Under spell of inventor who helped shape North
A NEW biography of Lord Armstrong is to be launched today. David Whetstone meets the author.
IN GOOD time for the bicentenary of the birth of Lord Armstrong on November 26 comes another – and probably the weightiest – biography of the man who did so much to shape the North East as we know it.
Officially launched today, William Armstrong: Magician of the North is the work of Henrietta Heald. It is her first book as author although she has worked in publishing for years so knows what makes a good read.
Henrietta is a Londoner but she has a terrace home in Jesmond, Newcastle, which she bought for her daughter when she came to study English at Newcastle University five years ago.
On the day we meet it is teeming down, the rainwater racing down the gutters carrying everything in its path. Letting me into the house, her North East pad until the new tenants arrive, a light bulb is flickering wildly.
Both downpour and bulb, it turns out, are timely reminders of the Armstrong legacy. Early in her book, Henrietta relates her subject’s lifelong love of water. He had a passion for fishing, earning the nickname the Kingfisher.
He was also a pioneer in hydraulics and hydroelectricity, his house at Cragside becoming the first to be lit by such means. Electricity, he would identify as his first love but water, Henrietta tells us in her book, was the "unbroken thread linking all his achievements".
The Jesmond house is on land once owned by the Armstrong family. It is a stone’s throw from Jesmond Dene which William Armstrong and his wife, Meggie, transformed before handing it over to the people of Newcastle for their recreation – a role it still performs today.
Although not the superstitious type, Henrietta mentions that she also shares a birthday with Armstrong.
Coincidence or not, she has spent many months in his company, poring over copious letters and documents and also retracing his footsteps. The result is a fascinating and comprehensive book about one of the North East’s great men.
Henrietta studied English at Durham University and loved it. "I think, being an ignorant Londoner, I had no idea of the richness of the history of this part of the world," she recalls self-deprecatingly.
"In Durham, you’re very aware of that because it’s on your doorstep with the castle and the cathedral.
"I also explored quite a lot of Northumberland in those days."
But it was when her daughter’s studies brought her to Newcastle, and she bought that house near Jesmond Dene, that she was first alerted to the achievements of Lord Armstrong – in science (he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at 35), in engineering, in shipbuilding, in business, in shaping the landscape (at Cragside he planted more than 7m trees) and, more controversially, in armaments.
Looking for a book about this man "who bestrode the 19th Century world like a colossus", she found a few, but none that totally satisfied her curiosity on all fronts.