Dr Dermot Hanna from our Northern Ireland Local Section presented a talk on the ‘story of soap’ to the Donaghmore Historical Society, coinciding with a talk on the history of the local Browns Soapworks, from Patricia Bogue of the Donaghmore Society.
The sleepy village of Donaghmore lies about three miles northwest of Dungannon in Country Tyrone in Northern Ireland. It has a population of just over a thousand people and gets its name from the Irish, Domhnach Mór, which means ‘great church’.
Until the mid-1950s, it was the base for Browns Soapworks, which in its heyday rivalled Port Sunlight. Established in the 1870s, Brown’s soap factory and the brands of household detergents and toiletries it produced became names which were commonplace in homes all over Ireland and the UK. The most famous brand was Colleen Soap sold under the McClinton Brand. Browns also manufactured the famous “O’sno” household soap and “O’suds” washing flakes long before washing machines were thought of.
The soap factory was established by David Brown in 1820. He was succeeded by his son James Brown who brought his twin sons David and Robert into the business. It was to become one of the most successful soap producers of the early twentieth century. Indeed, it was way ahead of its time. The Brown family were acutely aware of all the benefits of marketing and advertising and, as far back as the 1890s, they took part in a huge promotion of their products at the Franco-British Exhibition in London in 1908. As part of the exhibition, they constructed a miniature Irish village which they called Ballymaclinton after their McClinton range of soaps and perfumes. They even went so far as to bring over a number of fresh-faced Irish girls to demonstrate Colleen soap to excited buyers.
Browns looked after their workers and built houses near the factory for the workers and the rent was a very reasonable two shillings and a penny per week. Cut-price cart-loads of coal were also offered to the workers when the factory received its supply.
Brown’s factory survived right up until the 1950s when cut-throat competition in the soap and detergent business forced it to close.
I took the members of the Donaghmore Historical Society on a journey that started with one of the earliest fake news stories: that soap originated on Mount Sapo, a fictional Roman mountain used for animal sacrifice. The talk then visited ancient Babylon and travelled through medieval Europe, and the American colonies, before experiencing the horrors of World War I, and finally right through to modern soap making and the detergents industry. Prominent historical figures such as William Gladstone, Alfred Nobel, Donald Trump and George Washington also got a mention!
Amidst the history lesson, chemistry was not forgotten! The audience were also enlightened on the chemistry behind soap manufacture.
I also gave the talk to the Belfast Historical Group for the Blind and Partially Sighted.
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