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 3 Below - 1928 - 1982 - Vickers-Armstrong - Vickers
Vickers-Armstrong Ltd - 1928
However, by 1928 they had disposed of their automotive interests to engine maker J.D. Siddeley, as well as diversifying away from many of its other enterprises such as Vickers-Petters Limited, British Lighting and Ignition Company, The Vickers Plywood Department at Crayford Creek, Canadian Vickers, William Beardmore and Company and Wolseley Motors.
In Newcastle, the Armstrong-Whitworth Scotswood Works had been excluded from the merger, as was the Armstrong-Whitworth Aircraft Division who both charted their own course thereafter and are described separately elsewhere in this website.
By the early thirties, production at Elswick had shrunk drastically and it was only being sustained by the company’s export efforts. This included production of the Mk II Light Tank, for use by the British Army in India, together with limited production of the Vickers 6-ton light tank for Bolivia.
At the Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932, there were serious proposals to do away with the tank altogether. Hitler however, had other ideas and in 1935, Germany renounced the Treaty of Versailles and started a re-armament programme that included plans to treble the size of the German Army.
Bad news for Europe but good news for Elswick as the British Cabinet undertook a full review of the country’s armed strength, followed by a recommendation for increasing it. Unfortunately, it was a recommendation that few heeded and the full extent of the indecision was not felt until Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland. Vickers-Armstrong were immediately ordered into an urgent re-armament program, not only on land but also at sea and in the air.
Notable production during the re-armament include production of the King George V Class, 14-inch Gun Battleships with the first in class (HMS King George V) being launched at High Walker in 1939. Vickers-Armstrong was heavily involved in the main armament of all the vessels of the class.
There were also less glamorous but equally important tasks in which Elswick played key roles. These included ‘bit-work’ to do with the construction of submarines, cruisers and destroyers for the Royal Navy.
They also carried out work for other associated companies by producing components and propellers for the Vickers Wellesley, Vildebeest and Vincent aircraft for the RAF, as well as the design and build of crucial parts for a wide range of ancillary equipment such as armour plating for defence use, fire control systems, range-finders and clockwork fuzes.
World War II
In addition to its armaments, the Elswick Works is still best known for its land vehicles and tanks and the early preparation of the British Army during the conflict resulted in a largely Vickers-armed military force.
The Ministry of Defence automatic infantry weapons of choice were the Vickers K and Lewis machine guns, with the main tank (MTB) being the Vickers Medium Tank, developed in the early-twenties and destined to serve until 1941.
In the early part of World War II, Elswick’s ability to change from peacetime to wartime production was vitally important and its overall production rates were above all expectations.
Other military requirements included the Vickers Light Tank, the two early Cruisers and the Matilda I, the first true Infantry Tank and possibly one of the company's most important designs.
By 1940, Vickers-Armstrong were producing a range of seven different tracked armoured vehicles comprising of the Light Tank Mk VI / Mk VII (Tetrarch), Cruiser Tanks Mk I (A9) / Mk II (A10), the Infantry Tank Mk I (Matilda I) / Mk III (Valentine) and the Vickers Machine-Gun Carrier.
The Vickers Valentine Infantry Tank, its name derived from the company’s telegraphic address (Vickers Armstrong Limited Newcastle upon Tyne), was the most successful British fighting vehicle. During the conflict over 8,000 were produced including some that were manufactured in Canada and then shipped to Europe and Africa. More than 1,000 Vickers Valentine tanks were also sent to Russia.
The wartime naval production at Vickers-Armstrong yards during World War II was to total some 225 Naval vessels, including 8 aircraft carriers, 5 cruisers, 1 battleship, 1 monitor ship, 36 destroyers, 123 submarines and 51 assault craft and was heralded as a main contributor to the eventual victory.
Post War (1946)
Vickers-Armstrong at Elswick was appointed as ‘Design Parent’ for the Centurion, the primary British Army Main Battle Tank (MBT), the Centurion, between 1946 and 1959.
Arriving in production just too late to see active war service, Centurion was to become the world’s first Main Battle Tank, able to fulfill all the roles of the previous types plus the capability of constant upgrading in order to meet developing threats.
Whilst the majority were built by Leyland Motors in Lancashire and at the Royal Ordnance Factories (ROF) Leeds, the Elswick Works played their part in the production of this versatile platform. Between 1944 - 1960, they produced 1,437 main battle tanks and 345 Armoured Recovery Vehicles. Centurion operated in at least 18 different countries, of which 3 still use variants today. Shortly after Centurion production began, the UK government re-ignited its interest in the concept of a ‘Universal Tank’ which was designated FV200.
Design work was initiated by the Department of Tank Design at Elswick, with English Electric being appointed as the prime contractor. Vickers involvement in the design had commenced in 1949 when a team of six Elswick personnel were sent ‘on loan’ to work on the FV214 turret and gun mounting design. Initially, there were ambitious plans for an extensive range of 22 different variants, all within the ‘Universal’ tank family concept. However, only a few variants were produced and used in active service.
Vickers then manufactured the Conqueror, Caernarvon and ARV prototype vehicles at Elswick whilst the series production of the Gun Tanks was eventually undertaken by the Royal Ordnance Factories. Elswick did however manufacture a number of Armoured Recovery Vehicles with 8 ARV Mk Is (FV219) and 20 Mk IIs (FV222) being built at the Works.
Whilst Vickers were concentrating on development of the Vickers Mk 1 during the late 1950s, other competitors had begun their own tank development activity and in 1959 this resulted in the War Office issuing a requirement for a new MBT to replace the Centurion.
The result was the Chieftain, a formidable advanced tank design and although Leyland Motors was appointed as the main design contractor, Vickers-Armstrong and Elswick were responsible for producing 400 turrets and weapon systems. In an agreement (similar to that reached over Centurion), Elswick also produced every ARV and ARRV in the range (257 vehicles).
The FV433 Abbot 105mm Self Propelled Gun (SPG) was part of the FV430 series of vehicles that were also designed in the late 1950s.
Elswick was designated as the ‘Design Parent’ once more and they manufactured the first of 12 prototypes during 1961.
Following a series of development trials, a production order was placed for the British Army.
This resulted in Elswick Works manufacturing another 146 Abbot SPG vehicles between 1964 and 1967, many of which remained in-service with the Royal Artillery until the early 1990s.
Vickers also produced a special version of the Abbot SPG and built 68 ‘value-engineered’ Abbots which were supplied to India, together with a further 20 vehicles that were destined for Libya (sold via the British MOD). In addition, an agreement with India was also signed during 1961 to co-develop a new tank and establish a production facility.
The requirement was for a Main Battle Tank and the first prototype, designated Vickers Mk1 MBT, was produced and sent to India in for assessment in 1964. It proved to be a light, highly mobile and (when combined with the 105mm L7 gun) very capable tank, named ‘Vijayanta’ (meaning victorious or conqueror).
Post war employment at Elswick had steadily declined, predominantly due to reductions in defence spending and the introduction of automated machinery and computer-controlled technology.
In 1965, Elswick manufactured the first 90 vehicles alongside parallel manufactured kits of parts, ready for assembly on the Indian production line. Vijayanta entered service in 1965 and by the time production ceased in India in 1983, around 2,000 had been built. Elswick also won an additional order for 70 Vickers Mk.1 MBTs for Kuwait with deliveries between 1970 and 1972.
Vickers - 1968
The main impact on the Vickers Group of Companies was to occur under subsequent Labour Governments which started with the nationalisation of the Steel industry in 1967 and then the Shipbuilding and Aerospace businesses in 1977.
The latter significantly reducing the size of the Vickers-Armstrongs businesses overnight.
From 1977 onwards, the remaining elements of the Vickers-Armstrongs (Engineers) Ltd was largely based in Newcastle and continued to be heavily dependent upon tank orders. The Vickers group expanded commercial operations, including medical, printing and automotive sectors.
The Armstrong name was no longer used and following the acquisition of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars in 1980, a new corporate Vickers ‘V’ logo was introduced replacing the previous fleur-de-lys symbol.
In Newcastle, the Vickers sites had included the Elswick Works, Mitchell Bearings and the Scotswood Works which all had been condensed into a virtually continuous business unit circa 3-miles long, sandwiched between the North bank of the River Tyne and the main Newcastle to Carlisle railway. The sites stretched from Scotswood Bridge to the west and Water Street, Elswick to the east (now the car park for the Metro Radio Arena).
The Vickers Elswick Works had included an Iron Foundry with highly skilled pattern makers, a Non-Ferrous Metals Division, Vickers Pressings and Precision instrumentation. It also contained a dedicated Apprentice Training School.
It featured a range of workshops for the manufacture of components and the assembly of Armoured Fighting Vehicles, plus a wide range of commercial work which was often taken on using marginal costing principles during lean periods.
The ‘make or buy’ policy at Elswick tended to be biased towards whether something could be made on site, rather than a simple cost comparison, to maximise the retention of specialist knowledge and overhead recoveries wherever possible. A decision made to concentrate on the defence market combined with a lack of future orders resulted in the closure of the Iron Foundry and the Non-Ferrous Metal Division in 1980.
The remaining interests at Elswick including military vehicle manufacture, were divested as the public company Vickers Plc.
The Elswick site was very large and by now very inefficient with many of the twenty-seven workshops showing signs of their Victorian heritage.
The heating bill alone amounted to more than £1,000,000 per year and was virtually ineffective in winter.
And so sadly, when the Scotswood Works closed in 1979, it was followed shortly afterwards by the Elswick Works in favour of full redevelopment of a new tank factory.
The initial concept was to build the new factory with temporary offices in portacabins to be built on an area at Elswick previously used for shipbuilding.
A budgetary constraint on the addition of a new office facility was that the cost had to be less than the equivalent costs of a portacabin alternative.
With this in mind, and the fact that the former Scotswood site fell within an enterprise zone, swayed the decision to build the new factory at Scotswood instead.
The buildings on the Scotswood site were demolished and a new factory was built on the site which remains today, albeit under different ownership and use. The 'new Tank Factory opened in 1982 as the Armstrong Works.
The success and demise of the new factory can be found under Scotswood elsewhere on this website.
The site of the Elswick Works has now been fully redeveloped as the Newcastle Business Park adjacent to Water Street whilst the likes of The Great Elswick Works, and the name of its founder William George Armstrong, are now the subject of industrial history and will probably never be seen again.
From that idle thought during a day’s fishing led to one of the world’s largest and most successful marine engineering and armaments companies ever seen.
‘Perseverance generally prevails’ was Lord Armstrong’s motto and it certainly has resonance today.
Elswick Image Gallery - Pt 3
Carden-Loyd Tankietka Tankett
Triple Deck Torpedo Tubes
Triple Deck Torpedo Tubes
Vickers 6-ton Light Tank - Type A
Vickers Light Dragon Mk II
Cruiser Tank Mk II
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
Vickers Light Tank Mark II
Valentine Mark VI Tank
Machining a 500 lb bomb
Guns in 5 Shop
Vickers Armstrong Universal Carrier
Grand Slam Bombs
FV222 Conqueror MkII ARV
Elswick Works 1962
50 ton rudder
Vickers Mk.3 ARV
Elswick Works 1972
Chieftain AVLB 2
The beginning of the end
The beginning of the end
|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|