James Samuel Davidson

Heir to the Sirocco Works who died on the first day of the Somme

James Samuel Davidson was the eldest son of the future Sir Samuel Davidson, whose family lived at Turf Lodge, west Belfast. Davidson senior possessed an inventive mind and created over 120 engineering patents, initially in the tea trade. He founded the Sirocco Works in Belfast 1881, primarily to manufacture his own machinery for the tea industry.

Round the world
James Davidson was born on March 9, 1877, and educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Campbell College. He became a director and general manager of his father’s company. He also enjoyed the trappings of wealth, driving smart cars and sailing his own yacht at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, where the tea magnate and family friend Sir Thomas Lipton was also a member.

Davidson was an able businessman, and one source claimed that he had ’a keen sense of business possibilities’. In 1898, he travelled to the Mediterranean and the Black sea, and accompanied his father to the 1904 St Louis World Fair to promote the company.

Davidson was attached to the tea machinery department and, between October 11, 1910 and July 3, 1911, undertook a round the world business trip to evaluate and sell Sirocco machinery. He traveled to the Indian subcontinent, visiting Calcutta, Bombay and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and then eastwards towards Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, before crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. From there he travelled across the United States from San Francisco to New York.

Military service
As a result of the crisis over Home Rule, the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1913, and Davidson joined the 1st Battalion North Down Regiment. Family photographs show him training in Bangor on August 1, 1914, three days before the outbreak of war. With the formation of the 36th (Ulster) Division, he was posted to 13th Royal Irish Rifles in 108th Brigade, and trained at nearby Clandeboye. His engineering skills placed him in the machine-gun section.

When the division arrived in Seaford in 1915, Davidson was appointed Brigade Transport Officer, organising the transfer to France on October 3, 1915. Letters to his family indicate that he was billeted with Dermot Neill, son of Donegall Place jeweller and watchmaker Sharman Neill. Davidson wrote many letters home in the next few months, recounting the miserable conditions and brushes with death near the front line.

According to several letters to his father, Captain James Davidson died courageously alongside 5500 fellow Ulstermen, leading his soldiers by example on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. Despite being injured, he refused assistance and was shot through the head whilst trying to rally his men. Although his name appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, he lies buried in Serre Road number two cemetery.

James Davidson had been engaged to a neighbour, Eileen Rogers of Innisfail, but his death meant that the celebrated Davidson name died out.

Further reading:
North Down Memories: photographs 1860s to 1960s (2000) by Keith Haines; 'James Davidson, heir to Sirocco’ by Keith Haines, in Ulster Local Studies 19.2 (1998); The Sirocco Story: the Birth and Growth of an Industry by Edward D Maguire (no date); Belfast News Letter, July 7 1916; PRONI files: D/3642/A/- and D/3642/B/-.

By Keith Haines