Belfast manufacturer provided fresh air for heavy industry all around the world

Fans around the world: Davidson�s ventilation fan installed in sewerage pumping station, Victoria, 1923. Image: Museums Victoria Collections
Fans around the world: Davidson�s ventilation fan installed in sewerage pumping station, Victoria, 1923. Image: Museums Victoria Collections

It was announced this week that plans for the first phase of development on the site of the former Sirocco Works have been submitted to Belfast City Council.

The proposed combination of residential and office buildings, food and retail outlets, community and cultural facilities and pedestrian and bicycle bridges, will occupy a proud plot of land that’s rich with unmatched and unmatchable history.

It’s often been said that the River Lagan was once a vital industrial artery to the rest of the world, supplying the planet with essential products for the progress of mankind.

The most recounted exports were ships, heavy engineering, ropes, cotton, tobacco and linen, with the manufacture of smaller and lighter goods less hailed – like glass, pottery, confectionary, fizzy drinks, gingham and straw bonnets!

But Sirocco’s ventilation units – never mind all the other products bearing that name – were one of Belfast’s most sought-after exports.

When I walk beside the Lagan I always pause at the tall, red-brick chimney which is all that’s left of the Sirocco works, and I think about Samuel Cleland Davidson, the man who made one of Belfast’s most famous brands.

Sir Samuel Davidson on £50 bank note

Sir Samuel Davidson on £50 bank note

The vast conglomeration of industrial buildings that stood on the site are long gone, but the proposed new development will be a monument to the man and his unique, world-wide manufacturing enterprise.

Samuel Cleland Davidson was Irish by birth, but with Scottish ancestors living in Ayrshire who settled here in the early 1600s.

He was born on 18 November 1846, son of James Davidson and the youngest child of a family of eight.

Educated at The Royal Belfast Academical Institution, or Inst, he left school at the age of 15 and worked in a Belfast Civil Engineering firm, William Hastings.

The Sirocco Works at work, 1898

The Sirocco Works at work, 1898

In 1864 Samuel’s father invested in a tea estate in Cachar, in the south of Assam, where Samuel went to work, first as assistant manager and after two years as manager.

Following his father’s death in 1869 Samuel bought out the company’s co-partners and became the sole proprietor.

He started devising and improving the tea-making equipment.

In 1874 he sold the business and returned to Belfast where he superintended the manufacture of his newly-patented tea machinery in the Combe and Barbour Engineering Works.

In 1881 he started his own engineering company under his own name.

Following on from his first tea-drying machines Samuel Davidson patented many world-famous devices including the famous Sirocco ‘forward curved centrifugal fan’ which revolutionised working conditions in factories, mines and ships around the world.

He also invented the machinery for a new manufacturing process for rubber, but it was his interest in tea drying that first led to his development of stoves for heating by convection.

Old-fashioned coal-burning stoves tended to become red-hot, serious fire hazards that incinerated buildings and often caused death and horrendous injuries.

Samuel’s were designed to give out heat by convection, in the form of hot air, while the parts which could be touched remained relatively cool.

Fire risk, and the emission of dust, was greatly reduced.

By the end of the 1880s large numbers of Sirocco stoves were in use in churches, halls, workrooms, schools and linen-drying rooms.

Davidson’s early tea-dryers had relied upon the draught induced by the furnace chimney to draw air through the trays of tea.

But even when the height of the chimney had been greatly increased there was still insufficient draught to draw the air through anything but a few lightly loaded trays.

More pressure was needed, so Samuel turned his attention to fans, and began a series of experiments which after about 10 years resulted in the development of his highly efficient forward-bladed centrifugal fan.

He had to carry out numerous full-scale tests on different types of his fans.

He meticulously recorded the results of each test, and then modified the machinery for the next test.

During one of these experiments the large volume of hot air coming from the fan reminded one of his colleagues of a hot North African desert-wind known as the Sirocco.

Davidson adopted the name for his company and for all of the firm’s products.

The Sirocco company was unique in that nothing else was manufactured but the personal inventions of Samuel Davidson, its chairman and managing director.

The early 1900s saw a remarkable growth in his trading interests abroad and representatives were appointed to look after the company’s interests in India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), South Africa and Australia.

First World War led to an increased demand for fans, and amongst the many other contributions to the war effort Sirocco supplied over 8,000 ventilator fans for use in the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy.

It was a rather ironic compliment to Sirocco that many of the German ships scuttled at Scapa Flow in 1919 were fitted with pre-war Sirocco fans!

Davidson continued to devise, design and develop all sorts of equipment for cooling, drying and dust extraction, and for the ventilation of mines, factories and power stations the company produced some of the world’s largest fans.

Married to Belfast-born Clara Mary Coleman in 1872, their son and heir James Davidson was tragically killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Sir Samuel Davidson, awarded the KBE in 1921, died a few months afterwards on 18th August 1921.