He was born on the 28th February 1824 in the Baltic port of Riga in Latvia. His Father was George Armitstead, from the parish of Giggleswick in the West Riding of Yorkshire and his mother was Emma Jacobs from a German Jewish background.
Giggleswick is in the basin of the river Ribble, normally thought of as a Lancashire river but its upper reaches flows through some of the lovliest of the Yorkshire Dales. Astride the boundary between Giggleswick and the neighbouring parish of Clapham in the west lies the farmhouse known as Armitstead. The name Armitstead comes from Hermitstead, the ‘dwelling of the hermit’, the sound ‘Her’ having undergone a change in pronunciation and become ‘Ar’. The Armitstead family took its name from the original hamlet of which only the farm now remains.
The Flodden roll of 1511 lists the men of Giggleswick called up at that time and who presumably fought against the Scots at the battle of Flodden Field.
George Armitstead’s great grandfather was a farmer at Austwick in the parish of Clapham, his son was the vicar of Eastenwold in East Yorkshire. The vicar’s younger son George (Baron Armitstead’s father) became a flax merchant in Riga and had extensive business interests in Dundee, a ship by the name of George Armitstead traded between Dundee and Riga in 1834.
The young George Armitstead (the future Baron) was educated at the Universities of Weisbaden and Heidelberg in Germany.
George Armitstead’s father set up the flax trading company of ‘Armitstead & Co’in Riga and it was through this business that the young George Armitstead, in 1843, first came to Dundee, he would be aged about 19 at the time. It is possible that he stayed at Castlehill House, an 18th Century merchant’s house. In 1843 this house would have had a lovely view over the river and harbour. Castlehill House has now been incorporated into the Episcopal Cathedral of St Paul with no outlook whatsoever. It is probably from this house that he took his later title of Baron Armitstead of Castlehill.
He recorded later in life that he came to Dundee ‘very reluctantly and had stipulated that he should not be asked to stay in the place any more than a fortnight.’
Armitstead’s memoirs of his arrival in 1843, published on the occasion of his second burgess-ship in 1904, provide a valuable insight into Dundee and its society at that time. A town with a population of 60,000, it was to expand in his lifetime to 163,000. He could travel by railway from London only as far as the termini at Lancaster on the west or Newcastle on the East Coast. Travel from Lancaster was then by stagecoach, and being the youngest passenger, he well remembered being given the outside box seat, particularly as it was January. He arrived by the coach “The Defiance” at the “plain little village” of Newport late at night, where he saw Dundee “all lit up” across the Tay. The two railways north of the river were the Dundee to Newtyle railway, opened in 1831, (the first passenger-carrying railway in Scotland) and the Dundee to Arbroath Railway, opened in 1838. The Dundee to Perth Railway would open three years later in 1846.
He also recollected that Broughty Ferry then in the county of Forfarshire was a small fisherman’s village and that one of the largest houses in the village, was opposite Reres Mount and belonged to his trading colleague ‘Riga’ Brown. George had been sent to ‘take over’ the business of ‘Riga’ Brown who at that time was one of the few leading flax merchants apart from the Baxter and Buist families.
Eventually he became the senior partner of George Armitstead & Co, which was a company of shipping Line and Flax Merchants. The firm had a fleet of eight sailing vessels and one steamer named the ‘London’. They then moved totally into steam ships with the founding of the North Sea Steam Ship Company. He became a member of the Dundee Chamber of Commerce in 1856.
He was also involved with the Dundee and Perth Railway after it opened and was also chairman of the Dundee to Arbroath Railway
He married Jane Elizabeth Baxter, eldest daughter of Edward Baxter and Euphemia Wilson on the 19th May 1848 in the Presbyterian Church. Jane, however, along with her large extended family were members of the Ward Chapel Congregational Church, and Armitstead probably had no choice but to join that Church. The marriage turned out to be a childless one. It is also through his wife that Armitstead, on the 23rd February 1854, first became a ‘Burgess’ of Dundee . “by right of his wife, daughter of Edward Baxter, merchant in Dundee and Burgess thereof”.
The Baxter’s were involved in the 18th century weaving trade of Dundee, William Baxter of Balgavies expanded the firm’s interests and his sons Sir David Baxter of Kilmaron and Edward Baxter of Kincaldrum continued these interests into Flax, Linen and canvas. Dundee was famed for the quality of its Linen and the Baxter Brothers wove the topsail of Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship – H.M.S. Victory and now a prized artefact in Portsmouth. The sail is stamped by the Baxter’s company.
By Autumn 1872 the marriage was in difficulties and George Armitstead soon began to neglect his ‘saintly’ wife and conceived a guilty passion for the daughter of Cluny MacPherson (the 15th Chief) Cluny soon became aware of his daughter’s clandestine meetings and turned her ‘out of doors’ She was brought by Armitstead to Castle Huntly, upon which his wife, who met them on the threshold said: “Either that woman leaves this house or I do” Her husband replied (holding the fainting Miss MacPherson) “You do”.
Mrs Armitstead thereupon walked in a thin nightdress and slippers, in a heavy snowstorm, to the Lodge, half a mile down the drive, and there craved from the good head gardener and his wife, shelter for the night. The next day she went to her father’s house.
These facts soon became known to all the servants at Castle Huntly and they all gave notice, but on being offered double wages agreed to stay. The whole of Dundee heard about the happenings at Castle Huntly and Lord Kinnaird, the most prominent landowner in the area ‘Cut Mr Armitstead before all the members of his club, and he was flouted by all.’
With the death of Cluny MacPherson, his daughter became a public disgrace, however she too died three years later.
Lady Armitstead went to live with her brother, William Edward Baxter, MP for Montrose and a fellow MP of her estranged husband. In the 1881 census Jane Elizabeth Armitstead was describing herself as ‘U’ for unmarried and was the head of the household looking after her brother’s 9 month old grandson in ‘Inchmartine House’ while the family was away, (the house is between Inchture and Errol and now the residence of an Antiques dealer).
The Rt Hon Jane Elizabeth, Lady Armitstead died in 1913 and like her ex-husband is buried in the Western cemetery, however her grave is at a level higher up from Lord Armitstead’s so ‘she can look down on him’.
He died on the 7th December 1915 at 4 Clevland Square, London and was buried on the 11th December 1915 in the Western Cemetery in Dundee. He was a close friend of the Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone whose son arranged for Armitstead to be buried under the ornate tomb up at the top of the graveyard.
In 1857 during the contest for the single Dundee parliamentary seat vacated by George Duncan (a member and Past Master of Lodge Ancient No. 49), George Armitstead was asked to stand against Sir John Ogilvy of Inverquharity (a member and Past Master of Lodge Operative No. 47). Armitstead was unsuccessful on this his first attempt. After the reform Bill of 1868 Dundee was given a second Parliamentary seat and George Armitstead joined Sir John Ogilvy at the House of Commons
On the 10th June 1857 Two thousand six hundred and fifty grateful Non-electors of Dundee presented his wife with a portrait and gilt clock. The total votes cast for Ogilvy and Armitstead were only 1,939.
In its own words the testimonial said it all;
“Presented to George Armitstead Esq. by 2,650 non-electors of the Royal Burgh of Dundee to express their high respect for his personal character. Their warm attachment to the principles of political and religious liberty represented by him at the late contested election. And as a tribute of their admiration for the disinterested manner in which he responded to the appeal of a larger body of his fellow citizens sacrificing private consideration for the public good.
Dundee 10 June 1857”.
He was Liberal M.P. for Dundee between 1863 and 1873 and then again from 1880 to 1885 and was a great friend of the then Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. It is said that he paid for the Prime Minister’s holidays in Biarritz and was also pallbearer at Gladstone’s funeral in May 1898 and mentioned by in William McGonigall’s poem for Gladstone’s funeral.
“…… Alas! the people now do sigh and moan
For the loss of Wm. Ewart Gladstone,
Who was a very great politician and a moral man,
And to gainsay it there's few people can.
George Armitstead, Esq, was there also,
And Lord Rendal, with his heart full of woe;
And the Right Honourable Duke of Rutland,
And the Right Honourable Arthur J. Balfour, on the right hand;
Likewise the noble Marquis of Salisbury,
And His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, of high degree.
In 1860 he was created a Justice of the Peace in Dundee and also held the office of Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Forfarshire. He was also invested as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (F.R.G.S.).
Created 1st Baron Armitstead of Castlehill, in the City of Dundee on the 19th July 1906 by the then Prime Minister Arthur J. Balfour
He was one of the very few people who was later again entered as a Burgess in his own right as an honorary burgess in 1904 'in recognition of his long commercial connection with Dundee and his generous liberality to the Charitable and Benevolent Institutions of the City'.
Involvement in the community
In 1861 he became a Director of the Dundee Institute for the Deaf.
He also supported the building of a lasting memorial to Prince Albert who died on the 14th Dec 1861, along with other business men they were successful in creating the ‘Albert Institute’
A group of supporters formed a Limited Liability Company under the title of “The Albert Institute Ltd” and in a short time £10 and £5 shares to the value of £15,000 were speedily snapped up by Armitstead and others. Designed by Gilbert Scott, the Institute opened in 1867 and its Albert Hall, with its original sweeping outside staircase entrance, was used for the meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science
With its Art Gallery and Museum it would eventually pass to the care of the Town Council, and he would also assist the Council to extend the building. The Institute would also house the Free Library. The Central Library in the Wellgate Centre is the successor of the Free Library, while the Art Galleries and Museums were later renamed McManus Galleries in honour of Lord Provost Maurice McManus (this in my opinion was a travesty and the place should still be called the Albert Institute).
A was concerned about the need for a public hall in Dundee. A meeting was held in the Adam Town Hall and he proposed using the waste land at Meadowside for this purpose but, in his own words “Sir David Baxter, who was then King in all these matters, vetoed it, and there was an end of it
He did not mention the fact, which would have been obvious to those present, that Sir David was the brother of his father-in-law. The call was taken up by Lord Kinnaird, who pushed forward with the building of the Kinnaird Hall in what is now Bank Street which lasted until its destruction by fire in 1966.
In 1870 he gave £1,000 towards a building for Nurses and probationers at the new Dundee Royal Infirmary up Constitution Brae.
In 1873 he established a working men’s club in South Tay Street, which also had a Library and Dining Room.
In 1882 the Working men’s club was disbanded and the funds used to start the ‘Armitstead Illustrated Lectures’. These lectures by famous people became very popular and they used large glass slides in ‘Magic Lanterns’ powered by a calcium carbide lamp.
In 1884 he gave a horse drawn ambulance to the St John’s Ambulance Association for people hurt in street and work accidents.
1892 Supported purchase of Barrack Park, next to Dudhope Castle, for the use of the public. Dudhope Castle was no longer required by the War Office as a military barracks, and the adjoining land (known as the Barrack Park) had been handed back to the Earl of Home. There were proposals to use the land for building, which fired a movement to retain the ground as a public open space. On 14th December 1892 at a meeting of the Dundee Police Commissioners, Lord Provost Mathewson reported on the position. The price had been reduced to £30,000 plus the £1,700 which Lord Home had paid the War Office. By the Act of 1882 the Police Commissioners could not pay more than £20,000 for such a purchase, so the sum of £11,700 still had to be found. When it looked as though there would still be a shortfall, Armitstead guaranteed a sum of £1,550 so that the purchase could proceed, a sum which was the largest individual subscription.
On 2nd June 1904 the City of Dundee formally determined to make George Armitstead an honorary burgess in return for all his activities on behalf of the town (DCA Dundee Town Council minutes) and the entry in the sixteenth-century, wooden-boarded, “Lockit Buik” (Locked Book) recounted his work as Deputy Lieutenant, Justice of the Peace, and twice late member of Parliament for Dundee. The entry, which was repeated on a formalised burgess ticket, referred to “his long commercial connection with Dundee and his generous liberality to the charitable and benevolent institutions of the city” (DCA Lockit Buik).
In an unprecedented gestureLord Provost Barrie, Bailies Melville and Nairn, Treasurer Ritchie and Town Clerk WH Blyth Martin travelled with The Lockit Buik to Armitstead’s London home in the exclusive Cleveland Square. In the evening of 25th June the representatives of the Town Council, together with Sir John Leng, MP and Alexander Mackay, met in the drawing room to make the formal presentation of the burgess ticket, (a formalised and calligraphic extension of the small trading permission originally issued to merchants four hundred years before) and the silver casket which had been commissioned to hold it. Diplomatically, absolutely no mention appears to have been made of the fact that Armitstead’s young bold signature in the Lockit Buik acknowledged his first burgess-ship by right of his estranged wife’s father some fifty something years previously.
George Armitstead joined Lodge Ancient No. 49 on the 24th October 1881 and was elected Right Worshipful Master on the 15th November 1883 he held that position for only one year. According to the minute books of the Lodge Armitstead did not attend the Lodge and paid no part in its active workings. Even after he was elected Master, he was not installed as such and did not attend any of the meetings of the Lodge during his term as Master and can only be described as an elected ‘figure head’ of a Master.
Lord Armitstead bequeathed to Lodge Ancient No. 49, the silver casket containing the illuminated address that was presented to him by the City of Dundee in 1904 when they made him an Honorary Burgess in his own right.
Lord Armitstead's Burgess Casket
The Scroll of Honorary Burgess of Dundee for Lord Armitstead