Donaghmore’s soaps and suds

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The sights, sounds and smells of Brown’s Soap Works, the Proctor and Gamble of yesteryear, are proudly preserved by the Donaghmore Historical Society.

The most familiar brands of soap these days are Lux and Palmolive and they are made in modern plants all over the globe, but it wasn’t like that a century and more ago when - as the members of the village group regularly remind people at talks - the Brown’s brands of Colleen and McClinton’s soap were the top brands of the days of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Established in the 1870s, Brown’s soap factor and the brands of household detergents and toiletries it produced became names which were commonplace in homes all over the province and the UK and Republic of Ireland.

The managers of the factory were Richard and David Brown, sons of Donaghmore land-owner and businessman James Brown. The factory was started partly to establish a trade and partly to offer employment to an old friend of the Brown family who had fallen on particularly hard times.

Whatever of those original reasons, the village factory was to become one of the most successful soap producers of early twentieth century. Indeed, it was way ahead of its time, as was delightfully explained in his many talks on the subject by the Historical Society’s Alex Caldwell, whose own family had a long association with the Browns.

The Brown family were acutely aware of all the benefits of marketing and avdertising and, as far back as the 1890s, they took part in a huge promotion of their products in London. And it wasn’t done in any kind of skinflint fashion. Indeed, it was precisely the opposite because it was a massively lavish promotion.

As part of the exhibition, they constructed a miniature Irish village which they called Ballymaclinton after their McClinton range of soaps and perfumes. They actually even went so far as to bring over a number of fresh-faced Irish girls to demonstrate Colleen soap to excited buyers.

The event was well-photographed and it proved such a success that postcards were made depicting the now-famous ficticious village.

The factory imported their raw materials from eastern Europe and trains arrived regularly at Donaghmore railway station with cargos of tallows from Poland and Germany.

They made soda ash for their household detergents from seaweed collected around the shores of Northern Ireland.

Although they were famous for producing beuatifully-scented soaps and perfumes, Browns also manufactured the famous “O’sno” houshold sopa and “O’suds” washing flakes long before washing machines and aerosols were thought of.

The Brown family suffered a serious setback in the early part of the last century when a fire destroyed the entire premises. Undeterred, they completely rebuilt the factory to the most modern specifications of the era.

Learning from their experience, they installed a sprinkler system which they ordered from Belfast firm Mather and Play, which is still in existence, and the system was linked to a specially-constructed reservoir at the top of a nearby hill.

During the restrictions of the first World War, when they couldn’t import tallow, the Browns improvised by building beside the old railway station their own plant to provide the much-needed product. The irony, of course, was that the foul odour from the burning of animal carcasses contrasted sharply with the delightful scent of the perfume made in the factory.

When the great war ended and raw materials were feely available once more, the Brown family shut down the tallow plant and, to the pleasure and relief of the locals, resumed taking them from aboard and once more the stench was replaced by the floral fragrance of McClinton’s Perfume which lingering in the air around the factory site on the village’s Main Street.

Jimmy McCullough, who also gives talks on the topic, fondly recalls the kindness of the Brown family, who organised a party every Christmas for the appreciative local children.

Houses had been built near the facory for the workers and the rent was a very reasonable two shillings and a penny per week and cut-price cart-loads of coal were also offered to the workers when the factory were receiving their supply.

Brown’s factory survived right up until the 1950s when cut-throat competition in the soap and detergent business forced it to close.

Sadly, the last link with the family ended when Miss Alice Brown, daughter of one of the founding brothers, passed away at the age of 94 in 1994. But the legacy of the family and their successful venture lives on through the efforts of the Donaghmore Historical Society.