The Great Elswick Works

The newly-formed W.G. Armstrong & Co. began production at the Elswick Works on 1st October 1847. Their first order came from Jesse Hartley, the engineer at the Albert Dock in Liverpool and, as the hydraulic technology was adapted to other types of machinery, the business grew from strength to strength. The firm's contracts included manufacturing hydraulic mining machinery for the lead mines at Allenheads in Northumberland and a hydraulic engine for operating the printing press at the Newcastle Daily Chronicle. 6

Orders were received from all over the country, and then from all over the world. The business evolved through many incarnations over the decades, continuing to manufacture hydraulic machinery but also entering the field of armament production and, later, ship building, becoming widely-known as "The Great Elswick Works".

Elswick's Early Days

Detail from Plan of the River Tyne by I.T.W BellThis detail from a map dated 1849 shows the Elswick Works two years after their establishment. The Works were set in 5.5 acres of land on the estate of Elswick near to the village of Scotswood, just to the west of Newcastle.

At the time of the factory's establishment the area was a spot of great natural beauty, encompassing green fields and open spaces leading down to the banks of the Tyne. The centre of the river opposite the works was occupied by King's Meadows island upon which, amongst other things, was situated a public house, the Countess of Coventry.

Growth & Expansion

Detail from Ordnance Survey Map, Newcastle and Gateshead, 1898In this map from 1898, two years before Armstrong's death and over fifty years since the Elswick Works were first founded, the expansion of the factory site can be clearly seen, along with its effects on the surrounding area, with the appearance of densely packed rows of workmen's houses and the disappearance of King's Meadows island, which was removed by the Tyne Commissioners to allow the passage of large ships to and from the Elswick Works and other factories.

 

The Armstrong Gun

Watercolour sketch depicting the testing of an early Armstrong Gun at Allenheads in Northumberland on 23rd June 1856In the 1850s, Armstrong moved into the field of armament production when he developed a revolutionary new type of field gun in response to the high loss of life experienced during the Crimean War and was subsequently commissioned to supply the War Office with the new gun. The Armstrong Gun carried crucial innovations, including the ability to breech-load and the use of elongated lead projectiles instead of cast iron balls as ammunition.

Photograph of Armstrong (right) with Thomas SopwithArmstrong carried out the testing of his gun on the moors at Allenheads in Northumberland where his close friend and fellow engineer Thomas Sopwith was the chief agent for W.B. Lead Mines. Sopwith's journal accounts (available on microfilm) are a valuable window onto some of the key events and moments in Armstrong's life.

Of his friend Sopwith wrote:

"I have had many opportunities of witnessing his devotion to Science and his marvellous aptitude in adapting the power of natural forces to any required mechanical purpose". 7


Sopwith's journal includes an account of the Armstrong Gun Trials, and he accompanied his account with a lively watercolour sketch of the occasion.

International arms dealer

The 12-pounder Armstrong gun & carriageWhen in 1862 the government ended its contract with the Elswick Works, Armstrong went on to sell armaments indiscriminately to foreign countries. Although this seemed controversial to some, Armstrong felt justified in doing so. He reasoned that:

"it is in our province, as engineers, to make the forces of matter obedient to the will of man; and those who use the means we supply must be responsible for their legitimate application". 8

Many agreed and appreciated his achievements but Armstrong's contribution to developing the tools of warfare would cast an inevitable shadow over his otherwise bright memory. Upon his death in 1900, the Newcastle Daily Chronicle remarked:

"There is something that appals the imagination in the application of a cool and temperate mind like Lord Armstrong's to the science of destruction." 9


Although later in its existence Armstrong took less of a personal involvement in the day-to-day running of the business, he was fiercely proud of the Elswick Works and what he had achieved there. During the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to Newcastle in 1884 he stated that:

"an inspection of our places of industry which omits a view of the Elswick Works is rather like the play of Hamlet, with the part of the prince left out".10

 

Armstrong the employer

As the business flourished and grew, Armstrong became an important employer on Tyneside. He took his responsibilities as an employer seriously and concerned himself with the welfare of his workers, founding a Literary and Mechanics Institute for them as well as a school. However, workers at Elswick joined with workers from other factories in the Nine Hours' Strike in 1871, campaigning for a shorter working day. In common with other employers, Armstrong took a firm stance against the striking workers, and was viewed by many as being a cold, remote figure who was out of touch with his workers.

In a pamphlet published by the Nine Hours' Movement, which details the dialogue between the employers, represented by Armstrong, and their workers during the strike, some of Armstrong's letters to the workers are reprinted in full. In one such letter, Armstrong wrote:

"However desirable a reduction in the hours of labour may be, the decision of the question must rest on commercial, and not sentimental considerations." 11

 

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