Report by Sandra Millsopp
On 14 October 2021 Bangor Historical Society held its first evening meeting since March 2020. Numbers were limited and members had to prebook after receiving an email. The chairman Ian Wilson welcomed members and referred to the summer outings. He encouraged members to check the society website where they would find reports and articles of local interest.
He welcomed the speaker for the evening, Eric Woods, whose subject was Samuel Davidson, inventor and founder of the Sirocco engineering works. Mr Woods had worked for the South Eastern Education and Library Board and was for a time based at Seacourt in Bangor, once the home of the Davidson family.
Samuel Davidson was born in 1846 and grew up in east Belfast, near the Holywood Arches. He attended Inst, but had no engineering knowledge. He learnt the skill by actually doing it. The family attended the second Presbyterian church in Belfast and there is now a plaque to his memory there.
The British government was letting out parcels of land for tea growing in India; so aged 17 he went there to grow tea. The journey to Calcutta via South Africa took 66 days by sea. When he arrived he found that the process of producing tea had not changed for 600 years. Tea production had been brought to India from China. The tea was handpicked: 2 leaves and a bud were selected for quality tea. The bush belonged to the Camellia family. The sorting and drying process was still rudimentary, but Davidson revolutionized this.
He realised that the main problem was to get a draft for drying the tea leaves. He visited other tea estates and tried various methods. Eventually he realized that a fan was needed and his future lay in inventing, not tea growing. He opened a factory in Belfast and took out patents on his invention. At first he employed only 7 men, but within 4 years he had to expand and increase the workforce. He had little scientific education, but using trial and error he developed the right type of fan. Someone said it was like the Sirocco, a hot wind that came from north Africa and so he used this as the name for his fan as well as the factory. His idea was very successful and he advertised the fans all over the world.
He married and his first child was born in India, but she died at a few months old from measles. The family was based at Killaire House in Carnalea, although he kept returning to India. They had 2 boys and 2 girls. In 1895 they moved to Seacourt in the Princetown Road area. Close by was Glenbank where his daughter Clara May lived with her husband Fred Maguire, son of Dean Maguire, minister of Bangor Abbey and St Comgall’s parish church.
Meanwhile his business prospered greatly. He was able to import his own tea from his own estate. The tea was bonded which meant it had to be kept in a bonded tea store and checked by customs. We were shown a photograph of one of the fleet of horse-drawn vehicles used for taking the tea round Belfast. The firm had 4 tea depots or emporia in the city. These were beautifully set out with high Victorian/Edwardian décor. The firm eventually stopped selling tea in order to concentrate on machinery.
Davidson was always inventing and improving his products. In 1899 he went to the USA to promote his fan. The engineers there thought it would not work. His fans could be used to ventilate buildings. In 1903 wards were built at the Royal Victoria Hospital which used his ventilation system. The machinery is still there, but the wards have gone.
The business continued to prosper, but then the First World War broke out. His son Jim enlisted, but he was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme aged 39. The company did war work and we were shown a picture of a badge and form which showed that the employees were exempt from military service as they were engaged on war work. Davidson invented a handheld howitzer, but it was never produced. On 21 June 1919 the German fleet was scuttled at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. Most of the ships had Davidson fans on board for ventilation. The invention had been licensed to a firm in Dresden and Davidson received royalties.
In 1921 he received a knighthood, but he was too ill to go to Buckingham Palace to receive it. In June King George V and Queen Mary came to Belfast to open the first Northern Ireland Parliament. Unfortunately Davidson could still not receive his knighthood as he was in a London nursing home. James Craig wrote to him with arrangements for the investiture. Davidson never got to see his medal as he died before he could receive it.
The speaker concluded by telling us something of the subsequent history of the business and family. During the Second World War the engineering works had their own defence force and air raid patrol. Fortunately none of the bombs dropped on Belfast during the 1941 blitz affected the factory. Meanwhile their fans were being used in the unfinished tunnels of the Central Line underground system in London. These tunnels were used by the Plessey factory to produce aircraft parts after their factory was bombed.
In 1953 Samuel Davidson’s grandson Ted MacGuire was a co-driver in the Monte Carlo rally. He practiced getting in and out of a ditch on Craigantlet.
The 1950s were a new era for power stations and the Sirocco works were able to produce the huge equipment needed in local places such as Kilroot. Later the firm amalgamated with its rival Howden. Now the actual works are in China and are owned by an American Conglomerate. The east Belfast works have been demolished and there are new plans for buildings, including apartments, on the site. The tea fans it produced are still being used and they even produced equipment for use on the North Pier in Bangor.
The speaker referred to the sources of information available on the family and the factory, and spoke of his plan to produce a book.