George Armitstead was born in Riga, in the Baltic, to a Yorkshire father and to a Russian Jewish mother. After an education in the German universities of Wiesbaden and Heidelberg he settled in Dundee to develop his father’s trading firm of George Armitstead & Co. and married the eldest daughter of Edward Baxter of Kincaldrum, an influential textile family.
He was asked by local artisans to stand for election to represent their interests, as they had not been enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act. Even though unsuccessful in his first attempt, his wife was presented with a fine painting and a gilt clock by them for his effort and expenditure, and he was eventually twice successfully elected as a Liberal Member of Parliament. He was to become a close friend of Gladstone and other leading Liberal politicians, would refuse a knighthood from them, but would accept one from the succeeding Conservative government.
Expanding his business into worldwide shipping and trading, he became extremely wealthy and influential, had homes in London and Perthshire, but kept an active interest in Dundee affairs, for which the City of Dundee made him an honorary burgess or freeman. He gave money to a wide range of activities such as the Dundee Poor Houses, the St. John’s Ambulance Association, the Industrial Schools for disadvantaged children, the Sailors’ Home, the Victoria Hospital, the Dundee Royal Infirmary and University College Dundee, and he established a Dundee Working Men’s Club in South Tay Street. When that began to lose popular support he wound it up and put the funds into the Armitstead Illustrated Lectures, which still continue today.
When he died in London, Gladstone’s surviving son arranged for his burial under an ornate carved tomb in Western Cemetery, Perth Road, which has a sculpted bust, his coat of arms and a full eulogy short biography carved into the sides. Fifteen years after his death, his Trustees converted a large house in Broughty Ferry into a convalescent home for Dundee Children.
The Armitstead Trustees seek to continue the aims of Baron Armitstead, who wished to improve the breadth and depth of knowledge of the people who live in, what is now termed, Tayside. He devised his series of Armitstead Illustrated Lectures to meet this end and to entertain those who attended the series also. The Trustees offer a programme of lectures each autumn in Dundee to carry on the tradition initiated by Baron Armitstead.
1824 Born in Riga, Latvia, as the second son to George Armitstead and Emma Jacobs. Riga exported its crops of flax, which was woven to make linen.
1831 The GEORGE ARMITSTEAD, his father’s ship, traded between Dundee and Riga.
1843 Started business in the Cowgate as a flax merchant, after a period in Hull. There was no railway link between Newcastle and Dundee, although there were railways from Dundee to Newtyle and to Arbroath.
1848 Married Jane Elisabeth, daughter of Edward Baxter of Kincaldrum.
1856 Joined Dundee Chamber of Commerce, and proposed using steam ships for the Baltic trade.
1857 Unsuccessfully stood for Parliament against Sir John Ogilvy of Inverquharity, but his wife was presented by a portrait and gilt clock by 2,650 grateful “non electors” of Dundee. The narrow franchise meant that the total votes cast for Ogilvy and Armitstead were only 1,937. Together with the rest of the Armitstead Bequest these items are on display in the McManus Galleries.
1860 Developed his shipping interests, which would eventually become worldwide. Became a local Justice of The Peace.
1861 Became Director of Dundee Institute for the Deaf and supported the idea of building an Albert Institute (now McManus Galleries) in memory of the death of the husband of Queen Victoria.
1868 Dundee was given two parliamentary seats. Won election, with the help of the Temperance (anti drunkenness movement), for his first term as M.P. until his retirement in 1873. His election expenses came to £4,330, a huge sum for the time.
1870 Gave £1,000 towards building for nurses and probationers at the Dundee Royal Infirmary, Constitution Brae.
1873 Established Working Men’s Club in South Tay Street with library and dining room.
1880 Close friendship with William Ewart Gladstone, Liberal Prime Minister, developed after his election for second term until
1885; they would often go on holiday together. Also friendly with philanthropists such as General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army.
1882 Working Men’s Club disbanded and funds used to start Armitstead Illustrated Lectures. These popular lectures by famous people, before the invention of radio, cinema or television, were provided by large glass slides and a “magic lantern” with a calcium carbide lamp, the New Technology of its day.
1884 Gave horse drawn ambulance to St John’s Ambulance Association for people hurt in street accidents or at work.
1885 Gave £2,500 to fund bursary (competitive grant) for University College Dundee.
1892 Supported purchase of Barrack Park, next to Dudhope Castle, for the use of the public.
1894 Gladstone gave him a large inscribed silver gilt salver, now part of Armitstead Bequest.
1898 WE Gladstone died; McGonagall’s commemorative poem noted Armitstead’s place at the state funeral.
1900 Supported Dudhope Museum of Science and Technology built in the former Officers’ Mess at Barrack Park.
1904 Members of Dundee Corporation travelled down to Armitstead’s London home to give him his burgess-ship for his civic actions; he had already received the freedom of the Burgh once before in 1854 by his marriage to the daughter of an existing burgess.
1906 Accepted peerage from Conservative government, and insisted that his coat of arms had the Yorkshire Armitstead family shield supported by a ship’s carpenter and engineer. Chose title after Castlehill House, an 18th century merchant’s house which was later annexed to St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.
1912 Purchased Butterstone Estate in Perthshire, after leasing it for years for shooting holidays.
1915 Died at Cleveland Place, London. Gladstone’s son, Henry Neville, arranged for his funeral and design of sarcophagus at Western Cemetery.
1930 Trustees buy Panmure Villa, near Reres Hill, to convert into Armitstead Children’s Home.