdom Brunel to name but a few.

Starting at Millfield House, the site of a corn mill and Busy Cottage Iron Foundry, we note the sedum roof on the new section of the building and discuss how rainwater from the hill flows into tanks for use in the toilets. Lord Armstrong would have approved of all efforts at sustainability. He was a keen explorer in the search for energy sources other than fossil fuels. In the 19th century he had already calculated that “the solar heat operating on one acre in the tropics would … exert the amazing power of 4,000 horses acting for nearly nine hours every day”.  He was passionately interested in energy from water and we know that his house at Cragside was the first in the world to be powered by hydroelectricity.

In Coleman’s Field, named after the poultry farmer who last worked here and now used for picnics and events such as theatre productions, we have a grand view of the Armstrong Bridge made from wrought iron at the Elswick factory. Uniquely at that time it was designed to withstand both temperature expansion and movement from subsidence caused by old mine workings. The aesthetic appearance is likely owed to the influence of F.W. Rich, the brilliant architect employed by Lord Armstrong. From this same viewpoint could once be seen the imposing houses of St Mary’s Mount and Stotes Hall, both now demolished. Oliver Cromwell is said to have stayed at Stotes Hall on his way to Scotland and later the famous mathematician Charles Hutton who wrote an acclaimed “Treatise on Mensuration”, ran a school there.

Still following in the footsteps of Lord and Lady Armstrong we walk beside the River Ouseburn, the heart of the Dene, looking out for kingfishers, otters, and the variety of wildlife readily recognised by the Armstrongs when they lived here. The remains of a substantial mill race alongside the river belies the industrial past when the Ouseburn - the largest tributary of the Tyne - powered up to 20 watermills.

We observe from river level the magnificent Banqueting Hall built in 1860 and designed in the Italianate style by renowned architect John Dobson. Lord and Lady Armstrong would still recognise this now graceful ruin but might be a bit surprised and wonder amongst other things what had happened to their water powered organ. It is a Grade II listed building and currently a controlled ruin. Whilst many famous people and civic dignitaries where entertained here, the first event was in 1862 for the Elswick Works Literary & Mechanics Institute. The Elswick works was internationally famed for producing armaments, locomotives, ships, engines and much more. (It was here that Henry Brunel's youngest son Isambard came as an apprentice). 

We walk uphill and reach Jesmond Dene Road to enter the gatehouse designed in 1869 by architect Norman Shaw, who also designed Cragside. No one could fail to be awed by the spectacular staircase leading down into the building. The juxtaposition of design by John Dobson and Norman Shaw ensure the Banqueting Hall has a truly unique heritage.

En route to St Mary's Chapel we pass a turkey oak tree planted by the Prince and Princess of Wales when the parks were officially opened in 1884 and stand for a moment opposite Jesmond Terrace, one of the oldest dwelling sites in Jesmond. The terrace has been home to owners of Malings Pottery and Ralph Hedley, the artist and wood carver. Some of his paintings hang in the Laing Art Gallery and he was engaged by Charles Mitchell to work in his new church, St Georges.

On reaching the ruins of St Mary’s Chapel, we get a feel for this place which is still used as a site of worship. The land and chapel were bought by Lord Armstrong and given to the people at the same time as Jesmond Dene. Very little remains of the Norman building, but it is said to be the oldest church in Newcastle. It would certainly have been visited by the Armstrongs because their house Jesmond Dene, demolished in the 1930s, was close by.

The location of the entrance, i.e. the gateposts to the large drive, are still there, incorporated into the stone wall bordering Jesmond Dene Road. The lodge houses too are still standing. This is a pathway well-trodden by Lord and Lady Armstrong and we follow one of their routes back into Jesmond Dene to the Old Mill.

Three generations of the Freeman family lived and worked High Heaton Farm as well as running the mill. Our visitors can see the waterfall created by Lord Armstrong by blowing up the riverbed and the great boulder hoisted in place to form an island in the river below the Mill. The notion of a ‘woodland garden’ was a concept well known to gardeners of this time and this idea was implemented by Lord and especially Lady Armstrong in their garden design.  Lady Armstrong was helped by the Hancock brothers and employed ‘collectors’ to bring plants from around the world. A nursery set up in Jesmond Dene meant plants were propagated here to send to Cragside.

Leaving the Old Mill our next stop is Deepdene House (Fisherman’s Lodge), originally the site of a corn and then flint mill. In 1860 the house was prepared for Andrew Noble who became both manager and partner at the Elswick factory. He joined the coterie of scientists and engineers and added to the mix of bubbling ideas that buzzed around these remarkable people living in and around Jesmond Dene. His time in the Royal Artillery and research for the Royal Artillery Institution ensured his credentials for joining Armstrong were perfect. Noble was an outstanding scientist and in 1870 was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He worked with Sir Frederick Abel on improving ‘black powder’ and developing cordite. He made an electromechanical chronoscope which ultimately led to the Elswick guns becoming more powerful. After 10 years Sir Andrew and family moved to Blackdene House (Jesmond Dene House Hotel) where a laboratory was built for his experiments. His sister married the eldest son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (also Isambard) and in 1891 Celia Brunel James (granddaughter of Isambard) married Saxton William Armstrong Noble (son of Sir Andrew Noble and named for his friend and business partner Lord Armstrong.) He too was a successful engineer and worked at the Elswick factory.

Returning along the riverbank to Millfield House for lunch provided by our hosts Urban Green Newcastle - something that Lord and Lady Armstrong would have greatly approved of being themselves renowned for their hospitality - they would have been delighted to entertain their namesake here at Jesmond Dene.

We ponder on how Lord Armstrong and his fellow scientists where thinkers and doers designing solutions to overcome problems head on, they weren’t always successful and there were some failures, but Lord Armstrong's motto ‘perseverance generally prevails’ is one that still has resonance today.

  • William Armstrong was born at 6 Pleasant House on 26th November 1810
  • Married Margaret Ramshaw and moved into Jesmond Dean House built in 1834/5 built as a wedding present by William Ramshaw.
  • Having no children of their own their estate was inherited by the descendants of Armstrong’s sister Anne; on condition they take the Armstrong name hence Watson-Armstrong.
  • Knighted in 1859 after giving the patent of the Armstrong Gun to the nation
  • Peerage in 1887 and became Baron Armstrong of Cragside.
  • Bought Bamburgh Castle in 1894 and spent £1.25million on modernising the building.

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