A theatre of innovation: Cragside, Northumberland

Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)
Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images/Simon Fraser)

One hundred and fifty years ago, as 1863 drew to a close, the great industrialist Lord Armstrong may have reflected on a year in which innovation was sweeping across so many areas of life and, perhaps, his own future plans for his new country house at Cragside, Northumberland.  Country houses have often been at the nexus of innovation as they contain just the right mix of elements; namely a fashion for novelty, complex issues to be solved and a desire to impress others, along with the resources to experiment.  Cragside was to be a fine example of all these desires, a joint effort between an inventor owner and an inventive architect.

1863 was another year of great industrial developments as diverse as the running of the first Underground trains in London and the patenting of TNT, both of which would have far-reaching consequences.  That driving spirit of creativity spurred the Victorian engineer to look at many challenges, both large and small, seeking solutions which provided greater utility and comfort, though often tempered by the conservatism or financial reluctance of the owner.

Comfort and luxury are not always as synonymous as they are today and tales are legion of freezing country houses where one bathroom (used only for bathing naturally) served a whole house.  Owners of older aristocratic houses often felt little need to modernise; after all, if you had hot and cold running servants ferrying coal and water about the house this was often cheaper than a full refurbishment.  Worse, such improvements might be seen as nouveaux-riche (and therefore vulgar), unhealthy, or, worse, American. By contrast, the new money aristocrats in the Victorian era often had worked their way from less distinguished backgrounds and were keen to use anything which provided a better life – and also gave them the social bragging rights of novelty.

Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Bowood House, Wiltshire (demolished 1955-56) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Open fires have been the mainstay of country houses for hundreds of years but central heating – either steam, hot air or hot water – started making a comeback in the late Georgian period (remember the Romans introduced it first). The library at Bowood House, Wiltshire was thought to be the first modern room to be centrally heated when it was introduced in the 1790s (although it wasn’t all that successful).  Other centrally heated single rooms were to be found at Pakenham Hall, Co. Westmeath in 1807 where ‘The immense hall so well-warmed by hot air that the children play in it from morning to night‘.  The first multi-room ducted hot-air arrangements could be found at Coleshill, Berkshire in 1814, and Abercairny, Perthshire in 1829. Steam proved difficult to control (though it was installed by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford in 1823) so other early examples were either hot air (Osmaston Manor – 1846-49, Flixton – 1847, or Tortworth Court – 1849-52) or hot water via radiators (Mentmore Towers – 1850-55).  These systems rarely extended beyond the entrance areas, hallways and main downstairs rooms.

Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage - England's Demolished Country Houses)
Osmaston Manor, Derbyshire (demolished 1965) (Image: Lost Heritage – England’s Demolished Country Houses)

Ventilation was always a challenge and the unpleasant accumulation of stale air and the smell of gas was exacerbated by the higher building standards of the Victorians which reduced drafts.  Many houses such as Kelham Hall, Mentmore, Dobroyd Castle and Wykehurst Place had ventilation shafts fitted in individual rooms but they were fairly inefficient.  One of the most advanced systems was created in 1846-49 for Francis Wright, a wealthy ironmaster, at his home Osmaston Manor in Derbyshire.  A single intake near the kitchen drew air from outside before heating it and distributing it around the house.  Coal fires in individual rooms then drew the stale air towards them but the flues all took the air downwards into a central extractor system which vented though a single huge 150-ft chimney in the kitchen garden, thus eliminating the need for huge chimneys in the main house (though it had smaller ones).  Sadly the house was demolished in 1965, thus denying us the chance to marvel at the ingenuity.

Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)
Carlton Towers, Yorkshire (Image: Landed Houses)

Bathrooms and indoor plumbing were often a great source of inconvenience. Even as late as 1873, such a grand house as Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, had no bathrooms with washing still undertaken via hand-filled basins and hip baths.  By contrast, Stoke Rochford Hall in 1839 had fifteen and by 1874 Wykehurst had the then radical innovation of each bedroom being a suite with its own bathroom.  A number of country houses were demolished for reasons of inconvenience with a  lack of bathrooms often cited, especially as the complexities of adding them to older houses was to prove insurmountable, either technically or financially.

Such challenges were often a catalyst for innovation – particularly if the owner was one of the industrial titans of the age, a man as comfortable in the workshop as the boardroom. Although William Armstrong (b.1810 – d.1900), 1st Baron Armstrong (after 1887), started his professional life as a solicitor he was able to turn his analytical mind to practical challenges as much as legal ones.  The genesis of his engineering career stemmed from his love of fishing where he noticed how inefficient waterwheels were and so designed a much more efficient water-powered engine. He successfully showed it could be used to hydraulically power cranes and thus improve the speed of cargo unloading at the docks.  This formed the basis for Armstrong’s engineering firm in 1847 and his first fortune.  The firm’s greatest fame/infamy came due to the later armaments work which Armstrong had turned to when he read that the British Army had difficulties with heavy field guns during the Crimean War. Success here with his revolutionary design and, later naval versions, led to the creation of a shipbuilding firm which won orders throughout the world, generating his second fortune.

The Lodge 'Cragside', dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw's editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)
The Lodge ‘Cragside’, dated 1864-6, before Norman Shaw’s editions at Cragside, Northumberland (Image: ©National Trust Images)

Armstrong’s obviously busy and productive life gave him great status in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and beyond and his main home in the city was a grand, if heavy, suburban creation called Jesmond Dene House.  As befitted any Victorian man of wealth and social stature and due to the pressures of running his businesses, Armstrong sought a country retreat.  Having visited the Rothbury area as a child, he looked there for a suitable estate, eventually buying in 1863 the then small shooting lodge and 20-acres of land which formed part of a steep-sided valley through which ran the Debdon Burn. Over the next few years, as Armstrong came to reduce his involvement in his businesses, Cragside became a passion; a place to retreat but also to enjoy more domestic challenges with the help of one of the most brilliant architects of the age, Richard Norman Shaw. Armstrong eventually came to own 16,000-acres of Northumberland, including Bamburgh Castle, of which 1,759-acres surrounded Cragside in which he had planted over 7m trees and innumerable rhododendrons.

View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View from the Terrace, Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

Between 1869-84, Cragside was transformed into a modern Victorian plutocrats palace, but one incorporating all conceivable innovations, powered by his own hydraulic engines. The first challenge was the location, which was ideal for a small lodge but cramped for the house which it eventually supported.  The steep hillside meant that space for expansion either had to be created through excavation or by building up the ground.  What it lost in convenience, it gained in views; spectacular vistas overlooking the remote Northumberland countryside.  Unfortunately, those views – both from and of the house – are now somewhat obscured by some of those same trees planted by Armstrong.

One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)
One of four of the original electric lamps at Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/James Dobson)

It was inside the house that the inventive mind of both owner and architect could really find effect.  For Shaw, Armstrong was an ideal patron, offering none of the conservative reticence he might have found in other clients, able to offer either his innovations or those of his friends. By December 1880, Cragside was the first private house in the UK (and Girouard thinks possibly in the world) to have electric light comprehensively installed, thanks to Armstrong’s friendship with Joseph Swan, with his eponymous filament bulbs throughout. Power for these innovations came from Armstrong’s own hydroelectric engines, running from the Burn below.

With the luxury of his own cheap and apparently limitless power supply, Armstrong and Shaw’s opportunities were myriad.  In addition to the lighting, the central heating system was also driven by a hydraulic engine.  That same power source also enabled the kitchen to boast a hydraulically-powered spit with the heavy pots in the conservatories moved by hydraulic machinery, with an electric sewing machine and electric communication throughout the house and even out to a shooting lodge on the moor.

View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)
View of Cragside (Image: ©National Trust Images/John Millar)

To his contemporaries, Cragside must have seemed beyond ingenious – a place grown from an inhospitable hillside, packed with innovations.  The house became a significant marketing tool for Armstrong as visits from his prospective customers, including the King of Siam, the Shah of Persia and the Crown Prince of Afghanistan, gave him the chance to demonstrate the advanced technology they could be buying into, a true theatre of innovation.  The Prince and Princess of Wales also visited in August 1884, thus giving the royal seal of approval to such a modern approach to the traditions of the country house.

Cragside passed to the National Trust in 1977, sadly missing the best of Armstrong’s picture collection (sold in 1910), but cared for and open so we can enjoy seeing the products of two great Victorian minds.  Despite being the genesis of domestic hydroelectric power, a gas turbine was installed in 1895 to provide more power before being connected to the National Grid in 1945.  However, in early 2014, the National Trust is again installing a modern hydroelectric screw to once more generate electricity for the house providing a welcome return of innovation.

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Article: ‘Hydro-electricity restoration work starts at Cragside‘ [BBC News]

Official site: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust]

160+ images: ‘Cragside‘ [National Trust Images]

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Longleat, Wiltshire (Image: Karen Weeks via flickr)
Longleat, Wiltshire in 2009 (Image: Karen Weeks via flickr)

So the National Lottery or an hitherto-unknown-and-childless uncle have again failed to give me the route to my spending a Christmas in front of a roaring fire in my own country house drawing room.  That said, I have had the pleasure of visiting other people’s houses either independently or via such wonderful organisations such as The Georgian Group. Delights of the last year have included:

Each has had a fascinating story to tell; be it the Italianate beauty of the gardens at Iford, the statesmanlike Chevening, the exciting return of the Old Masters collection to Houghton, the sensitive restoration of Heveningham Hall, or the endless architectural complexity and beauty of Apethorpe, to name just a few highlights.  Some stories stretch over centuries, others more recent, but for every one their history is constantly evolving in terms of their past, as more is discovered, and their present and future as new uses show them adapting and evolving today.

Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)
Terrace at Hengistbury Head (Image: RIBA Library Drawings Collection)

It’s this constantly changing nature, like light playing on mother-of-pearl, which makes country houses so endlessly fascinating.  Again, it’s been a pleasure to write the blog (though, as ever, work pressures have prevented greater frequency) and to have experts such as Amicia de Moubray provide articles (‘White knights – the 20th-century castle rescuers‘) – and I hope to have others in 2014.  Interest has remained strong, though slightly less than last year, which is likely due to the lack of TV series such as Country House Rescue.  One of the earliest articles of 2013, which also proved to be one of the most popular, was about a house which never came to be created: Harry Gordon Selfridge and his grand plans: Hengistbury Head. I am working on creating an index to make it easier to find older articles, as there are now hundreds.  Twitter has also proved to be a remarkably effective way of communicating both about and with houses so I would recommend it – even if you just follow @thecountryseat (over 1,900 followers and rising) and any houses of interest.

The year has presented country houses with the usual challenges and some new ones.  The threat posed by the HS2 rail link, and the plans which affected a significant number of houses, has not abated and may yet come to pass.  Country house sales this year have seen some notable examples, including the Grade-I listed Castle Goring and Halswell House (both misleadingly described in press coverage as ‘bargains’), change hands, whilst there has been relatively few of the premier league (exceptions being Kingston Lisle, The Mynde and Tyringham Hall) appearing in the front pages of Country Life, which I take to be a positive indicator.  Signs are that well-managed estates (of which there are thankfully many) are thriving and those which have diversified are finding a sustainable income.  For others, it will still be a challenge, as the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ Report highlighted, and, as has always been the case, some will change hands.  If Scotland chooses independence, this may trigger further sales – and, in theory, some interesting questions for the scope of the blog.

Thank you again for taking the time to share my passion in the UK’s country houses and the architectural history which they embody.  It’s humbling that you visit and subscribe and I hope that I can continue to provide articles and knowledge which you find interesting.  As always, I’m keen for your feedback, including which were your favourite articles (and why) and topics or houses you might like me to have a look at.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2014; a year which I hope will involve further discoveries and delights from the great treasures that are the nation’s country houses.

Kind regards

Matthew

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Articles published in 2013: