Cragside House: The first house in the world to use hydroelectricity to power the lights

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Milica Sterjova
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A fantastic property, located close to the small town of Rothbury in England, called Cragside was the home of William George Armstrong, a renowned English scientist, and industrialist. According to the National Trust, Cragside House is the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity.

Built in 1863, the house was a simple country home for William and his wife, Margaret Armstrong. William had visited Rothbury in his childhood many times, so when he returned as an adult, he decided to build a small home in the area. The construction of the small villa was finished in 1866. Several years later, Armstrong contacted Scottish architect Richard Norman Shaw. Shaw was entrusted with the task of converting the small two story house into an exceptional Tudor style mansion. During a period of fifteen years, the architect kept expanding the property.

William Armstrong was a man who had an active life. He studied law and became a solicitor, changing his profession after several years and founding W. G. Armstrong & Company in 1847 to manufacture hydraulic cranes and machinery of his own design. His mastery in engineering became even more evident with his weapons designs, which proved more effective and easier to maneuver on the battlefield. After donating his weapons patents to the British Army, he was knighted in 1859. Although he is mostly recognized for his contribution to weaponry, Lord Armstrong strongly advocated the use of renewable resources. When it comes to the energy, he was way ahead of his time, talking on several occasions about using solar, wind and water power to produce electricity.

Cragside House. Author: Glen Bowman. CC BY-SA 2.0

Armstrong built a damn on a stream near the property and created Tumbleton lake, providing in this way water for Cragside House and gardens. In the next few years he created four more artificial lakes. In 1868, a hydraulic engine was installed at Cragside. It used water to power several machines in the house including a hydraulic lift.

The library. Author: Christopher Down. CC BY 4.0

Two years later, water from one of the lakes was used for a Siemens dynamo which generated electricity for the house, powering the incandescent light bulbs installed in the same year. The lights were an invention of Joseph Swan, a friend of Armstrong’s and a fellow scientist. Cragside House was the first private residence apart from Swan’s house to use the light bulbs.

Top floor corridor. Author: Christopher Down. CC BY 4.0

Cragside was filled with cutting edge gadgets and inventions, as well as pieces of art. The house had one of the earliest washing machines, a telephone, central heating and fire alarm buttons all over the house. The Armstrongs were also passionate collectors of furniture, paintings and ceramics. William worked on many of his inventions in this house.

The Italian marble fireplace in the drawing room. Author: Danny Molyneux. CC BY 2.0

The house’s interior was designed to provide as much comfort as possible. Many of the rooms were decorated with wallpapers from the famous William Morris. Among the usual rooms found in this type of house, there is the Electrical Room, one of the last additions to the house and a place where Lord Armstrong spent a lot of time. This is where the scientist conducted many experiments regarding electricity.

Water wheel at Cragside. Author: Peter-Ashley Jackson. CC BY 2.0

Cragside was regarded as a phenomenon in its time. Through the years it has welcomed some famous guests including the Prince of Japan, and the Prince of Wales, as well as others.

One of the earliest electric lights. Author: Maggie Stephens. CC BY 2.0

Another remarkable feature of the property are its gardens on which William and Margaret spent a lot of time and attention. The couple planted over seven million trees and bushes on the property. The estate has one of the largest rock gardens in Europe, which extends around the house.

Formal Garden at Cragside. Author: Karen Bryan. CC BY-ND 2.0

There is an iron bridge, which is one of the oldest of its king in the United Kingdom, crossing a stream and leading to the Formal Garden on the other side. It was built somewhere in the 1870s. The Formal Gardens include an orchard house, Italian terrace and a carpet bedding display.

The iron bridge. Author: Karen Bryan. CC BY-ND 2.0

Lord William Armstrong died at the estate in 1900. He didn’t have any children, so his grand-nephew William Watson Armstrong inherited Cragside estate. The last descendant of Lord Armstrong had died in 1972 leaving the house in a bad state and desperate need of renovation. Cragside estate went to the National Trust in 1977. After some substantial work was done, a part of the house was opened to the public in 1979.