Hitting the Ferguson trail

Harry Ferguson’s is a name which ought to be familiar to Dromore residents, too familiar, some have said - those, for instance, who think the man and his achievements too often revisited.

Hard for enthusiasts to understand, we know, but despite his many innovations and truly global impact, Ferguson’s relevance is lost on some people.

And yet, here was a truly remarkable man, more remarkable perhaps than might occur even to some who think themselves only too well versed in 
Ferguson facts.

Born at Growell, in the rural hinterland between Dromore and Hillsborough, the man himself has been ‘claimed’, to to speak, by neighbouring communities and neighbouring authorities.

Certainly Ferguson had connections to both town and village, and has been significantly honoured by Lisburn City Council, wthin whose modern boundaries his ‘homestead’ lies, but it might be a perilous practice to challenge the proprietary position of some devotees in Dromore, where signage, next to the ‘wee grey Fergie’ proudly placed at Hillsborough Road, unequivocally announces Dromore as ‘hometown of Harry Ferguson’.

Henry George (Harry) Ferguson was born at Growell on November 4, 1884, the fourth child of James and Mary Ferguson. He attended first Ballykeel Public Elementary School and later a school at nearby Drumlough, leaving, as was common, at the age of 14, to become, in his case, a reluctant labourer on the family farm.

Harry’s older brother Joe later afforded his sibling an apprenticeship at his repair workshop on Belfast’s Shankill Road and in 1911 the younger man opened his own garage and sales business in the city, securing the agency for Vauxhall and Austin.

Before getting his business off the ground, however, Harry himself took flight, when, on December 31 1909, he took off for 130 yards at Hillsborough Park in a monoplane of his own design and construction, the first Irishman to do so, some six years after the Wright brothers made the first controlled, powered airplane flights near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in December 1903.

It was, however, the agriculture industry that the one-time reluctant farmer was to revolutionise, with the development in 1926 of the three-point linkage system, with hydraulically operated depth control, a system which finally solved the sometimes fatal problem of tractors tipping backwards whenever the plough struck an obstacle.

Ferguson was compelled to do justice to this innovation by designing his own tractor, unveiling the Black Tractor (for its colour) in 1933, followed by the Ferguson Brown, or Ferguson Type A, in 1936 and, after he reached an agreement with Henry Ford, the Ford Ferguson, or Ford Tractor with Ferguson System, in 1939.

The ‘marriage’ with Ford having turned sour in the interim, it was in 1946 that Ferguson launched the TE20, the enduringly popular ‘wee/little grey Fergie’. There followed in 1957 the Ferguson FE35, developed at Ferguson’s Detroit factory and roughly coinciding with the merger betweem Harry Ferguson Ltd and Canada’s Massey-Harris.

Massey-Harris-Ferguson was soon simplified to Massey-Ferguson.

Harry Ferguson was almost 70 years-old when he retired from tractor production, resigning as Massey-Ferguson chairman in 1954 and turning his attention to cars, having in 1950 established a new company, Harry Ferguson Research Ltd, to develop a safe, four-wheel drive family car.

Decades ahead of its time, the resulting R5 featured anti-skid braking, electric windows, hatchback, disc brakes and, of course, four-wheel drive, though in the end only six prototypes were built, in 1956.

Though Ferguson himself died in 1960, aged 75, his company’s Jensen Interceptor, or Jensen FF (Ferguson Formula) of 1966 was hailed the world’s most technically advanced car of its time and the one-of-a-kind 4WD P99 racecar was driven to victory by Sir Stirling Moss in the Oulton Park Gold Cup that same year.

Today, Harry Feguson has been commemorated on a Northern Bank note and stamps issued by the Republic of Ireland’s Post Office in 1981; a blue plaque marks the former site of his Belfast showroom and another the place of his birth at Growell, where a striking bronze statue of the inventor dominates a memorial garden; mounted in stone, a plaque marks the site at Hillsborough of Ferguson’s 1909 flight and a granite memorial commemorates a later flight at Newcastle’s North Promenade.

A full-scale replica of the Ferguson monoplane and an early Ferguson tractor and plough can be seen at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra and Lisburn City Council recently unveiled a steel sculpture of Ferguson in his monoplane at the A1 Hillsborough flyover. In 2004 the University of Ulster opened the Harry Ferguson Engineering Village at Jordanstown in recognition of Ferguson’s outstanding contribution to engineering and innovation.

It was not until 2008, however, that Ferguson’s granddaughter, Mrs. Sally Fleming, uunveiled the statue at the Growell memorial garden - some nine years after plans were first laid by locally organised enthusiasts, the Harry Ferguson Celebration Committee.

The committee, later aided by the RoI-based Friends of Ferguson Heritage (Midlands Group), began in 1999 to stage fundraising tractor events at the Ferguson homestead, home to the Poots family since the departure of the Fergusons in 1954; it was with monies raised that today’s memorial garden and statue were provided (money raised by subsequent events has been donated to a number of local charities).

Display boards at the garden provide an even greater wealth of information about a, we’ll say Dromore man, whose name is now known, whose achivements are celebrated, the world over.