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Joseph Armstrong

Peck (page 44) observes that when the GWR acquired the railways which linked Birmingham to Chester: "With them there came a remarkable man who was already 38 years old. This was Joseph Armstrong who had grown up amongst the railway pioneers at Newburn on Tyne, and George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth were family acquaintances. He was to introduce to the GWR who survived it for 100 years.

Holcroft (The Armstrongs of the Great Western) states that Joseph Armstrong was born in the parish of Bewcastle, Cumberland, on 21 September 1816. His father, Thomas, was a yeoman (small landowner) from a long-standing Border family (Holcroft includes a family tree facing page 23 of the previously noted source. Following the Napoleonic wars there was a severe economic recession, and Thomas Armstrong took his family off to Canada, but when circumstances improved he returned in 1824 and became a bailiff to the Duke of Northumberland and set up home in Newburn-on-Tyne – where George Stephenson had been employed in collieries in his youth.

Joseph Armstrong was educated at Bruce's School in Newcastle where Robert Stephenson had been sent. When old enough he started work at Walbottle Colliery under Robert Hawthorn, engineer to the colliery, and father of the sons who established the well-known locomotive building firm in Newcastle. Thomas Armstrong came into contact with George Stephenson and Timothy Hackworth and they encouraged Joseph Armstrong to adopt an engineering career. It is believed that Hackworth may have taught Joseph Armstrong to be a driver on the Stockton & Darlington Railway, for he was thus employed by Edward Woods, Locomotive Superintendent of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway when aged only 20 (in 1836). He gained further experience under John Gray (Holcroft twice calls John Gray "George") on the Hull & Selby. He was promoted to be foreman of the running sheds at Hull under Thomas Cabrey where he must have learnt much about the advanced Gray locomotives.

Gray moved to the London & Brighton Railway in about 1845, and was followed there by Armstrong who became a foreman at Brighton. David Joy was also at Brighton at this time (which makes an interesting gathering of intellects). Gray departed from Brighton in 1847 for reasons which have not been established and Joseph Armstrong returned north as Assistant Locomotive Superintendent to Edward Jeffreys on the Shrewsbury & Chester Railway at its Saltney Works, near Chester. When Jeffreys left for the Shrewsbury & Hereford Railway, Armstrong obtained his position. In 1853 on the amalgamation of the Shrewsbury & Chester with the Shrewsbury & Birmingham and the works were moved to Wolverhampton, but in 1854 these lines became a part of the Great Western's Northern Division, based upon Wolverhampton, and Armstrong was responsible only to Daniel Gooch. Whilst at Chester Joseph Armstrong had married Sarah Burdon in 1848. 

The Stafford Road Works at Wolverhampton grew to accommodate the increasing presence of the GWR in the Midlands, including the arrival of the Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton Railway. At first locomotives were supplied by Swindon, or by outside locomotive manufacturers, but in 1858 Joseph Armstrong designed some 2-2-2s which incorporated Gorge Gray's ideas, and an enlarged version of this and an 0-6-0 were introduced. The broad gauge was gradually displaced and by 1861 the standard gauge extended to Paddington.

In 1864 Daniel Gooch resigned from being Locomotive Superintendent and J. Gibson, the Carriage & Wagon Superintendent also retired. Joseph Armstrong became the first Locomotive, Carriage and Wagon Superintendent of the GWR and moved to Swindon, where the company provided a house, Newburn, for him. Armstrong immediately sought to improve safer working conditions in the locomotive works, and new carriage & wagon works were constructed to be managed by James Holden who was moved from the works at Saltney as the first works manager.

The following is a direct quotation from Hocroft's family biography of the Armstrongs: Apart from his official duties exercised over the whole of the locomotive, carriage and wagon departments spread over the GWR system, Joseph Armstrong indentified himself with numerous activities outside the Works at Swindon, in which place he was the most prominent resident. During his 13 years there, he was President of the Mechanics' Institute, and for nine years he was Chairman of the Swindon New Town Local Board, which was set up in 1864. Other matters occupying his attention included the Medical Fund Society and the Sick Fund Society, and he was a director of Swindon Water Works, besides being one of the promoters of the Cottage Hospital and the Swindon Permanent Benefit, Building and Invest- ment Society, of which he was a trustee. In 1864, Armstrong was installed as President of the newly-formed G.W.R. Enginemen's and Firemen's Mutual Assurance Sick and Superannuation Society.

On Sundays, Joseph Armstrong found spiritual relaxation in the Wesleyan Methodist worship, and he was a local preacher on the circuit. The Faringdon Street Chapel was acquired by the Wesleyans in 1866, when an existing building was converted for the purpose. In the development of' New Swindon, Armstrong made it part of his public work to see that there was ample accommodation for places of worship for all denominations, being active in the promotion of Christian Fellowship in a most broad-minded way, apart from general welfare of a social, medical or academic character. As a result of the good foundation laid, the churches and chapels are active and have always been well attended, and it can be claimed that Swindon is to-day one of the most religious-minded of all the industrial towns in England. The biographers of Timothy Hackworth not only relate his triumphs in mechanical engineering, but lay stress on his life as a Christian and philantropist. At the age of 24 he became a member of the Weslyan Society, and was a local preacher and class leader until the period of his death. When he came to Shildon, Durham, there were no facilities for worship, but in three years a commodious chapel was built and there were no less than 34 local preachers; and all this progress took place under the guidance of Hackworth. Every moment of his life was pressed into service, either professionally or in the performance of some good work. There is in this a striking parallel to the activities of Armstrong at Swindon. More than anything else it goes to support the belief that Armstrong gained his first experience in engine-driving under Hackworth at Shildon, and so was enabled to secure similar employment on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, under Edward Woods, becomes evident that by this contact the impressionable youth was with the zeal and earnestness of his patron in matters of religion and philanthropy, and that his whole conduct of life was influenced by the example of this good man. Birse (ODNB) draws out the stress placed upom a Victorian engineer who at the end of his career "was by then in charge of almost 13,000 employees and the strain had begun to affect his health. He was persuaded to take a holiday, but on his way to Scotland Armstrong collapsed and died at Matlock Bank, Matlock, Derbyshire, on 5 June 1877 at the age of sixty, leaving a widow, four sons, and three daughters."

Peck described Joseph Armstrong's funeral on 9 June 1877 (he had died on 5 June). This was attended by William Stroudley and by 100 from Wolverhampton. His memorial was an RNLI lifeboat based at Cadgwith in Cornwall: the Joseph Armstrong.

Westwood: Locomotive superintendent of the Great Western Railway from 1864 to his death in 1877, Joseph Armstrong organized the new Swindon Works, and designed broad, standard, and convertible gauge locomotives. Originally in charge at Wolverhampton, he brought his subordinates with him to Swindon, and much of Wolverhampton practice thereby became GWR practice. Like his brother George, he was an experienced locomotive driver, and this is said to be the reason why GWR cabs were so primitive; having experienced the rigours of the footplate themselves, the Armstrongs did not regard them as all that important. But in general both brothers were known for their exceptional kindliness. William Dean was his successor at Swindon

Contributions to other's papers
Pole, William. Some notes on the early history of the railway gauge. Proc. Instn Mech. Engrs., 1875, 26, 66-76; Disc.: 76-91. + Plate 7
Joesph Armstrong (80-2) remarked that the gauge question had already been discussed for more than thirty years, and he thought it would probably be a long time before it was decided whether the narrow or the broad gauge was really the best. With regard to the gauge of the colliery lines in the North, from which it was said in the paper that the present narrow gauge had been taken, the line on which the first locomotive engine was run was of 5f t. gauge, and this was the colliery branch from Wylam, where George Stephenson was born, to Lemington ; the engine itself, called the Puffing Billy, which he well remembered seeing at work on that line, was made in 1813 by Blackett of Wylam, having been designed by his engineer Hedley, and it continued running, or part of it did, from that date until 1862; it was now preserved in the South Kensington museum. There were other lines in connection with the Wylam line, which were also 5ft. gauge. The very first locomotive for the Wylam line was built in 1804 by Trevithick of Cornwall, who he thought had scarcely had justice done him, and it was made for a 5 ft. gauge, as shown by a drawing now in his own possession; but it never got on the line, and was sold he believed to drive a foundry blowing-fan at Gateshead, and had continued at work there for that purpose until very recently. Stephenson’s engine on the Killingworth line, for a 4ft. 8½ in. gauge, was made in 1814. It was a singular fact too that the original gauge on the Stockton and Darlington line was not 4 ft. 8½in. but 4 ft. 8 in. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was 4 ft. 8½in., and then the Stockton and Darlington was altered to the same, because vehicles coming from the 4 ft. 8½in. gauge had some difficulty in getting over the narrower line, particularly at crossings and curves.
Having himself gone to the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1836, he was acquainted with the construction of the early vehicles referred to in the paper, and he believed the credit of the over-hanging body and outside bearing was due to Mr. Henry Booth, the secretary of that line, and Mr. John Gray, the mechanical engineer. That construction was first carried out in the second and third-class carriages, which being painted a blue colour formed what was generally called the “blue train.” The wagons at that time, of the same construction, were fair-sized vehicles; and he remembered that on one occasion with those wagons two engines took a whole shipload of cotton in two trains from Liverpool to Manchester; the load amounted to from 800 to 1000 tons, and the engines had to be assisted up the Whiston incline by a bank engine. He did not think the carriages designed at that time by Mr. Booth and Mr. Gray had been improved upon to the present day, except that they had been made a little larger; each compartment in the first-class carriages held six persons then as now, the main difference being that the cubic contents of the present carriages were somewhat greater, in consequence of there being a little more height and width. Those early carriages had also laminated bearing buffing and draw springs, the ball-shackle screw-couplings, and the yellow grease; and these things had continued from that day to the present.
For the last twenty years he had been engaged upon the mixed broad and narrow gauge of the Great Western Railway, and had therefore been able to form some idea as to which gauge was the best, commercially speaking. He did not think it could be stated with correctness that the cost of working the broad gauge exceeded so largely that of the.narrow gauge. No doubt the larger vehicles were heavier, but the difference thereby occasioned in the working cost was only to the extent of the increase of weight. If the expenses of the broad gauge were taken for a number of years during Mr. Brunel’s life and under the management of Mr. (now Sir Daniel) Gooch, he thought it would be found that the working expenses of the broad gauge compared very favourably with those of the narrow. Taking the cost of locomotive power in proportion to the earnings, he believed it had been sbown by the published half-yearly statements that the Great Western Railway worked their broad gauge up to a certain time at a less cost per cent. upon the earnings than any narrow-gauge line in the country.
With regard to the early large locomotives that had been referred to, he believed the design of these was due not to Mr. Brunel, but to Mr. T.E. Harrison, from whose plans the “Hurricane” and the “Thunderer” had been constructed, having the boiler on one carriage and the engine on another. It was quite correct that the best broad-gauge engine of that time was the “North Star” and other engines of that class, built by Stephenson from drawings made by Sir Daniel Gooch previously to his going upon the Great Western Railway. Those engines he believed were not designed specially for the Great Western Railway, but were made, three of them at all events, for South America.

and on page 84 added: his authority for the statement about the gauge of the Stockton and Darlington line having originally been 4 ft. 8 in. was Mr. Timothy Hackworth’s son, Mr. John W. Hackworth, who had lately told him that he had frequently altered the wheels of vehicles built for the 4ft. 8½in. gauge to the 4ft. 8in. gauge of the Stockton and Darlington line. Mr. Timothy Hackworth had been the locomotive superintendent of that line, and his son had been his assistant, and had been for more “than thirty years in the district. The “Hurricane” and “Thunderer” engines had been built by Hawthorn, not by Hackworth; and the driver who came with them from Hawthorn’s works was his present foreman at Oxford.

See: H. Holcroft, Outline of Great Western Locomotive Practice (1957)
H. Holcroft, The Armstrongs of the Great Western (1953).

See Marshall: Biographical dictionary
Birse, Ronald M. entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Nock, O.S. Railway enthusuast's encyclopedia

Armstrong, Joseph (young Joe)

Joseph Armstrong was born in Wolverhampton on 14th August 1856 and died in Wolverhampton according to Summers (Backtrack) by committing suicide on 1st January 1888: when he was run down by a train. This is mentioned neither by Holcroft nor by Marshall.. He was the third surviving son of Joseph Armstrong, then Locomotive Superintendent, Wolverhampton. He was educated at Tettenhall College, Wolverhampton, and later became a pupil under his father at Swindon works. He showed outstanding mechanical ability and was noted for his sound and original ideas. William Dean, loco supt in succession to Joseph A. (sen), entrusted him with the design of the standard GWR vacuum brake, bringing to his assistance another young GWR eng, G. J. Churchward. On the completion of this Dean promoted him to the position of asst div loco supt, Swindon Div. In Summer 1885 he was promoted to Wolverhampton as asst div supt, N Div and wks mgr at Stafford Road wks under his uncle George A. (qv). Here he continued to produce designs for various loco parts. At 00.30 on 1.1.1888 he was walking beside the line at Wolverhampton when he was run over by a goods train and instantly killed. Holcroft, H. The Armstrongs of the Great Western 1953; Proc IME 2 1888 p 153

See Marshall: Biographical dictionary
Nock, O.S. Railway enthusuast's encyclopedia

George Armstrong

According to Holcroft, George Armstrong was born in Canada and not in Bewcastle as stated by Marshall (corrected 2nd edition), and probably on 5 April.1822. At the age of 14 George began work at Walbottle Colliery under Robert Hawthorn, following his brother Joseph. After 4½ yrs, in 1840, he went with Joseph to the Hull & Selby Railway at Hull where he worked under John Gray, locomotive superintendent, subsequently moving to Brighton with Joseph when Gray became locomotive superintendent on the London & Brighton Railway in 1845. After a short time he went to France where he worked as engine driver on the Nord R. In 1848, during the unsettled period of the second revolution, he returned to England and obtained employment as an engine driver on the Shrewsbury & Chester Railway, thus rejoining Joseph, and soon becoming locomotive foreman. In 1854 the S & C and the Shrewsbury & Birmingham Railways were taken over by the GWR and Armstrong became a GWR employee. In 1860 he was associated with William Dean in taking over jointly with the LNWR the locomotives of the Birkenhead, Lancashire & Cheshire Junction Railway.

When Joseph Armstrong was appointed Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Superintendent of the GWR at Swindon in 1864 George succeeded him as Northern Division locomotive superintendent at Wolverhampton, with William Dean as assistant and works manager at Stafford Road Works. At Wolverhampton he was responsible for the maintenance of a great variety of locomotives from the Shrewsbury & Chester; Shrewsbury & Birmingham; Birkenhead & Chester; Oxford, Worcester & Wolverhampton; Newport, Abergavenny & Hereford, and Shrewsbury & Hereford Rs, and GWR engines designed by Gooch at Swindon and by Joseph Armstrong at Wolverhampton. Under George Armstrong in 1864-66 nine 2-4-0Ts and eight 0-6-0Ts were built, and in 1866 12 2-4-0 tender engines were built at Wolverhampton to Armstrong's design. There followed sixty 0-6-0STs and nearly 100 0-4-2Ts, a type which was to remain a GWR standard for the next 90 years. In 1868 Dean was moved to Swindon to become chief assistant locomotive superintendent under Joseph. Armstrong., thereby achieving superior status to George Armstrong. In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, George was selected to give assistance to the French on locomotive manufacture, but found himself forced into a combatant role during the Siege of Paris, but he was able to evade this through his considerable strength. 

Following the death of his brother Joseph Dean became GWR locomotive superintendent in 1877, whilst George remained in charge at Wolverhampton. He refused to take orders from Dean, saying  "I only give orders not take them", and so Wolverhampton remained an empire on its own with its own distinctive locomotive livery. Dean wisely left Wolverhampton alone for the next twenty years. George Armstrong ruled at Wolverhampton for 33 years during which 626 engines were built and 513 were rebuilt. In 1897, at the age of 75, he retired. He maintained his contact with the works until on a very hot Thursday, 11th July 1901, he collapsed and died at the Wolverhampton flower show. He had not married, and although he did not share the religious enthusiasm of his brother Joseph, he was a staunch Presbyterian. He was a Member of the Council of the Football Association. MIME 1866. Holcroft, Harold. The Armstrongs of the Great Western 1953; Outline of Great Western Locomotive Practice (1957). Proc IME 12.1901 p 1283 ,

See Marshall: Biographical dictionary
Birse, Ronald M. entry in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Nock, O.S. Railway enthusuast's encyclopedia

John Armstrong

Elder brother of 'Young Joe': Divisional Locomotive Superintendent at Paddington from 1882 until 1916 when he retired. Group photograph with Churchward: Backtrack, 2013, 27, 272.

Updated: 2013-04-05

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