[Post Update: 24th June 2020]
In response to the recent protests across the world, following the death of George Floyd, students have been vocal in their desire to see us at NUSU and the University take action, in addition to statements and social media posts, that demonstrates our commitment to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Following the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston on 7 June 2020 in Bristol, Lord Armstrong’s history as an arms trader and links to the US Civil War came to light. Therefore, between 5pm Friday 19 June and 5pm on Monday 22 June, we held an indicative student vote to gather your opinion on whether you thought that the Armstrong Building should be renamed.
2,380 votes were cast and we can now reveal that the results are as follows:
- 78% voted to retain the current name but to provide further information on Armstrong’s history
- 18% voted to rename the building
- 4% voted to abstain
Following the results, at NUSU we will now present the position that the Armstrong Building should retain its name, but further information on Lord Armstrong’s background should be provided by the University.
Since the vote closed on Monday at 5pm, we have delivered these results to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Chris Day and Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Julie Sanders to assist the University in their decision making on this matter and we have received the following response:
“Please thank all students who took part in this process for engaging. This outcome will be fed into the work and considerations of a working group – the name tbc.”
It was great to see how many students were engaged in this debate, thank you to everyone who voted. The incoming Sabbs will provide further updates in coming months.
For more information on how NUSU stands in solidarity with its Black and BAME Student Community & how we are urging all Non-Black Students to do more, head to our website.
[Original Post: 17th June 2020]
Please note - the advisory poll has now closed.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has stimulated and promulgated action towards equality, and here at Newcastle University we must do more. Last week in Bristol, a statue of Edward Colston was thrown into the harbour, which has rightly brought to the fore questions on appropriateness of statues in glorifying people, all they stand for and looking at their history as a whole. Newcastle and the North East more generally need to come to terms with its history, all of it, the good and the bad.
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. Please note the vote closes at 5pm on Monday 22nd June 2020.
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.
* We strongly urge you to take it upon yourself to research Armstrong’s history in depth and in its entirety, it’s not as simple as these findings below. But this paragraph is solely to set some impartial context. Although this is solely around the naming of a campus building it is worth noting his statue situated at the front of The Hancock Museum.
Lord William Armstrong was a nineteenth century industrialist (shipyard owner), engineer working with hydro-electricity (involvement in advancing London’s Tower Bridge), inventor of modern artillery (for which he was knighted- 1859), scientist, architect (involved in plans around the Swing Bridge and the Dene), and philanthropist.
There are a few basic facts about Armstrong and his company that seem relevant to the discussion as it is emerging. We will attempt to state them as clearly and objectively as we can. But please note that this is based on secondary reading that is widely available, not on primary archival research. There may be errors and oversights here as well.
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 conglomorate 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.
Here are some useful links on-line about Armstrong, race, and art: https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/summer16/beach-on-john-bell-american-slave-context-of-production-and-patronage
Further details on the sale of guns during the American Civil War, from Henrietta Heald's biography: