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 therefore divided the account of the important heritage of the site into 3 sections which coincided with its change of direction and identity.
Part 2 Below - 1882 - 1928 - W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell & Company, Sir W.G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd
W. G. Armstrong, Mitchell and Co - 1882
Upon formation of the company William Armstrong recruited one of the Chief Designers of the popular Naval Cruiser, William Henry White (later Sir William Henry White).
White left the Admiralty to become Chief Design Manager at Armstrong, Mitchell & Co and was put in charge of the new Warship Yard at Elswick. White was directly involved in both the development of the designs and the recruitment of the improved skills required at the new yard.
White’s tenure was short-lived however, as he left the company in 1885 to return to the Admiralty, this time in the elevated position of Director of Naval Construction.
White was succeeded in 1885 by Mr Philip Watts, (again soon to be knighted) who served as Director of the Warship construction at the company until 1901.
Notably, it appeared to be becoming something of a tradition as Watts also left to become Director of Naval Construction at the Admiralty, a post filled by former Elswick senior staff for the next 37 years.
Charles Mitchell himself died in August 1895, aged 75 years, which was a shock to Armstrong as despite his age he was still very active, attending the yard every day. Towards the end of his life he played little part in the day-to-day running of the yards although as Head of the Armstrong Shipyard he still had an enormous influence on the business strategy of the company.
The first vessel to be produced and launched at Elswick was the SMS Panther, a torpedo cruiser for the Austro-Hungarian Navy designed by William White and launched in 1884.
This was followed by ‘Gluckauf’, the world’s first ocean-going tanker, which was completed at Elswick in July 1886. It was designed by Henry F. Swan (Former Managing Director of the Walker Yards) to carry 3,500 tons of oil from America or the Black Sea to Europe.
William Armstrong was by now playing little part in the running of the business and being relatively shy, he had little in the way of political ambition. That said, somehow he was persuaded to stand as a Unionist Liberal parliamentary candidate for Newcastle in the 1886 elections - he came third despite taking 24% of the vote. Nevertheless, later that same year he was presented with the Freedom of the City of Newcastle and within 12 months he had been raised to the peerage as the 1st Baron Armstrong of Cragside in the County of Northumberland.
Elswick was a very busy place during 1887, with 2 cruisers being built for the Peiyang Fleet together with the ‘Dogali’, originally ordered by the Greek Government but eventually cancelled due to financial pressures (later sold to Italy as ‘Salamis’).
The final vessels of the year were a pair of 2nd Class cruisers destined for the Spanish Navy.
Throughout 1888, things were a little quieter where production fell to just 3 projects, a single protected cruiser for Romania ‘Elisabeta’, a pair of oil tankers ‘Energie’ for Deutsch-America Petroleum, a German division of Esso, and ‘Russian Prince’ for Newcastle based Prince Line. The Deutsch-America Petroleum Company subsequently placed many orders for sister tankers during the 1890s and the yard completed over 100 vessels for the company, which was part owned by the American industrialist, John D. Rockefeller.
During 1889, Elswick produced the Italian cruiser 'Piemonte', the first major warship armed entirely with quick-firing (QF) guns and said to be the fastest cruiser in the world. They also completed work on ‘Polluce’ and ‘Castore’, a pair of twin-screw gunboats that were shipped in part-form to Italy before they were re-assembled in the Armstrong Pozzouli shipyard of Naples.
In addition to the production of ships, guns and locomotives, the Elswick Yard became involved in many more unusual applications of its technology such as the supply of the hydraulic mechanism for the update of Tower Bridge in London.
On the munitions side, disaster befell a 110-ton gun which bent during tests (the design was expected to have a life of 95 fired rounds). Ironically, the tests were being carried out on the first battleship to be completed at Elswick – ‘HMS Victoria’ which was eventually completed in 1890.
She was originally to be named ‘Renown’ but the name was changed in honour of the Queen's Golden Jubilee. Lord Armstrong had ceremonially driven the first and last rivets on the ill-fated ship which was later lost in a collision with HMS Camperdown in 1893, sinking with the loss of 358 men.
During 1892, Armstrong made his last appearance at the Elswick Works (now employing about 13,000 men) during a VIP visit by the King of Siam.
Throughout the final decade of the 19th century, Elswick produced over 40 vessels, predominantly cruisers for South American customers. It is also noteworthy that during 1896 there were no fewer than 20 warships at Elswick in various stages of production.
In 1897, during a period of British naval and armaments expansion, Armstrong, Mitchell & Co Ltd purchased and amalgamated with the Manchester-based armaments concern of Sir Joseph Whitworth & Company to become Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd. William Armstrong and Joseph Whitworth had maintained a respectful friendship despite being arch-rivals in business and it was almost inevitable that the two great engineering concerns would eventually join together as one major organisation.
Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd - 1897
The Whitworth company had made its name through its founder and the invention of the British Standard Whitworth thread.
Although Whitworth had died in 1887, his company had gained a degree of success in the armaments industry through the Whitworth Rifle, an extremely accurate single-shot muzzleloader. Whitworth had also been a competitor in the large rifled breech-loading gun market and owned several patents in the specialist field of barrel forging.
The Whitworth Works at Openshaw, Manchester would provide a number of key skills and capabilities which worked well alongside those being developed and employed at Elswick – the Openshaw Works is described elsewhere on this website.
The benevolence of the company continued under the new name and it was often at the forefront of the external activities of the Works. The Building Committee of the Prudhoe Memorial Convalescent Home recorded that Armstrong and his company made numerous, generous financial donations to its institutions. It also highlighted donations made towards its other activities in and around Newcastle, including the establishment of the Northern Counties Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, a Hospital for Sick Children and the Royal Victoria Infirmary. It is estimated that in today's currency, these donations would amount to over £1 Million.
By 1898, two years ahead of 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 the effect on the increase in local population, the surrounding area saw the appearance of densely packed rows of workmen's houses.
After some opposition, King's Meadows Island was removed by the Tyne Commissioners to allow the passage of large ships to and from the Elswick Works and other riverside factories and in 1899 another armament works was built nearby at Scotswood, described elsewhere on this website.
William George Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong CB FRS, passed away on 27th December 1900 at the venerable age of 90. Although later in life Armstrong had less of a personal involvement with day-to-day running of the business, he remained fiercely proud of the Elswick Works and what they achieved. He had always trusted his judgement in seeking advisers and managers although not everyone outside of the business appreciated his contribution to the development of weapons of warfare and this sadly cast a shadow over his otherwise incredible career.
Towards the end of his life he was an invalid and spent most of his time at Cragside, his small county estate to the North of the city. Being childless, Armstrong was succeeded by his nephew William Watson-Armstrong who took control of the company as well as his vast fortune. The company appointed Sir Andrew Noble in 1901 as Chairman.
Such was the size of the endeavor at Elswick that the Ordnance Department alone now comprised of 93 buildings and workshops, containing some of the most advanced engineering machinery in the world. The department were busily creating all manner of guns, fuzes, shot and shell cases, mountings and gun carriages.
117 different 'shops' existed within the main works with a further 31 in the shipyard and another 18 in the Steel Works.
The Elswick Works turned out around 6,500 tons of guns, torpedo tubes, artillery and mountings per year.
A 10-inch gun took about a year to make whilst the 100-ton gun took at least 18 months.
The lathes, drills and milling machines of the Gun-building Department ranged from the most delicate to the largest ever made.
Thousands of women were employed at Elswick, predominantly in the Finishing Shops as well as operating precision engineering machinery.
Despite a huge gender pay gap, around 8,200 women were employed at Elswick, the majority were part of young, unmarried and highly skilled workforce.
After the passing of the founder, Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd expanded further, introducing the manufacture of cars and trucks. Initially, these were predominantly built from bought-in parts from Paris and then simply assembled at Elswick.
In 1904, Major Walter Gordon Wilson, a mechanical engineer and inventor had joined Armstrong-Whitworth at Scotswood and alongside the production of the Wilson-Pilcher car, he had already begun the design of his own motor cars.
Further details of motor car manufacture are to be found within the Scotswood pages found elsewhere on this website.
However, with the eventual transfer of car production to London and other UK facilities, the combination of gun manufacturing and Walter Wilson’s background in car design naturally led to what was to become his best-known invention, the petrol engine armoured gun tractor.
Wilson was later credited by the 1919 Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors as the ‘co-inventor of the tank’, along with Sir William Tritton. He had worked with the agricultural engineer Tritton resulting in the first British tank called ‘Little Willie’. At Wilson's suggestion the tracks were extended right round the vehicle and this second design (first called ‘Wilson’, then ‘Centipede, then ‘Big Willie’ and finally ‘Mother’) became the prototype for the Mark I tank.
Therefore in 1910, the Board of Directors looked at creating a completely new yard downstream from Newcastle. A site close to the existing Low Walker Yard was chosen and initially known as the Armstrong Yard, before becoming the High Walker Yard. Nowadays, it is more often referred to as the Walker Naval Yard (both High Walker and Low Walker are described elsewhere in this website).
Meanwhile at Elswick, all the buildings on the site had been connected by railway lines and overhead cranes, each served by huge coal and gas-fired boilers and engines.
By that time there were 3 large blast furnaces at Elswick, 8 steel furnaces and a huge brass foundry. The Steel Works covered 12 acres alone, producing 1,500 tons of steel a week. Built on a series of terraces covering an area of around 50,000 square yards, raw materials were passed directly into the furnaces from the rail carriages arriving on the highest level.
Thereafter, the steel ingots of around 96-tons would be transferred by crane to the forges before one of the four 5,000-ton hydraulic presses turned them into hoops for shipbuilding or barrels for ordnance.
The Engine Works extended across 29 buildings at Elswick including the original 4 workshops. They concentrated predominantly on the production of both hydraulic and electric engines for the various lifting equipment being utilised in dockyards, rail yards and warehouses as well as actuators for sluices, gates and capstans.
They produced virtually every engine used throughout the Works, especially in the area of handling warships and cargo handling.
Over 800 men were employed in the new Electrical Department, housed in a single building across 3 storeys. They were responsible for the design, development and production of dynamos and motors, as well as motor car sparking cells and electric firing mechanisms.
The various works of Sir W.G. Armstrong Whitworth were responsible for a huge output of military products including over 13,000 guns of up to 18-inch calibre, 14.5 million shell cases, over 21 million cartridges and over 18 million fuzes.
A total of 47 warships were built at Elswick for the Royal Navy, as well as 22 merchant and cargo vessels. In addition, they 'Armed' a further 62 warships and 236 other vessels. The overall wartime production was a staggering 1,000+ torpedo tubes, 1,075 aeroplanes and 3 airships. There was also the new weapon on the horizon - The Tank.
The tank was the weapon that broke the trench-warfare deadlock of World War 1, at a point when artillery bombardment, massed infantry attacks and the use of gas had all failed to produce breakthroughs.
Developed in Great Britain in the early part of the war, the tank first appeared on the battlefield in 1916. There was an allocation of ‘gender’ to such vehicles which related to the type and strength of their armament, rather than some of the more popular myths.
Quite simply, ‘Male’ tanks were equipped with Armstrong’s 6-pounder guns, whilst ‘Female’ tanks were equipped with the Vickers Machine Guns.
The manufacture of tanks at Elswick commenced during 1917 with the production of 102 Mark IV Heavy Tank and it accounted for a major proportion of all tanks used in action during World War 1. Originally used in very small numbers, they gave disappointing results. When correctly employed however, such as during the infamous Battle of Cambrai, significant advances were immediately achieved.
The Elswick Ordnance Company was still in existence at Elswick during WW1 and it remained a major arms developer before and during the conflict. The ordnance and ammunition it manufactured for the British Government were all stamped ‘EOC’ whilst the guns it made for export were usually marked W.G. Armstrong.
The work was hard with Elswick contributing massively to the war effort, providing guns and military vehicles alongside wooden propellers for the new aircraft factory at Gosforth.
Manual workers received just 1 weekend off a month but despite the physical demands, people from all over the north east (particularly women and young girls) applied for jobs at the Works.
By the end of the war, Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd employed 78,000 people - 60,000 of them on Tyneside, housed in the adjacent terraced rows. Each had but a short stroll to work (and after a shift) to the pub, reducing the need for transport and its associated costs. Almost every local street carried the name of an executive from the Elswick Works and at the bottom of each of them there was a place for beer, banter, darts and cards.
One of the most striking developments produced at Elswick during the war was the techniques for producing large guns and their use on specialised railway carriages. These became known as ‘Armstrong Carriages’. One of the biggest issues with the use of enormous guns was the recoil energy which normally required the weapon to be sited in a specially created pit or mounting.
However, The Armstrong Carriage was designed and built to such a high degree of engineering that it could absorb the recoil undamaged, albeit it with the forces propelling the carriage backwards along the rails by around 40 feet.
Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Company also made a concerted effort to enter the railway market at the end of the war and contracts were obtained for the construction and supply of steam and diesel locomotives to numerous railway systems throughout Britain, India, Belgium, Columbia, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Ceylon. Between 1919 and 1936, they created more than 1,250 locomotives predominantly completed at Scotswood.
A shower of orders at the end of the war brought a degree of prosperity to the Northern shipbuilding industry although this was to be short lived. Within just a few short years the Great Depression struck and yards were being closed all over the region. This signaled the end of Elswick’s involvement in shipbuilding and in 1920 all production was directed to the Naval Yard at Walker. Elswick was simply treading water although much, much worse was to come.
The government embarked on a series of moral-boosting incentives whilst The Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VIII) toured the industrial heartland of the North East, visiting Elswick in 1923.
Things then got decidedly worse on Tyneside when a disastrous investment decision in a Newfoundland Power & Paper making facility in 1925 nearly brought down the whole of Sir W G Armstrong, Whitworth & Co Ltd.
After all the success and fortune, it was only saved by a ‘shotgun’ merger with Vickers of Barrow, which was completed in 1927.
Elswick Image Gallery - Pt 2
Elswick Works 1883
Map of yard 1884
H.M.S. Panther 1885
100-Ton Floating Crane 1866
HMS Victoria departing 1888
Piemonte Unique Protected Cruiser 1889
Elswick Works 1890
Plan of Works 1902
Elswick Yard 1904
Elswick Ordnance Company
Naval gun mounting
Vickers Medium Cruiser Tank
Vickers Armstrong experimental
|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|