The Armstrong family is descended from the Border Reivers who lived mostly lawless lives on the border between England and Scotland between the 13th and 17th centuries.  Our Armstrongs originated in Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland and then some time between 1869 and 1871 they moved to Shap in what was Westmorland, now part of Cumbria.

The men’s livelihoods were derived from the land and the granite.  As many families did, they moved where the work was to be had and in the 1880s they came down to Cornwall.  Francis Armstrong, born in 1844, became the landlord of the Sportsman’s Arms in Camelford and bought the quarry works at Carbilly between Blisland and St Breward.

By the 1891 census they had moved to Penquite, St Breward and took over the Wenford Inn, at Wenford Bridge.  They also operated as F Armstrong and Sons, Stonemasons and Dealers in rough and finished granite.  They employed 20 or 30 workers in the yard next to the Inn and in Carbilly Quarry.  Francis left most of the running of the Inn to his wife, Harriett and, indeed, in 1903 his licence was adjourned because he hadn’t been there for five years – the Inn being kept by his wife and sons.  When he died in 1905 the licence was taken over by his wife.

Later his son William took over the granite business and his son Alexander became landlord of the Inn until 1935 when, as the business had deteriorated, the licence was not renewed.  The buildings stood empty until 1939 when Michael Cardew moved in to open a pottery.

Alexander Armstrong and his wife Eva Broad had ten children together, with Eva dying when she had her last child, in 1925.  Their sixth child, Robert, born in 1913, had always shown a great interest in what his father did as a stonemason and he began to use the tools “not without hitting my hand, which was very common in the beginning – as the old saying was you have to knock off enough skin to make an apron, before you become a man!” Robert began an apprenticeship when he was sixteen.  His wage when he started was 7 shillings and six pence a week (37.5 pence), but Robert says that when payday came along he had been given ten shillings (50 pence) which “put him in good heart”.  When he was twenty-one the pay went up to £3 per week.  Robert learnt very quickly and was soon being taught to do lettering as well.  

His first big job outside the quarry was when King Arthur’s Hall was built in Tintagel, using granite from the area.  During his long career he worked on many famous pieces, now national landmarks.  He did the lettering and carving on the Karl Marx statue in Highgate Cemetery, Paul Julius Reuter in Threadneedle Street, the Monks in London and the statue of Winston Churchill in Westminster, London.  

A newspaper report speaks of “Some of Cornwall’s finest craftsmanship can be seen in Finsbury Square, London, in the doorway of the Dominion Shippers’ building, made with granite from De Lank quarries, St Breward.  It is 18ft high and 14ft wide with decoration consisting of a series of two full flowers of the Giant Protea, the emblem of South Africa, and twelve stylised buds.  The carvers were Robert Armstrong, Hedley Methven and Ted Barron.  The work demands great exactitude, and above all patience; a single bud took 200 hours to carve and 100 hours to polish” 

Here in St Breward he did the sign for St Breward Bandroom and a large amount of work at Colliford Lake.  Robert, Master Mason, retired when he was sixty-four.  He continued to put his skills to work in his workshop in the garden of his home in St Tudy.  He died in 2005.  

The above has been condensed from writing by Robert himself, his daughter Joy and newspaper articles, photos, etc., collected by Joy

Robert Armstrong

Robert Armstrong, circa 1940

Churchill Statue in Parliament Square, London

Churchill Statue in Parliament Square, London

Monument of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetary

Robert Armstrong

Robert Armstrong, circa 1940