Bernard Porter looks at the Victorian capitalist who made his fortune from dealing in weapons of war and constructed a Northumberland haven with the proceeds.
Cragside, near Rothbury in Northumberland, is a magnificent Victorian pile. For once ‘pile’ seems entirely appropriately. From most aspects Cragside looks a mass, a jumble, rather than a single integrated building. It has a wonderful skyline, a superb setting, magnificent rooms, and some delectable details, but little apparent architectural logic or unity. Even if we did not know we would probably guess that it was the house of a bourgeois, without any particular artistic typical manifestations of the process known as middle-class ‘gentrification’ in the nineteenth century; the home of a self-made manufacturer who, by dint of his wealth and the use he made of it, became a lord.
William Armstrong's career is almost a paradigm of Victorian capitalism. Its early stages have a Smile-sean quality about them. (Samuel Smiles was the great Victorian apostle of 'self-help', and author of numerous Lives of the Engineers). Armstrong was not entirely self-made, of course: very few successful men ever are; but his initial progress from ordinary middle-class comfort to wealth and fame as an innovative builder of cranes and bridges owed much to his personal initiative, self-education and hard effort. He was fascinated by the sciences of electricity and hydraulics, on which he used to deliver 'experimental lectures' at his local Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society conversazioni in the 1840s, on one occasion 'galvanizing the ladies' according to a contemporary report, quite literally.