An Englishman in Latvia

On George Armitstead, Mayor of Riga

May 31, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 15
On George Armitstead, Mayor of Riga
An Englishman in Latvia
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An Englishman in Latvia
On George Armitstead, Mayor of Riga
May 31, 2023 Season 1 Episode 15
Alan Anstead

George Armitstead was an engineer, entrepreneur and the fourth Mayor of Rīga. He is fondly remembered in Latvia for turning the city into a modern European capital. The city flourished under his management between 1901 -12.  He was also British. I want to share his interesting story with you. We will go on a hunt around Rīga for memorials dedicated to him. We will also visit Jaunmoku, 70 km from Rīga, to discover his connections to the palace.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

George Armitstead was an engineer, entrepreneur and the fourth Mayor of Rīga. He is fondly remembered in Latvia for turning the city into a modern European capital. The city flourished under his management between 1901 -12.  He was also British. I want to share his interesting story with you. We will go on a hunt around Rīga for memorials dedicated to him. We will also visit Jaunmoku, 70 km from Rīga, to discover his connections to the palace.

Thanks for listening!

On George Armitstead, Mayor of Rīga

George Armitstead was an engineer, entrepreneur and the fourth Mayor of Rīga. He is fondly remembered in Latvia for turning the city into a modern European capital. The city flourished under his management. Many infrastructure, cultural and leisure projects were built during his time as Mayor. He was also British. I want to share his interesting story with you. We will go on a hunt around Rīga for memorials dedicated to him. We will visit Jaunmoku, some 70 km from Rīga, and discover his connection to the palace he built in 1901. 

George Armitstead was born on 27 October 1847 in Rīga, then part of the Russian Empire, to John William Armitstead and his wife, Caroline Elizabeth. He was born into a Rīga merchant family with Scottish and Baltic German ancestry.

He studied engineering at Rīga Technical University between 1864 and 1868 and then did further studies for the next year at Zurich Polytechnic University and Oxford University. Immediately after completing his academic studies, he worked as an engineer constructing various railway lines in Russia.

When he returned to Latvia, he married Cecile Pychlau in 1874. He was a serial entrepreneur - he built and owned a brick factory in Valgunde, was co-owner of the Rīga bone meal factory, organised agricultural and craft exhibitions in Rīga, was the director of the Dinaburga-Vitebsk railway line and the director of the Baltic Pulp Factory in Sloka. In 1885 he bought Jaunmoku manor, we will talk about this later, and in 1901 Armitstead built a hunting palace there, which served as the family's summer residence.

On 7 May 1901, Rīga City Council elected George Armitstead as Mayor of Rīga. In this position, he led the transformation of Rīga from a provincial city into a modern metropolis. During his leadership, he built 16 new schools, 3 new hospitals, the Rīga City Art Museum, a zoo, public libraries and teahouses, gave workers land for gardens for symbolic money, created a garden city in Mežaparks and promoted industry and trade development. During the visit of the Russian Emperor Nicholas II to Rīga in 1910, Armitstead was granted the title of a nobleman. Nicholas II also offered him the Mayor of St Petersburg position, but Armitstead refused.

To put his work into perspective, let’s run through a chronological list of the city projects that he led:

In 1901, the first electric tram line was operated in Rīga, and the Strēlnieku garden was reconstructed.

In 1902, he started the construction of a second theatre in Rīga (now the Latvian National Theatre), built three pavilions of the Alexander market (now Vidzeme market), and founded the midwifery school of James Armitstead Hospital.

In 1903, several buildings of the 1st Rīga Hospital were built. 

In 1904, the building of the central post office was put into operation, the Baltezera water pumping station was built, which supplied 700,000 inhabitants with high-quality drinking water. He built residential houses for workers in Bukulta manor. A Rīga ambulance station was opened in Jēkaba barracks, and a night shelter for homeless people was opened in the suburbs of Moscow. George Armitstead, along with his brother Edgar and mother Caroline, also donated a significant amount to constructing a bone tuberculosis hospital in Jūrmala (which was never completed because of the First World War).

In 1905, the Rīga City Art Museum was opened (to which George Armitstead personally donated 17 paintings from his private collection), and the Riga City Power Station in Andrejsala was commissioned.

In 1906, a water supply network was built in Sarkandaugava.

In 1907, the administrative building of the 1st Rīga Hospital was opened.

In 1908, the Peace Garden was opened.

In 1909, a fire station building was opened on Hanza iela, and modern cold storage was installed in the city's slaughterhouse.

In 1910, a school construction programme was approved, a water tower was built, and land was allocated for forest graves.

In 1911, the new garden city Ķeizarmeža district (the modern-day Mežaparks) and Čiekurkalna were connected to the water pipeline, and the construction of market pavilions at Ågenskalns began - do listen to my podcast ‘On food and drink’.

In 1912, he built several school buildings, and founded Rīga Zoo.

In addition, many of Rīga's fabulous Art Nouveau buildings were made during Armitstead's time as mayor, and he set the city’s building regulations that stayed untouched until 1940.

Phew. That is some list! I hope that modern-day Mayors of Rīga take inspiration from what was achieved around 120 years ago, without modern construction equipment.

In 1912, Armitstead fell seriously ill. On 29 October, the City Council awarded him the title of honorary citizen of Rīga, but on 17 November, he died. He was 65 years old. The outstanding Latvian painter Vilhelms Purvītis was the first to speak at his grave, reminding mourners that Armitstead left three unfinished works: the building of the art school, the building of the Latvian theatre and the Barclays de Tolli monument, which needed to be completed.

George Armitstead is still remembered today as one of the most prominent residents of Rīga. On the 170th anniversary of his birth, Gunta Laursone, director of Jaunmoku Palace, said, "He suited the requirements of Germans, Russians and that of us, the Latvians, who weren't represented at the Rīga City Council at that time. Armitstead was the first one to ask Latvians to cooperate at the Council. And he was the one who saw the possibility of finding common ground for Rīga's development in strengthening the nation.”

As a former diplomat myself, I understand the importance of using diplomacy to unite different people. People who spoke different languages in Rīga at the turn of the 20th century - Russian, German and Latvian. Despite being a British Citizen in a city occupied by Russia, Armitstead was highly respected by both Latvians, Russians and the business and land-owning Baltic Germans. He was fluent in all three languages and was well-connected within the three communities.


What was life like in Riga in the 1900s?

When a belated industrial era reached Russia, Rīga became one of the Russian Empire’s largest industrial cities. A property boom ensued, with new districts of large buildings. Hundreds of art nouveau apartment buildings were constructed. Rīga’s population grew from 170 000 people in 1881 to nearly 600 000 in 1913. This figure was more impressive in that era than it is today, as cities generally used to be smaller.

I’m looking at a postcard picture of Rīga in 1900. The Old Town skyline is similar to today’s, with 5 - 6 storey buildings and familiar spires. There are. however, many masted boats docked along the Daugava River, immediately in front of the old town. And I don’t see the traffic jams of cars, lorries and buses that one gets today! In fact, cars had only just started to be manufactured in the early 1900s. The picture is of a busy, commercially-thriving city.

As the centre of a major Baltic trading region, Rīga attracted many people of other ethnicities. However, Latvians from villages in the countryside made up most of those who moved to Rīga.  Rīga became the heart of the Latvian nation undergoing a National Awakening. Latvian speakers among the total population increased from 24% in 1867 to 45% in 1897. At the same time, German speakers declined from 43% to 22%. Despite all these changes, Rīga lacked political importance. As the territory of Latvia was part of the Russian Empire, all the major decisions were made in Saint Petersburg. Public signs in Rīga were in Russian (Cyrillic script) rather than Latvian (the local common language) or German (the language of the resident elite).

Armitstead Riga hunt

I wanted to find memorials to George Armitstead in Rīga. A treasure hunt and you can do the same if you live in or visit Rīga. Just follow my directions!

The first monument to George Armitstead is easy to find. Head for the imposing opera house just on the outskirts of the old town. Walk a little bit towards the canal, and you find George Armistead standing there with a hat and an umbrella, looking very dapper, his wife Cecile with a parasol - also looking very nice, and a chow-chow dog in front of them. A very fitting memorial that was unveiled in 2006 by Queen Elizabeth II on her state visit to Latvia.

The next monument to George Armistead is his family house in the old town. I have the address ‘Marstalu iela 19’. I thought it would be easy to find. I had to quickly pop into the information point to ask where exactly Marshall iela was, and then I've been walking along it in the wrong direction. I didn't think the house would be close to the Daugava River, the quiet side of the old town. But I found it. It's in a tall building. Three floors. Not fantastically imposing, and not avant-garde either. The plaque on the outside says, ‘George Armitstead, 1847 to 1912, Lord Mayor of Rīga City from 1901 to 1912, has lived in this house of the Armitstead family’.

I'm on the trail of the next memorial to George Armitstead. I know the street it is on, Strelnieku iela, but I haven't yet found the exact number. To get here from the old town, I walked along Elizabetes iela, full of very grand five-story high Art Nouveau buildings with intricate artwork. I lived in one when I was a diplomat in the 1990s. They were built as apartments for the new rich who were around in George Armitstead's time. Anyway, turning into Strelnieku iela, I didn't have to go far. His bust stands out, a bronze bust raised above the ground in memory of George Armitstead. It's in front of the Stockholm School of Economics in a beautiful cream-coloured Art Nouveau building. It looks very grand here, the bust standing there.

I've just taken the number 11T bus from the centre of town, the old town, direction Mežaparks to the Great Cemetery, Lielie kapi, and I'm looking for George Armitstead's grave. The cemetery was formerly the principal cemetery of Rīga, established in 1773. Catherine the Great, remembering Latvia was part of Russia at that time, declared that all burials had to be outside of cities, not in churches or church burial grounds, because of the plague. The principal cemetery, Great Cemetery, was founded in 1773. It was the main burial ground of the Baltic Germans in Latvia, 22 hectares in size. The Soviet authorities damaged or removed many headstones, and it was no longer a burial site from 1957 but became a public park. Despite this, many graves have survived. I'm going to try and find George Armitstead’s headstone. My daughter Roxy said, "No, you won't find it”. I looked online, I couldn't find a map. I just knew it was somewhere in here. But having just got off the bus, in front of me is a map of all of the graves, and number 64 is George Armitstead. In appearance, there isn't anything great about this great cemetery anymore. It resembles a rundown forest park. Very few gravestones remain in what was once the major cemetery in Riga. But the birds are singing, traffic is behind, and I found the grave! ‘George Armitstead 1847 to 1912, Lord Mayor of Riga from 1901 to 1912’, with a tombstone there inscribed ‘Riga City Council 2001’. We found it and paid our respects.

Jaunmoku Palace

I travelled to Jaunmoku, some 70 km from Rīga, just past Tukums, to learn more about George Armitstead’s connection to the manor and palace. I spoke to Madara from Jaunmoku Palace.

Me: I understand that George Armitstead bought Jaunmoku Manor in 1895 and built the palace in 1901. Please tell me more about George Armitstead and his connection to Jaunmoku.

Madara: In 1885 John William Armitstead, who was George Armistead's dad, bought Jaunmoku and the lands. But some time later, during a thunderstorm, the manor got struck by lightning and it burned down. Then George Armitstead became the owner of the palace, and he together with architect Wilhelm Bockslaf made a new project for building Jaunmoku for hunting purposes and to have a leisure place for his family and friends.

Me: Mr. Armitstead was mayor of Rīga from 1901 to 1912. It's some 70 kilometres. I've just driven 70 kilometres! How often did he live here? Do we know whether he liked Jaunmoku?

Madara: Yes. Permanently he lived in Rīga in his apartment, but he came to the palace to go hunting because he really liked nature and to be also outside of Rīga and he had his time here with family, business partners, hunting partners and yes, because also the lands of Jaunmoku palace had great hunting possibilities so he really liked Jaunmoku palace.

Me: We know that as Mayor of Rīga, Mr. Armitstead oversaw many improvements of infrastructure and also in culture. He made Rīga a thriving European city. From the records that we have in Jaunmoku and elsewhere, what do we know about Mr. Armitstead as a person, his interests, and his motivations?

Madara: We know that he liked to work as an engineer and to develop different industries, for example, railway building in Latvia. And also he was really interested in Rīga's growth in welfare amenities and possibilities. And one interesting fact is that he actually felt really safe in Rīga, so he never used security or bodyguards. He liked to walk by foot from work to home. Sometimes he took a tram, but he felt really safe in Rīga. And we also know that he was a really hardworking person. He built schools, hospitals. He made the zoo in Riga and built water towers and did many more things because, yes, during his work and life he did a lot of things for Latvia, Rīga and also society together.

Me: In the podcast, I've used a modern term, serial entrepreneur. I looked at how many companies he formed. Every year there was something new, and I'm talking about 120 years ago when construction equipment and other things were very different.  He died in 1912. What do we know about his wife and children? Did they stay in Latvia after he died do you know?

Madara: After the death of George Armitstead, his relatives mostly stayed in Rīga. He had three children, but when the First World War came, it came with many changes. During the war, George's oldest daughters, Lucy, Ellen's sons, Gunther and Eric died and George's son got arrested and shot later in the forest during the war. And we know that his daughter, Edith, she drove to England and now most of George’s relatives live in Canada, England and Germany, but sometimes they come to visit us at Jaunmoku Palace. But yes, mostly everybody is all around the world.

Me: Yes, they might be grandchildren, of course, or great-grandchildren of George Armitstead who are now alive and at an age when they can still travel. We're in this beautiful room that you described to me as his study, George Armitstead's study, with a desk here, a lovely wooden desk with writing instruments, feather to write with a quill. Jaunmoku has been used, you explained when we walked in, for many different purposes during the last century after George Armitstead's time. What other items remain at the palace from George Armistead's residency? What can visitors coming here see? What can they experience if they come to Jaunmoku?

Madara: Yes, in the palace's hall we have a renovated wardrobe, which is one of the oldest objects of the palace. And we think that it's from the time when George and his family lived here, but we are not quite sure. Also in the tea salon we have Art Nouveau styled furniture, which we know that it's from the time when Armitstead lived here. Considering the fact that George sold the palace and he took all of his personal belongings with him when he moved back to Riga. But some of his relatives were really nice and they gifted some of his personal items to our museum. For example, in the last salon, which is dedicated to George's memory, We have, for example, his travelling suitcase, green sofa, and blue pillow, which are connected with his life. So these are the objects you can see here from his life.

Me: I understand there's a beautiful tile stove that was a gift from Rīga. On the anniversary, I've forgotten which number it would have been anniversary!

Madara: 700th anniversary of Rīga, but it's still here, which has many many tiles with different pictures of both Riga and Jūrmala on it aswell.

Me: Is that still intact? Is that still something that people can see?

Madara: Yes, the stove is one of the main objects that we have in the palace. When you enter the palace you can see the stove - it's located in the first room. Also the stove got destroyed and it was renovated but mostly it's the same as it was in the time when it was brought to the palace and yes, people really enjoy to see it and yes, they can experience the meaning of items from his past. Also, this stove has connections with Rīga and you can see how Rīga was in that time and also you can see some interesting historical facts. For example, how people used to go to the beach, that the men and women had different times they could actually spend on the beach, and how they went swimming, not like we are used to do it now, but they went inside the water with horse carriages and they just worked themselves that way. So many interesting facts also revealed in this tour.

Me: Thank you very much indeed.

Madara: Thank you.

As we walked around the palace, Madara - dressed in a traditional dress and hat from the early 1900s - told me some interesting facts that I would like to share with you. Firstly, George Armitstead liked to serve frogs at dinner when they had guests. I’m not sure if that was to test their reaction, but Madara told me that at that time, frogs were put in milk to keep it fresh. Secondly, George’s wife, Cecile was, in fact, his niece. Madara explained that this was quite normal among the aristocracy at that time. Thirdly, that the chow dog that is part of the monument in Riga, was not George Armitstead’s. Although he liked dogs, especially hunting dogs, the chow immortalised in the monument belonged to the sculptor. I think that is called an artistic licence!

I highly recommend a visit to Jaunmoku. If you see someone claiming to be George Armitstead’s granddaughter, it is probably Madara!

Jaunmoku’s website gives us more of the history of the manor and palace. The name ‘Neumocken’ in German, Jaunmoku in Latvian, was first mentioned in documents as early as 1544. Jaunmoku Palace, where neo-Gothic blends with Art Nouveau, has a special place among the masterpieces of Latvian architecture. The Palace was built in 1901 according to the design of the architect Wilhelm Bockslaff as the hunting and recreation lodge for the Mayor of Riga George Armitstead.

George Armitstead managed Jaunmoku Palace until 1904. After his father’s death, he took over Rindzele Manor, so Jaunmoku Manor was sold to the Brinkens family.

From 1910 to 1918, the Manor belonged to the von Ungern-Sternberg family, and in 1918 the Manor was acquired by the family of Wilhelm Freymann, a German agriculturist. In 1920, shortly before the Agrarian Reform, Jaunmoku was divided. In 1929 the centre of the Manor was sold to the Health Insurance Fund of Rīga City Municipality, which established the children’s sanatorium “Cīrulīši. During World War II, the Palace was used by both the Soviet and German armies. At the beginning of the war, the Palace housed a school for Soviet army sergeants, and in later years, a German radio station and a military hospital.  

In the post-war years, the Palace was used as offices of various institutions, apartments for workers, as well as a local club and a grocery store. None of these managers repaired the building, so the Palace, which had already partially collapsed in 1974, came under the control of the Ministry of Forestry and Forest Industry of the Latvian SSR. Restoration of the Palace began, which lasted more than 20 years. After 1992, the Palace was managed by the State Hunting Administration, but, since 2000, the state joint stock company ‘Latvia’s State Forests’.

I was interested to learn what happened to the Armitstead family after George died in 1912. Europe, and especially Latvia, changed dramatically with the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Latvian Agrarian Law Reform in 1920 that transferred land from Baltic German families to Latvian farmers, authoritarian rule in Latvia from 1934-1940 under Kārlis Ulmanis, and then the Second World War. These were probably very difficult times for a privileged British family with Baltic German heredity.

I spent some hours searching genealogy sites online and reading a book on George Armitstead. George’s wife Cecile died in Germany in 1940 aged 86. Their oldest daughter, Lucy Ellen, married Hermann von Boetticher, and their children were Margot, Günther, Erich and Erika. Günther and Erich were killed in the First World War. Their daughter Lucy Ellen Armitstead died in 1969 aged 93, but I do not know where she died.

George and Cecile’s son, John Cecil, married Helga Laurentz and they had two children, George Iwar and Garda. John Cecil was murdered in 1919 by the Bolsheviks because he was the son of a former mayor. The descendants of John Cecil Armitstead live in Germany.

George and Cecile’s youngest daughter, Edith Margaret, married her father’s cousin, Henry Armitstead. They had two children, Maud and Alfred. The family managed to move to London during the first World War. Edith Margaret Armitstead died in England in 1973, aged 91.

In the book ‘George Armitstead - Honorary Citizen of Riga’, published by Jaunmoku Palace and Jumava publishing house, it says, “The Englishman George Armitstead served Riga and the people of Riga in the role of mayor for 11 years, 6 months and ten days. Surveying his accomplishments in the city during this period, we have to agree with his contemporaries: In all these years he was a real caretaker, the best that Riga has ever had.”

In conclusion, although George Armitstead had a privileged life as an aristocrat, he used that power and money well. He put Rīga on a European path of prosperity, of course not knowing that many turbulent years would come. He used diplomacy and emotional intelligence to help those less well-off in society - Latvians. 

In my view, a hero.

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