Harry Ferguson

Irascible designer of innovative agricultural equipment

Henry George Ferguson was born in 1884 near Dromore, Co Down, where his father farmed 100 acres of land. Although his mother and maternal aunt had the distinction of being the first female doctors in Ireland, the atmosphere at home was restrictively religious.

After leaving school at 14, Ferguson chafed against both farming and religion, and was on the point of emigration when his older brother offered him an apprenticeship in his car and cycle repair shop on Belfast’s Shankill Road.

Though he crashed the first car he ever drove, Ferguson maintained a lifelong interest in motor racing and, from 1908, aviation. He was the first man to fly in Ireland, and was the first person in Britain to build and fly his own aircraft. He married Maureen Watson from Dromore in 1913, and in 1914 assisted his new wife in the Ulster Volunteer Force Larne gun running.

However, it is for his innovations in the design of agricultural machinery that Ferguson is best remembered. From the 1917 demonstration of a plough designed for a tractor based on the Model T Ford, through the design of his own lightweight ‘Black Tractor’ in 1933, then on to the 1938 ‘handshake’ agreement with Henry Ford, Ferguson worked intensely to develop innovatory agricultural equipment.

The collapse of the agreement with Ford led, in 1948, to Ferguson suing for more than $250m. The court case was not settled until 1952, by which time Ferguson’s mental health was failing. Increasingly prone to depression, he underwent shock therapy in 1953 and 1954. Following another bout of treatment in October 1960, Ferguson was found dead from an overdose of barbiturates. His body was cremated and his ashes spread over his Abbotswood estate near Coventry.

Further Reading
Harry Ferguson: Inventor and Pioneer (1972) by C Fraser; Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford (1980) by JB Rae; Dictionary of Ulster Biography (1993) by K Newmann.