British Railway History Item
Joseph Armstrong (1816-1877)
Only a truly great man could walk in the footsteps of Sir Daniel Gooch and claim to have made a success of his career. By that token alone, Joseph Armstrong was one of the greatest figures in Swindon's history.
Armstrong was a great engineer in his own right and a highly practical one, yet it is for his sympathetic management of developments at Swindon at an extremely difficult time that he is most remembered.
Armstrong was born at Bewcastle, Cumberland, in 1816, the same year as Gooch, but had to wait until he was 48-years-old before inheriting Gooch's post as locomotive superintendent. Joseph was the fourth son of Thomas Armstrong. He went to Bruce's School in Newcastle where Robert Stephenson was educated. There were many collieries in the area, and while still at school Joseph saw many colliery locomotives at work. At Wylam Colliery he saw two of the early locomotives, Puffing Billy and Wylam Dilly, which still survive and are now well known. The sight of these engines inspired him to take up a career in mechanical engineering. On leaving school he started work at Walbottle Colliery near Newburn, under the colliery's engineer, Robert Hawthorn. Robert's sons, Robert and William, later established the famous Hawthorn Locomotive Company in Newcastle.
Joseph’s father, Thomas, was friendly with George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth. They met Joseph on their visits to Newburn, and greatly encouraged him in his career. It has been suggested that Timothy Hackworth allowed Joseph to learn to drive some of the engines on the Stockton & Darlington Railway, while he was still at school.
His first experience was as a driver, right at the birth of railways on the famous Stockton and Darlington and the Liverpool and Manchester lines.
In 1840 Joseph obtained the post of engine driver on the Hull & Selby Railway, under its engineer, John Gray. John was one of the most progressive engineers of the day. He was the first to break away from the idea that a low centre of gravity was essential for safe running. His locomotives were some of the best at the time, and used his own efficient Gray’s expansion gear. By 1845 he had moved on to several other railways.
Joseph was soon promoted to the position of foreman of the running sheds and shops at Hull, under Thomas Cabrey. The Hull based locomotives were designed by John Gray and so were of great interest to Joseph. In 1845 John Gray became Locomotive Superintendent at the London & Brighton Railway, where he designed similar, but larger engines. Joseph followed John Gray to Brighton in 1845 and was appointed foreman. The following Year Gray left the railway and so did Joseph, who obtained the post of Assistant Locomotive Superintendent of the Shrewsbury & Chester Railway.
The works were located at Saltney near Chester, and Joseph worked for Edward Jeffreys who was the Locomotive Superintendent.
Joseph married Sarah Burdon in 1848 at Chester. Two sons, Thomas and John were born there. Sarah’s brother John Burdon married Joseph’s sister Rebecca.
In 1852 Jeffreys resigned and Joseph stepped into his shoes. He was soon promoted to manager of the Low Moor Iron Works.
In 1853 the Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railway and the Shrewsbury & Chester Railway were operated as one railway by a joint committee, and Joseph moved to Wolverhampton, where he was in charge of the locomotive stock. In September 1854 the company amalgamated with the Great Western Railway to become its Northern Division. At Wolverhampton Joseph produced his first locomotive designs which were simple and reliable. In Wolverhampton Joseph and Sarah had another 4 sons and 3 daughters. Their 3rd son, Richard died in his first year, the other three boys went to Tettenhall College. The college was preferred to the Grammar School by non-conformists because of the Grammar School’s Church of England traditions.
Daniel Gooch was the company’s Locomotive Superintendent at Swindon. In 1864 he resigned, aged 48, to undertake the laying of the first transatlantic cable. Gooch did not leave the company, he became its Chairman. Joseph was given his job and moved to Swindon to be replaced at Wolverhampton by his brother George.
There could hardly have been a more difficult time for anyone to take charge. Firstly, the GWR was in serious financial straits and, until new chairman Gooch put the books in order, Armstrong needed to work within tight budgets. Yet Swindon Works was also expanding with the building of new carriage and wagon works, which began in 1868, and improvements to other shops.
This major project would have consumed most of the time and all of the energy of lesser men than Armstrong. Yet, just as Gooch had before him, Armstrong recognised his responsibilities to the social scene in Swindon and worked tirelessly for the good of each of the 13,000 workers under his control throughout the system.
Joseph was a benevolent manager who always looked after the company's employees. He introduced many improvements for their welfare, including ventilation, lighting, cleanliness, labour saving devices, extra safety precautions, and improved the general staff comfort. During his first years at Swindon the Southern Division was still broad gauge, and the works continued to build locomotives that had been designed by Daniel Gooch. His designs were so advanced that Joseph was happy to continue using them. A new house was built for Joseph and his family. It was situated to the west of the church and was called Newburn House, after the town where Joseph spent his childhood. Joseph was an ardent Wesleyan Methodist, and went to the Farringdon Street Chapel. He was also a local preacher. 'Consequently,' wrote Alan S Peck in his difinitive history of Swindon Works, 'his inherent attitude to the social and moral conditions of the time was very enlightened, as was his relationship with his fellow men, whether employer or employee.' And he dealt in actions, not words.
He actively and enthusiastically supported the New Swindon Local Board, the Mechanics Institute, the Medical Fund, the Sick Fund Society and the New Swindon Permanent Benefit Building and Investment Society, among others. In 1866 he helped to form the Swindon Water Works Company so that the town could at last have an adequate water supply and the New Swindon Educational Board was formed in order for the GWR to build schools. The year 1868 saw the instigation of a 'Children's Fete' which survived until the Second World War and in 1869 swimming baths were opened for the use of the workers. Two years later, the Medical Fund Society Hospital, for which Gooch had laid the foundations, was complete. No wonder Armstrong became a popular local celebrity and a true man of the people.
In 1868 things were about to change at the works, because the company directors decided to replace the existing broad gauge with standard gauge, and so a new locomotive building programme was planned. Joseph was responsible for the production of all the new rolling stock that was required. To assist him in the project he sent for William Dean from Wolverhampton, who was 28 years old and became his chief assistant.
It is almost easy to forget that he also had a railway to run and engines to design. Not surprisingly given the limitations of budget and the complication of having to work to the dual disciplines of broad and narrow gauge stock, Armstrong's designs were simple, but they were also solid, practical and reliable. And output during this time was phenomenal. From 1869, when the works was in full production, until 1877 when he died, Armstrong oversaw the manufacture of around 600 locomotives, 2,000 carriages and no less than 10,000 wagons. Around 40 of his engines were still running at the end of the Second World War.
When he died suddenly in 1877 he had been the Great Western Railway's locomotive superintendent for just 13 years, but the impact he made on the company and its heartland, Swindon, was profound. Though it is Gooch who is remembered as 'the father of Swindon works' and in many ways the father of modern Swindon, in Armstrong he found a perfect successor whose brilliant management ability saw the town through another rapid period of growth.
The works were transformed from a straightforward, mainly repair installation to a self-supporting engineering factory, complete with new carriage and wagon works and expanding locomotive production. Not only was it done from a position of near bankruptcy, but even achieved against a backdrop of reduced working hours and comparatively high pay.
The news of his unexpected death was greeted with an outpouring of real grief on the streets of Swindon, followed by probably its biggest ever funeral. According to Astill's Original Swindon Almanac of 1878, it 'cast a gloom over the entire community'. What kind of man could cause such a reaction from ordinary workers?
- Though the Mechanics Institute was formed under Gooch, it was under Armstrong that it bloomed and Swindon men were probably the best educated manual workers in the world. As Richard Jefferies noted: 'Where one book is read in agricultural districts, fifty are read in the vicinity of the factory.'
- Armstrong was a benevolent man, but refused to allow cabs for engine drivers because he was convinced from his own experiences as a driver that it would lead to drowsiness.
- The most famous locomotive produced during Armstrong's reign was called Queen, which was built in 1877, the year of his death.
- During his early years, Armstrong was a junior workmate of the great George Stephenson who, coincidentally, was a frequent visitor to the childhood home of Armstrong's predecessor, Sir Daniel Gooch.
- After Armstrong's death, workers clubbed together to buy a lifeboat for the RNLI as a memorial to him. It was stationed at Cadgwith, Cornwall, which became the favourite holiday haunt of senior GWR officers.
- Joseph Armstrong is buried in the south-east corner of St Mark's Church.
- The Swindon Works hooter was first heard during Armstrong's time. It was installed in 1872.
Last Updated : Friday 14th April 2006 05:52