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

Milica Sterjova
Visitors Entrance Cragside. By Paul Buckingham, CC BY-SA 2.0

Cragside House is a fantastic property located close to the small town of Rothbury, England. It was the home of William George Armstrong, a renowned English scientist and industrialist.

Cragside House holds the proud status of being the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. But it didn’t stop with just lighting.

Armstrong designed a raft of water powered devices for his family home, including a hydraulic elevator, a dishwasher machine, and even a rotisserie.

Built in 1863, the house began as 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.

Several years later, Armstrong contacted Scottish architect Richard Norman Shaw, who he entrusted with the task of converting the small two story house into an exceptional Tudor style mansion.

Cragside House. Glen Bowman. CC BY-SA 2.0

William Armstrong was a man who led an active life. He studied law and became a solicitor, only to change his profession after several years

After 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 during the Crimean War (1853-6).

Queen Victoria presented him with a knighthood for his field gun design, which proved more effective and easier to maneuver on the battlefield.

The library. Christopher Down. CC BY 4.0

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.

Armstrong built damns on a stream near the property and created five artificial lakes to provide water for Cragside House and gardens.

In 1868, a hydraulic engine was installed that used water to power several machines in the house.

Top floor corridor. Christopher Down. CC BY 4.0

Two years later, water from one of the lakes was used for a Siemens dynamo. This generated electricity for the house, powering the incandescent light bulbs installed in the same year.

The lights were an invention of Joseph Swan, a fellow scientist and friend of Armstrong. Cragside House was the first private residence apart from Swan’s house to use the light bulbs.

The Armstrongs were also passionate collectors of furniture, paintings and ceramics.

The Italian marble fireplace in the drawing room. 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 designer William Morris.

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.

Among the most luxurious additions to Cragside was a Turkish bath suite. Armstrong also installed a water-powered sawmill on his estate.

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


One of the earliest electric lights. Maggie Stephens. 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.

In addition to 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.

Another remarkable feature of the property are its gardens on which William and Margaret spent a lot of time and attention.

Formal Gardens at Cragside. Karen Bryan. CC BY-ND 2.0

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.

There is an iron bridge, built in the 1870s, is one of the oldest of its kind in the United Kingdom.

It crosses the stream and leads to the Formal Gardens on the other side. The Formal Gardens include an orchard house, Italian terrace and a carpet bedding display.

The iron bridge. 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 died in 1972 leaving the house in a bad state and desperate need of renovation.

Electric toasters – The first one “popped up” in 1893 in Scotland

Cragside estate was taken into the care of the National Trust in 1977. After substantial restorative work, a part of the house was opened to the public in 1979.