Exploring the link between Cragside and warships

HMS Agincourt
HMS Agincourt

Visitors to Cragside, Lord Armstrong’s wonderful country home, near Rothbury, are invariably entranced by the building and the surrounding estate with the six million trees planted by the owner.

They sometimes ask room guides how Lord Armstrong made his money and some of them are unaware that most of the wealth came from building guns and warships.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible

In fact, in the latter half of the 19th century, his guns and the vessels he built that sported the guns were famous the world over.

He was famous for his quick-firing guns and was in the forefront of the development of breech-loading big guns and rifling in the weapons.

The Armstrong guns were test fired at Otterburn on the range which is still used by the British Army today.

The 19th century was a time of great change as far as warships were concerned.

From the wind-driven ships of Nelson and Collingwood with their smoothbore cannons firing solid shot a few hundred yards, the Navy had turned to iron and steel vessels powered by steam which could sail independently of the wind.

They were armed with guns which fired explosives shells several miles and were protected by steel armour plate.

A sailor of Drake’s time would have felt at home in one of Nelson’s ships if transported 250 years from 1558 to 1805. A further transport to 1905 would have left him completely ‘at sea’.

After making his name throughout the world with his guns, his works then turned to the building of warships to carry the guns and soon Elswick ships became as well-known as Elswick guns.

This article describes some of those ships and the countries who bought them.

The Elswick Cruisers

These were fast, well-armed warships and were the prototypes of the cruisers built for the two World Wars.

The Esmeralda was built for Chile in 1887. She was fast with a range of quick-firing guns.

The ship impressed other navies and Japan bought the ship from Chile in the 1890s and renamed her the Izumi and used her in the clashes with the Chinese Navy.

This was the start of a long association between Armstrong and Japan.

The US Navy began to take an interest in these novel and successful ships and in 1898 and 1900 purchased the USS New Orleans and USS Albany direct from Elswick, they also built several more to Elswick plans.

As far as I know, these are the only ships the US Navy ever bought from a foreign yard.

HMS Victoria

As steam and steel took over from wind and wood, the navies of the world began seeking the ideal ship on the line which by then were called battleships.

Many weird and wonderful ships were built with heavy armour and big guns. The contribution made by Elswick was HMS Victoria.

The ship was of 11,000 tons and carried two enormous guns in the fore turret of 16.25inch calibre and one 10-inch gun firing astern.

The great ship was commissioned in 1890 and became the flagship of Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet.

In June 1893, she led the fleet off the coast of Lebanon under the command of Admiral George Tryon. The fleet was sailing away from the coast in two lines when, inexplicably, the Admiral ordered the two lines of ships to turn towards each other in turn and sail back towards the coast.

Every Captain in the rest of the fleet realised that the two lines were too close together to turn without colliding. The Vice-Admiral leading the right-hand line hesitated as he knew what would happen.

Admiral Tryon signalled ‘what are waiting for’ and the Vice-Admiral began his turn in HMS Camperdown. Camperdown rammed the Victoria which sank in 20 minutes with the loss of many lives, including Admiral Tryon.

At that very moment, Lady Tryon was in London hosting afternoon tea. The guests later swore that they had seen George Tryon walking through the dining room in full dress.

A few years ago divers found the Victoria deep in the silt where she had gone down. She plunged bow first into the sea bottom and stands vertical like a tombstone, a memorial to the days when Britannia ruled the waves and nobody could question an order.

HMS Invincible

After the death of Lord Armstrong in 1900, and Queen Victoria in 1901, the navies of the world started a massive rearmament with new designs.

The most startling of these were the dreadnoughts, huge heavily-armed battleships of which the first was HMS Dreadnought herself.

It gave its name to all subsequent battleships, equipped with 10 or 12-inch guns and powered by steam turbine engines, invented of course by Charles Parsons on the Tyne, himself a former apprentice at Elswick.

John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, decided to build further ships to be known as battlecruisers

These would have the guns of a battleship and the speed of a cruiser, whereas a battleship could do 21 knots, the battlecruiser would be five or six knots faster.

The excess speed was obtained at the expense of armoured protection and this would haunt all British battlecruisers in two World Wars.

Armstrongs at Elswick was chosen to build the first, the Invincible, with a speed of 26 knots and eight 12-inch guns. More were built as well as a large fleet of battleships.

The battlecruiser concept proved itself in 1914 after a defeat of a weak British cruiser squadron at Coronel, off the coast of Chile.

The Admiralty sent HMS Invincible and one of her sisters down to the South Atlantic and they promptly met the German cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in the first battle of the Falklands and sank both.

At the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the luck ran out for the Invincible.

After racing into battle and scoring hits on the German ships, her lack of heavy armour told and, after taking several hits in reply she blew up, killing all her crew except six.

The Admiral on board was called Hood. A few months later his wife named another battlecruiser in his memory which was launched on the Clyde. She, of course, vanished similarly in 1941 fighting the Bismarck.

HMS Agincourt

While building dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy, Armstrongs were also looking for foreign orders.

They had built dreadnoughts for Argentina and looked to Brazil for more business, a battleship race was taking place in South America between those two countries and Chile.

Brazil decided to trump everyone and ordered a ship that was longer and carried more guns than any other.

She was laid down in 1911 and was to be called Rio de Janerio.

Whereas other battleships carried 10-inch guns, she was to have 14 12-inch guns in seven turrets, more than any battleship before or since.

At Elswick, she provided work for many men and was known as ‘the big battleship’.

The finances of Brazil suffered a downturn due to the falling price of coffee and rubber and they decided they could not afford this great ship and she was offered for sale while unfinished.

Both Greece and Turkey wanted to buy the vessel and Turkey, thanks to loans from Europe and contributions from Turkish people, bought her.

In 1914, days before the start of the First World War, the Admiralty in London decided that this heavily-gunned ship could not possibly go to a potential enemy and so the Royal Navy took it over by force as it lay at Walker almost ready to sail.

The reaction in Turkey was very hostile and probably contributed to Turkey deciding to go over to the Germans who promptly gave Turkey one of their own battlecruisers.

The ship, HMS Agincourt, as she was renamed, joined the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow and eventually fought at the Battle of Jutland firing 10 full broadsides, 140 shells, at the German High Seas Fleet.

She was right in the thick of it and probably made several hits.

She remained with the fleet until 1922 when, along with many others, she was broken up.

Now if one visits Elswick, there is little evidence remaining of the giant gunshops and building yards that made Elswick a name that rang loud bells in all the countries that went to sea to fight or intimidate their foes.

The only remaining ship can only be seen in scuba gear off Lebanon, a submerged memorial to the glory that was Armstrongs of Elswick.