Cragside

Cragside is a Victorian country house near the town of Rothbury in Northumberland, England. It was the home of William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong, founder of the Armstrong Whitworth armaments firm. An industrial magnate, scientist, philanthropist and inventor of the hydraulic crane and the Armstrong gun, Armstrong also displayed his inventiveness in the domestic sphere, making Cragside the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power. The entire estate was technologically advanced; the architect of the house, Richard Norman Shaw, wrote that it was equipped with "wonderful hydraulic machines that do all sorts of things". In the grounds, Armstrong built dams and created lakes to power a sawmill, a water-powered laundry, early versions of a dishwasher and a dumb waiter, a hydraulic lift and a hydroelectric rotisserie. In 1887, Armstrong was raised to the peerage, the first engineer or scientist to be ennobled. He took his title from the name of his house, to become Baron Armstrong, of Cragside.

Armstrong had spent much of his childhood at Rothbury, escaping from industrial Newcastle for the benefit of his often poor health. He returned to the area in 1862, not having taken a holiday for over fifteen years. On a walk with friends, Armstrong was struck by the attractiveness of the site for a house. Returning to Newcastle, he bought a small parcel of land and decided to build a modest house on the side of a moorland crag. He intended a house of eight or ten rooms and a stable for a pair of horses. The house was completed in the mid-1860s by an unknown architect: a two-storey shooting box of little architectural distinction, it was nevertheless constructed and furnished to a high standard.

In August 1884 the Prince and Princess of Wales (the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) made a three-day visit to Cragside; it was the peak of Armstrong's social career. The royal arrival at the house was illuminated by ten thousand lamps and a vast array of Chinese lanterns hung in the trees on the estate; fireworks were launched from six balloons, and a great bonfire was lit on the Simonside Hills. On the second day of their visit, the Prince and Princess travelled to Newcastle, to formally open the grounds of Armstrong's old house, Jesmond Dean, which he had by then donated to the city as a public park. Three years later, at the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Armstrong was ennobled as Baron Armstrong of Cragside, and became the first engineer and the first scientist to be granted a peerage. Among many other celebrations, he was awarded the freedom of the City of Newcastle. In his vote of thanks, the mayor noted that one in four of the entire population of the city was employed directly by Armstrong, or by companies over which he presided.

The location for the house was described by Mark Girouard as "a lunatic site". Pevsner and Richmond call both the setting and the house Wagnerian. The ledge on which it stands is narrow, and space for the repeated expansions could only be found by dynamiting the rock face behind, or by building upwards. Such challenges only drove Armstrong on, and overcoming the technical barriers to construction gave him great pleasure. His task was made easier by the use of the workforce and the technology of the Elswick Works. The architectural historian Jill Franklin notes that the vertiginous fall of the site is so steep that the drawing room, on a level with the first-floor landing at the front of the house, meets the rock face at the back.

The kitchen is large by Victorian standards and forms a considerable apartment with the butler's pantry. It displays Armstrong's "technical ingenuity" to the full, having a dumb waiter and a spit both run on hydraulic power. An electric gong announced mealtimes. For the visit of Edward and Alexandra, Armstrong brought in the Royal caterers, Gunters, who used the kitchen to prepare an eight-course menu which included oysters, turtle soup, stuffed turbot, venison, grouse, peaches in maraschino jelly and brown bread ice cream. Off the kitchen, under the library, is a Turkish bath suite, an unusual item in a Victorian private house. The writer Michael Hall suggests that the bath, with its plunge pool, was intended as much to demonstrate Armstrong's copious water supply as for actual use. As was often the case, Armstrong also found practical application for his pleasures: steam generated by the Turkish bath supported the provision of heating for the house.

The Owl rooms were constructed in the first building campaign and formed a suite for important guests. Their name derives from the carved owls that decorate the woodwork and the bed. The room is panelled in American Black walnut, the same wood from which the tester bed is carved. Saint notes that Shaw was "proud of the design", displaying a further "owl-bed" in an exhibition in 1877. The Prince and Princess of Wales occupied the rooms during their stay at Cragside in 1884. Other bedrooms, notably the Yellow and White rooms, were hung with wallpaper by William Morris, including early versions of his Fruit and Bird and Trellis designs. The wallpapers were reprinted using the original printing blocks and rehung in the National Trust's renovations.

The billiard room extension of 1895 is by Frederick Waller. It replaced a laboratory, in which Armstrong conducted experiments in electric currents. The billiard table and furniture was supplied by Burroughes and Watts. The billiard room and adjacent gun room formed a smoking suite, the previous absence of which is evidenced in a watercolour painted to commemorate the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Prince and Armstrong are shown smoking cigars on the terrace, as Victorian convention did not permit smoking in the principal reception rooms.

The electricity generated was used to power an arc lamp installed in the picture gallery in 1878. This was replaced in 1880 by Joseph Swan's incandescent lamps in what Swan considered "the first proper installation" of electric lighting. Armstrong knew Swan well and had chaired the presentation of Swan's new lamps to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. Historic England describes Cragside as the "first (house) in the world to be lit by electricity derived from water power". The use of electricity to run the house's appliances and internal systems made Cragside a pioneer of home automation; one of the first private residences to have a dishwasher, a vacuum cleaner and a washing machine, the conservators Sarah Schmitz and Caroline Rawson suggest Cragside was "the place where modern living began". The spit in the kitchen was also powered by hydraulics. The conservatory contained a self-watering system for the pot plants, which turned on water-powered revolving stands. Telephony was introduced, both between the rooms in the house, and between the house and other buildings on the estate. A plaque at Bamburgh Castle, Armstrong's other residence on the Northumbrian coast, records that his development of these new automated technologies "emancipated ... much of the world from household drudgery".

The glen north-west of the house is spanned by an iron bridge, crossing the Debdon Burn, constructed to Armstrong's design at his Elswick Works in the 1870s. It is a Grade II listed structure and was restored by the Trust, and reopened to the public in 20082009. The gardens themselves are listed Grade I, and some of the architectural and technological structures have their own historic listings. The Clock Tower, which regulated life on the estate, dates from the time of the construction of the shooting lodge, and might have been designed by the same architect; it is not by Shaw. It is possible that Armstrong himself designed the clock. Like the bridge, the Clock Tower has a Grade II* listing. The formal gardens, where Armstrong's great greenhouses stood and which were long separated from the main estate, have now been acquired by the Trust.

Cragside has featured in an Open University Arts Foundation Course, Jonathan Meades's documentary series Abroad Again in Britain, BBC One's Britain's Hidden Heritage, and Glorious Gardens from above, and ITV's series Inside the National Trust. The 2017 film The Current War was partly filmed at the estate. Cragside featured as the basis for the representation of Lockwood Manor in the 2018 movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

 

 


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