The history of the Elswick Works is both extensive and complex with a huge expansion in both the range of activities and the workforce involved. We have therefor divided the account of the important heritage of the site into 3 sections which coincided with its change of direction and identity.
Part 1 Below - 1847 - 1882 - W.G. Armstrong & Co Ltd, Elswick Ordnance Co & W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell & Co
Whilst fishing on the River Dee at Dentdale, a 30-year old William George Armstrong noticed the use of a waterwheel driving machinery at a nearby marble quarry and from that moment on he became obsessed with obtaining the maximum power from a descending column of water.
Operating initially as the Newcastle Cranage Company, Armstrong had started an industry in which he was to become a giant, in both UK and the rest of the world.
W.G. Armstrong & Co Ltd - 1847
In 1847, he established W.G. Armstrong & Co. Ltd in 4 buildings on the banks of the Tyne in Newcastle. Years later, this site was to become more widely-known as ‘The Great Elswick Works’.
The Works were set on a 5-acre sliver of land at Elswick, near to the village of Scotswood, just 3 miles to the west of the centre of Newcastle. It is suggested that the purchase was between four and five thousand pounds, quite expensive for the day but good value considering its proximity to the North Eastern Railway line that ran between Newcastle in the east and Carlisle in the west.
At the time, it was an area of great natural beauty encompassing green fields and open spaces, leading down to the banks of the river. In the centre of the river, opposite the Works, was King's Meadows Island upon which stood a public house, the Countess of Coventry.
Armstrong had used his new engine design as the basis for the company’s first-ever hydraulic crane, a £1,000 commission for the Albert Dock in Liverpool, completed and installed on 15th May 1848.
The first workshops at Elswick were the Engine shops to the far east of what would become a massive industrial site. The Liverpool crane proved such a success that they soon started the full production of complete Armstrong hydraulic cranes which were manufactured alongside other electrical and labour- saving devices.
Hydraulic technology thus far had relied heavily on a ready supply of a head of water which would restrict its universal application.
Armstrong recognised this and took a huge leap forward in 1850 with the invention of the Hydraulic Accumulator Tower, a fine example of which sits some 300 feet high and still dominates the dockyard at Grimsby today.
The new hydraulic technology was quickly adopted for the lifting and movement of heavy cargo although with the creation of such high-pressure machinery came the challenge of reaching new standards of engineering.
Alongside a fast-growing demand from the dockyards, Armstrong expanded the business and the works and within 12 months the company had doubled in size. Amongst the initial contracts were orders for hydraulic mining machinery for use in the lead mines of Northumberland and for a hydraulic engine to power the brand-new printing press at the Newcastle Daily Chronicle.
Orders and new requirements were arriving from all over the UK and before long Elswick products were being shipped all over the world. Armstrong’s talent for turning concept into reality became much sought after and although Elswick continued to manufacture hydraulic machinery, Armstrong decided that he wanted to enter the field of armament production.
During the 1850s, Elswick engineered a revolutionary new type of field gun after the ever-inquisitive Armstrong had read of the huge loss of life during the Crimean War. He was so horrified at the plight of British soldiers reportedly ‘dragging heavy field guns’ around the Crimea that he designed a lighter, more mobile field gun with a much greater range and accuracy. He designed and patented a breech-loading gun with a strong, rifled barrel made from wrought iron, wrapped around a steel inner lining. Instead of the usual ball, the new gun fired an elongated projectile or shell that exploded on impact.
This single invention saw Elswick commissioned to supply the War Office with the new ‘Armstrong Gun’ and by 1855 they also had a new three-pounder ready for inspection by a government committee.
The gun proved successful in trials, but the committee thought a higher calibre gun was needed and so Elswick built an 18-pounder along the same design.
This was then the start of a whole range of ordnance produced at Elswick.
Having gained the necessary forging and metal working skills, the company also branched out into bridge building with one of its first orders being for the Inverness Bridge, which was completed in record time.
They also scored early export successes in this area and built the new Koilwar Bridge over the river Sone, commissioned by the East India Railway Company.
The bridge (now known as the Abdul Bari Bridge) was produced in prefabricated sections at Elswick during 1856 before being shipped, eventually installed and completed in 1862.
At 1,440 metres long, it carried both road and rail traffic between Delhi and Calcutta and became a major tourist attraction of the day.
Meanwhile, back in the United Kingdom, William Armstrong had been coerced to surrender his revolutionary gun patents to the Government in exchange for a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1859.
Hydraulic power was being applied to all sorts of technologies at Elswick such as high-powered engines operating enormous lock gates, as well as huge capacity dock hoists, lifting platforms for construction, mining machinery and of course swing bridges. Even where an existing head of water was not readily available, Armstrong’s hydraulic accumulator tower was introduced to provide the necessary resource whilst his invention of the ‘hydraulic jigger’ further increased the capabilities of his machinery.
During its first 3 years of operation, the Elswick workforce had numbered just 300 people, producing around 45 cranes per annum. Within 15 years however, it was building 100 mammoth-sized cranes a year and employed more than 3,800 local people.
Elswick Ordnance Company - 1859
Elswick Ordnance Company (also known as Elswick Ordnance Works or simply EOC) had been originally created in 1859, to separate Armstrong’s armaments business from his other commercial interests. The intention was to avoid any ‘conflict of interest’ because at the time, William Armstrong had been appointed as the Chief Engineer of Rifled Ordnance, working on behalf of the War Office.
Conversely, the Elswick Ordnance Company’s main customer was the British government.
Unfortunately, the government abandoned all Armstrong designed guns during the mid-1860s due to ‘a dissatisfaction’ with Armstrong’s breech mechanism. Instead, they decided to build their own rifled muzzle-loaders at Woolwich Arsenal (Woolwich guns), a policy which obviously Armstrong strongly disagreed with.
Despite rumours to the contrary, Armstrong held no financial interest in the Elswick Ordnance although many were not surprised when he left government service in 1864.
Free of the constraints of government regulation, the Elswick Ordnance Company was consequently amalgamated with the main Armstrong businesses (Sir W.G. Armstrong & Company) although it retained its own trading name as the Armaments Manufacturing Division for many years to come.
With the loss of government work, Elswick Ordnance Company were forced to survive solely on export orders for both muzzle-loaders and breech-loaders.
However, in the 1880s, the government once again began purchasing Elswick-built guns. This time they ordered rifled breech-loaders with a much more robust interrupted screw-breech mechanism, such as that used in the French ‘de Bange system’ and its successors.
When, in 1862, the government ended its contract with the Elswick Works for the 12-pounder Armstrong Gun & Carriage, Armstrong 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’. Although controversial to some, he was in effect declaring that as an engineer, he had the right to develop products and then to sell them to whoever wished to use them within the law. Subsequently, Armstrong went on to sell armaments indiscriminately to foreign countries which, although never popular, ensured business continuity following such a serious blow that may have damaged many stronger men and their companies.
As the business flourished, the Elswick Works became one of the most important employers on Tyneside, with William Armstrong taking his responsibilities very seriously.
He developed and encouraged good quality housing for his workers, both close to the factories as well as throughout the areas to the north of Newcastle.
He had amassed great wealth from his engineering success and became a major supporter to his native Newcastle. He strongly believed in education, founding the Literary and Mechanics Institute and creating a Lecture Hall at the Literary and Philosophical Society.
Despite all this benevolence, he was disappointed when the workers at Elswick joined with other manual workers from other northern engineering factories in the ‘Nine-Hours Strike’ of 1871 which campaigned for a shorter working day (no longer than 9-hour shifts worked almost every day of the week).
Armstrong, along with other business owners, presented 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 employees. The strike continued for fourteen weeks before the company owners succumbed to the pressure.
The use of the Tyne for shipping and transportation was opened further when the River Tyne Commissioners agreed to demolish the old stone bridge over the Tyne.
It was always too low to allow the passage of large ships and it was replaced with a swing bridge, paid for by the Armstrong Company. Pivoting around on a central pier, the swing bridge provided access to the yard for large ships, as and when required.
Opening to road traffic on 15th June 1876, it was significant as the first bridge of its kind in the world.
Notably, the mechanism was powered by Armstrong hydraulic technology and despite the bridge weighing over 1,450 tons, it moved ‘as quietly and apparently as easily as a parlour door upon its hinges’ and it soon became something of a tourist attraction and one of the sights of Newcastle.
The opening of the swing bridge and shipment of the 100-ton gun saw the Elswick Works grow further and it soon began to win large orders to produce even larger-sized guns for warships.
One major landmark in the history of the Elswick Works was the manufacture and shipping of one of the immense 100-ton guns to Italy. The Italian cargo ship Europa was the first vessel to pass through the new swing bridge on 17th July 1876 and as if to emphasise the worldwide spread of Armstrong technology, upon its arrival in Italy the gun was unloaded using an Elswick-built 180-ton hydraulic crane, the largest lifting machine of its type in the world.
During the American Civil War Elswick had the unusual distinction of supplying weapons to both sides of the conflict. This was something which saw great publicity in 1877, especially when the retired US President Ulysses S Grant stopped off at Elswick to view the huge guns in production on the banks of the Tyne. A worse-for-wear ex-president (who by then had served 2 terms) was due to lay the foundation stone at a new museum in Sunderland.
Unfortunately, Grant was exhausted after travelling to visit his daughter in Belgium and so the audience had to be content with an arm waving out of a coach door. The resulting inscription read that the building had been ‘Opened by the Mayor in his presence’.
In the Summer of 1880, Armstrong presented the landscaped park of Jesmond Dene as a gift for the benefit of the inhabitants of Newcastle, with an additional gift of land in 1883. The park, initially known as Armstrong Park, was officially opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales during their visit to Newcastle in 1884.
In addition to Jesmond Dene, Armstrong also gifted two other amenities in nearby Paddy Freeman’s Park and Armstrong Park, in South Heaton and all three exist today as both scenes of tranquility with waterwheels and streams and fascinating historic trails.
The arrival of Captain Andrew Noble at Elswick gave rise to the consideration of the further development of its artillery business beyond the simple manufacture of shell and bomb casings. Noble's knowledge of a new type of slow burning powder showed the way towards the introduction of ballistics and explosive products at Scotswood which proved successful when demonstrated to the government in April 1877.
By now the company had gone public and as such it received a large financial boost. This allowed it to open its own steel works in 1883 under Colonel Dyer and employing a work force of over 1,500 alone.
During the 1870s, William Armstrong had developed a close relationship with shipbuilder Charles Mitchell whose company was based at Low Walker, a shipyard some 15 miles downriver from Elswick.
Mitchell had set up his yard in 1852 where he built many merchant vessels. Included in his customer portfolio was a large number of vessels built for the Russian Government and with whom he had a very close relationship. William Armstrong had long wanted to enter the warship market as a means of promoting his large calibre naval guns, but he had been frustrated at Elswick because of a low multi-arch bridge across the Tyne.
With Mitchell & Co already building hulls for the warships, Armstrong decided that if he were to supply naval ships fully ready for action (where every component: hull, engines, armour, guns and hydraulic operating machinery had been made and designed by his own factories) he needed to fully expand into shipbuilding.
To achieve this, the two companies merged in 1882 to form W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell & Company which is described in Part 2.
Elswick Image Gallery - Pt 1
Elswick Works 1890
Armstrong Water Pressure Engine 1866
Armstrong Quick Fire Gun
|1847||Elswick Works opened as W.G. Armstrong & Company Ltd|
|1859||Elswick Ordnance Company formed|
|1882||W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell & Company|
|1897||Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Company Ltd|
|1979||Elswick Works finally closed and buildings demolished|