STEPPING BACK IN TIME: Sir Samuel Davidson and the Belfast Sirocco Works

My thanks this week go to Eric Woods who has been in touch. He is currently writing a book on Sir Samuel Davidson and the Sirocco Works at Belfast, which currently has the working title working title, Samuel Davidson and his amazing Sirocco Fans.

Friday, 20th November 2020, 4:00 pm
Sir Samuel Davidson and his son James,  the plan was for his son James to take over, but tragically James was to die heroically on the first day of the Battle of the Somme
Sir Samuel Davidson and his son James, the plan was for his son James to take over, but tragically James was to die heroically on the first day of the Battle of the Somme

“Over 150 years ago a baby, christened Samuel Davidson, was born to a middle class family of Ulster-Scots decent, and this lad grew up in east Belfast (near the Holywood Arches), much as many others. Educated at ‘Inst’, he worked for a short time in various business and industrial enterprises, until in 1864, at the age of 17, he launched out on what was to be the most exciting and significant adventure of his life.”

Eric continues: “At the time, the British government in India (the ‘Raj’), was keen to open up areas of undeveloped land, including in the north-east of the country, which was seen to be suitable for the growing of tea. His father had invested in this enterprise, and so it was decided that young Samuel would head off to work on a tea estate for a number of years. The journey was quite an adventure in itself, a 66 day journey by sea all the way around Africa and eventually to Bombay, followed by another three weeks’ hard work by river and rough tracks to reach his destination. There he quickly settled in to learning the business of tea growing and processing. At the time tea growing and manufacture was conducted along the same traditional lines that had dominated for over 600 years, having been developed by the Chinese. Tea was processed literally by hand and feet, on what can be thought of as a domestic scale, and Davidson soon realised that methods would have to change if quality and quantity of tea were to be improved.

“Accordingly, he started to experiment, both with improved agricultural approaches and the introduction of processing machinery. Freshly-picked tea needed to be rolled to release the juices and then subjected to heat. He tinkered with various types of equipment designed to increase the flow of hot air across the tea leaves and eventually hit on an amazing and ground-breaking type of fan, along with other equipment. This fan, termed by him the ‘Centrifugal Forward-Bladed Fan’, worked like no other, being much more efficient and effective than anything previously invented. In fact, it was a design which no properly- trained engineer would have thought of constructing, as it ran counter to all the relevant theories of the day. It was to his advantage that he was not hindered by such theory, and his fan came to be the basis of a whole new industry, as Davidson ultimately realised that his future lay in the manufacture of such equipment. When he demonstrated the new fan, someone remarked that it blew so hot and strongly that it was like the Sirocco wind that blows from the Sahara. That was the perfect name for his fan, he realised. As with the multitude of other inventions that he would create, he was most careful to take out Patents on every one of them, together with the trade-mark, ‘Sirocco’. Intellectual property theft is not a new phenomenon!”

The Sirocco in Belfast which were founded by Sir Samuel Davidson

And so, in 1881, Davidson returned to Belfast and launched his engineering business at Bridge End, near the Queen’s Bridge, with only a handful of men.

“The firm prospered mightily and was soon selling fans to all the regions where tea was grown. Meanwhile, not content with that, he was also importing high quality teas from his own estate and driving the price of tea downwards. He even invented and patented a range of sparkling teas and coffees,” writes Eric.

“It became obvious to Davidson that his fans could be adapted for all manner of heating, ventilation and air conditioning purposes, and eventually they were being installed in mines, factories, ships (including the Titanic), hospitals and other public buildings and eventually in steel works and electricity power stations. All of our major power stations have Davidson fans, and the one he installed in the new Royal Victoria Hospital in 1903 is still operational.

“The company prospered and as Samuel grew older the plan was for his son James to take over, but tragically James was to die heroically on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, as did so many other brave Ulstermen.

Fitters at the Sirocco works in Belfast

“Others, including his grandson Ted MaGuire, took on the task and the Sirocco continued to flourish, and eventually Samuel Davidson was knighted by King George V when the King came to Belfast in June 1921 to inaugurate the Northern Ireland Parliament.”

Eric concludes: “After many delays, the development plans for the old site have been passed and it is hoped that work will commence shortly. There will be a mix of offices, apartments, hotel, retail, hospitality, community and leisure facilities, opening up a whole new space for Belfast people to enjoy.”