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I serendipitously discovered Cragside, Sir William's house, via the Open University back in the 1980s.

In the late 1980s, OU programmes used to play on BBC2 in a two hour block during Saturday mornings. Having accidentally discovered that some of these programmes could be really interesting, even to a casual viewer, I took to recording them each week so that I might have something interesting to watch when I got home from work in the week (yes, prime-time TV was pretty patchy then, too!).

One of the series I hoovered up in this way were the programmes that went with a course called "Arts Foundation (A102)" - all about the appreciation of art & architecture. One of the episodes I captured (and I still have it, transferred to DVD in all its VHS wobbliness!) was about the contents, the creation and the background of William Armstrong's magnificent creation on the Northumberland moorland, Cragside. Fascinated by this isolated, yet highly advanced and quirky house, I watched it over and over again.

It wasn't long before I dragged the family up north on a visit to see Cragside (a National Trust property for several decades now) for real. Ever since then, we have visited periodically: Visits which refresh the soul and reaffirm the belief that man can shape nature in a sympathetic and mutually beneficial way. It's easy to see why Armstrong was able to entertain royalty of all nations at the estate - it was and is, a wonder of the world.

Being a massive fan of Cragside of course leads one to a certain curiosity about its creator. - but I was frustrated that (even in the Cragside gift shop) there was only one very slim volume summarising William Armstrong's life and achievements. I knew from comments made by Colin Cunningham - the historian and Victorian architecture specialist, presenter of the "Arts Foundation" video series - that there must be a great deal more to tell. I vaguely wondered about doing some further research, but never did.

Then came news of this book, which I purchased as soon as possible. I was not disappointed!

Henrietta Heald has done a terrific job of putting together a cohesive and compelling narrative of William Armstrong's life and times. One shares her obvious respect for his ability to continually innovate new solutions. She shows how he used his engineering momentum to gain ever greater success and move into ever higher circles of society - whilst still remaining firmly rooted in reality and the sources of his success. His almost lifelong philanthropy and belief in education as a way of drawing all levels of society upwards is something that was somewhat ahead of its time, and even when (as he saw it) the working men turned on him by striking for fewer hours and better conditions, he still felt able to continue with his philanthropic works - albeit I think at a slightly more muted level.

His prescience in looking ahead in detail to a post-coal era was, again, very much ahead of the herd and was doubtless informed by his fascination with electricity. Although his wealth was established through innovating solutions based on hydraulic power, he also dabbled with other new forms of energy and power, famously electric lighting Cragside using hydro power from lakes he had created in the high ground around the house. Tellingly, as an old man, he said that if he had his time over again he would have placed a greater concentration on developing electric powered machines.

William seems to have had only a passing interest in politics, although he did serve as a government official for armaments for a time, and did once stand (unsuccessfully) for parliament. However, he seems to have had a distaste for achieving success via political means, always preferring to play to his strengths by out-engineering or out-competing his rivals and confounding his critics by making new or unlikely things work, and work well. He was, in this sense, a very modern man. He was, perhaps, one of the first to show that by being a prince of engineering and innovation it was possible to circumvent the norms of the British class system. It's a notion that we have all grown up with now, but then it was quite a new one.

Our modern world of instant news and ultra-realistic movie storytelling gives us intimate and horrific knowledge of what armaments can do to those on whom they are used. This naturally heightens our distaste for those who deal in arms and weapons. William Armstrong's wealth was, in large part, derived from being what the author calls 'the first international arms dealer'. Undoubtedly this makes us look at his wealth and his chosen field for the application of his talents as somewhat blood-tainted - and it's right that we should do so. One can't help but wonder what he would have made possible if he had totally applied his gifts in other directions. However, in mitigation we should bear in mind that a significant minority of his work was indeed applied to peaceful purposes, also, from what we read in this book, Armstrong himself doesn't seem to have been particularly warmongering or aggressive in either his views or his personality.

Sir William and his wife Margaret (Meggie) were never able to have any children: History seems not to record the reason - and why should it? Although their childless state seems to have been a great sadness to them both, one doesn't get the sense from Henrietta's book that this was a debilitating sadness, they simply seem to have lavished all the more affection on their several homes, and on children in their extended families: Indeed, quite a lot of the inheritance left by the Armstrongs went to their favourites among those children.

In all, the book gives a wonderful picture of Sir William's life and - so far as is possible from this distance of time - his personality. There are pictures in the book, some old photos and portraits - as well as the places that the Armstrongs created or enhanced (though not enough, for me, of Cragside!). The book is very readable and as one of the quoted reviews says, it brings Sir William back to life for us. I say it's a crime that he was ever forgotten.

A well researched, well written, well thought out and highly recommended book.

Alan T

See Also:

Emperor of Industry: Lord Armstrong of Cragside
W.G. Armstrong: The Life and Times of Sir William George Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Cragside
22 comments|25 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on 2 December 2010
Draws you into the world of engineering, politics and arms sales of the time

A must for any researcher but also a very good read to understand the drivers and pitfalls for self made captains of industry during this period of fast expansion of engineering.

Successful engineers of this era were only a small group but have set a precedent for success in big business up to the present day

Congratulations to Henrietta Heald
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on 2 December 2010
This is a well researched and very readable account of a remarkable man who was a pivotal figure in the industrial revolution. Given Armstrong's contributions to fields as diverse as hydraulics, shipbuilding, locomotives, guns, architecture and electric light it is extraordinary that he is not more well known. Fascinating!
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on 31 August 2014
Bought as a gift for my husband to read on holiday he found it very interesting with lots of information.We had to go back for another visit to Cragside,It also rekindled his interest in Vickers Armstrongs factories along Scotswood Road which he remembered from his childhood. William Armstrong was a very clever man ahead of his time Would highly recommend this book.
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on 16 May 2014
Henrietta Heald's account of William Armstrong's life is beautifully-written and magisterial in managing to encompass the events and thinking of the time. Armstrong has not had the recognition he deserves. He was a visionary genius. Henrietta Heald does him proud!
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on 2 December 2010
Although I am only a third the way through this biography I can say without reservation that it is the best 'life of Armstrong' I have delved into to date. At present the only other histories in print of this great man I am aware of are 'Arms and the Man' and 'Emporer of Industry' both small booklets. The more substantial works 'WG Armstrong' and 'The Great Gunmaker' are only available on the used market at inflated prices. If you just want one history of this other great Son of Newcastle this is it, it is in my view the best.
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on 21 March 2013
The book is very well researched but it is very heavy reading . There is a lot of detail which you have to plough through. I got lost trying to filter out his engineering achievments. Would not reccommend. Print is very small. Plates were disappointing.
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on 15 June 2011
It is astonishing that a pioneer like William Armstrong is not a household name, in every household. We are rarely informed of his groundbreaking, and sometimes controversial, feats.
However, Henrietta Heald's biography, William Armstrong, Magician of the North, has brought his infamy back into the perspective.
This is a thoroughly researched and evenly-balanced text which depicts every aspect of Armstrong's life and work, some of which may come as a surprise to people unfamiliar with his numerous leaps in invention.
I highly recommend this book to everyone, so that his memory can be restored to its rightful place.
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on 7 April 2013
Having seen a little about Cragside on a TV programme (Renovation Man?) and having never heard of Armstrong I decided I wanted to find out about him and his engineering works. I liked the book very much, I liked how the links were established between family and friends, the circles that people move in. One very tiny criticism and it's very much subjective is that I would have liked a little more detail about how the inventions actually worked, the mechanics of them. But forget that it's a very good book.
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on 26 February 2013
Magic to read such a wonderful piece of important history.
Should be part of school curriculum in the UK at least.
Very readable style and great to read the older use of English in the many excerpts of letters and reports from the time.
I have an affinity for older engineering feats - especailly by the untrained.
Willaim Armstrong was fortunate enough to be able to transpose himslelf from an imposed legal career to engineering.
I was not so lucky and am still an accountant.
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