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Review of the Legacies of Lord Armstrong

Review of the Legacies of Lord Armstrong

19 October 2021

​On 14 July 2020, a Vice Chancellor's Review Group (VCRG) was convened to deliver a report on the historic legacies of William George, 1st Baron Armstrong (1820-1900) and their implications for Newcastle University​ - an organisation committed to social justice and race equality. Lord Armstrong was a prominent scientific and business figure in late nineteenth-century Newcastle and a significant contributor to some of the university's historic colleges. In 1887, he laid the foundation stone for the College of Sciences that, following his death, was renamed the Armstrong Building in his honour.

In the aftermath of George Floyd's murder on 25 May 2020, growing concerns were being raised within and beyond the University that Lord Armstrong had sold weapons to the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861 - 1865). In response, the VCRG was convened, meeting 11 times between July and November 2020 with members including the NUSU President, its Welfare & Equality Officer, and colleagues drawn from across our faculties and job families. The group carried out and discussed historical research into Lord Armstrong and his legacies, situating their findings in relation to current debates.

The VCRG concluded there was no evidence that Lord Armstrong and his companies attempted large-scale or systematic arming of the Confederacy, nor that he or his companies endorsed slavery or racism. Rather, it was found that Lord Armstrong's own political position was one of genteel distaste for slavery, typical of the moderate, liberal, and traditionally abolitionist circles in which he moved in Newcastle. However, in the context of current debate, the VCRG report also noted that his companies sold weapons globally, not just for the defence of Britain, but also to a variety of empires and states, including many beyond Europe. The weapons were used in a number of imperial and colonial projects and were, undoubtedly, both deadly and widely symbolic of often oppressive imperial and colonial order.

While the initial focus of the VCRG was to consider the Armstrong Legacy, the process allowed us to think more widely about our campus' history and the lack of diversity in on-campus representation. The group recommended several actions, including that an audit should be carried out of symbols of imperialism and colonialism on our UK campus and estates. The group suggested that students, colleagues, and partners beyond the university should work together to prepare highly visible and durable information boards, with links to more detailed online resources, to encourage balanced, well-informed, and critically minded reflection on such symbols' uncomfortable and contested histories and legacies. The group hope that such stimuli to debate will help turn mute historic symbols into prompts for lively discussion of the past, the present, and the future.

The VCRG's report was submitted to the University's Executive Board (EB) in December 2020 and, alongside EB's response​ , it was subsequently discussed at, and welcomed by, Senate, Council, and our Race Equality Charter Self-Assessment Team (REC SAT) meetings​. As a result of work that was already progressing at the time of the report's submission, significant steps are being taken that chime with its recommendations. Currently, five REC SAT workstreams are helping to prepare the university's application for a Race Equality Charter bronze award in July 2022 and one of those teams focuses on 'Campus & Estates'. That group has begun an on-going project that will audit symbols of imperialism and colonialism with the intention of installing contextualising information panels that will include QR codes via which smart phone users can access additional information online.

Supported by university funding and a Steering Group, a Newcastle University postgraduate project entitled Armstrong: the Biography of a Building is currently underway as part of the REC SAT 'Estates & Campus' group's work. This project will inform larger University wide efforts that will make more of our built environment as a rich resource for promoting critical engagement with the world we all share. Such endeavors will complement those planned by Newcastle City Council to add interpretation panels to the Lord Armstrong statue beside the Great North Museum: Hancock and the nearby Boer War Memorial beside Haymarket. Collectively, these are all small but significant steps towards creating a city and a university that are ever more welcoming, inclusive, and open to brave debate.

Professor Julie Sanders, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, Co-Chair of the Race Equality Self-Assessment Team

Professor Richard Clay, School of Arts and Cultures, Chair of the VCRG

Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences