To the Baltic and Beyond: the Remarkable Descendants of John Armitstead of Austwick

Mary Slater
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Families of the name Armitstead and its variants have long been present in this area. There is still a farm today at Armitstead, on the Giggleswick and Lawkland boundary. The Clapham parish register reveals that on 3 November 1734 a John Armitstead was born in Austwick, the son of another John, a yeoman. His mother may have been Anne Brogden, with his parents’ marriage having taken place in May 1733. (Anne being the name of his first-born daughter makes this likely.) He was ordained (without a degree) in 1760, starting his pastoral career at Coxwold, north of York, as assistant curate, and in 1771 became the vicar of nearby Easingwold, a post he held until his death in 1812. There he married twice, firstly Ann Rocliffe, and after her death, Mary Rocliffe. With Mary he had around seven children. He died in 1812 and the burial entry in the Easingwold register reads: ‘The Rev John Armitstead …. son of John Armitstead of Austwick near Settle yeoman, died 16 July universally lamented by all his parishioners’, and he is commemorated by a window panel in Easingwold church. Only three children survived to be mentioned in his will - two daughters including Anne, and a son George who had been born in 1785. The daughters received land and property (some of it purchased by John from his son George) and George himself received £100. (Incidentally, Edmund Paley, who followed John Armitstead in the living, was the son of the famous Archdeacon William Paley and grandson of the Langcliffe-born William Paley, headmaster of Giggleswick School.)

The Easingwold parish register of the period lists many flax-dressers amongst the local population, and George, in 1812, arrived in Riga (nowadays the capital of Latvia) to work as a flax merchant. One unsubstantiated and confused account has him fleeing northwards from his father (whose wishes as to his career he did not agree with), assisting on the road a wealthy Dundee merchant who was being robbed, and being subsequently employed by him. Riga was an old Hanseatic League port important in the Baltic trade, and had many British merchants working in varied import and export businesses, flax being one important element. English demand for linen at the time was such that imports of flax were necessary, despite inducements by the government to increase home cultivation. George went on to marry Emma Jacobs, a Russian Jew, and had a family, including four sons, which became influential in that city.

The first son was John William. He grew up to be involved in the foundation of an Anglican Church there in 1857, for the benefit not only of the expatriate British community but the many British sailors who visited the port. It is brick-built but Yorkshire stone was reputedly used in its construction on British soil taken over as ship’s ballast. During and after the Soviet era the church was used for other purposes, but it is now restored to Anglican use. The second son was another George, born in 1824. He was German-educated and came over to Dundee in the 1840s in connection with his family’s trade with Britain, to further the flax and jute businesses and shipping line it now had, under the name of George Armitstead and Co. In 1848 he married into an influential Scottish flax-milling family, became involved locally in public affairs and subsequently became a JP and a Deputy Lieutenant. He also had two periods as MP for Dundee. He had friends in high places and was especially close to W. E. Gladstone, to whom in later life he provided personal and financial support and at whose funeral he was a pall-bearer. Becoming very wealthy, he had large properties in Scotland and a London house, and was able to make many sizeable donations to charitable causes and to found trusts and a Dundee lecture series (still running today). In 1906 he was created Baron Armitstead. However his marriage was early mired with scandal and there were no children so the barony died with him in 1915.

The third son of George (the original emigré to Riga) was James. He became a businessman with flax and other interests, a banker and also chairman of the Riga Stock Exchange committee. After his death the Riga children’s hospital was founded in 1899 with half the legacy of £40,000 he had left for charitable purposes. The building still exists today, with his name above the entrance. The fourth son was Alfred.

The next generation was equally notable. John had a son George born in 1847, who left his own extensive legacy in Riga. He was a civil engineer, educated at the Riga Polytechnic, Zurich and Oxford, first working elsewhere in Russia and then in Riga, where by now his family owned many businesses and properties. In his lifetime he was responsible for many of the schools, hospitals, cultural buildings, the first tram line, parks, a forest suburb and other socially beneficial public works in this by now major city. He had a large country house built for himself. In 1901 he was elected Riga’s fourth Mayor, and was granted honorary citizenship shortly before his death in 1912. It was rumoured that an impressed Tsar Nicholas II had even asked him to become mayor of St Petersburg but the offer was declined. He fortunately did not live to see a son and two other close relatives shot by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Various memorials to him exist around the city, including a statue of him and his wife which was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 during her visit to Riga. The Armitstead’s Newfoundland dog, named Robber, that features in the statue, had formed a passionate attachment to Richard Wagner when the composer gave lessons to their daughter, or in an alternative version of the story, when he called in at Armitstead’s shop. It had therefore been presented to Wagner and followed him everywhere thereafter.

Alfred’s son Henry Alfred, Riga-born, besides becoming later a director of Armitstead and Co., was a Hudson’s Bay Company agent in Archangel. According to a recently published book, Andrew Cook’s The murder of the Romanovs, he was involved in 1918 with a Norwegian Arctic seas explorer and Siberian steamship-line owner, and also with the precursor of the British MI6, in a plot to extricate Tsar Nicholas II’s family from Russia. The Russian royal family were at that time under house arrest at Tobolsk on the Irtysh River (over 600 km east of Ekaterinburg where they were finally assassinated) and it appears the plan was to effect a rescue via the river northwards to the sea, using the Norwegian’s expert knowledge, and thence to Murmansk and a British vessel. However, the royal family were removed before this could be done. Armitstead was involved on the fringes of a further rescue plan from Ekaterinburg (which proved too hard to achieve), the Hudson’s Bay Company co-operating in promising to provide transit accommodation at Murmansk for the ‘valuables’.

This generation were the great-great-grandchildren of John Armitstead, yeoman of Austwick. Could he have known, he must surely have been amazed at so many of his descendants’ achievements from such small rural beginnings.

Sources of information

  1. Clapham parish register. Yorkshire Parish Record Society, MIC 3944/22, Leeds Central Library
  3. Yorkshire England Parish Records, Church of Easingwoulde Register
  6. The National Archives PROB 11/1616/31
  12. University of Dundee Archives MS 15/293
  13. and search for Džeimss_Armitsteds and Georgs_Armitsteds
      license link
  14. British Medical Journal, 31 Dec 1892, p.1434
  16. Glasenapps, C.F., trans. by Ellis, W.A., 1900. Life of Richard Wagner, vol.1. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd.
  18. Cook, Andrew, 2011. The murder of the Romanovs. Amberley.

Other pictures can be found on the web.