Belfast’s Extraordinary Inventor – Samuel Davidson (Sirocco Works)
Who was Samuel Davidson?
Samuel Cleland Davidson the forgotten engineer whose inventions changed the lives of millions of people around the globe.
“No tree can grow big and strong and send out flourishing branches unless it springs from good seed, and in our case the seed was, of course, that inventive genius, the late Sir Samuel Davidson, who not only pioneered the development of the Tea Industry by the introduction of machinery to process and produce high quality tea, but also became the foremost pioneer of his day in the field of Fan Engineering by his invention and application of the Sirocco forward bladed centrifugal fan”Edward D McGuire,` Address to the Belfast Association of Engineers, 29th September 1954
Samuel Cleland Davidson was born on 18th November 1846 into a middle-class Unitarian family, at Ballymachan Farm, Strandtown (now the site of Glenmachan House, Belmont). He was the youngest of 5 sons and 3 daughters. His father, James, owned a flour mill in east Belfast and his mother was Mary Taylor. Later the Davidsons moved to Turf Lodge near Sydenham.
Samuel was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (‘Inst’) on College Square East, but left at the age of 15. He went to work for the civil engineering firm of William Hastings. Hastings, of Mount Pottinger, was the town surveyor.
Samuel’s Work and Interests
Technology, Book-keeping & Accountancy
It is said that young Samuel visited his uncle John Davidson’s farm at Drumaness three miles south of Ballynahinch. John appears to have had the same interests in technology as his nephew. The Davidson flax mill is credited with being the first mill in the north of Ireland to be equipped with power machinery.
“Perhaps it was from this source that his (Samuel’s) perceptive mind and retentive memory stored away much that was later to be put to such good use in the application of scientific agricultural techniques….”Edward D Maguire, 1954
In 1864 Samuel went to work for his father in the flour mill on the eastern bank of the Lagan. Samuel was to prove himself diligent and hardworking. It was here he was trained in book-keeping and accounting.
Photography, Music and Sports
Samuel had a keen interest in photography. He turned the potato house at the family home into a dark room and experimented with chemical techniques for developing and printing photographs.
He was an enthusiastic musician having taught himself to play both the piano and the violin.
He was also quite the sportsman, enjoying swimming, shooting, hunting and skating. His closest pals in his youth were the Richie and Hart boys, a friendship that was to prove beneficial in later life.
Time for Tea
At this time Samuel’s father and uncle took advantage of a government promoted scheme to establish tea plantations in British held India.
The Davidson’s set up a tea-importing business and bought a share in a ‘tea garden’ in Cachar, 300 miles north-east of Calcutta. Samuel was invited by his cousin James to join him at the Assam Company Indian estate.
Samuel’s father gave him 20 gold sovereigns, and, equipped with his rifle, camera and fiddle Samuel and three companions set off for India. In August 1864 they boarded the Kashmir at Greenock for the 66-day voyage.
It is said that Samuel spent the journey learning navigation and plotting the course and prevailing weather conditions. On reaching India, just after a cyclone had hit, the youths had a further 600-mile river trek before reaching Cachar on 5th December 1864.
An Inventive Mind – Pushing Boundaries
Samuel threw himself into plantation life and almost from the beginning set his mind to developing machinery to improve the very labour-intensive process of drying tea leaves.
At this time the leaves were collected and rolled by hand (or foot) in the traditional way. They were then left out in the sun or over a charcoal fire to dry.
Through a long process of experimentation, Davidson developed a cylindrical drying machine (patented in 1869) and a tea roller (patented in 1870). Together these immensely speeded up the leaf drying procedure.
“He rapidly appreciated the inadequacy of the primitive methods then employed, and experience, combined with his inventive genius, suggested the adoption of mechanical apparatus for drying the tea leaf at plantations”Belfast Newsletter 24th November 2021
Additional Innovation & Modernization
Davidson also extended the clearing of the land and pruning of crops. By a process of trial and error and meticulous note-taking, he produced chemical fertilizers that vastly increased the quantity and quality of the tea harvest.
He also modernized the system of book-keeping on the estate and had new, more accurate maps drawn.
Life was far from easy on these estates, both for Europeans and natives alike. Accommodation and water supply was basic to say the least. Fever, dysentery and cholera were rampant.
Only about 30% of Europeans survived more than a year. Two of Samuel’s travelling companions were dead within 5 years. Davidson undertook medical studies in the evenings in an effort of self-preservation. His shared self-taught skills proved invaluable to the isolated community. Also valued was his design of an effective rat-trap when the local district was infested with rodents.
At the same time, in his own words, Samuel was “working day and night” to perfect his drying machine. It is thought that his lack of formal education and his ‘hands on’ experience allowed him to try out ideas already considered impossible by the expert engineering fraternity.
Samuel was once quoted as saying “An ounce of fact is worth a ton of theory”. Finally, he constructed a drier that met his expectations.
“I have had a busy week of it with one thing and another and I got the first trial of the Drying machine made on Thursday and I am glad to say it promises wonderfully well”Samuel Cleland Davidson Letter 8th August 1885
By the end of his first year in India, Samuel was in charge of the Cachar estate, and was soon promoted to manager of the larger Burkhola holding.
Following his father’s death on 2nd February 1869, Samuel inherited his share of the estate and managed to buy out the other share-holders.
Davidson returned to Belfast and employed his boyhood friends of Richie, Hart and Company to make the machine to the highest standard. He then sailed back to India and travelled the country displaying his invention, the heavy machinery being transported by boat, ox-drawn cart and elephant.
The speed of the process and the increase in production and quality of the tea leaves impressed the buyers and made the venture a huge success. The popularity of another of Samuel’s designs, a wheeled hoe, added further to the profits.
The Sirocco Works
The drier by using centrifugal fans blasted hot air out over the leaves. This led one of Davidson’s companions remarking that stream of hot air reminded him of the Sirocco desert wind. Hence the trade name ‘Sirocco’ was born.
Samuel once again returned to his home town where he put his invention into production with the firm of Combe,Barbour and Coome of Howard Street North.
With the increasing number of large orders Samuel realized it would make more business sense to have his own engineering works. Hence in 1881 the Sirocco Works was established. It was situated near the site of Davidson’s flour mill at Bridge End. It started with one shed and 7 employees.
However, the firm grew into one of the largest and most profitable engineering businesses in Ireland.
Air-Conditioning, Safety in Mines & the Titanic
The invention of the dryers led to several other innovations – ventilation machines for public buildings, schools and hospitals. The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast is believed to be the first in the world to employ air-conditioning. The original Davidson machinery is still in the hospital.
The Sirocco Forwarded Blade Fan was used to improve ventilation and fume removal in mines.
Samuel also designed belt rivets the ‘Double Clincher’, improvements to the steam engine and the dehydration of certain foods. Davidson’s firm supplied the ventilation fans for the Titanic which was being built next door by Harland and Wolfe.
In total Samuel applied for over 120 engineering patents.
“The Sirocco Engineering Works was home to a world class engineering achievement, making its stamp on industrial history…”William J V Neill, Town and Country Planning, May 2017
Davidson’s enquiring nature led him in other directions also. With his chum Robert Dunlop, they designed a new process for the manufacture of raw rubber.
He developed a way of processing turf to produce a concentrated fuel. Another of his products was sparkling tea and coffee beverages.
“Sir Samuel Davidson, a man imbued with typical Ulster characteristics – the instinct to grasp an idea, the doggedness to persevere, the ability to learn from his failures, and finally the courage to seize and make the most of his opportunities”Edward D Maguire, 1954
Samuel Davidson – Personal Life
On 30th January 1873 Samuel Davidson had married Clara May Coleman at the 2nd Congregational Church in Belfast.
Clara was the daughter of James Coleman a ‘gentleman’ of the Crumlin Road and the great granddaughter of John Richie, pioneer of Belfast’s shipbuilding industry.
The couple travelled to India where their first child Annie was born. Unfortunately, the baby died in 1874 and this consolidated Clara’s opinion that India was an unsuitable place for infants.
The Davidson’s returned home, where they had four more children – Clara May born in 1875, James Samuel born in 1877, Richard Frederick in 1878 and Kathleen in 1882.
In 1895 Samuel Davidson bought the imposing Seacourt House in the coastal town of Bangor in County Down. It had originally been built for Belfast merchant Foster Connor.
The house had 40 rooms and a spacious entrance hall with a glass-domed ceiling. The front edifice boasted a pillared portico and a decorative stone-work balcony.
It was surrounded by pristine lawns, a tennis court and 12 outbuildings including stables and a coach house. The property was enhanced with magnificent sea-views.
Samuel also continued with his sporting activities. As an accomplished horseman he had taken part in polo matches while in Manipur, on India’s border with Burma. He was one of the first to introduce the sport to Ireland.
Samuel Davidson, as well as an inventive mind-set, also had a keen business brain. He realized that for the tea market to have a long-term viable profit margin, the price would have to be reduced. At this time tea was a luxury affordable only to the Victorian upper classes.
To expand his customer base, Davidson set up his own marketing and retail outlets with the Sirocco Bonded Tea Stores. He had tea emporiums throughout Belfast. The high-quality tea was sold at much lower prices.
The established tea merchants were subsequently forced to follow suit. When Samuel had succeeded in his aim of reducing prices, from 5 shillings per pound to 2 shillings per pound, he closed his tea selling organization.
“By the way, the housewife owes a debt to Davidson, for he was the first to insist that the public should get good tea – not at 3s and 4s a lb as before his time – but at 2s”Belfast Telegraph 22nd February 1945
World War 1
With the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 the Sirocco Works provided over 8,000 fans for use in the Navy and Merchant Service ships. It is ironic that the German fleet, scuttled at Scapa Flow in 1919, were also equipped with Sirocco fans supplied before the war.
Samuel also turned his inventive mind to the study of ballistics. He designed a 40mm hand-held grenade launcher, the Hand Howitzer. However, the war ended before this was brought into use.
Like many families, the war brought personal sorrow to the Davidsons.
Their son James Samuel, known as Jim, was shot dead on 1st July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme. James was an astute business man and was intended to take over the family firm.
Samuel’s younger son, Richard Frederick had died on 24th February 1897 of influenza, aged 18. It was Frederick George Maguire, Samuel’s son-in-law (husband of Clara May) and fellow engineer, who eventually took over the business.
Samuel Davidson Remembered
In 1921 Samuel Cleland Davidson was awarded the Order of Knight of the British Empire from king George V.
However, Samuel’s health was failing and he passed away only 2 months later on 18th August 1921 at the family home of Seacourt.
He was buried alongside his wife Clara (died 30th April 1918) in Belfast City Cemetery (Grave D-245).
In 2005 the Northern bank issued a £50 note commemorating Samuel Cleland Davidson’s inventions and in 2020 a Blue Plaque was unveiled in Rosemary Street, where he had attended the 2nd Presbyterian Church.
A local amateur football team, the Sirocco Works Football Club, still recall the glory day of the Sirocco firm and its founder. The Sirocco Walk path along the side of the River Lagan at the former Sirocco Works site also commemorates his achievements. However, in the main, the name of Samuel Davidson and his achievements in the world of engineering have been largely, and sadly forgotten.
“..a young lad who never finished school was able to become one of the great industrial titans of his time”Matthew Thompson www.bestofbelfast.org
For decades the Sirocco firm continued to flourish both at home and abroad with offices worldwide including Iran, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Malaya. However, in 1988 Sirocco was acquired by the Scottish firm of James Howden & Co. The company went into decline and finally stopped manufacturing.
The Sirocco Works buildings were demolished in 2009 leaving an abandoned wasteland on the banks of the River Lagan. The site has been unoccupied for more than a decade.
The Wind of Change
However a new £450m waterfront development is planned for the Sirocco site promising hotels, commercial properties, new homes and jobs. The Sirocco wasteland is about to be revitalised.
As Belfast moves on with Sirocco only a memory we should not forget the impact and achievements of Samuel Davidson and his Sirocco Works.
… The future’s in the air
Can feel it everywhere
Blowing with the wind of changeThe Scorpions, 1990
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