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Magician of the North set to magic its way to literary glory

Other posts by  |  Steve Smith on Google+ |  October 5, 2011 | 0 Comments


Lord Armstrong won many plaudits during his life for his inventiveness and entrepreneurship.

Now more than a century after his death the Tyneside-based industrialist who built the revolutionary Cragside house at Rothbury, in the heart of Northumberland, could be in line for further acclaim.

But this time it his biographer, Henrietta Heald, who has been shortlisted for a national award for her book on one of the North East’s most extraordinary and famous sons.

William Armstrong: Magician of the North has been nominated for the HW Fisher Best First Biography Prize.

The annual competition run by the Biographers’ Club had a record 68 entries this year. Fellow nominees for the prestigious accolade which carries a £5,000 prize include Giles Tremlett for his book Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen, and Judy Golding for The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by his Daughter.

The winner will be announced on October 25 at a ceremony at the Oriental Club in London.

Ms Heald’s book published by Northumbria Press last year, has already been recognised as the definitive work on William Armstrong who rose through the ranks to be one of the Victorian age’s richest and most influential men.

He counted royalty, presidents and prime ministers among his close friends and used Cragside – now cared for by the National Trust and open to the public – as a showcase for his inventiveness. The first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, the mansion built on a craggy outcrop above the Debdon Burn, also boasted a plethora of ingenious labour saving gadgets that have seen him dubbed ‘the creator of modern living.’

Armstrong’s hydraulic, ships and armaments factory at Elswick, Newcastle, once employed 25,000 people, and his skill as a scientist, engineer, visionary and businessman helped transform not just the face of Tyneside but also London.

He built Newcastle’s famed Swing Bridge across the River Tyne and was also responsible for the hydraulic mechanism that operated London’s Tower Bridge.

Knighted in 1859, Armstrong was later raised to the peerage – a remarkable achievement for a man born in 1810 in fairly humble surroundings in Newcastle.

Yet until now the part he played in 19th century history has been all but forgotten – save for his extraordinary house, gardens and estate, hailed as a wonder of its age.

But now Ms Heald in her first full-scale biography aims to set the record straight and show how Armstrong brought global renown not just to a small corner of Northumberland, but  lustre to the North East and the days of British Empire.

Lord Armstrong with his great-great-nephew William Watson-Armstrong © National Trust

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