Stories of Change: The past, present and future of energy

Energy Stories Library item 19 Aug 2017

A 150 year energy story

After more than a century the story of hydro-electricity at Cragside, Northumberland, the former home of English industrialist and philanthropist Sir William Armstrong, has been brought back to life by the National Trust.

The 151-year-old house, famously the first in the world to be lit by incandescent bulbs using hydroelectricity, is once again harnessing the power of water to illuminate the house.

Cragside was built into the side of a rock-face by William Armstrong, who later became Baron Armstrong of Cragside, in 1863, and he used lakes on his estate to generate electricity through a turbine.

In a tribute to his engineering ingenuity, and in a bid to highlight alternative forms of energy, a 56 ft (17-metre) Archimedes screw has been installed in the grounds, using water to produce enough energy to light the 350 bulbs in the house.

Cragside conservation manager Andrew Sawyer called the project a very visual demonstration of the way hydropower works, an almost sculptural sight in the landscape.

He said: “Lord Armstrong was an exceptional man with an ingenious mind and the prospect of bringing his vision for Cragside into the 21st century is a dream come true.

“Hydroelectricity is the world's most widely used form of renewable energy, so we are looking forward to sharing this very special part of its heritage.”

The Archimedes screw is a 17m long galvanised turbine weighing several tonnes. Last year, it produced 21,000kwh, providing Cragside with around four per cent of its electricity.

“It will also help us meet our target of halving our fossil fuel use and generating 50 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020,” Mr Sawyer explained.

Water to power the screw is drawn from Cragside’s Tumbleton lake. As water flows from the lake (the lowest of five on the estate), into the burn below, it passes through spiral blades making the screw turn. The energy is then converted into electricity using a generator.

The Grade 1 listed building reopened in 2007 after a total refurbishment and is surrounded by one of Europe's largest rock gardens.

The estate, which has 40 miles of footpaths and lakeside walks, features gadgets well ahead of its time such as fire alarm buttons, telephones, a passenger lift and a Turkish bath suite. Cragside was created in 1863 by inventor and landscaper Sir William Armstrong, his wife Lady Margaret Armstrong, and the architect Richard Norman Shaw.

Lord Armstrong, a title he received in 1887, had been pushed into a career as a solicitor after leaving school, but had always had an interest in mechanics – he was known for taking apart his toys as a child to find out how they worked.

After becoming fascinated by water wheels while out fishing in the Yorkshire countryside he began to work on improved wheel designs in his lunch hour before eventually changing career to become a highly successful civil and mechanical engineer.

At the age of 37, Armstrong opened his first factory with the backing of his former employer, Amara Donkin who had become like a father to him in their time working as solicitors.

The business was a great success, employing thousands of men locally and turning out hundreds of hydraulic cranes each year, another of Armstrong’s inventions, which revolutionised rail and sea haulage in the British Empire.

Armstrong, who had long foreseen that coal was a dirty fuel and a limited resource, now saw every lake and river as an opportunity to be ‘mined’ for power.

Aged 53, and now rich from his engineering companies, having switched his talents to the manufacture of field artillery for the battlefields of Crimea, he concentrated on building up Cragside, before developing hydroelectricity there in 1878.

Lord Armstrong was by now also an armaments magnate, behind the accurate and practical Armstrong Gun, a breech-loader which re-equipped the Army after the Crimean War.

After Lord Armstrong’s death, the family fortune was lost and the house was deserted before being billeted in 1940 as part of the war effort. As a gesture of gratitude from the army, the property was linked up to the national grid when they left.

And now its original power source has been returned in a tribute to the genius of Lord Armstrong. Helping to tell the story of Cragside and its unique history, the Archimedes screw is a living monument to hydroelectricity.

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