Students to vote on renaming Armstrong Building

Grace Dean reports on the Students' Union vote which allows students to share their views on Armstrong's legacy on campus.

Grace Dean
16th June 2020
Image: NUSU
Update 25/06: 78% of students vote to retain Armstrong Building’s name
Update 19/06: Armstrong vote restarted after flaws revealed

All students have been given the opportunity to vote on whether the Armstrong Building should be renamed, the Students’ Union has today announced. This is in light of Lord Armstrong's history as an arms trader and his links to the US Civil War.

The statue of Armstrong outside the Great North Museum: Hancock
Image: Wikimedia Commons

This follows the announcement last week that a statue of the 19th century industrialist outside the Great North Museum: Hancock featured on a Topple the Racists map of UK memorials that "celebrate slavery and racism", though it was later removed, as was Grey's Monument.

The vote gives students three options - to retain the current name but to provide further information on Armstrong's history, to rename the building, or to abstain from voting. The vote will not directly mandate the University to take action, but will be used to inform the University of student opinion and can be used as evidence if the Union decides to lobby the University to make this change. It is currently unsure how, if given the green light, the renaming process with go ahead. Before its bar became known as Luther's, the Students' Union held a vote on what Mensbar should be renamed as. All students were invited to submit suggestions, and the three options deemed by the Students' Union as best were then put to an all-student vote.

Lord William Armstrong, born in 1810, was a wealthy Tyneside industrialist, engineer and inventor. As an owner of armament factories he sold guns to both the Union army and the pro-slavery Confederate army during the US civil war, and became regarded as the inventor of modern artillery. Armstrong was knighted in 1859 after giving his gun patents to the government.

Discussing the morality of the industry Armstrong once said: “If I thought that war would be fomented, or the interests of humanity suffer, by what I have done, I would greatly regret it. I have no such apprehension.” On another occasion he said: “It is our province, as engineers to make the forces of matter obedient to the will of man; those who use the means we supply must be responsible for their legitimate application.”

On the Students' Union website, President Katie Smyth and Welfare & Equality Officer Sara Elkhawad argue: "As a University that prides itself on social justice - helping to educate and fight against global issues and injustices like racism and war - and being student-led in many forms of its action, part of this process calls to action a re-evaluation of what we deem to be the correct form of remembrance, and for the student voice to be recognised here. NUSU is launching this vote solely to collate student opinion on whether the Armstrong Building should be renamed and for these findings to be presented to the University. The Armstrong Building, situated in the heart of Newcastle’s City Campus is named after a man, William George Armstrong and as with many philanthropists of his time his history is not a simple one."

The Students' Union furthermore provided the following information on Armstrong's history, though students have been encouraged to undertake their own research to make an informed choice.

1) Armstrong & Co. were in negotiations to sell artillery to both the Union and the Confederate armies during the American Civil War. That is documented, although because the official British position was one of neutrality this went through middle-men and is not always fully clear in the record. Most of the guns appear to have still been in Newcastle/Elswick when hostilities ceased in 1865. However, there is also documentation of Armstrong Guns used by Union forces and captured by Union forces from the Confederacy, so some were clearly in use during the war.

2) Armstrong & Co. was a conglomerate of companies – Armstrong himself was primarily a hydraulics engineer – which moved into arms manufacturing in the 1850s. As such, William Armstrong’s basic position on arms sales was based on business rather than ideology. He commented: ‘It is our province, as engineers to make the forces of matter obedient to the will of man; those who use the means we supply must be responsible for their legitimate application.’

3) Following on from this, it is worth noting that Armstrong & Co. was never a tool of the British Empire exclusively. Armstrong Guns have been documented as being used in wars across the globe, British and non-British. His guns were originally designed for the British Navy, but the company ended up selling more widely when the navy rejected the original designs (hence the company wanting/needing money from America). By the end of the nineteenth century – when Armstrong himself had long since stopped running the company (he was already losing interest in the 1860s) – some of the main buyers were the Russian and Japanese Empires and Armstrong artillery and ships were largely used to fight to Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5.

4) Armstrong’s own private views on race and slavery – as far as he ever expressed them – were abolitionist and anti-slavery, as befitted a member of the Tyneside ‘liberal’ establishment. On his visit to Egypt in 1872 he expressed strong distaste for slavery and his Northumberland home, Cragside, contains several abolitionist artworks, including most famously ‘The American Slave’, which while problematic to modern tastes, was by intention, and widely understood to be, a pro-abolition piece.

5) After 1871 Armstrong effectively ceded control of his company to others, although he continued to act as the figurehead until his death in 1900. His later life consisted mainly of some more peaceful activities, inluding: being benefactor to Newcastle, in particularly the gift of his estate of Jesmond Dene to the city as a public park (which it still is); the building of Cragside house and garden, including tinkering with renewable and sustainable hydro-electricity (he was an early post-fossil fuel advocate); re-building Bamburgh Castle as a welfare home for retired workers (you can still see Armstrong Cottages near the entrance to the castle).

6) One fact that does need to be noted: Armstrong was not the founder of Newcastle University (or its original colleges). The university grew out of the original Medical School and then the College of Physical Science. Armstrong, as a local engineer and ‘benefactor’, was certainly involved in the latter, but the college was renamed Armstrong College after his death as an act of memory, not because he created it. Armstrong College later became the Armstrong Building.

Students are able to vote up to 12pm on Monday 22 June here.

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AUTHOR: Grace Dean
Editor-in-Chief of the Courier 2019/20, News Editor 2018/19, writer since 2016 and German & Business graduate. I've written for all of our sections, but particularly enjoy writing breaking news and data-based investigative pieces. Best known in the office for making tea and blasting out James Blunt. Twitter: @graceldean

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