St. Stephen’s tower, Low Elswick, is one of the most overlooked and rarely mentioned buildings in the CCT’s portfolio of historic churches, despite the local and international significance of those who built it. It remains a landmark for those travelling to and from Newcastle city centre towards the A1 and retains a ring of eight bells cast in 1880 by Taylor’s of Loughborough.
Designed by local architect, R. J.Johnson, the foundation stone for St. Stephen’s church was laid on 19th November 1866 by Sir William Armstrong. Armstrong had grown an empire upon engineering brilliance, having invented the hydraulic crane and the Armstrong breech-loading gun, both of which were watershed developments for heavy industry and the military. His factories, Elwsick Works, absorbed the riverside for several miles along the Tyne to the west of Newcastle (image here…) His company was to become the city’s largest employer, leading the world in industrial innovation and supplying the machinery for raising and lowering the bascules of Tower Bridge in London.
Armstrong didn’t start his career as an engineer, indeed his early wealth was achieved from his legal training, influenced and dictated by his father against his own wishes. As a boy, Armstrong’s lung condition kept him at home with ill-health, a time during which he was to experiment with mechanical toys. Coming of age and realising his father’s ambition for him to enter the legal profession, he became a successful lawyer. But mechanics and mathematics remained his true passion, an interest which was to lead to his career change and his championing of the industrial world.
Construction of the church was mainly financed by William Donaldson Cruddas. Cruddas’ father George had been instrumental in the formation of Armstrong industries in the first place and William himself became the finance director to Armstrong & Co., overseeing its transition to a limited liability company. His munificence extended to the gift of land to establish Cruddas Park, for the construction of another church in Newcastle’s east end, St. Mark’s at Byker and St. Vincent’s Boys’ Orphanage. He married his wife Margaret Octavia Nesham in 1861.
William and Margaret’s daughter Dora founded St. John’s Hall in 1909, a major theological training college which became St. John’s College in 1919 and part of Durham University in 1923.
The Cruddas family residence was Hughton Castle in Humshaugh, eighteen miles west of Low Elswick.
William Cruddas died in 1912 aged 80 years, his wife Margaret predeceasing him twelve years earlier aged 62. They were both buried at St. Peter’s church in Humshaugh near Hexham, a church local to the family residence at Haughton Castle, eighteen miles west of Low Elswick. They are commemorated by two colourful and ornate monuments set into the walls of the tower of St. Stephen’s, a church of which they were surely immensely proud. Sir William Armstrong died in 1900 aged 90 and is buried in Rothbury churchyard alongside his wife Margaret.
St. Stephen’s tower was vested in The Churches Conservation Trust on 18th March 1987.