Cragside is famous as the revolutionary country retreat of the 19th century Tyneside industrialist and inventor Lord Armstrong.
The first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, it brought the luxury of modern living to this remote corner of Northumberland.
So celebrated was the mock Tudor mansion on the outskirts of Rothbury that the then Prince of Wales – later to become King Edward VII – and his family are said to have visited to Cragside for a three-day stay in 1884 to see for this scientific wonder of the Victorian age.
Now in the hands of the National Trust, the 1000-acre estate pays homage to one of the greatest minds of the 19th century.
But while Lord Armstrong’s life and times are well recorded, little is known of the army of staff that would have been needed to run such a high profile establishment.
Now it is hoped to change all that. To mark this year’s Heritage Open Days Cragside is throwing wide its doors for free on September 10 – and inviting people with a family link to the estate to share their memories.
It is hoped their stories and old photographs and letters will help build a picture of what day-to-day life was like below stairs and how the domestic and estate staff viewed working for a family that counted royalty, presidents and prime ministers among their friends.
Cragside memories live in history
Between 1870 and 1885 when the majority of the work on the present day house designed by Sir Norman Shaw was underway, an astonishing 300 people are believed to have been on the first Lord Armstrong’s payroll.
And in 1900 – the year the first Lord Armstrong died at the age of 90 – there were still 70 estate workers employed.
But apart from group staff photos full of nameless faces there is little to identify the plethora of butlers, cooks, house maids, footmen, gamekeepers, foresters, farm hands, stable boys and carriage drivers, needed to look after Lord and Lady Armstrong and their distinguished guests.
It isn’t even known who the nanny was who looked after Lord Armstrong’s great great niece and nephew, William and Winifred, who were raised at Cragside following their births in 1892 and 1894 respectively.
William was to go on to become the 2nd Baron Armstrong of Bamburgh and Cragside.
With so many staff employed at Cragside during its heyday – and Lord Armstrong’s two other properties at Jesmond Dean [OK] House in Newcastle and Bamburgh Castle on the north Northumberland coast as well as his engineering works on Tyneside – many North East people will have a connection stretching back down the years to the family.
And some could well hold the key to putting the flesh on the bones of the legion of backroom employees who ensured the smooth running of one of Victorian Britain’s greatest domestic achievements.
Many of the staff are likely to have been born and bred in the Rothbury area, but others’ may have come from further afield, eager to swap the smog and dirt of Tyneside for clean country air and spectacular views – even if they had little time to enjoy them.
Andrew Sawyer, Cragside’s landscape conservation and interpretation officer, says: “Cragside has always been about the story of the first Lord Armstrong, but it would be nice to find out about the loves and lives of the people who worked here.
“Lord Armstrong is always the one credited with creating Cragside, but it took a lot of other people to fashion it and look after and run it day in day out.
“Cragside wasn’t just the home of Lord and Lady Armstrong but all those people who ensured everything in the house and on the estate ran like clockwork, and it would be wonderful if we could get a glimpse into their lives.
“All we really have are old photos and a small amount of correspondence. But while the photos show us what these people looked like for the most part we don’t know their names or even what jobs they did.
“They are literally nameless faces from the past, but we think it is time we gave them a voice and wrote them back into Cragside’s history. We believe there will be many people across the North East who have family links to Cragside who can help us fill in the gap in our knowledge.
“We hope many will be encouraged to come to Cragside for free on September 10 as part of our Heritage Open Days celebrations to share their stories, letters and photos with us.”
“They are literally nameless faces from the past, but we think it is time we gave them a voice”
Archive volunteers will be on hand to chat to visitors during the day in the house alongside Andrew Sawyer and Henrietta Heald, the author of William Armstrong, The Magician of the North.
The National Trust’s former regional curator of buildings and landscapes, Hugh Dixon, whose great uncle was the Cragside archivist in the first Lord Armstrong’s time, will also be available to help date material and expand on the estate’s history.
Andrew adds: “It was after 1870 when the railway came to Rothbury that the dynamic of Cragside began to change. Lord Armstrong had bought the estate in 1863 and had a much smaller house built.
“Then between 1870-1885 the estate really begins to be developed and the much larger mansion is created.
“The majority of the staff are likely to have come from the Rothbury area, but there was movement between Jesmond and Cragside and I dare say that people would have been brought out from Armstrong’s Elswick factory if he needed people to work on any engineering projects.”
Photos from the late 19th century as well as written material will be on show on September 10 in the house. It is hoped any new information gleaned will bolster the National Trust’s knowledge of Cragside and possibly be used for a future exhibition.
- September 10, Heritage Open Day. Free admission to the whole estate for the day. The National Trust’s other North East properties will also be throwing open their doors for free on this date.